S. T. Coleridge’s The Raven was published in Morning Post and Gazetteer on the 10th of March in1798. Its subtitle A Christmas Tale, Told by a Schoolboy to his Little Brothers and Sisters suggests innocence and something appropriate to the Christmas season. This poem tells the story of a raven, who flies far and gathers much knowledge. On his return to his favourite tree he sets up a house with a female raven but one day a woodman chops the tree down killing the raven’s wife and chicks. The harmonious life of the birds is destroyed by the woodman. The wood is used as timbers for the building of a ship. When the ship is launched it sinks in an uncanny storm and the raven is avenged. As the raven flies back to land, he meets death and thanks him for the storm and the satisfaction of revenge.
Besides being a kind of morality tale in verse, the poem uses the aspects of the raven-symbol having to do with politics. Poets of all times have frequently turned to birds as poetic voices, among them John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, Walt Whitman’s The Dalliance of Eagles, William Wordsworth’s To a Skylark and Emily Dickinson’s A Bird Came down the Walk. Some of the most famous birds encountered in Anglo-American poetry are “the raven” and “the albatross”.
In this Coleridge’s poem The Raven is attempted and this bird is not a loved bird. Throughout history it has come to symbolize different things to different people and their literatures. Its presence is seen as a bad omen being. No one is happy to see a raven, but it plays its part in our world of symbolism and mythology. It is considered one of the most intelligent of birds. Thus, it has learned patience, to be watchful and thoughtful, and to gather knowledge from the land, so as to benefit itself in the battle for life. The symbolic meaning of the raven is a mixture of natural and conventional symbol, depending on the culture which has adopted it. There are numerous conventional symbolisms of the raven. For example, the raven symbolizes the grim fate of death. The black coloration has an association with evil. It is Knowledge gatherer and bringer of light. The raven, a conventional sign of something rather negative or pessimistic, is here used as a symbol of tragic anticipation.
S. T. Coleridge’s The Raven was written against the background of the collapse of the poet’s hopes for the improvement of mankind by political action and the ultimate failure of the French Revolution. There is the theme of politics, death and love in The Raven which is pictured via symbolic devices. To make the effect even more powerful, the poet contrasts the particular symbols in dialectical pairs, such as the rose and the raven, sun and moon, or day and night. The dialectics create a certain tension and the tension is the fate to the realms of wonder. At this point, not only fancy comes into play, but also primary imagination, and, above all, the secondary imagination of the reader leading him/her to a very subjective, but unique understanding of Coleridge’s poems.
The concept of the symbol was vitally important to Coleridge throughout his career as a poet, critic and professional man of letters. Relating the poem to the social context of the time, the raven, the woodman, the oak tree and other symbols show Coleridge’s disappointment and fear of the French Revolution of 1789. However, the time and circumstances of writing the poem is also political as it was published in 1798, the time of the French Revolution. Political symbols such as the raven, the woodman, the oak tree and etc. work in Coleridge’s poetry because Coleridge loved experiments with words, symbols and metaphors. Generally, in this poem, Coleridge wishes that one day virtue, joy, life and love win against vice, despair, hatred and death.
According to the his concept of love we can say Coleridge, being hypersensitive, understood love mainly as a positive power that might help people to reestablish the ‘golden age’ of earthly paradise. This concept of love can be traced not only in the essays in The Friend, a collection of Coleridge’s essays, but also in his personal correspondence. Coleridge was convinced that if all people shared love and practiced honesty, it would be easier to find and exercise truth as the highest value that people could ever reach. He hoped that virtue would win over vice, he hoped that love would defeat hatred so that people could devote their strength to the searching for the truth that would lead them to a true recognition of the power of God. He hoped that love between parents and their children, or between lovers could be parallel to a true worship of the Lord regardless of whether the Church was the mediator or not, because then people alone would recognize the truth without necessarily being told what the truth is and what they should believe in. He knew that love and atmosphere of understanding could not last forever. He saw a fiendish or dialectical image to love: hatred which often leads to death, either a physical or a spiritual one. Death kills love regardless of the previous strong attachment. The poet uses the symbols so as to make people aware that love cannot always win, because the power of death are stronger.
The poem is introduced as a Christmas tale. It invites the reader to enter the spirit of times of wonder and to let the imagination flourish. Just as the poem begins, the first circle of life is introduced:
“Underneath an old oak tree
There was of swine a huge company,
That grunted as they crunched the mast:
For that was ripe, and fell full fast.
Then they trotted away, for the wind grew high:
One acorn they left, and no more might you spy. ”
The tree is old and although it has seen many a day, it could stay alive much longer if it were not for the swine, could well be a metaphor for greedy people, which caused its death for purely selfish reasons: for their grudge. They would not have left there even a single acorn, out of which a new tree, equal to new life, could grow, if it were not for a storm that came all of sudden. The storm is symbolic, and it represents God’s intervention into the matters on the earth. The acorn that the swine had to leave there gives life to a new oak tree which gives shelter to other animals as well. The only acorn that was left begins thus a new life circle.
