Contextualization, Word Histories: Interpreting “The Raven” of Edgar Allan Poe


Any language in the world continues to evolve - Contextualization, Word Histories: Interpreting “The Raven” of Edgar Allan Poe introduction. It has to in order for the language to progress and continue. Similarly, the English language has words that have different meanings that have evolved through time. It is in light of this thought that this researcher considered tackling the concept of contextualization and word history in understanding the poem, The Raven of Edgar Allan Poe. The poem is considered as one of the scariest in the 19th century American literature but somehow has lost its appeal to the general populace. Although the rhyming words of the poem still makes one consider reading it, the words are outdated in terms of usage with some having different connotations and applications in the modern English language.

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            In this light, the researcher chose the concept that language is arbitrary. It may have historical etymologies that would help a new reader understand the text, but in the end it is still the reader that will greatly determine the significance of the poem to actual practice and existence.

Context and Word History

Stanza 1

At the onset of the poem, Poe uses the well established line of “Once upon a…” to begin his lyrical poetry. This is still easily grasped and understood by the modern man because this is still utilized by writers, authors and storytellers. Yet when one moves to the second line and reaching the word “lore”, it becomes evident that it is important to understand what it means in relation to its context. According to Merriam-Webster, it is a lesson that is learned gained through study or experience (Merriam-Webster 2006). Is knowledge quantifiable? In the case of the poem, this word must be understood in light of the other words that accompanied it. Prior to the use of the word was the phrase “volume of forgotten”.

Thus, connecting the two concepts, the writer is referring to the fact that the person in the poem was in a place surrounded by books since books contain knowledge and a pile of books is still referred to a volume of books in the modern English language. Thus said, this simple phrase becomes problematic for the modern child who is growing up with fewer books around him and more information that is being fed through compact discs, electronic databases and the internet. It is in this first stanza alone, that putting into context the various “literal” meanings of the words employed by the author that a teacher or a student might struggle with what the author is trying to say.

Moving on to the other parts of the stanza, the word “chamber” is something that has a different connotation as well. Due to John Grisham and the movie, The Chamber, it now has a more negative connotation and reeks of death. Yet when one looks into the etymology of this word, it is interesting to note that the word evolved from the Latin word of “camera”. This word initially denoted a vaulted ceiling, but later on was borrowed into the Middle English and became “chamber”. (Merriam-Webster 1991) A chamber then, is essentially a room and can refer to any other room in a house. A young person with no knowledge of the context of the word “chamber” could be reminded of the modern chamber of people in death row. It might be absurd to consider, but when one considers the fact that children might have limited knowledge of words, especially words rarely used in conversation, and then the poem certainly becomes problematic in how one could understand it. (Grisham 1995)

Stanza 3

Consider the word “fancy”. When one uses the word, the definition and emphasis would change as well upon the placement of the word within a given sentence. It may be considered as an adjective, a verb or even a noun. The modern definition is that it is synonymous to the word fantasy, which entails dreaming or desiring. It is a contraction of the word “fantasy” (Oxford English Dictionary). Fancy is a contraction of the word fantasy.  It was used as forming mental representations of things not existing to the senses, creative or productive imaginations and events or conditioning that have not actually occurred in real life (Oxford English Dictionary.)  As time passed, the two words fancy and imagination split off as two more different words with more different meanings.  Fancy is used more to condone that ability to come up with descriptive or attractive imagery, while imagination is used to express the power of giving to ideal creations the inner reliability of actuality (Oxford English Dictionary.)

Fancy was used to describe a spectral apparition, which can be seen in the sentence, “Dreadful specters and fansies skreaking hideously round about him” (Oxford English Dictionary) and “forests, where are sometimes great illusions, and fancies” (Oxford English Dictionary.)  In contrast, fancy was also used to describe a mental imagine, in contrast to an apparition or specter, “The very fancy of them is delightful,” (Oxford English Dictionary.)   When fancy is used in the sense that one is attracted to another, the history of the definition goes back to the 1500’s.  “Its early use is to be or fall in love with” (Oxford English Dictionary.)  The spelling was altered when used in the past as in the following sentence: “She went as simply as she might, to then that the kind should not phansie her” (Oxford English Dictionary.)  Another alteration of the spelling is, Five thousand guineas in her purse!  The doctor might have fancy’d worse,” (Oxford English Dictionary.)  The word fancy can also be used in various sense.  For example, instead of being attracted to someone, you can be attracted to something.  “Another one of my fancyings… a pair of silk blankets”.

Going back to the stanza, was the poet referring to “imagination”? If so, then it would lead us to question that word and what it means in order to understand the poem. For The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word imagination as “the action of imagining, or forming a mental concept of what is not actually present to the senses; the result of this process, a mental image or idea (often with implication that the conception does not correspond to the reality of things” (Oxford).  Imagination is also defined as “the power which the mind has of forming concepts beyond those derived from external objects” (Oxford).  Under this definition that imagination contains two sub-definitions that present newer concepts of the word; “the operation of fantastic thought; fancy” and “the creative faculty of the mind in its highest aspect; the power of framing new and striking intellectual conceptions; poetic genius” (Oxford).

