Light and Darkness Imagery in The Raven
Among the many famous works of the nineteenth-century American writer Edgar Allen Poe, perhaps none is more well-known, analyzed, or celebrated than his 1845 piece of narrative poetry, The Raven. The poem tells the story of a nameless narrator lamenting the loss of his lover, a woman named Lenore. As the poem’s narrative unfolds, the narrator’s mental health gradually deteriorates as he is repeatedly visited by a talking raven, who never fails to remind him: the relationship between him and Lenore is “Nevermore.”
If one had to describe the tone of Poe’s corpus with a single adjective, dark would be an apt choice. And throughout The Raven, Poe uses the imagery of light and darkness to contrast the narrator’s experience of grief with his attempts to find relief. Darkness is especially prominent in this work and is used to capture the narrator’s dejection and hopelessness.
The poem begins with the narrator setting the scene, calling it a “midnight dreary” (1). Amid the dreary darkness of the midnight hour, the narrator longs for his lost love, Lenore, whom he considers a “radiant” light (11). The narrator is woken from near-slumber by what he thinks is the sound of someone knocking at his door, only to find “Darkness and nothing more” (24). Here we see darkness symbolizing the absence of company, and thus the narrator’s grief and loneliness.
The sixth stanza begins with the narrator peering into this darkness, longing for his lost lover to have been the source of what he thought was tapping at his door. Into this darkness, he whispers her name, “Lenore?” (28), and hears nothing in response but the echo of his voice. “Merely this,” says the narrator, “and nothing more” (30).
But the narrator remains convinced he is not alone: he looks for his mysterious company outside his window. As he opens the shutter, he finds nothing but the blowing wind. But then, a raven flies in the open window. This bird is a symbol of the narrator’s anguish and grief. By being depicted as black, or “ebony” in color (43), the raven is meant to represent the haunting darkness engulfing the narrator’s thought life, reminding him of the permanence of his loss. These reminders come in the form of one-word quips from the raven, reminding the narrator he will see his beloved “Nevermore.” The narrator briefly holds onto a hint of optimism that, as others had left him alone, this raven surely would, as well. To this, too, the bird replies, “Nevermore” (60).
To combat the present darkness, the narrator now reclines on a cushion, “…with the lamp-light gloating o’er” (77). And though this lamp-light shines in the darkness, the darkness easily overcomes it: the narrator begs for temporary relief, or as he puts it, “respite” from memories of Lenore (82), to which the ebony raven replies, “Nevermore” (84). Preferring his former state of isolation to his present company, the narrator implores the raven: “Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!” (100), to which the raven predictably replies, “Nevermore” (102).
The bird, and with it, the narrator’s anguish, is inescapable—even the lamp-light shining over the raven serves as an amplification of the darkness, casting a dark and daunting shadow. The poem ends with the narrator lamenting that his soul lies within the darkness of this shadow, and from it, his soul, “Shall be lifted—nevermore!” (108).
Poe’s use of light and darkness imagery captures the feeling of all-consuming despair experienced by the narrator. The vivid pictures created in the mind’s eye by this imagery draws the reader in and enables them, in some sense, to feel the weight of the narrator’s grief. By showing that even the small amount of light emitted by the lamp-light was a means of casting a dark, looming shadow of the raven, the reader gets a sense of the utter futility of the narrator’s attempts to escape his inner-torment.
This idea of darkness overpowering light is likely to resonate with all readers. It seems it is intended for the reader to walk away from the poem asking themselves, “Is there a Light that can truly overcome the immense darkness? Is there a Light so much stronger than the darkness that the chamber becomes bright as the noonday sun? Or are any attempts to illuminate the room ultimately futile, only casting shadows from which the soul cannot be lifted?”
And to these questions, it does not seem Poe means to give any clear answers.