“Next came a Raven, that liked not such folly:
He belonged, they did say, to the witch Melancholy!
Blacker was he than blackest jet,
Flew low in the rain, and his feathers were not wet.
He picked up the acorn and buried it straight
By the side of a river both deep and great. ”
Besides the oak tree that plays one of the prime roles, a raven enters the scene. The raven, gives the impression of a very dark day when melancholy rules and the raven is one of her companions: The raven, a symbol for dreadful situations and places, here the idea is supported by the suggestion that the raven is one of the messengers of the destructive melancholy, has the role and attributes of a mystical creature. This view is further supported by the passage where the raven “flew low in the rain and his feathers were not wet.” (line 10)
The raven, a conventional sign of something rather negative or pessimistic, is here used as a symbol of tragic anticipation. Besides, “it not only bodes death, but … some say that ravens foster forlorn children the whilst their own birds , the younger ones, famish in their nest.” (Vries 382) In this sense, the raven could be seen to parallel a similar relationship between Coleridge and his father. The Reverend John Coleridge was always preoccupied with the parishioners at Ottery St. Mary and young Samuel felt he never got enough attention, time, and love from his father.
In the early years of Coleridge’s political activity, he was optimistic about the improvement of society by the rising of the French Revolution. The situation offered a chance for regeneration. That is why so much hope was present during the first stage of the Revolution and that is why Coleridge welcomed the news from revolutionary France at first. But as the time passed he became more and more disappointed with the revolution because it made the condition worse than before by its destructive presence. So, as a parallel situation, in the beginning of The Raven Coleridge declares his optimism. The atmosphere of the poem at the start takes a promising direction but later his expression is pained and bewildered; as we have :
“And young ones they had, and were happy enow.
But soon came a Woodman in leathern guise, ”
This “but” at the beginning of the next line signals a return to reality, to the world which destroys love many a time. This confrontation leads to a consideration of the principles established here on earth. So far, no explanation has been found of the question why every joy of life and love should be overwhelmed by woe which is often the companion of death.
The harmonious life of the birds is violently destroyed. The tree where the birds had their nest is cut down by a woodman, the raven gets furious and wishes for severe recompense for the death of his young ones
“His young ones were killed; for they could not depart,
and their mother who did die of a broken heart.”
There, again, life is surpassed by death and the life and death circles intertwine suggesting the never ending rotation of life and death. In “The Raven”, the recompense comes in as a satisfaction for the bird; and for it to be true recompense, it has to be compensated by the death of some other creatures, especially that of the woodman.
The poem is a reaction to the public mismanagement of affairs in which the hero of it observes with malignant delight how the vices of the governing clique lead to their own destruction. In The Raven, the ship was caught in a storm. The storm symbolically reflects the turmoil of the changes in the society at the end of the eighteen century:
“The ship, it was launched; but in sight of the land
Such a storm there did rise as no ship could withstand.
It bulged on a rock, and the waves rush’d in fast:
Round and round flew the raven, and cawed to the blast. ”
The old faith, symbolized by the oak tree, is undermined, and no certainty remains, everything seems to be uprooted. The felling of the oak tree is also seen as the destruction brought about by the French Revolution:
” But with many a hem! and a sturdy stroke,
At length he brought down the poor Raven’s own oak. ”
The raven is identified with the melancholy Burke prophesying the revolution’s effects. The characters in Coleridge’s The Raven and the representatives of the French revolution share a primary noble intention, but the circumstances and selfish human factors do not allow either of them to carry out their noble intentions as they wished. The desire for freedom was corrupted for selfish goals in France. So, the portrayal of these ideas by implication makes them more striking. The ideas of guilt and restoration are implicit in The Raven which were developed by Coleridge and grew out of his observation of the career of the French Revolution. The woodman, cutting the oak tree, committed a crime, which later caused his death in the poem; and the return of the raven to the oak tree symbolizes the idea of the restoration.
However, the French Revolution is not present in the poem, but it throws its great shadow across it. At first, Coleridge appears to be a supporter of the Revolution and an upholder of dissenting views of society and religion. He believes that humanity can be redeemed by political actions. On the contrary, the freedom of the raven living on the oak tree is taken away from it by the woodman; the enthusiasm changed into contempt and disillusion. There was much disappointment because of the violence used. In France, the violence peaked in the latter stages of the Revolution, and, in the case of the raven, the violence found its greatest horror at the point of felling the oak tree. Not violence and blood but peaceful life should have been the result of the Revolution. Instead, a dark and almost deathly period in French history set in.
