How to write a poem like ‘The Raven’
It’s been one of the most famous poems in the English language for nearly 175 years and has what might be the most recognizable opening line of all time. “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe has many admirers but surprisingly few imitators. This is because, in spite of its accessible storytelling style, it’s a very complex poem. But never fear — you CAN write a poem like “The Raven”! Let’s find out how.
What is “The Raven?”
“ The Raven” is a 108-line narrative poem by Edgar Allan Poe. First published in 1845 when Poe was 36, the poem initially appeared in Evening Mirror and The American Review. It was then republished in a number of American periodicals and anthologies from early 1845 to 1847, including a collection of Poe’s poetry, The Raven and Other Poems.
“The Raven” made Edgar Allan Poe famous but not rich — take a look at “ How to Write Like Edgar Allan Poe “ to find out what happened next.
The poem has inspired a handful of parodies, including Marcus Bales’ DOS operating system themed poem “ Abort, Retry, Ignore,” Duane Dodson’s humorous “ The Cravin’,” and Mike Keith’s pi mnemonic, “ Near a Raven,” in which the number of letters in each word mirrors the digits of pi.
One of the best parodies, both thematically and structurally, is Henry Beard’s “ The End of the Raven by Edgar Allen Poe’s Cat,” which begins:
On a night quite unenchanting, when the rain was downward slanting,
I awakened to the ranting of the man I catch mice for.
Tipsy and a bit unshaven, in a tone I found quite craven,
Poe was talking to a raven perched above the chamber door.”
How to write a poem like “The Raven”
First, let’s get the dry, technical stuff out of the way. Don’t worry — it’s a lot simpler than it might appear at first glance. But don’t skip ahead or you’ll miss out on what makes “The Raven” a truly great work of poetry.
1. The structure of “The Raven”
“The Raven” is a long poem, clocking in at over 1,000 words. The 108 lines of the poem are divided into 18 stanzas, which are groups of lines in a poem not unlike paragraphs in a story. Doing the math, that means each stanza contains exactly six lines, a structure that Poe adheres to rigidly throughout the text.
It’s written in a relatively rare style called trochaic octameter. The word “trochaic” refers to a type of syllable group called a “foot.” Each trochaic foot is known as a trochee. Trochees are always two syllables long and sound like this:
They’re the exact opposites of iambs (another type of poetic foot) commonly found in sonnets, which you can read all about in “ How to Write a Sonnet.”
If you have trouble remembering what a trochee sounds like, this mnemonic might help:
As for “octameter,” it tells us the number of feet in each line of the poem. Since “oct” means eight, as in “octopus,” that means there are eight trochees in every line. Because each trochee has two syllables, each line of the poem has a grand total of 16 syllables.
But wait! There’s one sneaky twist in the structure of “The Raven.” Poe decided to make the last line of each stanza half as long as the other five. And he chopped the final trochee of the line in half, so the last syllable of the line would be stressed. That means the sixth (and final line) of each stanza has three and a half trochees, or just seven syllables.
Dusty Grein and Evan Mantyk prefer to think about the structure of “The Raven” in terms of tetrameters (groups of four trochees) instead of octameters: “Each stanza is comprised of eleven tetrameters. These are welded together into five octameter lines, followed by the final refrain-like tetrameter line.”
And then there’s Poe own description of the structure of “The Raven”:
“I pretend to no originality in either the rhythm or metre of the ‘Raven.’ The former is trochaic — the latter is octameter acatalectic, alternating with heptameter catalectic repeated in the refrain of the fifth verse, and terminating with tetrameter catalectic. Less pedantically — the feet employed throughout (trochees) consist of a long syllable followed by a short: the first line of the stanza consists of eight of these feet — the second of seven and a half (in effect two-thirds) — the third of eight — the fourth of seven and a half — the fifth the same — the sixth three and a half.”
Confused yet? Me too.
Let’s take a look at the first stanza of “The Raven” and see if we can clear it up:
LINE 1: Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
LINE 2: Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore-
LINE 3: While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
LINE 4: As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
LINE 5: “‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door-
LINE 6: Only this and nothing more.”
