Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Raven

Edgar Allan Poe's 1845 poem, The Raven is one of my all time favourites.

This post is, unlike others on this blog, for students. Rather, I have collected here some resources you as a teacher may wish to use to present the poem to high school students.

First, some audio visual links. The Simpsons version is wonderful (can you believe it dates from 1990?) There are no good versions on YouTube, but a passable one here:


It's far superior to other youtube renditions that are little more than readings with photos like those from Bob McGraw, John DeLancie or Christopher Walken

I'm also a fan of the Interactive Raven web page, which allows you to select a stanza and have the poetic devices, and some difficult terms, explained.

I've prepared some sheets with the poem, and some resources relating to the poem for you:

Click this thumbnail for a PDF of the poem

Click this thumbnail for a PDF of a glossary of likely problem words and phrases from the poem

Should your students ask about a Hollywood movie titled "The Raven" with John Cusack, you can disabuse them of the thought it has anything to do with the poem. It's a murder mystery that casts a fictionalised version of Poe as a sleuth in pursuit of a serial killer who is using Poe's own horror stories as inspiration. Sounds insipid.

Here's all you need to know about Poe himself:

  • Born: Boston, January 19, 1809. Died: October 7, 1849 (aged 40)
  • Born as Edgar Poe. Orphaned young when his mother died shortly after his father abandoned the family.
  • Taken in by John and Frances Allan, of Richmond, Virginia, but they never formally adopted him.
  • Attended the University of Virginia for one semester but left due to lack of money. 
  • Had a contentious relationship with his foster father John Allan, so hardly ever used his middle name. He always published as "Edgar A. Poe"
  • Published his first work, a book of poetry, at the age of 18.
  • In 1835 (at the age of 26), he married Virginia Clemm, his 13-year-old cousin. She died of Tuberculosis 12 years later.
  • By 1843, Poe was so broke that he found himself down to his last $4.50 and spent time stopping people on the street to ask for money for food.
  • When "The Raven" was published in 1845, it became an instant hit.
  • Poe was dead, two years later.
  • The cause of his death is unknown and has been variously attributed to alcohol, brain congestion, cholera, drugs, heart disease, rabies, suicide, tuberculosis, and "other agents"
  • In 2000, New York University announced plans to demolish the home where Edgar Allan Poe lived from 1841 to 1844 in order to make room for its law school. Outraged preservationists and Poe fans took to the streets in protest, leading to a compromise in which NYU promised to use the bricks from the original façade in the new building.
  • Every year since 1949, an anonymous fan known as the "Poe Toaster" has visited Poe's grave on the night of his birthday and has left a partially filled bottle of cognac and three roses.
  • As a student at West Point, Poe used to tell fellow cadets that his grandfather was the infamous traitor Benedict Arnold. Great story, not true.

Here are my edited lesson notes:

These are two lessons where we look in detail at Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, in its context as a “short text”.

Poe’s poem is iconic, and lends itself to being examined in its original written form as well as appreciated also as a performance piece (lesson 1), and even as parody (lesson 2). I chose it because it’s a classic, cracking supernatural “scary story” (horror, always a winner), because there are adaptations (eg the Simpsons version) that make an otherwise fusty poem fun, because it will challenge students in terms of their vocabulary and their knowledge of metaphors drawn from mythology, because the enquiry questions force students to “take sides” and realize that meaning is negotiated, not handed down, and frankly because there are lots of great resources already out there on the poem.

Ambitiously, I intend to perform the poem, from memory, in a setting easily created (a darkened room such as the school’s drama room), by the light of a candle, with some thunderstorm effects playing softly in the background. I’ve actually done this, the whole poem, from memory.

We spend some time talking about the metalanguage of the poetic devices used by Poe (assonance, alliteration, trochaic octameter, etc), but this is intentionally brief, and yields to a more detailed analysis of the poem’s allusions, meanings, and themes. Students will be invited to make a personal response by stating what they think, or how it makes them feel. What is its value as… a scary supernatural story? A tragic tale of lost love? A study of the descent into madness? I will encourage students to look deeper and to suggest that these, and other layers can be simultaneously true and valid responses. Poe’s own essay on the composition of the poem can be introduced, and his views of value of the poem being in the “totality of its impression on the soul” (paraphrase), and the almost mechanistic process he used to craft it can be cited. We can ask: Is the only valid view of the poem Poe’s view, or do we create our own meaning arising from the interaction of the text with our own minds, experiences and culture?

Lesson 1 builds the scaffold: Present the poem in a theatrical environment isolated from distractions. Demonstrate first hand its mood and pace. Examine the poem for difficult words or phrases so meaning is not lost because of any ignorance of terms. Begin to explore the allusions, the mythological and biblical references, and comb the text for the phrases that set the scene, the time, and the position and internal state of the narrator. The brief treatment of the metalanguage can go here.

The enquiry questions may be introduced, but not debated, since this is the purpose of lesson 2.

Lesson 2 begins with the adaptation of the poem that appeared on the first Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” episode in 1990, narrated by James Earl Jones. Online versions are available, but not on YouTube (see my blog). Not only is this good fun, but it challenges students to examine how texts change in adaptation or parody (e.g note the Simpsons version excises Stanza 15 and 16), and we ask “Is this as valid as the unadulterated work?”, “Would it matter if Poe would not have approved?” and muse on the phenomenon of the “mashup”; blendings of texts, even between 168 year old poems and postmodern pop-culture cartoons. What other blendings of classic works and pop-culture can we think of (Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet? How about the book Pride and Prejudice, and Zombies?) When does an adaptation so depart from the original it becomes… something else? (eg old vs. new Battlestar Galactica?)

Then I reintroduce the enquiry questions and put the students in a fishbowl or debate format as they argue for or against some key questions surrounding meaning. Was the Raven actually speaking? Did the Raven have a message? Were the questions the Raven was “answering” all in the narrators head? Was he going mad?

Here are some enquiry questions you can use (adapted from another source)

  1. Do you think the speaker, the narrator of the poem, is insane? Is there another explanation for his behaviour?
  2. How does the narrator’s behaviour change over the course of the poem?
  3. Is it possible that the speaker is making up or imagining some of the weird events in this poem?
  4. Do you think the Raven pushes our speaker over the edge, or does he do it to himself? Is nature torturing him, or his own mind?
  5. Why do you think a raven was for Poe a useful symbol? What if, instead, the ghost of Lenore had showed up?
  6. Do you think religion plays an important role in this poem? If so, where do you see the evidence?
  7. The speaker half-suspects the Raven is an evil spirit. Does this seem reasonable to you? What evidence can you muster for or against this theory?
  8. Does the talking Raven actually seem supernatural to you? Is it possible that there is nothing going on here that can't be explained in a scientific manner?
  9. Does it seem like the idea of heaven provides any lasting hope in this poem?

And here are my links to my two lesson plans, in PDF format

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