A Summary and Analysis of Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Raven'

Summary and Analysis of Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Raven'
The poem that highlighted Edgar Allan Poe's prowess as a mystery writer, The Raven narrates an incident on a December night that tugs at the strings of the readers' minds. Penlighten helps you experience the chill of the poem with a short analysis and summary.
Penlighten Staff
Last Updated: May 14, 2018
Know The Author
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) was the first known writer to make writing his only source of income! The second child of Elizabeth Hopkins and David Poe, Jr. Poe was brought up under the care of John Allan after his father's flight and mother's death. Thus, the name "Edgar Allan Poe."
The poem was first published in The American Review, in 1845, under a pseudonym "Quarles." Poe was paid just 9 dollars for it. However, in the same year, Evening Mirror published the poem with Poe's name, and as a result, he gained instant fame. A widely-read poem till date, it has also been adapted into TV serials and movies. Let us go into the depths of the poem by discussing each stanza.
Line-by-line Summary 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.
"'T is some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door,
Only this and nothing more."
The poem is the first person narration of a overwrought lover. Initially, the narrator mentions what he is doing, his location, and the time. He says, he is at his house on a "dreary" midnight, reading a book called "Forgotten Lore." Suddenly, there is a tap at his chamber door. He presumes it to be some visitor 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.
The narrator emphasizes the time when the incident occurs. Words like dreary, bleak, December, etc., imply the dark mood of the poem. The dying coal in the fireplace is making ghost-shaped shadows on the floor. The narrator is reading a book to take his mind off the grief of losing his love, Lenore.
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
"T is some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door,
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door:
This it is and nothing more."
The atmosphere and the room seems haunted to the narrator. The rustle of curtains sends chills through his veins. He admits that he has never felt this "fantastic terror" before. His heart beats very fast as he hears a rap on the door. He keeps convincing himself that only a late visitor has come to visit him and nothing else.
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.
Finally, he musters the courage to speak to the visitor. He apologizes loudly for the delay to open the door. However, as he opens the door, there is noting but darkness.
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals 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.
The darkness startles the narrator as he had imagined a visitor at the door. He peers into the darkness and wonders who must have knocked on the door. It shows that the narrator is confused, as he starts imagining things or dreaming horrible things as he stands at the door. Suddenly, he hears the name "Lenore" being whispered. It is an echo of the name that the narrator himself has muttered. The state of his mind is clear. Without Lenore, the whole world is unbearable to the narrator.
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:
'T is the wind and nothing more."
Finally, he closes the door and returns to his room. It seems that his thoughts are troubling him and making him uncomfortable. He hears the tapping again, this time at his window. He tries to calm himself, saying that it is just the wind on the glass that is making the noise.
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.
Now, the narrator opens the window, and royal, saintly-looking raven flies in. According to the narrator, the raven does not greet him as it enters, but sits on the bust of Pallas, which is above the narrator's chamber door.
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 narrator is startled by this unexpected guest. Though the raven wears a serious and unappeasable look on its face and acts almost like an aristocrat, it grabs the speaker's attention. It distracts him from his sad thoughts. Amazingly, the narrator starts talking to the raven. He refers to it as a knight who is not coward, but is "ghastly, grim, and ancient." He asks the raven its name. To his great surprise, the raven utters only one word, "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."
Though the raven's "nevermore" has a little relevance to the narrator's question, he admires the clarity with which the raven speaks the word. He believes that everyone will agree that no one has ever seen a raven sitting above a sculpture in the room with a name "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 further 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."
The bird does not say anything, but that one word. It sits quiet and still. The narrator believes that the raven will fly away tomorrow like his other friends who had left him alone. The bird replies, "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.'
The narrator is startled as the raven replies to his thought. Hearing the same words again, the narrator tries to give it a logical explanation. He believes that a previous unhappy master of the raven must have taught it this one word.
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 narrator now becomes fascinated by the bird. He places his chair in front of the bird and sits. He wonder what this "grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore" could mean by the word―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 lamplight gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o'er
She shall press, ah, nevermore!
The narrator sits guessing the meaning of the raven's response. However, he does not say anything out loud; however, he can feel the raven's stare on him. As he relax in the chair, the narrator thinks again about Lenore, and how she will not sit on the cushion again as she is gone forever.
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."
In his grief, the narrator imagines the room filling up with a perfume from an unknown source. He even imagines foot-falls on the carpet as well. He almost loses his sense on reality, but shouts "Wretch," referring to himself. He reassures himself that God has sent the nepenthe-like perfumed air to comfort him. He exhorts himself to drink it and forget Lenore. However, the raven interrupts, uttering "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."
The narrator loses his temper and shouts at the raven. He calls him, "prophet, thing of evil, and devil." He wonders if the devil has sent it, or is it tossed on the shore by a storm. The narrator wonders how it can sit unshaken in this haunted house on the bewitched land. Finally, the narrator asks the raven a question, "Is there balm in Gilead?" The narrator wants to know if there is hope in future. Like always, the raven utters only one word.
"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."
After hearing the same answer from the raven, the narrator calls it names; however, he asks another question in spite of knowing the answer he is going to get. The narrator asks if the raven believes that he will reunite with Lenore in Heaven. Of course, the bird says, "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."
The final "nevermore" seems like the last straw, and the narrator loses it. He jumps from the chair and tells the bird to go back to the storm through which it came. He asks the bird not to leave any traces, and take its lies somewhere else. He implores the bird to leave him to his loneliness. Basically, he asks it to get lost. However, the raven answers, "nevermore," indicating it is here to stay.
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 narrator tells the readers that the raven is still sitting on the bust of the Pallas above the chamber door. It does not move as if it has turned into a glowing statue. Its shadow is cast on the floor, which traps the narrator's soul. The readers can see the narrator descending into his personal hell.
Literary Analysis of The Raven
Themes
Supernatural
The poem mentions some supernatural elements like the talking raven! The dreary, December midnight, shadows, wind, etc., adds to the elements. As the name of the poem suggest, it revolves around the raven as the supernatural element.

Madness
The narrator has recently lost his love, Lenore, and is not in a healthy state of mind. His slow descent into madness is more pronounced as he talks about wild dreams, perfumes with unknown source, etc. It is also possible that he has imagined the raven talking to him.

Love
The narrator's love for Lenore is a perfect balance to the dark elements in the poem. Sadly, the narrator has lost her forever and can be seen lamenting for her.

The Natural World
With the supernatural elements, the narrator faces some natural elements as well. The dark night, the sound of wind, shadows, etc., contribute to the deterioration of his mind.
Setting
Though Poe never mentions the exact room where the narrator broods over his lost love. However, the "silken" and "purple" curtains can be taken as a sign of prosperity.
Symbol
One major symbol is the raven. The black bird symbolizes the narrator's gradual descent into madness. There is a possibility that the narrator has imagined the bird talking. However, its mere presence has unnerved him.
Rhyme Scheme
The poem follows ABCBBB rhyme scheme. It is rumored that Poe had borrowed the rhyme scheme from Elizabeth Barrett's poem Lady Geraldine's Courtship.
It is said the narrator's loss of Lenore may have been inspired by the long illness endured by Poe's wife, Virginia. In one of his letters, Poe had described his wife's illness, and the toll it had taken on him. He had written, "I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity." It seems his personal horrors may have prompted Poe to write this dark poem. What do you think?