Most of us know Edgar Allen Poe's most famous poem -- the one that catapulted him to stardom, in fact, in 1845: "The Raven."
Is this poem the story of a grieving lover slowly descending into madness, hallucinating an interaction with a raven who may or may not be there?
Even if it is, Poe's "The Raven" illustrates a great way to waste the segment on the Wheel of the Year which is the darkest yet of the Dark half: December. Let's take a look:
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 some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
" 'Tis some visitor," 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 sought 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 forevermore.
And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me -- filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
"'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door--
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door --
This it is and nothing more."
So here's our narrator, sitting in his cozy little house, fire crackling by, reflecting upon the past. Certainly we see late October and November as a time for reflection upon the past year. In October we reflect more on the past year's gains -- it is the final month of harvest, after all. And, keeping in mind that to reap the October harvest means that something must die, November is traditionally considered as the month of remembrance for the dead.
But "The Raven" is set in December -- "bleak December" -- and the time for reflecting and remembering is over.
Note that in our poem it is December outside, separate from our narrator's action, and something from out there is trying to get in. Whatever it is makes our narrator (read: us) nervous and scared, and understandably so.
But look closely: the narrator is out of step with the season and time of day:
It is midnight; he is awake, reading, fighting off sleep.
Now is not the time for rational thinking or for rationalizing whatever might be "out there" away; it is the Dark of the Year, and we are quickly slipping into the time for dreaming, and as we all know, dreams are anything but rational.
December is the time of forgetting, and he is still remembering. Perhaps forgetting is too strong a word; anyone who has been initiated into the ways of death by the loss of a loved one is forever changed and will certainly never forget, but one does have to stop dwelling at some point.
That point is represented on the Celtic Wheel of the Year by the darkest time: December.
I'll write more about that in a moment. Let's move on through "The Raven":
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
"Sir," said I, "or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you" -- here I opened wide the door; --
Darkness there, and nothing more.
A lie: first of all, sleeping would be appropriate at this hour, not napping, and secondly, he wasn't napping, he was awake, reading! Another incongruence.
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore!"
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!"
Merely this, and nothing more.
Using his empirical sense of sight, he searches the dark abyss fruitlessly for the visitor who has come a-rapping. He whispers of course, hope against hope (or horror), what is on his mind: the name of his lost beloved. The darkness returns the name. Is it she who has disturbed his evening? Is she out there? But the echo is all he gets, and so, unsatisfied:
Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon I heard again a tapping somewhat louder than before.
"Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore —
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
'Tis the wind and nothing more!"
Our narrator turns away from the cold night beyond his door, probably never even stepping over the threshold, and returns to his room. He chooses not to search the blackness, preferring the comfort of his quarters and morbid thoughts.
Whatever did not come in through the door is now at the window. Though he still rationalizes it away to preserve his peace of mind, he is still compelled to see what the December night has brought him.
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 December night has brought him a raven, which unapologetically barges right in. In myth and legend, the raven is the bird of death -- from bill-tip to talon, black as the cold midnight from which it came, an eater of carrion, its artless broad beak not made for singing (that is the glad expression of spring and summer birds), but only capable of uttering rough sounds.
Or in this case, as we shall find out, one merciless, negative word: "Nevermore."
But who are the other 'characters' in these two verses?
Where does the harbinger of the month of cold, darkness and death, the black scavenger bird, alight?
Atop the head of Pallas Athena: daughter sprung full grown from her father Zeus' head, virgin goddess of wisdom, valor and war, companion to heroes, bringer of light, discipline and philosophy to humankind.
Pallas' totem animal is the owl; how dare any other bird, especially one so inelegant as the raven, perch right atop her horsehair helmet?
Athena represents order, rational thinking, discipline. This represents comfort for our narrator, most likely an academic of some sort. But he's already got one foot in another world -- the world of death, into which he has been initiated by the loss of his Lenore. He refuses to look at Death for what it is, and so does not understand its mystery, only its machinery. He is torn between wanting to forget Lenore completely and wishing to be reunited with her. In any case he remains static in his dwelling upon the memory of something that can never be restored to the original state with which he associates it.
When the raven perches atop the white bust of Pallas Athena, it signifies two things: 1) This is not the time for rational thinking. It's a wild, dark, December night out there and you would only be so lucky as to be able to rely on rules and your five senses to get you through. And 2) Death and decay are inevitable. Not even the most ardent worshippers of Athena's Olympian ideals of light, discipline and heroism can escape it.
But it is our narrator himself -- or some 'knowing' part of him -- who utters the name of the Death god himself: Pluto. Pluto is Hades, lord of the Underworld, where, if we were to look at this from a Greek mythological point of view, Lenore now resides. And a sight-seeing tour to the Underworld is exactly what the Dark of the Year provides, if one is aware enough to buy a ticket.
Like so many of us who study myth and archetypes, our narrator has the tools and inner knowing to apply the mysteries' usefulness to his mundane life, if only he can remember that they exist beyond his precious books!
Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning -- little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door --
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as "Nevermore."
