A (very) early post for Halloween–Does Edgar Allan Poe’s long poem “The Raven” have an adequate “objective correlative”?

Well, everybody in the continental U.S. seems to feel that fall weather is here early this year, that instead of having a blissfully warm autumn in September, we are already into October weather, and in some parts of the western mountain chains, it’s already snowed.  So now I’m going to celebrate Halloween a little bit earlier than I usually do, and do a sort of partial Halloween post, for fun and edification, mine as well as yours.  And since it’s officially a Halloween post, I’m going to make some of your worst dreams come true and involve T. S. Eliot’s theory of the “objective correlative,” a concept which has made the rounds more often and sometimes more drunkenly than Mrs. Murphy’s sousing poodle (a dog of fame in some quarters, mainly amongst fellow spirits at the bars).

Before beginning the fun of Poe, therefore, let’s suffer through a little literary theory.  The concept of the “objective correlative,” according to Wikipedia, comes originally from Washington Allston and his 1840 Lectures on Art.  You can find his explanation on Wikipedia in brief.  The modernist poet T. S. Eliot popularized the concept, however, in an essay called “Hamlet and His Problems,” and so it’s more important for the nonce (and for us too) to look at his essay.  Here are some quotes, also gleaned secondhand from Wikipedia:  “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”  Eliot felt that Hamlet was an artistic flop because Hamlet’s “strong emotions ‘exceeded the facts’ of the play, which is to say they were not supported by an ‘objective correlative.’  He acknowledged that such a circumstance is ‘something every person of sensibility has known’; but felt that in trying to represent it dramatically, ‘Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him.'”

Now let’s turn to Poe’s poetical excursion into his usual macabre fare, “The Raven.”  I’m sure most of you are familiar with at least some of the poem’s setting and probably have been jounced and bounced around by the alliteration and rhyme scheme a couple of times at least in reading.  The poem has a lot of alliteration and rhyme, including internal line rhymes, and a repetitive structure and refrain, which depends upon variations of the “Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore'” variety.  Just to refresh our memories, let’s look at how the poem starts out:

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,/Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,/While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,/As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door./'”‘Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door–/Only this, and nothing more.”‘/Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,/And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor./Eagerly I wished the morrow;–vainly I had tried to borrow/From my books surcease of sorrow–sorrow for the lost Lenore–/For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore–/Nameless here for evermore.”

This fearing and questioning and apprehensive meditation goes on for four more sing-song stanzas, and then the speaker decides that it’s actually something at the window, and so goes to open it.  Here’s what happens when he does:

“Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,/In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;/Not the least obeisance made he; not an instant stopped or stayed he;/But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door–/Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door–/Perched, and sat, and nothing more.”

Next, for seven or eight more stanzas, the human speaker persists in speculating about “the lost Lenore,” and whether he will see her again, and while his own soul answers “Nevermore,” he also persists in directing his loaded questions to the bird, who eerily answers, “Nevermore.”  Though the speaker is intelligent enough, and the circumstances possible enough, at least earlier in the poem, to consider that perhaps this is the only word the bird knows (“‘Doubtless,’ said I, ‘what it utters is its only stock and store….'”), he shows himself to be in tune with the bird’s apparent “predictions” to the extent that his questions are all shaped to fit this early form of “magic eight ball”:  for example, why doesn’t the speaker say something more cogent, like “Will I be alone for the rest of my life?” and thus “spike” the question to go his way?  Or, he could say, “Will I continue to be unhappy?”  Since the bird always replies “Nevermore,” the speaker could thus get a better prediction if he tried, but instead of this, he asks sad and negative questions which portray a depressive obsessive frame of mind.

Finally, the speaker becomes irate enough to tell the bird to leave, and of course the bird replies, “Nevermore.”  So far, the mysterious death of Lenore isn’t made enough of to function as an objective correlative, and just having a (possible pet, trained by somebody) raven peck at the window and fly in isn’t enough to act as an objective correlative either, by T. S. Eliot’s explanation of that phenomenon.  It’s not actually until the very last stanza (of the 1845 edition of the poem) that anything sufficiently supernatural or odd happens, which doesn’t rely on the human speaker’s rigging of the game by asking the “right” questions.  Here is that stanza:

“And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting/On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;/And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming,/And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;/And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor/Shall be lifted–nevermore!”

This stanza is truly weird:  the bird, without the mention of its being fed, or given water, or stirring from its place, is still there, apparently not having died or decayed.  The same seems to be proposed or at least implied of the man, who can’t really be imagined to have broken his concentration by getting up to get a sandwich or a Scotch and soda, and then come back.  Yes, in the last stanza I think we find a wee bit of an objective correlative in Eliot’s terms in the set of circumstances being what they are, the man’s enslavement to the bird’s malevolent spell, the neverendingness of his torment.

