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A Young Reader's Guide to the Study of Edgar Allan Poe's the Raven

Updated on June 1, 2021

A Raven

A Brief History on Edgar Allen Poe

Edgar Allen Poe was an American Author who lived from 1809-1849. His mother, with the last name Poe, died and he went to live with John Allen. He wrote short stories, science fiction and literary criticisms. A criticism is not an insult - it is a study of a written work. This reader is a literary criticism (or study). In junior high school and high school most students will read stories by Edgar Allen Poe (such as the Tell Tale Heart) as he was a very influential American Poet. By influential we mean that his work was important to how people learn literature in the United States. He was interested in "pure poetry." He wanted poetry to be very musical. A great site for information on Edgar Allen Poe is produced by the Edgar Allen Poe Society of Baltimore.

Once upon a midnight dreary...

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 gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “Tapping at my chamber door –
Only this and nothing more.”

The Raven begins with a description of the speaker talking of a time past. It was "once" therefore it had occurred quite awhile ago. The speaker (the person speaking here) is called the protagonist. The story is from his point of view. We will look at this beginning at the end of the poem. But, right now, remember, this was in the past, he is stating a memory. It is "midnight dreary." So, it is night and "dreary" or full of sadness and dank or dark. The fact that it is midnight influences the "feel" of the poem because people believed that midnight was "the witching hour" when spirits roamed the earth. He then says, "while I pondered weak and weary." It is to be remembered that he is weak. It is kind of odd to say one is weak when they are tired but he is tired... or "weary."

Why is he "pondering" or thinking about something? That comes in the next line, "Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore-" He is pondering (or thinking about)... a "quaint" which means it has "old time charm" and "curious volume of forgotten lore." Lore are tales or stories. So, he is looking at a "volume" or "book of old stories" that are forgotten meaning they aren't popular any more or are from a time long ago; no longer in memory. I think the next two lines are self explanatory; you can understand them no matter your age, "While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,/As of some one gently rapping gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door." (The "/" symbol (in case you didn't read my reader on Shakespearean literature" means that these two lines would be entered on separate lines in a poem). So, he is falling asleep as he is trying to read and he hears a knocking noise. The repeating of the sound imagery is part of Poe's idea of "pure poetry." He is using "alliteration" which is the repetition of the same sound. Most Americans know what alliteration is even if they don't realize it. One of the best poets of alliteration is Dr. Seuss. Note the repetition of the letter N, D, and soft A sound: "Nodded, nearly, napping, suddenly there came a tapping, gently, rapping gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door." The "n" and vowel sounds are rolling and they are propelled forward by the D and harder sounds ending in the firm sound of the word "door." Say these two sentences out loud several times and you might sense what I suggest. Of course, understanding alliteration is not important to understanding the poem. It is just something I would like a reader to think about as they proceed with poetry and literature.

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

It is quite musical once you get used to "singing" it. One odd note here is that he says "as of some one" which is kind of strange. Either someone is knocking or they are not. Using the word "as" means he doesn't really think someone is knocking since "as" is a comparison and not the real thing. He then states,

“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “Tapping at my chamber door –

Only this and nothing more.”

This is where we start to understand there is something odd going on. The speaker is trying to convince himself there is nothing to worry about. "Only this and nothing more" is his way of saying the odd sound he hears is just someone knocking. Remember, it is "midnight dreary" at the start of the "stanza." A stanza, by the way, is a poetry paragraph. This criticism is a study of each stanza individually. Read the first stanza again, now that it is explained, before going on to the next section. You may find more interesting things each time you read it.

It was in the bleak December...

Ah, distinctly I remember

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 named Lenore-
Nameless here for evermore.

Here we find the speaker (again, the speaker is the person speaking in the poem) is recalling the past once more. "Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December." So, the first sentence with "Once upon a midnight dreary" and this Stanza begins, "Ah, distinctly, I remember" show that the speaker is recalling something from the past. Throughout these initial stanzas there is "foreshadowing." To foreshadow is to hint at something to come... usually something scary. It is the shadow peaking out in front of the killer around the corner in literary terms. We see that this is December and in Poe's time December was a time of foreboding. December is when things have died and the height of cold is outside. Snow covers everything, there are no plows and horses take people about. The home and the barn are the two safe places. People remained indoors where they were safe and starvation was not far off if one's stores of food were not enough to last through the winter.

