Into the macabre and morbid side of fiction? This lesson focuses on Edgar Allan Poe’s famous dark poem ‘The Raven.’ In particular, you’ll learn how figurative language plays a role in the poem.
Figurative Language in ‘The Raven’
Chilling. Grisly. Disturbing. In terms of literature, these words often bring to mind the present-day author Stephen King.
However, they also describe the works of classic author Edgar Allan Poe. Poe, who lived from 1809 to 1849, became well-known for creating unsettling stories very different from the mainstream fiction of the day. In fact, it can be argued that Poe is the father of the horror story.One of Poe’s most famous works is his poem ‘The Raven.’ This piece exemplifies Poe’s macabre inclinations. One way he achieved this mood is by using figurative language, words that don’t have a literal interpretation. Have you ever told someone to break a leg? You don’t want them to literally break a bone, do you? Of course not! It’s a figure of speech meaning ‘good luck.
‘ Let’s analyze the types of figurative language Poe uses in ‘The Raven.’ This lesson will not cover the poem in its entirety, so be sure to read it before you continue.
First, let’s discuss symbolism, which is a person or object that represents something else. For instance, the American flag is a symbol. To us, it represents freedom, democracy, and patriotism.
Authors use symbols to reference a larger idea or message. So how does Poe use symbolism?Well, one example is in the very title of the poem. In Greek mythology, a raven is a symbol of good luck. White ravens were said to carry messages from the Gods to the mortal world. With this in mind, you might think this poem must end with good fortune;but quite the contrary. Instead, Poe twists this symbol to emphasize the eeriness of his raven.
This bird exists to torment the narrator over the death of his beloved.In fact, the raven in the poem is black, which often represents death or evil. Perhaps this raven has been sent not from God in Heaven, but from Satan in Hell to drive the narrator crazy with despair. With this in mind, the raven can symbolize death and the fact that the narrator will never be happy with Lenore again.
Another figure of speech is the metaphor, or a comparison between two things without using ‘like’ or ‘as.’ Metaphors usually make a comparison by stating one thing is another thing. Look at the following example from the poem: ”Prophet!’ said I, ‘thing of evil!–prophet still, if bird or devil!” This line occurs as the narrator gets more and more upset over the raven’s presence.
He compares the raven to a prophet who can tell his future. Poe includes this metaphor to show the narrator’s deteriorating mental health. Yes, we question whether the raven actually exists, but if he does, what sane person asks a bird to tell his future? This metaphor helps Poe share some scary insight into the narrator’s mind.Here’s another metaphor:And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreamingThis line is in the final stanza, where the narrator’s instability is complete. Here the narrator compares the raven to a demon and reveals that the raven is still sitting in his chamber, never moving.
Remembering the symbolism of a raven, we can make a connection between a demon sending a message to the narrator from the underworld. Overall, both these metaphors help indicate the narrator’s mental state.
Now let’s move onto personification, which makes comparisons to humans by giving inanimate objects human characteristics. Read these lines:And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain,Thrilled me – filled me with fantastic terrors never felt beforeDo you see an adjective for the curtain that is a bit off? Have you ever called a curtain sad? Poe has the narrator use this very human emotion to describe the rustling curtain.
Why would he do this? Think about the mentality of the narrator. Obviously, he is entering a serious bout of depression over the death of Lenore. He’s even calling the curtains sad!If you look closely throughout the poem, you’ll notice many more examples of personification in regards to the raven.
Just the fact that the bird speaks is personification. Look at the following examples of other human traits given to the raven:Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it woreBut the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.According to these lines, the raven has a grave and stern facial expression, he is lonely, and he has a soul. All these are human traits that no animal possesses.So why does Poe give the raven so many human traits? Describing the bird like this makes him seem supernatural and gives him powers beyond this world.
It adds to the mystique of the situation and helps to create the creepy mood. All of this makes the reader feel unnerved, which is Poe’s ultimate goal.
Our next figurative language technique is hyperbole, which is extreme exaggeration.
Hyperbole runs rampant in ‘The Raven.’ Look at these lines.Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burningTo the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s coreTake thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!Each of these lines contains exaggeration. The first states his soul was burning (also a metaphor for fire), which exaggerates the feeling inside his chest. This hyperbole adds to the anxious feeling of the narrator and the reader before the raven appears.The second and third examples exaggerate the eye contact of the raven with the narrator. The narrator is feeling as if the look of the raven is so piercing it burns him or stabs his heart.
These hint the raven might only exist to show the narrator’s deteriorating mind.
To review, Edgar Allan Poe wrote horrific and unnerving stories and poems. He used many types of figurative language, or words not meant to be taken literally, to achieve that mood and emphasize different ideas. In ‘The Raven,’ Poe used the raven itself as symbolism. A white raven is often a symbol of good luck; Poe’s use of a black raven might represent the underworld or death.
Poe also used metaphor, comparing the raven to a prophet, as well as to angels and demons. Poe gave objects – including the raven – human characteristics, like emotions, facial expressions, and a soul; all examples of personification. Additionally, he employed hyperbole, exaggerating many aspects of the raven, like his piercing stare at the narrator. All of these examples of figurative language allowed Poe to create an eerie and chilling type of love poem.