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. The poem tells the story of a nameless narrator as he laments the loss of his lover, Lenore. As the poem’s narrative unfolds, the narrator’s mental health gradually deteriorates as he is repeatedly visited by a talking raven. The magical bird never fails to remind his conversation partner: the relationship between he and Lenore is “Nevermore.”

If one were to describe the tone of Poe’s corpus with a single adjective, dark would be apt. And throughout The Raven, Poe “light and darkness” imagery to contrast the narrator’s experience of grief with his futile attempts to find relief. The pervasive images of darkness throughout capture the narrator’s dejection and hopelessness.

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 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).

The poem begins with the speaker introducing his narrative world: 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). He wakes from near-slumber at the sound of what he reckons to be a knock at his door, only to find “Darkness and nothing more” (24). “Darkness” here operates as a symbol of the absence of company, and thus a figure of the narrator’s grief and loneliness. The narrator peers into this darkness and longs to discover his lost lover to be the source of his imagined knocks. He whispers her name into the void of night, “Lenore?” (28), and is met with nothing but the echo of his own voice. “Merely this,” says he, “and nothing more” (30).

To combat the pervasive darkness, our narrator now reclines on a cushion, “…with the lamp-light gloating o’er” (77). Though this lamp-light now shines in the darkness, the darkness easily overcomes it. Our man begs for temporary relief, or as he puts it, “respite” from memories of Lenore (82), to which the ebony raven responds, “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, for it casts a 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 The Raven creates in the mind’s eye draws the reader in, and enables them to—in some sense—feel the weight of the narrator’s grief. The shadows born of lamp-light give the reader a sense of the utter futility of the narrator’s attempts to escape inner-torment.

The pattern of light being conquered by darkness is experienced by all. can likely resonate with. A reader walks away from this poem and asks: is there a Light bright enough to prevail at the midnight hour? Is there a Light which can illuminate our dreary chambers until they burn as bright as the noonday sun?

Or, are our efforts to illuminate the night ultimately futile, only casting shadows from which the soul cannot be lifted?”

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