All you really need to do to capture the sound of “The Raven” is write 5 lines of 16 syllables each, then write a single line of 7 syllables, and keep that STRESSED-unstressed pattern going throughout the poem.
2. Understanding the rhyme scheme
At first glance, “The Raven” seems to have a very simple rhyme scheme:
However, there’s a lot more going on. A whole lot more. Let’s look at the opening stanza again:
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 someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door-
Only this and nothing more.”
As you can see, some words rhyme even though they’re in the middle of a line: “dreary” and “weary,” and “napping” and “rapping,” for example.
This is known as internal rhyming — words in the middle of a line rhyme with words at the end of the line, and sometimes with words in the middle of other lines.
The internal rhyme scheme of “The Raven” isn’t haphazard, but it’s not as standardized as the external rhyme pattern. And actually, upon closer inspection, the external rhyme scheme is a bit more sophisticated than it would appear.
A more accurate way of illustrating the external rhyme scheme would be:
This is because Poe doesn’t repeat the “A” or “C” rhymes in later stanzas; the subsequent sets of rhymes are unique to each six-line stanza. However, the “B” rhyme is exactly the same throughout the poem — it’s always an “-or” sound, as in “Lenore,” “lore,” “door,” and “nevermore.” The way Poe uses this recurring “B” rhyme is unusual, so let’s give it a name: the Ubiquitous B End-Rhyme syllable, or UBER syllable.
This gives us the following external rhyme pattern:
Stanza 1: A-UBER-C-UBER-UBER-UBER
Stanza 2: D-UBER-E-UBER-UBER-UBER
Stanza 3: F-UBER-G-UBER-UBER-UBER
And so forth
Meanwhile, the internal rhyme pattern for each stanza typically looks something like this:
This is how it works in the opening of stanza of “The Raven”:
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, [internal A rhyme]
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore — [no internal rhyme]
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, [internal C rhyme]
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door. [internal C rhyme]
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door- [no internal rhyme]
Only this and nothing more.” [internal/external UBER rhyme]
Confused again? So am I. That’s why I laid the whole thing out in a spreadsheet so I could see exactly what was happening in each line of the poem:
In its most simplified form, each stanza’s rhyme scheme looks like this:
As you can see, the UBER syllable shows up a lot; it’s always the final syllable of the stanza, including in the iconic word “nevermore,” which serves as the ending of 11 of the 18 stanzas. As Poe wrote in his 1846 essay, “ The Philosophy of Composition,” he intentionally used the UBER syllable almost to the point of tautology because of the psychological impact it would have on his readers. “In carefully thinking over all the usual artistic effects … I did not fail to perceive immediately that no one had been so universally employed as that of the refrain. … As commonly used, the refrain, or burden, not only is limited to lyric verse, but depends for its impression upon the force of monotone — both in sound and thought. The pleasure is deduced solely from the sense of identity — of repetition.”
Before you write a single word, pick your UBER syllable. As you can guess from its frequency, it needs to be a syllable that has a lot of rhymes available. Once you’ve got your UBER syllable, choose an evocative word that will serve as your refrain.
3. Now the fun begins!
The hard stuff is over — rejoice! Now we come to the fun part: writing the story of the poem.
Poe’s first step was to decide what sort of impact he wanted his poem to have upon his readers — how he wanted it to make them feel. “I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view,” he explained. “I say to myself, in the first place, ‘Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?’”
His next step was to come up with a theme for the poem. When writing “The Raven,” Poe recalled, “I asked myself — ‘Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?’ Death — was the obvious reply. ‘And when,’ I said, ‘is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?’ … The death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world — and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.’”
Once you’ve figured out what you want your readers to feel as they make their way through your poem and have picked a theme (preferably something grim and gothic), it’s time to sketch out the plot of your poem. Remember, “The Raven” is a narrative poem, which means it tells a complete story with a beginning, middle and end; has an identifiable setting; and includes characters who face a clear conflict that is resolved in the course of the action of the poem.
A lot of stuff happens in “The Raven.” On a gloomy December night, the narrator of the poem is reading and brooding about his late lover, Lenore. He’s abruptly interrupted by first a tapping sound on the door to his room, then on his window. When he opens the window, a raven flies into the room and perches on a sculpture of the head of the Greek goddess of war and wisdom, which is located over the door to the room.
