On the Numinous: Poe and the Supernatural

Poe ignores the raven, the representative of the supernatural. Sometimes we ignore the supernatural, too.

Our middle school students are memorizing Poe’s “The Raven,” one of the most well-known American poems, wherein the author grieves over his lost love, Lenore. I shared with my students an interesting facet of the poem: Poe’s refusal and dismissal of the supernatural. As Poe grieves for Lenore, he receives a visit from the spirit world in the form of a raven. Before acknowledging the raven’s identity, the poet reasons through a series of denials.

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

As the poem progresses and the poet continues to dismiss the visitor by crediting natural occurrences. First the poet believes it is only a visitor coming late to his house.

Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is and nothing more.”

Upon opening the door, the poet finds nothing, but he hears “Lenore,” and claims it is only an echo.

And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—
Merely this and nothing more.

After returning to his chair, the poet hears tapping at his window, this time louder than the rapping at his door, but he claims, “‘Tis the wind and nothing more!” To be sure, he opens the shutter to find a raven which enters his room and sits upon the bust of the goddess of wisdom above his door. Upon asking the raven for its name, the raven replies, “Nevermore.” Even at this point, the author dismisses the significance of the response,

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store . . .”

Before Poe acknowledges the supernatural, there is clear evidence that the episode fits what theologian Rudolf Otto defines as a numinous experience. Otto describes God as a mysterium tremendum et fascinans—a mystery both terrifying and fascinating. Indeed, the poet recites, “And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain / Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before” while continually dismissing the supernatural at each turn. It is only when “the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer / swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor,” that the poet finally accepts the raven as a messenger from the spirit world. At this acknowledgment, the poet responds with anger before inquiring after his love’s well-being in the afterworld. “‘Wretch,’ I cried, ‘thy God hath lent thee . . .’” the poet cries to the raven.

There is something ugly in this poem which Poe tells us is about beauty. There is an ugliness in Poe’s refusal of comfort and his rejection of the transcendent. Though he knows the response of the raven, he continues to ask questions which confirm his hopelessness. “‘Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!’ / Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore.’” This refusal is Poe’s insanity.

I must confess, I succumb to this same madness, for as the raven interrupted the poet’s life, God interrupts mine. When God, by His Holy Spirit, communicates with us through life’s events, the church, poetry, or His Word, we are often just as likely as the poet to dismiss His intervention. We are content with the terror of Mount Sinai, or we distract ourselves from it instead of accepting God’s grace at Mount Zion as the writer of Hebrews encourages us to do. “For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest . . . But you have come to Mount Zion” (Heb. 12:18, 22).

When we walk away from Him, refuse to acknowledge His presence and work, or continue to sin, God lets us know. We often dismiss Him, “’Tis the wind and nothing more!” How often we welcome the good from God, but deny His presence when we want to follow our own way. While we should not go hunting for the numinous in poetry or in life, we must be open to God’s leading, His intervention, and His truth. One might be terrified by the vastness of space on a dark night in the country, but this terror should drive us to acknowledge both God’s glory and his grace. We should always be open to God’s invitation to Mount Zion.

It is human nature to deny the presence of God in the world. Is this not why, in the creed, we proclaim, “I believe in all things visible and invisible”? Upon Christ’s birth, Herod tried to snuff out the Savior’s life; while we ultimately succeeded in achieving the death of Christ, God’s son, people still dismiss His resurrection and His working in the world. Through God’s Word and His Holy Spirit, we must be alert and sensitive to His leading, correction, and salvation, that we would not respond, “’Tis the wind and nothing more!” when God works in our lives.

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