‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe is a popular narrative poem written in the first person, that centers around the themes of loss and self-analysis. The raven personifies the feeling of intense grief and loss, while other symbols throughout the poem reinforce a melodramatic mood that emphasizes the main character’s grief and loss. This poem explores the world of emotional wars that individuals face in all walks of life; specifically, the fight one can never ignore, the fight of control over the emotions of grief and loss. These battles are not physical, but leave scarring and bruising just as if they were. Poe has produced a wonderful piece of work that resonates with the feelings and experiences of every reader that comes across this poem.
Explore The Raven
Throughout the poem, the poet uses repetition to emphasize the mysterious knocking occurring in the speaker’s home in the middle of a cold December evening. The speaker tries to ignore it and convince himself that there’s no one there. But, eventually, he opens the door and looks into the darkness, wondering if it could be his beloved, Lenore, returned to him. No one is there but a raven does fly into his room. It speaks to him, using only the word “Nevermore.” This is its response to everything the speaker asks of it. Finally, the speaker decides that angels have caused the air to fill in density and wonders if they’re there to relieve him of his pain. The bird answers “Nevermore” and it appears the speaker is going to live forever in the shadow of the bust of Pallas above his door.
In ‘The Raven,’ Poe engages themes which include death and the afterlife. These two are some of the most common themes used throughout Poe’s oeuvre. These themes are accompanied by memory, loss, and the supernatural. throughout the piece, the reader gets the sense that something terrible is about to happen, or has just happened, to the speaker and those around him. These themes are all emphasized by the speaker’s loneliness. He’s alone in his home on a cold evening trying to ignore the “rapping” on his chamber door. By the end, it appears that he will live forever in the shadow of death and sorrow.
Structure and Form
‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe is a ballad made up of eighteen six-line stanzas. Throughout, the poet uses trochaic octameter, a very distinctive metrical form. He uses the first-person point of view throughout, and a very consistent rhyme scheme of ABCBBB. There are a large number of words that use the same ending, for example, the “ore” in “Lenore” and “Nevermore.” Epistrophe is also present, or the repetition of the same word at the end of multiple lines.
Poe makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Raven.’ These include but are not limited to repetition, alliteration, and caesura. The latter is a formal device, one that occurs when the poet inserts a pause, whether through meter or punctuation, into the middle of a line. For example, line three of the first stanza. It reads: “While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping.” There are numerous other examples, for instance, line three of the second stanza which reads: “Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow.”
Alliteration is one kind of repetition that’s used in ‘The Raven.’ It occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “weak and weary” in the first line of the poem and “soul” and “stronger” in the first line of the fourth stanza.
Throughout, Poe uses repetition more broadly as well. For example, his use of parallelism in line structure and wording, as well as punctuation. He also maintains a very repetitive rhythm throughout the poem with his meter and rhyme scheme.
Analysis of The Raven
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 some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”
The opening line of this poem proves to be quite theatrical; initiating with the classic, “once upon a -” and introducing a typical melodramatic, “weak and weary” character who is evidently lost in thought during a particularly boring night. He claims to be thinking and “pondering” over volumes of old traditions of knowledge. As he nods off to sleep while reading, he is interrupted by a tapping sound. It sounds as if someone is “gently” knocking on his “chamber door”. He mutters to himself that it must be a visitor, since what else could it possibly be?
The first stanza of Poe’s The Raven exposes a story that the reader knows will be full of drama. The imagery in just this stanza alone gives the reader a very good idea that the story about to unfold is not a happy one. The scene opens on a “dreary” or boring midnight and a “weak and weary” character. The quiet midnight paints a picture of mystery and suspense for the reader, whilst an already tired out and exhausted character introduces a tired out and emotionally exhausting story – as we later learn that the character has suffered a great deal before this poem even begins. To further highlight the fatigued mood, he is even reading “forgotten lore” which is basically old myths/folklore that were studied by scholars (so we assume the character is a scholar/student of sorts). The words “forgotten” and ‘nothing more’ here sneak in the theme of loss that is prevalent in this poem. We are also introduced to our first symbol: the chamber door; which symbolizes insecurity. The chamber door functions as any door would, it opens the characters’ room/home to the outside world; and we will notice that it is also a representation of the insecurities and weaknesses of the character as he opens them up to the world outside of him. In this stanza, something is coming and “tapping” at his insecurities and weaknesses (the chamber door) due to him pondering and getting lost in thought.