The next line is an image, "And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor." People heated their homes exclusively with fireplaces until iron stoves, and then central heating came into use. Wood stoves were around in Poe's time but here the room is heated with a fireplace, by far the most common use of heating in Poe's day. The fireplace coals are "embers" and their bright orange reflections on the finished wood floor were "ghosts upon the floor" as each one died away. The fire at night begins with wood logs... the logs burn and fall apart and become chunks of coal which burn and fall away into embers and eventually die away to become just a hot pile of ash by morning. In this poem, around midnight, the fire was a pile of coals and embers and the embers die away one by one and leave their reflection on the floor. This sentence tells a story enforcing the late hour of the night. Furthermore, the use of the word "leaving" a "ghost" again sets a foreboding or foreshadowing of something scary to come.

The next line appears not to make a lot of sense, "Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow..." But the idea here is completed in the next sentence, "From my books surcease of sorrow-sorrow for the lost Lenore-" The speaker here is tired and wishes for the morrow, or tomorrow. He can't sleep and he "sought to borrow" or use his books to find "surcease of sorrow." Surcease is to cease, or hoping for ceasing - or to stop, a hope of stopping the thoughts of Lenore. So we now find where the sadness or fear comes from. the speaker misses someone named Lenore and his pondering over his long forgotten books is to forget about her. The next sentence, "For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore-" is full of hyperbole. Hyperbole is when a piece of literature exaggerates for effect. Poe loves hyperbole in regard to young women. And, here we find Lenore to be "rare, radiant" and "angel named." Again, we have the alliteration making the sentence roll. Here it is the letter "r" and the long "a" sound that makes the rolling ending in the name Lenore. This sentence, with its hyperbole and woman so heavenly she was named by angels, hints that Lenore has actually died. The last sentence confirms that Lenore has died, "Nameless here for evermore."

And the Silken sad uncertain...

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.”

Each stanza of this poem adds a level of anxiety. One has a feeling of foreboding in the first two paragraphs but it still feels like a story being told. This next sentence, however, builds into a somewhat fearful sensation. "And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain/ Thrilled me-filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;" These two sentences show that the speaker is spooked. The noises of the curtains are filling him with "terrors" that are beyond anything he has felt before - one might argue that no one has felt before. Note also that he calls the curtains, "silken sad uncertain." That is a bit odd. Their color of purple seems a bit odd as well. The purple color of the curtain is somewhat crypt like. A crypt is a place for keeping a dead body instead of burying it. From the 1850s to about 1890 very dark purples and black were used for funeral colors: the colors of the inside of coffins, hearse curtains and the dark colors of the clothing of those in morning. There was a "period of morning" during which someone who had lost a person was morally obligated to wear these dark colors. At this point the the speaker rises and, to try to still his heart beating and calm himself says out loud,

“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door-
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;
This it is and nothing more.”

Note that Poe often repeats himself in this poem. this is part of the attempt to make the poem song-like. The two sentences are nearly identical. This is a good time to also make you think about the structure of these stanzas. Each of the first 5 lines throughout the poem is either 15 or 16 syllables long ending in a line of only seven syllables. this emphasizes the last line at the end of the stanza. The last line is something like a chorus. Throughout the poem each stanza has the second, and last three lines always rhyming with "Lenore" and "nevermore." The repetition of this sound emphasizes the overall theme of lack of control, futility, and helplessness which begins in this paragraph.

Presently my soul grew stronger...

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.