But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered -- not a feather then he fluttered --
Till I scarcely more than muttered "Other friends have flown before —
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before."
Then the bird said "Nevermore."
Bleak December's salesbird of death seems to tell our narrator: "Look -- if you think you will ever be rid of the reality of Death, you've got another thing coming, buster."
Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
"Doubtless," said I, "what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore —
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of "Never — nevermore."
But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore —
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking "Nevermore."
This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamplight gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamplight gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!
Hmm. "Some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster/ Followed fast and follwed faster till his songs one burden bore --/ Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy bore..."
Gee Mr. Narrator, project much?
Alternately dismissive and bemused, our narrator continues to be torn: first, he rationalizes away the raven's talent for speaking its single word, but then pulls up a chair and tries to divine some deeper meaning from it; second, he seems to begin moving forward in unraveling the mystery of his bird guest, but then immediately returns to his tormenting yet familiar thoughts of dead Lenore.
Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by angels whose faint foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
"Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee -- by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite -- respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!"
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."
The narrator either hallucinates or truly senses the presence of angels and incense. He thinks that in kindess God has sent them to help him forget Lenore. The raven once again unceremoniously disrupts the stillness with its familiar cry.
"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! -- prophet still, if bird or devil! --
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted --
On this home by Horror haunted -- tell me truly, I implore --
Is there -- is there balm in Gilead? -- tell me -- tell me, I implore!"
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."
"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil -- prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us -- by that God we both adore --
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore —
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore."
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."
By now knowing EXACTLY what the raven's answer will be to any question put before it, the narrator bizarrely gives the bird the power of a prophet and asks it if he will ever find relief from this sorrow, either in this world or the next. Of course the raven gives its usual reply.
And because this poor guy is already at the end of his rope, you know the result isn't going to be pretty:
"Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!" I shrieked, upstarting —
"Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! — quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!"
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."
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's 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!
Driven to anger and hysterics by the raven, who has only done exactly what at first 'beguiled all (the narrator's) sad soul into smiling' before, the narrator screams at the bird to get out of his house. The implacable raven utters his one word and remains there still.
So how do I say our narrator is "wasting" his December?
Let's give the raven a few more words:
"Dude, if you are just going to sit here in your house, as though it were still the time of reflection and remembering (October and November), then no, moron, you will never find relief from your sorrow. You'll never forget Lenore because you won't let her really be dead. And much better than forgetting, you won't ever understand what she really meant to you until you stop dwelling on her absence."
Poe, I'm not.
In other words, you can't keep riding the wave of anything from the past if you're going to move forward. You have to let go -- let die -- your triumphs and failures, or at least the emotions of them, so that you can build anew. Yes, you'll use foundations previously laid, but if you sit around saying:
"Gosh, what a nifty foundation I've built for myself, it's so cute and perfect and adorable and grand that I wish I could preserve it just the way it is,"
"Damn, look at this lopsided, poor excuse for a foundation I tried to build for this project. It is so ugly and upsetting I can't even look at it long enough to clear it away,"
...You'll never get anywhere.
The raven, an unwelcome and frankly disturbing gift given by the bleak December night, reminds us that now is not the time for harvest (killing), nor is it for remembering, but for stillness and the 'beingness' of being dead. It's dark. It's cold. Nothing that isn't supposed to be alive now is.
What does this mean? This means that whatever you worked to manifest in the light of the year should have been harvested by now, and given thanks for by now. And what was discarded should be left to do the un-work of being dead: that is, putrefaction. It is from this decay and primal soup that we call forth new life that will grow under the light that slowly returns after the Winter Solstice. December is a month of irreconcilables, but that is the greatest mystery of all. It is the 'coagule' of the alchemists, taking the putrefied remains of organic substance and reassembling its elements into something completely new.
The narrator of "The Raven" has his inner knowing. He knows he can learn about the mystery of death and where Lenore is if he just goes outside, leaves his incongruent chamber of morbid dwelling (no pun intended) and accepts the death, dark and stillness of December. He even seems to know that he's as stuck as the 'unhappy master' he imagines taught the raven to speak.
But in the end he tries to expel the raven from his familiar little morose hamster-wheel of out-of-season thoughts. And like a messenger sent from his higher self, the raven plants itself until -- if -- the narrator ever "gets" it. With its maddening one-word vocabulary, the raven is a reflection of the narrator's own stasis and a reminder that while true death brings about change and new life, stasis sets the stage for nothing but desolation.
If, this December, you find yourself in the place of the narrator, remember: if you don't feel like sharing your room with the raven, just open the door and walk out into the dark and the cold, accepting the season. Like the plants who have returned their energy to the earth, seemingly incapable of ever returning to life, lie down and sleep deeply. Get rest now, because after the longest night, it will be your job to dream dreams of the new year.
"O Night you black wet-nurse of the golden stars! From this darkness all things that are in this world have come as from its spring or womb."
-- Philalethes, Magia Adamica, 1650
Woodcuts above by Gustave Doré, 1884.