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here for evermore.
We are quickly jolted from the scene of the stranger knocking at the door into the thoughts of the speaker. Here, he pauses to educate the reader, that this sight was taking place during the “bleak” December when “dying” embers from a fire were casting “ghost” like shadows on the floor. He was wishing for the night to pass faster, desperately trying to escape the sadness of losing Lenore, by busying himself in his books. It becomes very obvious that Lenore was someone important to him, as he describes her as a “rare and radiant maiden”, and it also becomes evident that she had died since she was now “nameless forevermore” in the world.
The air of suspense continues to build as Poe shifts the narrative from the tapping on the door to the thoughts of the character. This could also portray that the character himself is avoiding answering the door. If we look at the door symbolizing his weaknesses and insecurities we can easily understand why he would want to avoid opening up to whatever was tapping on it. The diction in this stanza (bleak, separate, dying, ghost, sought, sorrow, and lost) also emphasizes the theme of loss that unfolds in this poem. We can see that Poe is already hinting to the readers the cause of the characters’ insecurities.
The second line in this stanza also foreshadows the end of the poem as it illustrates dying “embers” casting shadows on the floor, it is portraying how trapped the character will be in the shadows of loss. What exactly has he lost? We find that the character is pining for Lenore, a woman who was very dear to him (a girlfriend or wife perhaps) whom he can no longer be with as she has died and is in the company of angels. She becomes “nameless” (again underlining the theme of loss) to him because she does not exist in his world anymore. For him, she is forever lost.
And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is and nothing more.”
The movement of the curtains, even seem “sad” and “uncertain” to him. Watching these curtains rustle and listening to the knocking was turning his miserable and quiet mood into one of anxiety and fear. To calm himself and his quickening heartbeat, he repeated to himself that it was just some visitor who had come to see him in these late hours and “nothing more”.
Poe has provided details of the room and its belongings throughout the poem that observably symbolize the feelings of the character. This stanza demonstrates a focus on the emotional state of the character. The purple curtains can easily represent his healing wounds (as purple is the colour of a bruise that is in the beginning stages of recovery); and they are described as sad and uncertain. From this, we can note that the loss of Lenore has left him feeling exactly that: sad and uncertain. This bruise of his “thrilled” him, because it opened the door to thoughts and feelings the character had never ventured before. As he thought about opening the door of insecurities to whatever was knocking at them he becomes excited and terrified at the same time. To calm his fears, he repeats to himself that he’s sure nothing will come out of it.
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—
Darkness there and nothing more.
The character begins to build some confidence as he draws closer towards the door to see who would come to see him at such an hour. He calls out saying sorry ‘Sir’ or ‘Madame’, he had been napping and the ‘tapping’ at the door was so light that he wasn’t even sure that there was actually someone knocking at the door, at first. As he is saying this, he opens the door only to find nothing but the darkness of the night.
As he prepares himself to open the door of his insecurities and weaknesses to whatever awaits, he really has to push through his hesitation. He calls put saying he wasn’t sure whether there was anything there so he hadn’t bothered to open the door and when he finally did, he found nothing. The suspense is heightened after finding nothing but darkness. The reader understands that the character found nothing but darkness waiting for him through his insecurities and weaknesses; nothing but a black hole. This is not different to what anyone would find when they look internally and finally decide to open up and see through all the things that make them think less of themselves; they find a world of darkness (suffering and difficulty). It is not easy to look into yourself and your uncertainties to recognize your suffering and hardships. The character, does not find it easy either.
