College of Liberal Arts

Department of English


William Freedman

"Poe's 'Raven': The Word That Is an Answer 'Nevermore'"

Poe's "Raven," in addition to much else, struggles with the question of the perplexed relation between art and truth or our ability to discern it. Although critics have occasionally remarked on the nonreferential character of the raven's repeated "Nevermore," they have overlooked or slighted the extent to which its noncommunicative character participates in the almost pervasive unraveling of the poem's meaning and casts doubt on the communicativeness of language and the knowability of self and world. Read in context, the purported answer "Nevermore" is not a direct answer to the student's questions about his lost Lenore but a thwarting response to his request that the bird "tell" him what he wants to know. The answer "Nevermore," then, is in effect no answer at all, but a refusal to answer which, added to a number of other canceling devices and contradictions, underscores the poem's refusal to satisfy our curiosity about its apparent or possible meanings. An implied if paradoxical "meaning" of this determined indeterminacy is that poetry, indeed language itself, is impotent to answer our questions about the world and our relation to it. The darkness emblematic of the speaker's hopeless mourning for the absent woman in the closing lines is also despair at the ultimate impenetrability of the word and the inaccessibility of the world it purports to bring within reach.





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