Oh yeah, we’re heating up here at the Press.EXE blog system. I’m posting my actual English homework. You may think it’s boring but crucially, I earned a distinction with this essay so I’m pretty chuffed with it. Strangely, this essay we were not told to do any research, but I was praised for my ‘involving outside sources.’ Go figure.
Really, I just like The Raven a lot. It’s a poem I greatly appreciate and when I see its stanza creeping upon a page I must tamp down the urge to chant it, in ever-rising tones, to its wonderful, creeping pace.
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.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”
The Use Of Alliteration And Word Choice In The Raven
In Edgar Allen Poe’s the Raven, the writer uses a variety of complex language structures within the existing rhyming scheme and meter to create a sense of impending urgency, involving alliteration and passive word choice. Particularly, the poem contrasts moments of higher tension and activity with a creeping stillness, which helps adjust the way the poem is read, and also wields dramatic tension to heighten. In the use of dramatic tension, the piece cannot simply constantly increase, ratcheting ever upwards – there need to be some periods of relief, which in turn lower the reader’s guard and prepare them for another moment of rising intensity. This is done throughout The Raven, and it strengthens the whole poem in the reading, even manipulating the reader when spoken aloud. Consider these chosen stanza.
In reading The Raven aloud, almost all readers adept with the language and familiar with the archaic terms will find the poem builds in speed without changing its meter. Rather than change the number of syllables per line, to make shorter lines, The Raven controls the reader’s meter through the use of alliterative words to create momentum. More than that, though, the poem is not simple, non-stop acceleration; it uses these pairs to both speed and stop the pace of the poem. We can demonstrate here, in this pair of stanza this contrast. Rather than simply bridge from points of low tension and high, this is an instance where the drama is heightened, then relaxed.
This is demonstrated, in part, by the poem’s structure. The poem uses trochee feet, with a hanging catalectic in the final part of many lines; there is an extra accent at the end, an odd number of accents following the even number of the rest of the line’s structure. This structure ‘leans forward,’ as it were, with hard, energetic sounds building together, and where those last orphan accents become a pause for breath, which encourages the poem’s building, frenzied beat. It makes the speaker faintly breathless, without actually forcing them to go without breathing, the way some longer-lined poems do.
Consider that the events in that first stanza are active. The simplest interpretation is the window is opened, but with great energy, and then the bird enters the room, only stilling once it lands upon the bust, where it stops its frantic movement. This shows us motion, concluding with stillness. Thge sudden surprise of the bird bursting into the room, the nervous pause after it stills. As the focus of the attention, the bird dictates the tension. This contrasts with the events in the second stanza, where the word use becomes more passive, and the narrator simply asks a question and receives an answer. The first increases the pace, the second slows it.
The word use in the first stanza shows that energy, that action. A window is flung open, showing that the narrator either loses or surrenders grip on the shutters as they open, the bird enters quite actively – flirt and flutter – and the bird does not stay still until the end of the stanza. The bird is assertive and direct. Note again that the words of the birds’ actions are clear and set in the past tense – perched, stepped.
Another of the devices used to manipulate this pace is evident in the usage of alliterative words. In the first stanza, as with the action, there are three full alliterative pairs, no more than one line apart: Flirt/Flutter, Stopped/Stayed and Lord/Lady. In each case, the first word has fewer syllables than the second – or in the case of stopped/stayed, the first word has a truncated second syllable (stɑpt) compared to the second (steɪd).
In the first stanza, the words perched upon a bust of Pallas don’t look alliterative at first, with the words upon and bust in there. But the emphasised syllable in upon is the hard P, and the P is a cousin sound to B – they do not perfectly alliterate, but they are both what linguists refer to as consonant stops, and in English pronunciation, they are one of the three matched pairs. That is to say, the phrase perched’pon’pust’pallas could be found in a reading of that sequence, and indeed, the increased pace of the stanza, leading to its last, separated line, makes it easy to find. Note how that structure surrounds the smaller words with longer ones, creating a burst of words in quick sequence, and then cuts to a relaxed word with no more beats in it – and the rest of the line has only above and door to give that same consonant stop, separated greatly and as words of less emphasis in the line. The stanza shows action in what it says, but the way it says it creates tension and speeds the pace of the reader, which reinforces it. It shows, but it also tells, and it feels.
When we consider the second stanza, there is a tangible change. The whole stanza, read aloud, has a gentler cadence, a sensation of the narrator’s courage creeping back and enabling them to speak clearly. Again, the number of accents per line and the hanging catalectic do not change – but the pace still shifts, changing from the burst of frantic energy shown in the previous stanza. To demonstrate, look at how this second stanza differs in its reduced use of alliteration – there are only two pairs, shorn/shaven and grim/ghastly. Note again, however that unlike the previous stanza, the words here are structured in the opposite way; one syllable followed by two syllables. This shifts the weight of the words, where the first word is the end of a trochee.
The word use in the second stanza is also longer, with words like decorum mid-line, that cause a natural pause. Consider as well the use of the word wandering, which softens its hard d stop with an n. Said aloud, wander contrasts with obeisance, a word with a hard, clear stop to it. The two words are also good contrasts as for meaning – even while the stanza describes the bird as lacking in obeisance, it nonetheless uses the word to make the poem pause. In a way, the poem itself makes an obeisance at that word.
The words used in the second stanza aren’t just gentler sounding, they’re also words that have a more passive voice. Return to the word wandering and consider it opposed to the word flurry. The narrator described a bird making its way with some energy, but when speaking aloud of it, claims it was wandering, a term that’s aimless and, well, gentle. Consider as well the way the bird is described as beguiling, in passive voice. The bird does not beguile, the narrator was not beguiled. The passive voice for that particular word both gives it more poetic feet and puts the onus of activity on the bird but in a way that indicates almost no action. The bird did a thing but only barely. Compare this to again, the defined terms of the first stanza describing the bird’s actions. While the bird wears an expression and beguiles the narrator, it does so in a way only shown by passive voice. This continues and elaborates on the device of word usage slowing and reducing tension. In this instance, the narrator approaches the bird, but puts the agency for their action on the bird. This externalisation further slows the pace, reduces the tension, because nothing the narrator does in this stanza is the narrator’s fault. It is timid, creeping, building up to the inevitable increase in tension.
A quote commonly attributed to Alfred Hitchcock is “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” In this simple sentiment, there’s a truth we can see in the Raven as well. Throughout the poem, there are moments of tension followed by moments of nothing, moments where the reader is invited to gasp, and catch their breath. There is the swinging open of the door, there’s the grim finale where the narrator builds to the silence after the poem is done. That’s what makes this passage so meaningful to the text at large; it is another point where the tension is increased in one stanza, only to be wound back in the other without dismissing it. Instead, these moments of respite, of relaxation, lower the reader’s guard, before picking up the pace once more and pulling the reader into the deepening fear that lies at the heart of the narrator’s final question. There are many devices at work in these stanza – there are literary references, there is juxtapositioning of incongruent classical elements, and there is pseudo-religious imagery as well. Yet even in this one section, simply by looking at the length and use of the words themselves, the device of alliteration, we can see the shifting of tempo and mood. This pair of stanza are a cross-section of this technique, and contrast against one another in how the technique is used.