Now see, we had fun, didn’t we?  At least I did, and I hope you did too.  If not, comfort yourself with the reflection that your “torment” of reading this post has not been “neverending” (and I hope you’re not sitting in a dark room staring meaningly at your pet mynah bird, as I can’t answer for the consequences)!



Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

8 responses to “A (very) early post for Halloween–Does Edgar Allan Poe’s long poem “The Raven” have an adequate “objective correlative”?

  1. I can’t resist sending you this which you have probably seen but is always worth another watch for the good bits https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56R3hU-fWZY

    I have always found The Raven to be extremely disconcerting, I think it is just the mystery of it all…I always prefer to see Lenore as a place, which makes it feel even more apocalyptic and is not an inconceivable interpretation.

    I do like the very fact that the poem is so out of reality and time that it becomes more memorable for it. There was no torment in this post, excpet for the speaker of course but then he doesn’t seem to bright!

    • Actually, I haven’t seen it yet, thanks for sending it along. I feel weird starting Halloween so early, but it’s brrrrr! October weather here in the States! The only problem with seeing Lenore as a place is what to do about the line “that rare and radiant maiden that the angels call Lenore,” or whatever it is. Though of course, in terms of countries, people speak of the “motherland” and the “fatherland,” so I suppose it’s still possible. Glad you enjoyed the post; I was referring more to the torment of reading literary theory or criticism for those not inclined that way; I should’ve known that you have a good healthy sense of curiosity for such things!

  2. I landed in the states in October last year and it was lovely, from a cold, windy England I was greeted with UK summer temperatures much to my satisfaction when skyping friends and family back home in the sun. I feel for you with the cold snap though.

    I suppose and here it really is tenuous that it is not stated where the man comes from so perhaps in some alternative universe or planet but that is a stretch I admit.

    I do love to find new terms and ideas as you know and you always teach me things I don’t know, which makes me happier than I would be with a slide and a ball pit…well its on a par!

    • Thanks for the vote of confidence. I enjoy the feeling of introducing things that are new to people, because you (and others) introduce so many things to me (what goes around comes around, as they say). I guess our weather in this part of the U.S. could be worse–in the Southwest and West, they had droughts all summer long, only to have a deluge of rain recently, which following a prolonged drought of course washes the topsoil away, and ends up making things even more arid in the long run. And produce grocery items and other items (even meat, because of the price of animal feed growing) have gone up, up, up over here. I guess to some extent that’s happening everywhere. Come to think of it, we’re living in the middle of a Halloween nightmare scenario already, do I really need to make it worse???!!!???

  3. Richard Gilbert

    Interesting and amusing, Victoria. I think my understanding of what objective correlative means is fated to remain weak. And I disagree with Eliot about Hamlet. But one thing’s for sure: that’s the weirdest poem. My sense from revisiting it here with your commentary is that Poe had some odd, half-formed sense or image—maybe heard a branch scraping the window—and the poem was born. Not thought out, which would have doomed it. But Poe made something tangible and even haunting out of an airy nothing. Maybe the creator behind the scenes is the objective correlative here!

    • Yes, Richard, I think it’s a given that when a famous writer comes along and appropriates a term that isn’t that well known, he or she sort of makes it his or her own, if you see what I mean! I’m not really sure that this is what the originator of the term had in mind at all (you can read that bit on Wikipedia under “objective correlative”). I also find Hamlet had adequate reason to be as he was, and think Eliot was wrong; but given his own tumultuous marital troubles, Eliot may well have thought that Hamlet had it easy because he didn’t get around to marrying his mad Ophelia, whereas Eliot did, in a manner of speaking. Also, I agree that in general Poe could make up something out of almost nothing, a mere shade of an idea. I guess my idea with this poem was that it’s based on something that could easily happen to anyone in an old house where birds cluster round, except for the very last stanza–then it launches itself into the truly exceptional that we expect from an objective correlative (or that Eliot seemed to). That the bird talks is nothing, because ravens can be taught to talk, and that it repeats the same thing over and over is even more likely–up until the end, when the bird and man must be believed to sit staring at each other through the rest of time–that’s truly peculiar. Anyway, that’s what I was thinking. I’m always glad that you’ve dropped by to comment, and I thank you for your neat compliment.

  4. Thanks very much for the link, Richard. Poe did indeed preface his poem with a supposed “note from the editor” which was about rhyming and rhythm, so your link is right on target.

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