The poem ‘The Raven’ can be described as a grotesque narrative poem or a darkly romantic classic. It has references to heaven, hell and the devil.
The poem is divided into 18 stanzas with 6 lines in each stanza.
It is about a man who is disturbed on one stormy night by a raven who comes to his room.
The poem is written in the first person from the perspective of an unnamed man which could be referring to Edgar Allan Poe himself or a make believe character.
The lonely man is mourning his dead lover, Lenore.
Around the time the poem was written and published, Poe’s own wife Virginia was dying of tuberculosis, so it is easy to believe that the man in the poem is Poe himself.
Maybe Poe’s purpose in writing this poem is to convey his own personal hell, a dark, imaginative story captured so well in the poem ‘The Raven’.
The tone and subject of the poem also includes sadness and beauty. Poe believed that the saddest and most beautiful event was the death of a beautiful woman. Everyone understands the passion of beauty. ‘Beauty’ excites the ‘sensitive soul to tears’ thus melancholy and beauty are close allies. Poe considered sadness to be the highest manifestation of beauty.
The first and second verses set the theme and atmosphere of the poem-
Once upon a midnight dreary…………..
Ah, distinctly I remember, it was in the bleak December……….
The description of the setting in the opening two stanzas of the poem depict that of a dismal nature. The tone proves to be forlorn with the help of phrases like ‘midnight dreary, weak and weary, bleak December and sorrow for the lost Lenore.
Alliteration, rhythm and rhyme are amongst the most prevalent techniques used throughout the poem. The pounding rhythm is like a strong thumping heart beat, with each of the strongest beats resting on the rhyming words that are written in the middle and end of sentences. With this rhythm Poe uses assonance, words with similar syllables, for example – napping, rapping, tapping, dreary, weary, remember, December, ember. These words grouped close together, along with the pounding beat, build up the suspense a little like the music in a horror movie. Stanza by stanza the suspense becomes more intense.
There are many alliterations throughout the poem, for example ‘weak, weary’ in the first stanza and nodded, napping.
Also a number of words or phrases are repeated to emphasize their importance for example ‘gently rapping – rapping at my chamber door.’ The word ‘tapping’ appears in the second and fourth line. In the second stanza – ‘I had sought to borrow from my books, surcease of sorrow – sorrow for the lost Lenore.’
By the third stanza the character in the poem is suddenly filled with terror and excitement, maybe imagining that his lost Lenore has returned. He opens the door but finds no one there ‘darkness there and nothing more’. He whispers Lenore but all he heard back was an echo.
With a burning soul he returns to the room but then hears a louder tapping on his window. The suspense builds until he flings open the shutter and in steps a ‘stately Raven, the bird symbolising ill-omen who then ‘perched upon a 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”.
9) Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl…….
10) But the raven sitting lonely……
The man surmises that the raven does not speak from wisdom, but has been taught by ‘some unhappy master’ and that the word ‘nevermore’ is the birds only vocabulary.
The man welcomes the raven and is afraid that ‘as (his) hopes have flown before’ the raven will be gone in the morning. However, the raven when questioned, answers ”Nevermore’.
The man fascinated pulls up a chair and tries to fathom out what the raven ‘meant in croaking’ ”Nevermore”.
The chair where Lenore once sat brought back painful memories.
The raven is an obvious symbol. He is supernatural and is the symbol of ill-omen but is a creature that has no reasoning – a bird that only utters the word ‘nevermore’. The man who knows the irrational nature in the ravens 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 birds responses. Can Lenore be found in ‘distant Aidenn’ a word for paradise? ”Nevermore” ”Take thy form off my door” ”Nevermore”. The man knows the bird can only croak ‘nevermore’ and tortures himself by asking questions that he already knows the answers to.
Each stanza ends in the word ‘more’, ‘evermore’ or ‘nevermore’, but in most of the stanzas ‘nevermore’ stands out like something immovable, like a terrible and indomitable end, maybe predicting the inevitable death of Poe’s wife. The use of the words ‘midnight’ in the first verse and December in the second verse symbolise an end and stress the last word – the ‘nevermore’ that ends each stanza. The very last line reads ‘and my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor, shall be lifted – nevermore!’
17) ”Be that word our sign of parting……..
18) And the raven never flitting…….
The bust of Pallas, the goddess of wisdom is also a symbol. Maybe because the raven perched upon the bust we could believe that the bird spoke from wisdom or maybe it signified the narrators wisdom.
The chamber with the ghostly shadows symbolises the mans loneliness and sorrow. The room is richly furnished reminding us of his lost love which helps create an effect of beauty. The tempestuous night outside enriches the atmosphere and the mans isolation inside his chamber.
Poe uses a form of old English which seems appropriate, since the poem is about a man spending time reading books of ‘forgotten lore’.
The word ‘Serephim’ in the fourteenth stanza describes one of the six -winged angels standing in the presence of God. It is used to illustrate the swift invisible way a scent spreads.
‘Nepenthe’ is a potion to induce forgetfulness of pain or sorrow.
‘Balm in Gilead’ in the fifteenth stanza , is a soothing ointment made in Gilead, a mountainous region of Palestine east of the Jordan river.
‘Aidenn’ in the sixteenth stanza is an Arabic word for paradise.
‘Plutonian’ is a characteristic of Pluto. The god of the underworld in Roman mythology – another symbol of death to come.
I like this poem. I enjoy reading it out loud because of the rhythm and beat. I can visualise the story and feel the atmosphere which builds through the poem and ends with a feeling of never ending gloomy horror and sadness as in the last three lines –
And the lamplight 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.