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Understanding The Raven: Expert Poem Analysis

Posted by Christine Sarikas | Dec 9, 2019 10:00:00 AM

General Education

 

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"The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most well-known poems ever written. It brought its author worldwide fame and has frequently been analyzed, performed, and parodied. But what about this poem makes it so special?

In this guide, we give you a complete overview of "The Raven," discussing everything from the sad stories behind its creation and what is actually going on between the narrator and the raven, to its themes and the poetic devices it uses so effectively.

 

The Raven Poem: Full Text

Below is the complete text of The Raven poem, written by Edgar Allan Poe and published in 1845. It consists of 18 stanzas and a total of 108 lines.

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."
 
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.
 
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."
 
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.
 
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.
 
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!"
 
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.
 
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."
 
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."
 
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."
 
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
Of ‘Never—nevermore'."
 
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."
 
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!
 
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."
 
"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."
 
"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."
 
"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."
 
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!

 

What Is "The Raven" About?

"The Raven" is a poem about a man who is heartbroken over the recent death of his beloved Lenore. As he passes a lonely December night in his room, a raven taps repeatedly on the door and then the window. The man first thinks the noise is caused by a late night visitor come to disturb him, and he is surprised to find the raven when he opens the window shutter. After being let in, the raven flies to and lands on a bust of Pallas (an ancient Greek goddess of wisdom).

The man is amused by how serious the raven looks, and he begins talking to the raven; however, the bird can only reply by croaking "nevermore."

The man reflects aloud that the bird will leave him soon as all the people he cared about have left him. When the raven replies "nevermore," the man takes it as the bird agreeing with him, although it's unclear if the raven actually understands what the man is saying or is just speaking the one word it knows.

As the man continues to converse with the bird, he slowly loses his grip on reality. He moves his chair directly in front of the raven and asks it despairing questions, including whether he and Lenore will be reunited in heaven. Now, instead of being merely amused by the bird, he takes the raven's repeated "nevermore" response as a sign that all his dark thoughts are true. He eventually grows angry and shrieks at the raven, calling it a devil and a thing of evil.

The poem ends with the raven still sitting on the bust of Pallas and the narrator, seemingly defeated by his grief and madness, declaring that his soul shall be lifted "nevermore."

 

Background on "The Raven"

Edgar Allan Poe wrote "The Raven" during a difficult period in his life. His wife, Virginia, was suffering from tuberculosis, Poe was struggling to make money as an unknown writer, and he began drinking heavily and picking fights with coworkers and other writers. It's easy to see how he could have conjured the dark and melancholy mood of "The Raven."

It's not known how long Poe spent writing "The Raven," (guesses range from anywhere to a single day to over a decade) but it's thought most likely that he wrote the poem in the summer of 1844. In his essay, "The Philosophy of Composition," Poe stated that he chose to focus the poem on the death of a beautiful woman because it is "unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world." He hoped "The Raven" would make him famous, and, in the same essay, stated that he purposely wrote the poem to appeal to both "the popular and the critical taste."

"The Raven" was published in the newspaper The New York Evening Mirror on January 29, 1845 (depending on the source, Poe was paid either $9 or $15 for it). "The Raven" brought Poe instant fame, although not the financial security he was looking for. Critical reception was mixed, with some famous writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Butler Yeats expressing their dislike for the poem. Despite those initial mixed reviews, The Raven poem has continued its popularity and is now one of the most well-known poems in the world. Countless parodies have been written, and the poem has been referenced in everything from The Simpsons to the NFL team the Baltimore Ravens (their mascot is even named "Poe").

 

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Major Themes in "The Raven"

From The Raven summary, we know it's definitely a melancholy poem, and most of its themes revolve around grim topics. Here are three of the most important themes.

 

Theme 1: Grief

Grief is the overwhelming emotion in "The Raven," and the narrator is absolutely consumed by his grief for his lost love, Lenore. At the beginning of the poem, he tries to distract himself from his sadness by reading a "volume of forgotten lore", but when the raven arrives, he immediately begins peppering it with questions about Lenore and becomes further lost in his grief at the raven's response of "nevermore." By the end of the poem, the narrator is seemingly broken, stating that his soul will never again be "lifted" due to his sadness.

Poe stated that the raven itself was a symbol of grief, specifically, that it represented "mournful and never-ending remembrance." He purposely chose a raven over a parrot (a bird species better known for its ability to speak) because he thought a raven suited the dark tone of the poem better.

Edgar Allan Poe had experienced a great deal of grief by the time he wrote "The Raven," and he had seen people close to him leave, fall gravely ill, or die. He would have been well aware of the consuming power that grief can have and how it has the ability to blot everything else out.

