The Raven as the Demon as Despair
Soon after the death of a loved one come many visitors to the bereaved. Some arrive early, bearing gifts of food and speaking words of consolation and comfort. Others appear late in the day, unable to say anything, but still comforting in their very presence. But when the comforters have gone away and we sit through the lonely watches of the night, pondering our loss, the last visitor arrives. He comes invited, though not to bring consolation; his words are empty of that. No, his purpose is to smother any desire we may still have for life, to snuff out the smallest spark of hope that may yet gleam within our soul. He is the black-winged demon of despair, sent to bring us swiftly to the realm of everlasting pain and to bring the pain of Hell to us while we yet live.
Yes, he is summoned, and no less real for that. A very tangible manifestation of this demon and his influence is described by Edgar Allan Poe in his uncannily beautiful poem, "The Raven." Making masterful use of his gift for consonance and cadence, Poe has, within seventeen stanzas, depicted as powerful a description of a descent into the pit as to be found outside Dante's Inferno.
The poem begins by describing, in the first person, a man distraught with grief. In the midnight hours, caught up in a dark and desolate meditation from which he vainly seeks distraction among his books, he suddenly hears a rapping at the door. His mood, already morbid, is excited into terror. Flinging open the door, he finds only the bitter emptiness he had been trying so hard to shut out moments before. Into this darkness he whispers the name of his beloved Lenore. The terror and wonder that he feels, the daring dreams he entertains, are all expressed in that one name. He has dared to believe that somehow she has returned to him from the dead. The name is echoed back into the stillness of the night and he returns to his room, his soul still burning with the idea of seeing his beloved again.
Poe uses the language so well to describe this chamber wherein haunting grief casts its gloom from the fire's dying embers and clings to each sad curtain, that one finds the man's obsession with death not at all unnatural. Unremitting sorrow has transformed this library into a mausoleum where all wisdom lies entombed with the books, bereft of any power to comfort the living, and the very furnishings seem to be draped with a shroud. The scene is set, the summons has been issued, the emissary of spiritual desolation awaits.
Acceptance of the death of our loved ones is never easy. Though St. Paul cautions us to "sorrow not, even as others which have no hope" (Thess. 4:13), when our world has collapsed around us, Heaven seems a dim, far point of light in a vast universe of darkness. The effort to hold our hands, that Christ might bring us up from the depths, seems too great. His Church was built that "...the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (St. Matt. 17:18). But when...