The narrator asks the raven a series of questions, all of which are answered by the bird with the word “nevermore.” These questions are innocuous at first but gradually grow dark and allegorical, culminating in the narrator’s demand to know whether he will ever see Lenore again. The poem ends with the narrator’s declaration that the raven, clearly a symbol of grief, is still with him and the narrator’s soul will break free of the shadow of the raven/grief “nevermore.”
Writing an outline of the story you want to tell is key to creating a solid narrative poem. Take a little time to figure out the main plot points you want to cover, and how your characters will change as they move toward the conclusion of the poem.
4. Write the end first
Ready to write? Got a great opening line in mind? Well, don’t write it yet, because you’re going to write the end of the poem first.
As Poe explained in “The Philosophy of Composition,” after settling on his UBER syllable, refrain word, and plot, he decided how the poem would end. “I first established in mind the climax, or concluding query — that to which ‘Nevermore’ should be in the last place an answer — that in reply to which this word ‘Nevermore’ should involve the utmost conceivable amount of sorrow and despair. Here then the poem may be said to have its beginning — at the end, where all works of art should begin.”
When he had figured out the resolution of the poem, he started writing.
“It was here, at this point of my preconsiderations, that I first put pen to paper in the composition of the stanza:
‘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.’”
Though Poe eventually added two additional stanzas to the end of his poem, his original “ending” remained firmly in place within the structure of the text, and steered the rest of the narrative to its conclusion.
5. Add poetic details
As you assemble your stanzas, add some alliteration, like “velvet-violet,” “bird beguiling,” and “grim … ghastly, gaunt.” If you want to be 100% true to Poe’s style, throw in a few archaic words, as well as biblical references and allusions to classical mythology, like “Plutonian,” a reference to the realm of the dead; “Pallas,” the Greek goddess of wisdom and war, also known as Athena; “balm of Gilead,” an all-purpose medicine from the Bible; and “Nepenthe,” a mythic potion used to relieve grief and sorrow.
6. Having trouble?
If you’re having a hard time keeping all the details straight, try plotting out the poem with a spreadsheet. That was the #1 tool I used when writing this poem inspired by “The Raven” for the latest “ Dead Writers & Candy” post, “Edgar Allan Poe Tries Japanese Candy.”
First, I selected an UBER syllable with a lot of available rhymes: -ide, as in “hide,” “lied,” “died,” and so on. I settled on the word “inside” as the refrain that would recur in the last line of each stanza.
Then I picked the feeling I wanted to inspire in my readers, dread, and a general theme of “fear of losing one’s identity.”
After outlining the plot of the poem, I came up with the final phrase I wanted to work toward: “I am you. I’m you inside!” and started writing the text in a spreadsheet with a trochaic octameter grid laid out to keep the syllables straight.
Here’s the final product:
The Man Inside the Mirror
In my chamber hung a mirror, shining brightly, shining clearer
Than the stars in heaven’s faultless vault on trails of silver ride.
Then one day a grave inception: this, my image, my conception
Twisted to a vague deception. Here, within my silver-eyed
Looking glass, my former double peering back with eyes that lied.
For it wasn’t me inside!
Vainly gazed I, sensing danger-yet my image grew yet stranger!
Days and days I passed in silence, staring, staring, and I tried
To conceive how it could be this man I saw could possibly
Share my soul and share my mind, but not my face-I could not hide
My raw dismay…yet share it, show it, never he! That face that lied,
It concealed its thoughts inside!
Gradually my mirror image started to deform and grimace;
Day by day and weekly, monthly, warped until at last I cried:
“Monster, demon tell me truly, beast, who are you? Why torment me?”
Back at me my doppelganger stared, and hope within me died.
With a smile like icy crystal, coldly, cruelly he replied:
“I am you. I’m you inside!”
And if you want to learn how to write thrilling tales of terror like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Pit and the Pendulum,” take a look at the previous post, “ How to Write Like Edgar Allan Poe.”
Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.
Originally published at http://howtowritelike.com on November 8, 2019.