Darkness, Despair, and the Futility of Lamp-light

Light and Darkness Imagery in The Raven

Among the many famous works of nineteenth century American writer Edgar Allen Poe, perhaps none is more well-known, analyzed, or celebrated than his 1845 work of narrative poetry, The Raven. Written from the first-person perspective, the poem tells the story of a nameless male narrator, as he laments 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 that the relationship between he and Lenore is “Nevermore.”

If one had to describe the tone of Poe’s corpus of work with a single adjective, dark would be an excellent 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 his 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 symbolising the absence of company, and thus the narrator’s grief and loneliness. The sixth stanza then begins with the narrator peering into this darkness, longing for his lost lover to have been the source of what he thought was knocking at his door. Into this darkness, he whispers her name, “Lenore?” (28), only to be met with nothing but the echo of his own 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 wind. But then, a raven flies in from the open window. The 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 as he is reminded 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 replied, “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, as it casts 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 to, in some sense, 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 is able to get a better sense of the utter futility of the narrator’s attempts to escape his inner-torment.

This idea of light being overpowered by darkness is an experience that, on some level, all readers can likely resonate with. It seems as though 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 as 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 meant to give any clear answers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s