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
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.
Finding nothing on the other side of the door leaves him stunned. He stands there staring into the darkness with his mind racing. How could he have heard the clear continuous knocking at the door only to find nothing…physical? Now because he had been pining for Lenore, she quickly comes to mind, so he whispers her name into the empty night ‘Lenore?’ and an echo whispers back ‘Lenore!’.
Poe emphasizes how stunned the character is at looking into the hardships and suffering of his life (the darkness) through the wide-opened door of his insecurity (the chamber door) by stating that he began to doubt himself and his expectations of what he would find. He expected to find a visitor ( sympathy) but instead found empty darkness ( suffering). The character finally makes a bold move he utters from his mouth what facing the suffering forced him to think of: Lenore. To his surprise from his suffering came back a voice saying Lenore and nothing more. This exposes that the sole core of his suffering was truly Lenore and he had to open that door of his self-doubt and weakness to figure it out.
Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
’Tis the wind and nothing more!”
The narrator finally turns away from the empty doorway, full of fire; he had just heard her name whispered back to him, was he insane? Was any of this real? ‘Soon again’, he hears tapping; this time louder than before and it gives the impression that it was coming from the window this time. Again his heart starts to beat faster, as he moves towards the window wanting to “explore” this mystery. He tells himself that it must be the wind and ‘nothing more’.
The character finally snaps out of his shock and closes the door. He realizes his fears to be true. The one thing that he has no control over is truly the only thing causing him weakness: the loss of Lenore. Then he hears a tapping by the window and this window represents realization for our character. He has now realized his fear through his weaknesses and suffering that he will forever have to live with the fact that he has lost Lenore. He is hesitant to embrace the realization (he hesitates to open the window), but he now wants to explore this newfound awareness.
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
He makes an effort to fling open the window, and with a little commotion, in comes a raven. The narrator describes the raven as one who looked rather royal, and like it belonged in the righteous or impressive times of the past. The raven does not even acknowledge the speaker, and he simply flies in with the airs of an aristocrat and rests on the statue above the chamber door of “Pallas” (also known as Athena the goddess of wisdom). Then, it just sits there doing “nothing more”.
When the character embraces the realization of the cause of his insecurity (opens the window), The raven comes flying in. The raven is the most important symbol in this poem, which explains the title. This raven is signifying the loss that the character has suffered. Through the window of realization, his loss comes flying in to face him. The raven is described to be grand in its demeanor, much like the loss of Lenore that intimidates him. Ge is quite fascinated by it and glorifies it. The interesting thing to note here is that the raven takes a seat on the statue of Pallas (Athena goddess of wisdom) which discloses to the reader that this feeling of loss and grief that the character is feeling is literally sitting on his wisdom. It has overpowered his rational thought.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
The entrance of this raven actually puts a smile on the face of the narrator. The bird was so out of place in his chamber but it still “wore” a serious expression as it sat there. The speaker then turns to treat the raven as a noble individual and asks him what his name is in a very dramatic manner. The raven simply replies with ‘nevermore’.
When given the chance to face his loss and grief so directly, it seems amusing to the character. So he speaks to the bird. He asks it’s (the bird/his grief) name, as it looked so grand and uncowardly even though it came from the world of suffering (the dark night). The raven spoke and said “nevermore”. His feelings of grief and loss (the raven) are reminding him of his greatest pain: nevermore. The raven speaks to him clearly and relays to him that what he had the deepest desire for in this life of his, is now strictly nevermore.
Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”
The narrator is very shocked at actually hearing the raven speak as if it were a natural thing for him. He doesn’t understand how “nevermore” answers the question. So he claims that no one alive or dead has ever witnessed the scene that was before him: a raven sitting on a statue of Pallas named “nevermore”.
