And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
thrilled me, filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before.
Edgar Allan Poe, in “The Raven”
To add to an ongoing discussion of writing, I want to offer these lines of verse as an example of a lyrical masterpiece. I could throw out terms like alliteration, internal rhyme, onomatopoeia, assonance, and trochaic octameter—but to spare those who aren’t unredeemable English majors, I’ll just say it sounds good. In fact, I can’t think of a more successfully ornate line in English. But what does it mean?
Well, we hear the curtain rustling. It’s rustling in a silken way—which isn’t terribly interesting. It’s rustling in a sad way, which is a bit more interesting, because the emotions of curtains tend to be a reflection of the emotions of those perceiving the curtains. So the speaker is sad, which is also not that interesting. But the curtain is also rustling in an uncertain way. That’s starting to get interesting. Sad and uncertain are a worthy combination.
But does the next line work? Do you feel both the thrill and the terror? (Or, would you feel the thrill and the terror if I hadn’t ripped the line from its context?) The poem is beautiful—but a bit tricky to relate to. It’s not just about things going bump in the night. It’s about things going bump in a manner that (like everything else in our haunted lives) reminds us of our mysteriously missing lost love. Do we emotionally connect with the speaker’s feelings? Do you feel his grief and his mixed thrill and terror at the Raven’s curious dignity? I can conceptualize it—but I fell more pity than connection.