The simple and common uses defined by the Oxford English Dictionary for the word melancholy are “ill-temper, sullenness, brooding, anger” and also “ sadness, dejection, especially of pensive nature; gloominess; pensiveness or introspection; an inclination or tendency to this” (Oxford).  The word melancholy is derived fifth century Latin meaning “condition of having black bile” (Oxford).  The original meaning was a medical condition defined as, “a pathological condition thought to result from an excess of black bile in the body, characterized in early references by sullenness, ill-temper, brooding, causeless anger, and unsociability, and later by despondency and sadness” (Oxford).

The word first came to mean “profound sadness” in the late twelfth century Old French, melancolie, and it was not until the early nineteenth century in French that the word melancholy denoted “mental illness characterized by depression” (Oxford).  The popular definition that was founded in the Elizabethan period was “tender, sentimental, or reflective sadness; sadness giving rise to or considered as a subject for poetry,  sentimental reflection, etc., or as a source of aesthetic pleasure” (Oxford).  The Oxford English Dictionary also states under this definition, “in the Elizabethan period, and for some centuries thereafter, the affectation of melancholy was a fashionable mark of intellectual or aesthetic refinement” (Oxford).

            One can therefore see, that such a brief poem could generate multiple meanings if one doesn’t understand the context of the different passages. Does the poem truly talk about a ghost? An apparition? The word “terrors” was connected to the word “fantastic”. Could a terror be considered fantastic? In what sense? In this portion of the poem, the context of the use of the words “fantastic” and understanding it vis-à-vis the concept of “imagination” makes the poem a bit chaotic at this point. Yet if one would choose to simply ignore this part of the poem or not linger on understanding the true context of the word, then a reader might in the long run, fail to understand the poem holistically.

Stanza 5

It is also noticeable that the author is possibly connecting different words that are synonymous in order to prove a point. For instance, this researcher started with the word “lore” in order to understand the concept of a pile of books. Yet lore is synonymous to knowledge, and “fancy” is linked with the word fantasy, where other words such as fantastic and imagination is connected. It is in this regard, that the researcher moves to the next word that needs enlightenment which is in the 5th stanza, the word “dream”.

Interestingly enough, the word meant ‘joy, ‘noise’ or ‘music’ in the Old English. (Merriam-Webster) It is then ironic, that the poet would use the word and added “dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before”. What could possibly be a dream that a mortal not think of? Dreams are usually associated with positive things, even when one considers the Old English definition. Is this then alliteration? Or was Poe were using this as another metaphor for something else? One cannot use the context of the Old English definition here such as ‘music’ simply because the next phrase is “but the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token.” It is then possible that the poet was actually referring to pondering, since in today’s vocabulary, dreams is now considered something in the realm of the unconscious when one is sleeping (Merriam-Webster). Dreaming while awake is considered daydreaming.

            Another word that is filled with several shades of meaning is the word ‘token’. According to Merriam-Webster, it can be a symbol or emblem such as a white flag is a token for surrender. It could also be a distinguishing feature, such as a person having a big scar on the face. Another definition is that it is a souvenir or a keepsake. Travelers tend to purchase items or get items from the different places that they go to. Finally, it could be a signal like that of a sign, which is also somehow the same with the definition of the first one.

            “The darkness gave no token” could then indicate that the word “darkness” becomes an onomatopoeia since darkness is not something tangible, but something that describes an environment. Nevertheless, the poet here tries to give the darkness a characteristic that seems out of place. How can “darkness” give him any token? Was the person in the poem expecting a gift? Or was the darkness part of the things that the person was already trying to imagine, given the fact that the person was already “dreaming dreams that no mortal ever dared before?”

Stanza 6

How does one interpret “Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning?”  What does the figure of speech mean? This researcher believes that the burning of the heart of the person here refers to the lost love of Lenore, and that in spite of the fact that the person is gone, spiritually and in the mind of the person she still lives on as his heart continues to crave for the lost love. Yet thought was quickly moved from focusing on the window pane, as one sees that in the next line – “Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before. `Surely,’ said I, `surely that is something at my window lattice”

            If one is to relate this in real life, the same is also true that the focus of one’s desire could easily be usurped or disturbed by another event that could lead one into spending more time into investigating the strange new phenomenon. Thus, one is lead to the next phrase and statement of the poet in stating – “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!’

            This researcher finds it strange, that in the bleak cold December [one assumes that the poet lives in a cold country given the fact that the window was closed during the time that the poem was being described], a person could be easily bothered by strange noises that is just outside the window. Other people in similar circumstances would simply ignore such sounds, unless the sound is something that results in a massive vibration that could possibly affect the movement of the furniture and one is lead to believe that there is an earthquake. Yet here, the poet leads one into delving into petty curiosity as if it is something that holds an exquisite value in itself.

Stanza 7

            The poet then brings one into the bird that enters into the room in Stanza 7 and what an interesting description the poet has of the fowl:

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 a minute 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.