Here, Poe uncovers for his readers that the character was shocked at the scene of facing his loss and grief only to have it so blatantly speak to him. Call to him the reason for his insecurity and weakness: the finality of “nevermore”. The character claims in this stanza, that no one has ever before been able to have the experience of meeting loss and grief in physical form. He was “blessed” with this opportunity to see his feelings and put a name on it: nevermore. That is the core of his grief and loss, the finality of never living with Lenore again.
But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said “Nevermore.”
After speaking that one word, the raven did not utter another word. He sat there on the statue very still and quiet. The narrator returns to his grim mood and mutters about having friends who have left him feeling abandoned, just like this bird will likely do. On hearing this, the bird again says: Nevermore.
The character accepts the existence of this raven in his life and says he expects it to leave as others usually do. Signifying the reality of his emotions; that he feels just like all other feelings come and go, so will this feeling of intense grief and loss ( the raven). The raven speaks out and states: nevermore. Highlighting and foreshadowing that it will not leave. It is going to stay with the character forever.
Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
The sudden reply from the raven startles the narrator. He comes to the conclusion that the raven only knows this one word that it has learned from “some unhappy master”. He imagines that the master of this raven must have been through a lot of hardships and so he probably always used the word “nevermore” a great deal, and that is where he believes the bird picked it up.
This stanza is quite interesting as it explores the efforts of the character is trying to ignore the finality of this feeling of grief and loss. He tries to brush it off by hoping that perhaps the previous owner of such feelings was a person who emphasized the finality of such feelings so that is why his grief is responding in such a manner. The thought of having to live with such feelings forever scares the character into denial.
But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”
The speaker admits that he cannot help but be fascinated by this raven. He basically sets up his chair so that he is seated right in front of the bird, watching it intently. He starts to focus his thoughts on the raven, and what it could possibly mean by repeating the specific word of “nevermore”.
Here, the character is clearly getting irritated by the constant presence of such strong feelings. He knows he cannot turn back now, he is the one who opened the door of his insecurities and weaknesses into his suffering and then opened the window of realization, to allow this intense feeling of loss and grief to enter and literally perch on his rational thinking / wisdom. What he is finding hard to swallow is the concept of “nevermore” why can’t these feelings be temporary or a phase? Must they eat at him forever?
This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!
He sits there coming up with theories to explain the raven and its behavior to himself, without actually speaking aloud in the company of this bird. Even so, he felt as though its “fiery eyes” could see through him, straight to his heart. So he continues to ponder and be lost in thought as he reclines on a soft velvet cushion that the lamplight was highlighting in the room. The sight of the cushion gleaming in the lamplight sends him spiraling into the heart-wrenching reminder that Lenore will never get a chance to touch that cushion again, now that she’s gone.
Poe underlines the fact that the character has so much more feeling than what he tackles when he confronts his grief. As he contemplates over the concreteness of the words “nevermore” he relapses into memories of Lenore. The cushion symbolizes his connection to his physical life. As he battles with his emotions, the cushion reminds him that his beloved Lenore will never share his physical space and life again. She will never again, physically be in his company.
Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
Here the narrator seems to start hallucinating, perhaps he is lost too deep in his thoughts. He starts to feel as though the air around him is getting thicker with perfume or a scent. He thinks he is seeing angels there who are bringing this perfume /scent to him. He calls himself a wretch because he feels this is God sending him a message to forget Lenore, comparing the scent to “nepenthe” which is an illusory medicine for sorrow from ancient Greek mythology. He basically yells at himself to drink this medicine and forget the sadness he feels for the loss of Lenore. Almost as if on cue, the raven says: nevermore.
When he comes to the actual realization that he has lost her physical body forever, he begins to panic. He can literally smell the sweetness of freedom from these feelings that he felt God was allowing him. He thought that it was a divine message to forget Lenore and he wants to accept, he wants out and away from his mess of feelings especially from the certainty the grief keeps claiming that it will last forever. He tries to force himself to let it go, but then the raven speaks. His grief overpowers him and still claims that he will never forget her.
