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Like most holidays, Halloween in the U.S. has its many rituals and symbols. For many, reading the traditional horror tales and poems of Great Literature is a steady ritual that deserves at least token attention.
Last night as I was nodding over an old book in my study I heard a tapping at my windowpane. What did I hear? You know. But play along. Here is one of the most chilling readings I have ever heard of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” The chills come from a master at his craft. Sit back and listen, really listen as Christopher Walken reads. Then after you have finished, I have a few comments for you about the poem taken from my book, Historical Dictionary of Romanticism in Literature, aimed at taking some of the chill off.
Edgar Allan Poe published his most famous poem in The Raven and Other Poems in 1845. In “The Poetic Principle” he details the process by which he originally composed “The Raven.” The speaker had been pondering over old volumes of “forgotten lore,” taking refuge from his mourning over his lost Lenore when he heard a tap at his door. Distracted and wild, he rises and opens the door and looks out into the “Darkness there, and nothing more.” He merely whispers the word “Lenore,” and it is echoed back. Soon another tapping occurs—this time at the window. He opens it and in steps a raven which perches upon a bust of Pallas above the door. The speaker asks its name: “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.” Thus begins perhaps the most famous poem in the literature of the United States, one that has been parodied many times over. Nevertheless, Poe’s poem if read afresh proves to be almost without question his very best.
The raven seems surely to function as a symbol, for it is both believable and mysterious, Traditionally, it was believed that ravens and crows can be taught to speak, and a tame raven could easily escape and wander to someone’s door. On the other hand, ravens are associated with evil and the occult. The raven failed to return to Noah’s ark, and various other stories and myths relate that the raven or crow originally was white and was turned black for its evil deeds. Moreover, the color black is connotative of evil, darkness, mystery. The raven is also an ugly bird, a scavenger. Thus its presence in the room is ominous and scary. Perfect for a Halloween reading.