There is anew a parallel in The Raven. The bird lost everything it had yearned for and loved so much, and it has no joy anymore. Its love is gone and it only waits for death to end its life:
” He heard the last shriek of the perishing souls
See! see! o’er the topmast the mad water rolls!
Right glad was the Raven, and off he went fleet,
And Death riding home on a cloud he did meet,
And he thank’d him again and again for this treat:
They had taken his all, and Revenge it was sweet”
The raven takes delight in observing the woodman die in a cruel way similar to the way his young ones died. When the woodman came to cut down the oak tree where the raven had its nest, the raven could no longer retain his rather uncommon role of representing something positive. He changed from the temporary representative of happiness and love to his traditional position: the representative of death, namely, of death out of revenge.
The whole tragedy happens due to the felling of an old oak tree. The raven had its nest in its crown, and there seemed to be a perfect symbiosis between the raven and the tree. In the biblical symbolism, a tree might stand for a life-giving strength, for a shrine, and, moreover, a green tree is a symbol of an honest person blessed by God. The oak three then, brings up the connotation of closeness, longevity, immorality, and regeneration (Vries 347). When the oak tree is cut down, its strength irrevocably passes. A felled oak tree represents a case of fatal mistake by the woodman. He has to put up with the consequences of his bad judgment. He came to cut down the tree because he wanted to use its wood for selfish purposes. The woodman used the oak wood to make a ship, but, absurdly, this ship became his coffin. It is, again, symbolic, because coffins are very often made of oak. Here the symbol of life turned into a symbol of death.
Coleridge uses the symbol of an oak tree repeatedly. I think it might be due to a coincidence with his recollections from early childhood. As Holmes describes, Coleridge with his brother Francis once went to see “the Pixies’ Parlour, a mysterious sandstone cave beneath the roots of an ancient oak tree”. (12) Young Samuel remembered this occasion very vividly with all the details, because it perfectly fitted into his imaginative world. He uses the oak tree later in his poem, for example in “Christabel”, as a symbol for the above mentioned attributes. The cave also found its place among the images in both the essays in The Friend and in “Allegoric Vision”.
Relating the poem to the social context of the time, the raven, the oak tree, and other symbols here show, as I contend, aside from other meanings, Coleridge’s disappointment and fear of the French Revolution of 1789. The ship was symbolically caught in a storm, and it “bulged on a rock, and the waves rushed in fast.” (line 37) The storm symbolically reflects the turmoil of the changes in the society at the end of the eighteen century. The old faith, symbolized by the oak tree, is undermined, and no certainty remains, everything seems to be uprooted. Still, the situation might offer a chance for regeneration. That is why so much hope was present during the first stage of the Revolution and that is why Coleridge welcomed the news from revolutionary France at first.
The characters in Coleridge’s “The Raven” and the representatives of the French revolution share a primary noble intention, but the circumstances and selfish human factors do not allow either of them to carry out their noble intentions as they wished. The portrayal of these ideas by implication makes them more striking. It is even supported by the slow exposition of the central point of the poem; it makes the sudden twist possible and it again strikes the reader as unexpected.
Love for and desire for freedom were corrupted for selfish goals in France. Similarly, the freedom of the raven living on an oak tree is taken away from it by the woodman. The enthusiasm changed into contempt and disillusion. There was much disappointment because of the violence used; in France, the violence peaked in the latter stages of the Revolution, and, in the case of the raven, the violence found its greatest horror at the point of felling the oak tree. Not violence and blood but peaceful life should have been the result of the Revolution. Instead, a dark and almost deathly period in French history set in. There is anew a parallel in “The Raven”. The bird lost everything it had yearned for and loved so much, and it has no joy anymore. Its love is gone and it only waits for death to end its life.
As already mentioned above, Coleridge often, maybe even unconsciously, contrasted his symbols in dialectical pairs. A dialectic to raven is a rose – a symbol which occurs frequently in his poems. Coleridge used both as attributes of love. The rose was its positive manifestation, whereas the raven stood for its negative counterpart. Their antithetical character is emphasized by their colour symbolism: the rose is frequently either white or red, and the raven is black. This combination of colours means: white “birth and growth” but also purity, and immaculation, red “love and battle”, and black “death-divination”. (Vries 108) In this sense, they could be understood as symbols of the life-love-hatred-death circle. The life is born pure, love abides in the soul, it battles for its place in the heart, it culminates in the true passion, but either some hatred or the anticipation of death spoils it. Finally, lovers are separated by death which causes an end of one life circle. So, in my opinion, the rose and the raven could be seen as a dialectic. They both approach the same idea, but from different ends. However, they both signalize a kind of disaster for love and life.
In the whole , there was a combination of politics and poetry in the Romantic period due to the rise of the French Revolution in 1789. Consequently, poets were under the influence of the political events of the time and reacted to them by writing the politically symbolic poetry. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was one of the romantic poets who inserted the political concepts and symbols into some of his poems. Coleridge tended to spe