Here the speaker has a rare moment of strength in this poem. He acknowledges his weakness in finding out what the noise is. He says "Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer." It is interesting that he chooses the words that his "soul" grew stronger. Here the speaker is associating his physical strength with his immortal soul. the next bit is obvious. The speaker throws open the door as he states, “'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...'" The speaker is explaining why he didn't check to see if someone was there immediately. If indeed he had a visitor it would have been rude for him to sit there and not answer the door. However, his conversation is because, once again, he is trying to convince himself that this abnormal bewitching knocking sound is a normal occurrence. But, then, he opens the door to find "darkness nothing more." Remember, too, that in Poe's time, there was no electrical lighting. Gas lights in homes started about 40 years after this story and electrical lighting around 1890 and afterward. When he opened the door there was a black hole on the other side accept what was lit from the light of his room: candles, fires, oil lamps.

Deep into the darkness peering...

Deep into the 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 first sentences of the paragraph state the obvious, that our speaker is peering into the dark abyss of the area outside his door from whence came the knock. Interestingly he says, "dreaming dreams NO mortals ever dared to dream before." Mortals are those living who will die. He is dreaming very frightening things about death... probably because his love, Lenore, perhaps it is her spirit about. He is looking for a sign of her. "But the silence was unbroken" meaning there wasn't a sound. He also states, "the stillness gave no token." A token is a hint at something. But then, something does happen. he says, "Lenore." Notice that the line is, "And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "'Lenore.'" One would think it was whispered outside the door but then the next line indicates he had said it because he says, "This I whispered." And then, the sound of his voice echoed a murmur back, "Lenore." But then, the speaker is not sure that the second "Lenore" was really his echo because he has to convince himself it is the echo, "Merely, this and nothing more." So, in this stanza he believes that something is there, he looks and sees and hears nothing... he whispers the word "Lenore" and it is murmured back in an echo but he isn't absolutely sure that it was an echo but could have been another voice. This is typical ghost response behavior, incidentally. Hamlet, for instance, hears his father's ghost and tries to convince himself that he didn't hear or see it until he is face to face with it. Shakespeare's ghosts also love "the witching hour" and December.

Back into the chamber turning...

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping something 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.”

Having found nothing our protagonist (the person with the struggle in the story - clearly this guy) turns around back into his "chamber" or room. Somewhat odd to call the room he is in a "chamber." In this era it wasn't quite as unusual as today but it does have meaning when we look at the overall story. This is especially true when we are left with the thought that this room is the only structural feature mentioned. As soon as he turns back into his chamber his "soul" burning from fear he hears the tapping again. Again, the use of the word "soul" burning is quite interesting. The speaker is again associating, or linking, his spiritual soul with his physical dilemma. The burning from fear is probably from the noise although it appears first in the poem. The speaker often introduces the result before the action, for instance the word "Lenore" before the statement that he had been the first one to speak it. Here the speaker is showing even more of his mental trauma in the event as he continues to speak aloud to lesson his fears and convince himself that nothing is happening. “Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice; Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore-" And yet when he looks again he says it is the wind and nothing more. This is every child's fear of nightly noises lived out through what appears to be a grown man.

A bust is a statue from bust, or chest, upward.

Open here I flung the shutter

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.

Here we have the introduction of the antagonist of the story. The antagonist is the one that the protagonist (the speaker) struggles with. The speaker flings open his shutters possibly window shutters next to the door and looks out to see the "stately Raven." The raven is black, the color of stately clothing and he states that he is from "the saintly days of yore" giving him a fantasy like quality. Remember that he is reading old stories or lore at the beginning of the poem. He says, "not the least obeisance made he." The raven is "stately" and if he made obeisance ( a bowing jester) he would be acknowledging the speaker. He did not stop or make any other movement accept to perch, or sit, on a bust of Pallas outside of the speakers door. He did this with "mein of lord or lady" meaning with the air of being a lord or a lady. People called individuals with money and titles a lord or lady. So, the speaker is indicating that there is something regal, or of royalty, about the bird. A bust is a statue from the bust (chest) upward of an individual. In this case the individual is Pallas, who is associated with love. One here should think of the speaker's lost love, Lenore. There he sits and "nothing more." So, here the reader (us) should consider the stillness of the night that is enforced (grows stronger) as an image with the still bird sitting on a statue as though it is part of the statue. Stillness is the importance here.