            Two times the word perched was used. According to the principles used in the study of linguistics, repetition serves a key and an emphasis. Why was the poet reminding the reader that the bird sat just above the chamber door? What is the significance of the bird sitting there? This researcher recalls that there are some houses that have adornments on top of the doors. Is it possible then, that the poet was merely trying to project something that was not there? There is great fear and reverence for the bird that was stated in the other stanzas as well.

Stanza 7 and 8

            This researcher marvels at the aspect that the poet converses with the raven as if it was a real person. Was the poet trying to make the bird a projection of another person? This researcher, if given a chance to select a bird to imagine and talk to would not select a raven. Therefore, the raven must have some form of significance to the person in the poem, and not just to the poet who created it as well. Is it possible that the raven is the common bird that was around the man in the poem when Lenore was still walking around with him? That could be it, as one would wonder why this strange fowl has a strong connection and could crow “Nevermore” as its response.

Stanza 9

            In this stanza, the poet uses the word ‘bless’ to describe the bird, the raven that was perched just above his chamber’s door. According to Merriam-Webster, it originated from the word ‘blood’ because the verb was meant and used to make sacred or holy with blood’. In addition, this word was more popularized by different religious groups that meant ‘to praise or glorify’. In relation to etymology, it was derived from the word bledsian of the Old English.     It one was to base the definition of bless from the context of today, the meaning is more synonymous to happiness, prosperous and successful. (Merriam-Webster)

            Was the person in the poem thankful for the presence of the raven? It seems that if we take the modern definition, of which Poe most likely would have employed; then one can ascertain that the person inside the room, was indeed a lonely man and that he welcomed this presence, this bird of black beauty. For in the next two stanzas, one can see that the person tries to talk to the raven. In fact, the raven even speaks, another characteristic that is not even common among birds. Is it possible, that because of one’s understanding that at the start of the poem, the person sitting in the room is able to “fantasize” thoughts “that no mortal ever dared before” in order to relieve his loneliness? This is not far fetched, considering that the movement in psychology has already started and psychotherapy was well under its way as well.


            There are other words and phrases in the poem that needs a deeper understanding and analysis. Yet for all its worth, there are several things that one can conclude regarding the poem.

            The poem is still a “fantastic” one, when one begins to understand the context and the history of the words that were used by the poet. In fact, due to the immense popularity of the poem, it has been translated into several languages throughout the world and continues to enjoy widespread academic debate as well. (Richards 2005). The life of Edgar Allan Poe continues to be a study, and recent scholars have even uncovered pictures of the poet with friends that were recently unpublished. This researcher even recalls an episode of The Simpsons that showcased Bart and Lisa reading the poem during Haloween. The two kids were completely clueless and did not find the poem scary at all. And yet Homer, their father, couldn’t close his eyes because he eavesdropped during the course of reading the poem, and as an adult he was able to imagine the entire poem. His fear indicates that he was able to grasp the concepts of the poem written by Poe. And in that sense, the poem is still as effective today as when it was initially written.

            Another point to consider is that though the context of the poem might only be one, interpretations of the poem could differ depending upon one’s level of experience and education. As a student, I have yet to experience the fear that Homer Simpson experienced in hearing the poem being read. Perhaps maturity in terms of thinking would enable one to have a greater appreciation of this text. A child might be able to grasp the poem, only upon careful guidance of teacher or adults who are willing to find ways in explaining the concepts and words that children could easily understand. It might even help that children have visual aids in order to understand the poem. Another method is that of dramatizing the entire poem, in order for children to have a feel of it.

            In addition, understanding the dynamics of literary analysis and of language is important. It is not enough to simply have an understanding of the meanings and definitions of the words and their etymologies. There are methodologies that a writer, or in this case a poet, could utilize in order to give a better understanding or picture of his literary masterpiece. In the case of this poem, one was already able to see that the author utilizes the concept of metaphors and onomatopoeia. Perhaps it is this aspect that adults have a more inkling to, and thus the reason why they understand the poem more easily and embrace it readily.

            Language is a dynamic part of analyzing literary pieces such as The Raven. Changes in the languages are reflective also of changes in society. Although the researcher wasn’t able to look into the changes of the American Society in 1890s, it can be surmised that the concept of alienation is already present as the poet’s description of the person living alone, with only a black bird as his guest leaves one to think that the modern man has already been developed at that time. Yet these thoughts can be considered for another paper, perhaps?

            Yet as one was able to show in this brief analysis of several stanzas, language is still arbitrary in the realm of literature because it can be misinterpreted and the interpretation lies no more upon the poet or writer, but in the end – it is the reader who judges the text as something that is understandable, readable and worthy to be passed on to the next generation. One therefore could not safely assume that the present understandings of the text would still be the same ones that the succeeding scholars would do in light of additional discoveries that could be uncovered on the life of the poet and writer Edgar Allan Poe.


Grisham, John. 1995. The Chamber. Dell Publishing.

Merriam-Webster Inc. 1991. The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories.  USA.

Richards, Eliza. 2005. Outsourcing “The Raven”: Retroactive Origins. Victiorian Poetry, vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 205-221.

The Oxford English Dictionary. 2006. Oxford University Press. 15 Sept. 2006.



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