The Raven: Beyond Reality
Edward H. Davidson
"The Raven" is the fulfillment of these poems written in the twelve or thirteen years since the publication of the Poems of 1831. In it are the uses of pictorialism to suggest the inner workings of a disturbed consciousness and also the religious necessity, the drive of a consciousness toward understanding. We need not concern ourselves with the debate over Poe's sources and borrowings, whether the talking bird came from Dickens' Barnaby Rudge or whether the verse form was borrowed from Mrs. Browning’s "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" (a debt which Poe may have silently acknowledged in his dedication of The Raven volume of poems "To Miss Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, of England"). These matters have been sufficiently discussed or even settled to allow us to pursue questions of the meaning of the poem and its relevance to Poe's poetic thought and practice.
A year or so after the poem was published in January 1845, Poe published "The Philosophy of Composition," an exposition of the poem-in-process which, in its own time as in after years, cast a little light and much confusion on the poem. We have had occasion to consider that essay in terms of Poe's theories of poetry and of art; here we might briefly mention that the essay was more an attempt to outline Poe's view of what poetry should be and should do than it was a forthright demonstration of how "The Raven" came to be. Thus the poem is made, in its after history, to conform to a preconceived philosophy of poetic composition -- as if poems were written out of a schema or philosophy! Nonetheless, there are inevitable clues in the essay to what the poem was meant to be and how it came to have the form in which it was afterward resolved. Poe could not help admitting us to the inner rationale of how the poem was made.
The major clue which the essay provides is contained in a long sentence buried almost unobtrusively in the argument Poe was developing that works of art...