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
Now things get pretty heated as he starts to scream at the bird, calling it a prophet and a thing of evil. He doesn’t know what to think of the bird, did Satan (the tempter) send this bird his way or did a storm push this bird his way? He continues and describes that even through his shouting the raven is unmoved/unbothered even though it is alone in his company. He calls his home a desert land, haunted and full of horror, and asks the raven if there is possible hope of any good or peace in the future, and of course, the raven says: nevermore.
Things get more serious in this stanza as the character loses his cool and starts to scream at his emotions. He calls them a prophet because they are basically prophesizing his unhappy life, and a thing of evil because of the pain they are causing him. He doesn’t understand where such permanence has come from in his grief and loss. Shouldn’t they be a feeling of phase and pass after some time? Why is his feeling here to stay forever? He asks in his panic; whether there is anything good waiting for him in life, will the intensity of such feelings pass? It seems his feelings of grief and loss are set in stone because it just replies with a “nevermore”.
“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.”
He continues to call the raven a prophet and thing of evil as he dramatically keeps accepting the word of the raven as the answer to his questions. He then asks for the raven to tell him if he will ever get to hold Lenore again, and predictably the raven says: nevermore.
The character is spiraling into more chaos as he realizes he is stuck in this pain and no relief is coming his way. In desperation, he asks whether he will ever hold and embrace his beloved Lenore ever again. The raven crushes him furthermore by saying no. His feeling of loss intensifies as his grief reaffirms for him that the life he had wanted can never ever be his to have and cherish.
“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
The raven’s answers throw the narrator into a fit as he is consumed by sorrow. He screams at the raven to leave and go back to the storm it came from and to not even leave a trace of it being present in his chamber. He wants to live in his loneliness without accepting the reality of it. He does not want anything to do with the answers that the bird has given him. He continues to yell at the bird to leave and the raven simply replies with: nevermore (implying that it will not go).
At this point in the story, the character is being consumed by his own emotions and this mental game that he’s playing. He screams and cries for his loneliness to stay unbroken because he realizes that he is no longer alone these emotions and feelings he has unearthed will continue to haunt him and live with him forever. He yells to these feelings to get away from his wisdom and rational thinking. He pleads for this feeling of intense grief and loss to take the sharp pain away that he is feeling, and of course as the reader knows for certain by now, the answer is: nevermore.
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!
The speaker ends his story by saying that the raven is still there, sitting on the statue of Pallas; almost demon-like in the way its eyes gleam. The lamplight hits the raven casting a shadow on the floor, and that shadow has trapped his soul within it and he will never be freed from it.
Edgar Allan Poe ends his narrative with a quiet and still character. Quite a change from the last stanzas; it is almost as if he has come to terms with the reality of the situation. As if we are now watching the character from the outside of his head, whilst all the commotion is taking place internally. However, the character lets the reader know that all is not well. The Raven still sits on the statue of Pallas and it looks demon-like whilst casting a shadow that traps him forever.
That is significant because it gives the reader closure. It tells the reader that even though the character welcomed the feelings of loss and grief when he opened the window of realization, he despises them now. These emotions appear to him as demonic. And the shadow the cast over him; meaning the mood that is created from these feelings has a permanent hold on his soul. He has been defeated by his feelings after facing them, and he will find peace: nevermore.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Raven’ should also consider reading some of Poe’s other best-known poems. For example, ‘A Dream within a Dream,‘ ‘Alone,’ and ‘Anabel Lee.’ The latter is a beautiful short piece in which Poe’s speaker describes the death of a young woman, taken into the afterlife by jealous angels. ‘Alone’ is a haunting poem that touches on many of Poe’s favorite themes. It was inspired by the death of Poe’s foster mother. ‘A Dream within a Dream’ was published in 1849 and examines time and our perceptions of it.