Then this ebony bird beguiling...

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 they lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian Shore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

Here our speaker looks out to see a bird. Ebony is a very black wood. The black keys of an old piano are made of ebony as are clarinets and piccolos. The speaker is emphasizing the darkness of the bird. This bird is "beguiling" or tricking him in that its grave and stern decorum and behavior - showing us that the speaker himself knows that the black feathers of the bird indicates a morning suit (the suit of one who has experienced the death of someone close) - beguiles the speaker into his fear. At first he is astounded and humored that all his fear and all this noise came from this stern looking little bird. His statement that the bird is "shorn" and "shaven" is because a raven sometimes puffs out his neck making a beard appear and he also often will have his feathers on his head upward in a crest. Here he addresses the bird or talks directly to it, calling it a well groomed but "ghastly grim and ancient raven." This alludes to the view that ravens are associated with death in literature. This is also an appropriate description for a cemetery, "ghastly grim and ancient." This poem, in particular, has not helped the raven's image. Furthermore, the raven, here is thought to have come from the "Night's Plutonian shore." Pluto was thought to be the god of the "underworld." The raven, associated with death, was thought to come from the underworld or "Plutonian" world. Here he is merely describing the scariness of the bird while he address it or talks to it and asks him what his name is. This might seem quite odd but, ravens can actually speak and repeat what people say. They are one of the world's most intelligent birds. Ravens, like parrots, can speak and when they are raised by people often speak. In this case, when asked his name, the Raven says one word, "nevermore." Above are two links to YouTube recordings, one a crow, and the other a raven speaking. Note how the Raven sounds like a man and how he has a crest and a beard that sticks out when he talks. When he walks around, though it is neater and more "shorn" or shaven close.

Much I marveled this ungainly fowl...

Much I marveled 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.”

This stanza is the speaker trying to find out what his antagonist (the Raven) means by his statement "nevermore." "Much I marveled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly," he states. Ungainly is homely or ugly, marveled is to wonder at something and discourse is conversation. He is saying that, "What a wondrous thing that this ugly little bird speaks so plainly." Then he adds, "Though its answer little meaning – little relevancy bore." He says that the bird saying, "nevermore," has no meaning to him. He then says that "no other living human being" has seen a raven sit above its sculpture stating, "Nevermore." This, again, is a symbol of death or an indication of something surrounding death. He is using generalizations throughout. To generalize is to apply statement to every possibility, "no single living human being" and "nevermore." No "living" human being is odd since we presume our speaker is a living human being. This is important to the overall theme of the poem - placing himself in the realm of the dead. If he wasn't already in the realm of the dead the raven reminds him of the realm of the dead when he wishes to explore books or stories to distract himself.

But the Raven, sitting lonely...

But the Raven, sitting lonely on that 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.”

Oddly this stanza shows a friendship between the speaker and the night flown animal. He sits and does nothing but sit and in this he is somewhat the companion of the speaker. He then mutters, "Other friends have flown before-/On the morrow he will leave me as my Hopes have flown before." Our speaker indicates that he thinks the bird will fly away in the morning leaving him alone. Currently he cannot for the darkness holds him there. In this he sees the symbolic experience he has felt with his loved Lenore's death in the "hopes" that have flown as well...the hopes and prayers for the life of Lenore that fled upon her death. And to this the bird says again, "Nevermore." It should here be noted that ravens are known to dance, goof around, and mock. The speaker is feeling deeply sad, has a moment of dissociation with the bird, to which the bird states, "Nevermore."

Startled at the stillness...

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.’”

This stanza again states the action before the action. Our speaker is "startled" by the stillness of this aptly speaking bird. "aptly" means well spoken - it can also mean, "appropriate" to the situation which is interesting since the speaker is trying to come to terms with the word "nevermore." The remaining lines are the characters typical response to his situation. He adds a speech whose purpose is to convince himself there is no harm in his situation and that there is a logical conclusion. Here he indicates that the bird has learned the phrase "nevermore" from a master who is deceased or faced some other "unmerciful disaster" and could only continue to talk about it from the standpoint of stating "nevermore" which the bird learned as his only sentence. This is again quite ironic since this is what the speaker is doing through the poem - attempting to distract himself from the death of Lenore who is no more.

