English 11-12‎ > ‎American Literature‎ > ‎Poe‎ > ‎

The Raven

Summary A lonely man tries to ease his "sorrow for the lost Lenore," by distracting his mind with old books of "forgotten lore." He is interrupted while he is "nearly napping," by a "tapping on [his] chamber door." As he opens up the door, he finds "darkness there and nothing more." Into the darkness he whispers, "Lenore," hoping his lost love had come back, but all that could be heard was "an echo [that] murmured back the word 'Lenore!'"
With a burning soul, the man returns to his chamber, and this time he can hear a tapping at the window lattice. As he "flung [open] the shutter," "in [there] stepped a stately Raven," the bird of ill-omen (Poe, 1850). The raven perched on the bust of Pallas, the goddess of wisdom in Greek mythology, above his chamber door.
The man asks the Raven for his name, and surprisingly it answers, and croaks "Nevermore." The man knows that the bird does not speak from wisdom, but has been taught by "some unhappy master," and that the word "nevermore" is its only "stock and store."
The man welcomes the raven, and is afraid that the raven will be gone in the morning, "as [his] Hopes have flown before"; however, the raven answers, "Nevermore." The man smiled, and pulled up a chair, interested in what the raven "meant in croaking, ‘Nevermore.’" The chair, where Lenore once sat, brought back painful memories. The man, who knows the irrational nature in the raven’s speech, still cannot help but ask the raven questions. Since the narrator is aware that the raven only knows one word, he can anticipate the bird's responses. "Is there balm in Gilead?" - "Nevermore." Can Lenore be found in paradise? - "Nevermore." "Take thy form from off my door!" - "Nevermore." Finally the man concedes, realizing that to continue this dialogue would be pointless. And his "soul from out that shadow" that the raven throws on the floor, "Shall be lifted -- Nevermore!"

Symbols In this poem, one of the most famous American poems ever, Poe uses several symbols to take the poem to a higher level. The most obvious symbol is, of course, the raven itself. When Poe had decided to use a refrain that repeated the word "nevermore," he found that it would be most effective if he used a non-reasoning creature to utter the word. It would make little sense to use a human, since the human could reason to answer the questions (Poe, 1850). In "The Raven" it is important that the answers to the questions are already known, to illustrate the self-torture to which the narrator exposes himself. This way of interpreting signs that do not bear a real meaning, is "one of the most profound impulses of human nature" (Quinn, 1998:441).
Poe also considered a parrot as the bird instead of the raven; however, because of the melancholy tone, and the symbolism of ravens as birds of ill-omen, he found the raven more suitable for the mood in the poem (Poe, 1850). Quoth the Parrot, "Nevermore?"
Another obvious symbol is the bust of Pallas. Why did the raven decide to perch on the goddess of wisdom? One reason could be, because it would lead the narrator to believe that the raven spoke from wisdom, and was not just repeating its only "stock and store," and to signify the scholarship of the narrator. Another reason for using "Pallas" in the poem was, according to Poe himself, simply because of the "sonorousness of the word, Pallas, itself" (Poe, 1850).
A less obvious symbol, might be the use of "midnight" in the first verse, and "December" in the second verse. Both midnight and December, symbolize an end of something, and also the anticipation of something new, a change, to happen. The midnight in December, might very well be New Year’s eve, a date most of us connect with change. This also seems to be what Viktor Rydberg believes when he is translating "The Raven" to Swedish, since he uses the phrase "årets sista natt var inne, " ("The last night of the year had arrived"). Kenneth Silverman connected the use of December with the death of Edgar’s mother (Silverman, 1992:241), who died in that month; whether this is true or not is, however, not significant to its meaning in the poem.
The chamber in which the narrator is positioned, is used to signify the loneliness of the man, and the sorrow he feels for the loss of Lenore. The room is richly furnished, and reminds the narrator of his lost love, which helps to create an effect of beauty in the poem. The tempest outside, is used to even more signify the isolation of this man, to show a sharp contrast between the calmness in the chamber and the tempestuous night.
The phrase "from out my heart," Poe claims, is used, in combination with the answer "Nevermore," to let the narrator realize that he should not try to seek a moral in what has been previously narrated (Poe, 1850).

Words Poe had an extensive vocabulary, which is obvious to the readers of both his poetry as well as his fiction. Sometimes this meant introducing words that were not commonly used. In "The Raven," the use of ancient and poetic language seems appropriate, since the poem is about a man spending most of his time with books of "forgotten lore."
"Seraphim," in the fourteenth verse, "perfumed by an unseen censer / Swung by seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled..." is used to illustrate the swift, invisible way a scent spreads in a room. A seraphim is one of the six-winged angels standing in the presence of God.
"Nepenthe," from the same verse, is a potion, used by ancients to induce forgetfullnes of pain or sorrow.
"Balm in Gilead," from the following verse, is a soothing ointment made in Gilead, a mountainous region of Palestine east of the Jordan river.
"Aidenn," from the sixteenth verse, is an Arabic word for Eden or paradise.
"Plutonian," characteristic of Pluto, the god of the underworld in Roman mythology.
The Philosphy of Composition Edgar Allan Poe wrote an essay on the creation of "The Raven," entitled "The Philosophy of Composition." In that essay Poe describes the work of composing the poem as if it were a mathematical problem, and derides the poets that claim that they compose "by a species of fine frenzy - an ecstatic intuition - and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes." Whether Poe was as calculating as he claims when he wrote "The Raven" or not is a question that cannot be answered; it is, however, unlikely that he created it exactly like he described in his essay. The thoughts occurring in the essay might well have occurred to Poe while he was composing it.
In "The Philosophy of Composition," Poe stresses the need to express a single effect when the literary work is to be read in one sitting. A poem should always be written short enough to be read in one sitting, and should, therefore, strive to achieve this single, unique effect. Consequently, Poe figured that the length of a poem should stay around one hundred lines, and "The Raven" is 108 lines.
The most important thing to consider in "Philosophy" is the fact that "The Raven," as well as many of Poe's tales, is written backwards. The effect is determined first, and the whole plot is set; then the web grows backwards from that single effect. Poe's "tales of ratiocination," e.g. the Dupin tales, are written in the same manner. "Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before anything be attempted with the pen" (Poe, 1850).
It was important to Poe to make "The Raven" "universally appreciable." It should be appreciated by the public, as well as the critics. Poe chose Beauty to be the theme of the poem, since "Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem" (Poe, 1850). After choosing Beauty as the province, Poe considered sadness to be the highest manifestation of beauty. "Beauty of whatever kind in its supreme development invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones" (Poe, 1850).
Of all melancholy topics, Poe wanted to use the one that was universally understood, and therefore, he chose Death as his topic. Poe (along with other writers) believed that the death of a beautiful woman was the most poetical use of death, because it closely allies itself with Beauty.
After establishing subjects and tones of the poem, Poe started by writing the stanza that brought the narrator's "interrogation" of the raven to a climax, the third verse from the end, and he made sure that no preceeding stanza would "surpass this in rythmical effect." Poe then worked backwards from this stanza and used the word "Nevermore" in many different ways, so that even with the repetition of this word, it would not prove to be monotonous.
Poe builds the tension in this poem up, stanza by stanza, but after the climaxing stanza he tears the whole thing down, and lets the narrator know that there is no meaning in searching for a moral in the raven's "nevermore". The Raven is established as a symbol for the narrator's "Mournful and never-ending remembrance." "And my soul from out that shadow, that lies floating on the floor, shall be lifted - nevermore!"