 

Theme 2: Devotion

It's the narrator's deep love for Lenore that causes him such grief, and later rage and madness. Even though Lenore has died, the narrator still loves her and appears unable to think of anything but her. In the poem, he speaks of Lenore in superlatives, calling her "sainted" and "radiant." In his mind, she is completely perfect, practically a saint. His love for this woman who is no longer here distracts him from everything in his current life. With this theme, Poe is showing the power of love and how it can continue to be powerful even after death.

 

Theme 3: Rationality vs Irrationality

At the beginning of the poem, the narrator is rational enough to understand that Lenore is dead and he will not see her again. When the raven first begins repeating "nevermore," he realizes that the answer is the bird's "only stock and store," and he won't get another response no matter what he asks. He seems to even find the bird vaguely amusing.

However, as the poem continues, the narrator's irrationality increases as he asks the raven questions it couldn't possibly know and takes its repeated response of "nevermore" to be a truthful and logical answer. He then descends further into madness, cursing the bird as a "devil" and "thing of evil" and thinking he feels angels surrounding him before sinking into his grief. He has clearly come undone by the end of the poem.

In "The Raven," Poe wanted to show the fine line between rational thought and madness and how strong emotions, such as grief, can push a person into irrationality, even during mundane interactions like the one the narrator had with the raven.

 

The 7 Key Poetic Devices "The Raven" Uses

Edgar Allan Poe makes use of many poetic devices in "The Raven" to create a memorable and moving piece of writing. Below we discuss seven of the most important of these devices and how they contribute to the poem.

 

Alliteration

Alliteration is the repetition of a sound or letter at the beginning of multiple words in a work, and it's perhaps the most obvious poetic device in "The Raven." The poem is full of alliteration, such as the phrases "weak and weary," "nearly napping," and "followed fast and followed faster." This poetic device helps give the poem its famous musicality and is one of the reasons people love to recite it.

 

Allusion

An allusion is an indirect reference to something, and Poe makes multiple allusions in "The Raven." Some key ones include:

  • The bust of Pallas the raven sits on refers to Pallas Athena, the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom.

  • Nepenthe is a drug mentioned in Homer's ancient epic The Odyssey, and it is purported to erase memories.

  • The Balm of Gilead is a reference to a healing cream mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah in the Bible.

  • Aidenn refers to the Garden of Eden, although the narrator likely uses it to mean "heaven" in general, as he wants to know if that's where he and Lenore will reunite.

  • Ravens themselves are mentioned in many stories, including Norse mythology and Ovid's epic poem Metamorphoses.

Many readers would be well-versed in the books and stories alluded to in the poem, and they would have understood the references without Poe having to explicitly explain where each was derived from. Doing so would have broken the tension and mood of the poem, so Poe is able to simply allude to them.

 

Assonance

Similar to alliteration, assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in one or more words found close together. It serves the same purpose as alliteration and appears beginning in the first line of the poem, where the long "e" sound is repeated in the words "dreary," "weak," and "weary."

 

Meter

The majority of "The Raven" follows trochaic octameter, which is when there are eight trochaic feet per line, and each foot has one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable.

However, Poe actually used several types of meter, and he is said to have based both the meter and rhyming pattern of "The Raven" off Elizabeth Barrett's poem " Lady Geraldine's Courtship." Meter is very prominent in "The Raven," and, along with other poetic devices, helps make it such a popular poem to recite.

 

Repetition

Many words are repeated in "The Raven" the most famous being the word "nevermore" repeated by the bird himself throughout the poem. Other commonly repeated words and phrases in the poem include "Lenore," "chamber door" and "nothing more." These all rhyme with "nevermore" and add to the feeling of despondency in the poem by emphasizing the raven's bleak answer to every question.

 

Rhyme

The rhyming pattern in "The Raven" follows the pattern ABCBBB. The "B" lines all rhyme with "nevermore" and place additional emphasis on the final syllable of the line.

There is also quite a bit of internal rhyme within the poem, such as the line "But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token," where "unbroken" rhymes with "token."

Internal rhyming occurs in the first line of each stanza. It also occurs in the third line and part of the fourth line of each stanza. In the example "Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!/Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!" "token" and "spoken" in the third line of the stanza rhyme with "unbroken" in the fourth line of the stanza.

 

Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia is when the name of a word is associated with the sound it makes, and it occurs throughout "The Raven," such as with the words "rapping," "tapping," "shrieked," and "whispered." It all helps add to the atmospheric quality of the poem and makes readers feel as though they are really in the room with the narrator and the raven.

 

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What's Next?

"Ozymandias" by Percy Shelley is another famous and often-studied poem. Learn all about this poem and its famous line "look on my works, ye mighty, and despair" in our complete guide to Ozymandias.

There are many more poetic devices than those included in "The Raven." Read our guide on the 20 poetic devices you need to know so you can become an expert.

Taking AP Literature? We've got you covered! In our expert guide to the AP Literature exam, we've compiled all the information you need to know about the test and how to study for it to get a top score.

 

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Christine Sarikas
About the Author

Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.



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