But the raven still beguiling...

But the Raven still beguiling all my sad soul 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 stanza explains itself quite well. Our character has caught our protagonist's curiosity. He pushes his chair over to where the bird sits and looks at it, he contemplates it, and he wonders what it could have meant by "nevermore." The same language describes the bird as was used to describe the bird previously but in the second to last line there is an interesting form of "consonance" which is alliterative sounds that are made of consonant letters. Here we have the interesting repetition of "g" in "grim, ungainly ghastly, gaunt." Again, this "g" alliteration might as well have the word "graveyard" at its end as the words or so appropriate for the description of a cemetery. So, here one see the repetition of the descriptive language, repetition of our speaker attempting to understand the bird, and repetition of the stillness as the speaker sits in the chair and watches thinking. This is an atmosphere of constant stillness after the movement of the chair.

This I sat engaged in guessing...

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!

Here our speaker continues to figure out what the bird means, he is concentrating. The bird takes on a new association with the underworld or hell with the introduction of his "fiery eyes." Our speaker says he sits "divining" which is an interesting word that implies not only thinking but attempting to look into the spirit world. Furthermore, we see a velvet lining to his chair and a lamp light glowing - this would be an oil lamp. Again, we have an odd use of fabric, he is sitting in a chair, totally still with a velvet surrounding in a coffin like fashion. And, here he thinks he discovers the meaning of what the bird is saying. He indicates with the italicized word "She" that it is Lenore that the bird is saying will be "nevermore."

Then, methought, the air grew denser...

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.”

The next line is imagery of something unseen in the air. "Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer/Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor." The idea that there is something present is the idea that the air is denser as though he can "sense" something. He indicates the air is perfumed, meaning he smells something sweet as though a Seraphim (an angel) is swinging an incense. Incense were placed in a metal can with holes and swung by a chain at funerals. This was done as a blessing and to cover bad smells emanating from the dead body. This is a dual symbol of scent as it also is a reminder of Lenore and may actually be a reminder of the scent of her perfume.

In this stanza he even believes he can hear light foot falls on a floor and "tufted sound" on the floor. He could be talking about the tufted curtains on the floor. However, this is also an allusion to Lenore. An allusion is when something is hinted at in a poem though it may not state it clearly. Women always wore skirts in that day. And, their skirts touched the floor. As women walked the sound of their skirts could be heard on the floor. This may actually be the bird having walked around reminding him of Lenore, or his imagination. But he blames the bird for the reminder and yells, "“Wretch,” I cried, “Thy God hath lent thee-by these angels he hath sent thee..." Notice he doesn't say "God hath sent thee" as in heaven but "thy God...." or a god from another place. This also could be his own rejection of God. He yells with the typical repetition, "Respite, respite and nepenthe..." he is asking for rest or sleep and a nepenthe is a drug for sleep that he asks to drink (as shown in the word quaff which means to drink) and we see the deepest desire of the speaker in that he hopes the Nepenthe can help him, "forget this lost Lenore!” To this the raven mocks him with the quote, “Nevermore.” This is the first point where the speaker comes to terms with the level of his trauma where he wishes to forget Lenore and realizes his entire situation revolves around the morning of Lenore.

“Prophet!” said I, “Thing of evil!

“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.”

