Edgar Allan Poe’s immortal poem The Raven holds subtle clues regarding Poe’s opinion of God. To put a finer point on it, I propose that the poem includes several references suggesting that Poe believed God was not only fallible and capable of being defeated but was in fact absolutely powerless when confronted with intense human emotion. To be more specific, sorrow is an emotion which even God can neither assuage nor conquer. In illustrating my thesis, I will discuss three points which, when viewed together and in the context of the thesis, will provide ample evidence regarding the validity of my interpretation. First, I will show why Poe chose to perch the raven upon a bust of Pallas (Athena). Second, I will explain why the narrator grew angry after sensing the presence of angels. Last, I will clarify the narrator’s opinion of the raven being an undefeatable prophet of evil. These points should suffice to prove the legitimacy of the thesis.
Stanza 7, line 5 reads: “Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door”. In ancient Greece, the patron goddess of Athens was Pallas Athena. While the Athenians were polytheistic, it is important to recognize that Pallas Athena was their chief goddess and, it could be argued, could represent the one, true god of a monotheistic religion. Therefore, we may assume that Poe intended the bust of Pallas to be a representation of God. He may not necessarily have meant it to represent the Christian God preferred by his contemporaries, but may have intended the bust to represent the concept of god rather than an actual being. Whatever the case, we may assume for the purposes of discussion that the bust of Pallas does in fact represent God. With this point in mind, we must ask ourselves why Poe chose to place the raven above the bust. In my opinion, in perching the raven upon the bust of Pallas Poe suggested that there are certain aspects of life which are above or beyond the reach of God. Clearly, the raven represents one of these aspects. Since the central theme of the poem is “sorrow for the lost Lenore”, it is reasonable to assume that, as the bust represents God, the raven represents sorrow. As such, it is sorrow which is insurmountable by God.
In stanza 14 the narrator states that “the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer swung by Seraphim”, or angels of the highest rank, suggesting that the presence of angels could be sensed. He later demanded “Respite- respite and nepenthe-from thy memories of Lenore!” Evidently, the narrator’s sorrow remained intact even in the presence of angels, and no succor could be found in the representatives of God. In fact, not only was there no respite from sorrow but the narrators cry of “Wretch” shows us that the emotional turmoil suffered by the narrator was exacerbated by the addition of anger. Furthermore, we learned in stanza 15 that the narrator believed the raven to be a “thing of evil” that refused to foster the narrator’s hope of being reunited with Lenore. Perhaps Poe was suggesting that any attempt to find solace in God would only deepen anguish, cause anger, and make the situation worse. Also, he may have meant to convey that the loss of hope only serves to increase despair and the sense of loss of love. Again, we are shown that God cannot alleviate sorrow, and it was becoming more apparent to both narrator and reader.
In stanzas 15 and 16 respectively, the narrator, after referring to the raven as a “thing of evil”, asked, “Is there-is there balm in Gilead?” and “Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn, it shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore”. The questions suggested that the narrator recognized the raven as a prophet and that its word could be believed. However, when the raven answered both questions in the negative the narrator reacted with rage and, in stanza 17, called the raven “fiend” and demanded he “quit the bust above my door”. The raven, however, refused and offered the simple answer, “Nevermore”. Again, Poe is telling us that abject sorrow cannot be alleviated and will remain for all time.
In summary, Poe has shown us that sorrow is above the power of God, that the very presence of divine representatives does nothing to lessen anguish, and that the torment of the loss of true love can never be diminished. While there may be deeper lessons to be learned from The Raven, it is my belief that Poe intended to show how God, any god, is powerless in the face of human torment. While the lesson of sorrow may seem subtly hidden in a tale of gothic horror, perhaps the method was not intended to be subtle. Poe would certainly have recognized the fact that the loss of true love, coupled with the knowledge that the sense of loss would never be reduced, is a form of horror in itself. If the Judeo-Christian Bible is to be trusted, and being in Hell is to be removed from the sight of God, then Poe may have meant to show us that true sorrow is a hell where the light of “each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor” and God is nowhere to be found.