Our protagonist is, naturally, awed by this bird. He calls him a "prophet" since he seems to know his inner thoughts. But then he calls him a "thing of evil" as it seems he was sent from hell to tempt him. And, yet, even if he is a tempter, or sent by a tempter, he is "prophet still" (or "still a prophet") for knowing his trauma. The raven is also a "still" prophet or an unmoving prophet. Our speaker, in his need for logic, defers to science and indicates that the raven may have been blow there by a tempest (a storm). But considering this, he is still a prophet even if a tempest had sent the Raven to him because even if a storm blew him to his doorstep he is still capable of seeing his grief. Now he asks for an explanation "tell me truly, I implore." And he says, "Is there balm in Gilead?" Gilead is in the middle east and by asking this question he is asking the bird a random question as though he were a prophet and could answer any question at all... the most important question, which our speaker does not ask is, "Is there life after death," so that he may see Lenore again. He does not have the courage to ask this question, though, but the raven seems to answer this question and taunts again with the word, "nevermore."

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!-prophet still...

“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 who the angels name Lenore-
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

The first word of this stanza is merely a repetition of our speaker calling the raven a prophet or devil. He then adds that he wonders if by the "heaven that bends above us" and "by that God we both adore" if the soul (of Lenore) was brought to Aidenn. Aidenn is a word for heaven. He then states this in different words asking if heaven "shall clasp a sainted maiden who the angels name Lenore." So, he is asking if heaven shall grasp Lenore and bring her to heaven to which the raven again taunts, "nevermore." In this stanza we find another reason for the speaker's concern. He is considering if heaven exists. Is there life after death, is Lenore in heaven, and will he also go to heaven where he might see her again? For whatever reason our little antagonistic bird says, "nevermore."

“Be that word our sign of parting..."

“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.”

Our speaker yells, "Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend." No, he doesn't just yell he shrieks. He is telling the bird that this is the last word he wants to hear out of the bird that it must go. He adds, "Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore." Here he means that it must go back into the storm it came from or back to the underworld, remembering that the plutonium world of Pluto is the underworld. Here he says "Leave no black plume as a token of that lie they soul hath spoken" because he refuses to believe that he will never again see Lenore or that she exists no more. He demands that not even a feather (or plume) be left behind as "a token." He then states, "Leave my loneliness unbroken!-quit the bust above my door." This is again a statement telling the bird to leave but interestingly it indicates that he had a brief respite in analyzing the bird as the bird had broken his loneliness if but for just a moment. Then the bird had added to his grief as he indicates, "Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!” the bird's beak is in his heart, figuratively having stabbed him, because it has stated he will see Lenore "nevermore." Once again, "Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

And the Raven, never flitting...

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 most interesting paragraph of the poem is the last. Remember that at the beginning of the poem the speaker talked about how "once" something had taken place "in the bleak December." So, the story began in the past. But now we see, "And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting/On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door." Thus, at the end of the story it is told as being in the present. He has gone from "once" to "now" and never moved from his door - which means neither has our speaker moved. A bit odd? Interesting is the use of chamber again and the fact that the bust is above his door like a monument above a crypt. Here he vilifies the raven stating, "And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming," The irony is that if the raven was hell sent there must be a heaven as well. So, why is our speaker so concerned, therefore, at the statement "nevermore?" The statement might be in the remaining two sentences, "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!"

Some people see this poem as a love poem where the speaker is in his own hell because he can not see Lenore his lost love. Some believe it is the fact that he doesn't believe in heaven and therefore will never see her again. One ought to wonder, though, if it is actually our protagonist who is deceased and in a state of not being able to achieve heaven for his doubt. Why is our character's soul floating in the shadow of the crow on the floor to be "lifted-nevermore?" I see this as a character unaware of his own death and believing his beloved died when it was he who died. His chamber is his dark purple velvet curtained crypt with velvet coffin, and a raven flitting about the bust of pallas that adorns the crypt or chamber door. Of course, unless the writer tells us himself what his intentions are we can only guess and ponder by looking at the words of the tale. There are many publications of "The Raven" with slightly different words. A very good narrative of "The Raven" can be found in a Halloween publication of the Simpsons television series where Homer plays the protagonist and the antagonist is a raven with a head like Bart Simpson and the lost Lenore is Marge Simpson. Read the poem through and contemplate the meaning of the words to decide for yourself: love poem or purgatory?


Photos and words Copyright © Christine Patrice Gebera, 2013.


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