The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven is a narrative poem. The poem is remembered for its musicality, stylized language, and surreal atmosphere, and was first published in January 1845. It tells the story of a mysterious visit from a talking raven to a distraught lover, charting the man’s gradual descent into madness. The lover, who appears to be a student, laments the loss of his love, Lenore. The raven, perched atop Pallas’ bust, appears more disturbed by the protagonist’s repeated use of the phrase “Nevermore.” The poem includes examples from folklore, mythology, religion, and classical literature.
Summary of ‘The Raven’
One bleak December night, the unnamed narrator is tiredly reading an old book when he hears a tapping at the door to his room. He tells himself that it’s just a passing stranger. He’s looking forward to tomorrow because he can’t seem to get over the death of Lenore, a woman he truly loved. The rustling curtains startle him, but he realises it must be a late visitor, so he goes to the door and apologises for being late because he had been napping. When he opens the door, however, all he sees and hears is the word “Lenore,” which is an echo of his own words.
When he returns to his room, he hears a tapping again and assumes it was the wind outside his window. However, when he opens the window, a raven flies in and lands “on a bust of Pallas” above his door. The narrator is amused by its grave appearance and asks for its names. “Nevermore,” says the raven. The narrator is puzzled by the response, but the raven remains silent until the narrator predicts aloud that it will leave him tomorrow, just like the rest of his friends. “Nevermore,” the bird says once more.
The narrator, taken aback, speculates that the raven must have learned the word from some unfortunate owner whose bad luck caused him to say it frequently. The narrator smiles as he sits in front of the ominous raven, pondering the meaning of its word. As the narrator sits in the chair that Lenore will never again occupy, the raven continues to stare at him.The narrator then perceives angels approaching and angrily accuses the raven of being an evil prophet. He inquires if there is any respite in “Gilead” and if he will see Lenore again in Heaven, but the raven simply says, “Nevermore.” The narrator is enraged and demands that the raven return to the night and leave him alone, but the raven says, “Nevermore,” and refuses to leave the bust of Pallas. The narrator believes that his soul will “never again” leave the shadow of the raven.
‘The Raven’ consists of 18 stanzas, each stanza a six-line unit. The rhyme scheme is ABCBBB. Poe introduces variation with the help of internal rhyme which helps generate an echo effect in the general march of the verse. When the internal rhyme is counted the scheme tums out to be AA B CC CB BB. The meter is trochaic octameter — eight trochaic feet per line with each foot having one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable The sixth line in each stanza is in trochaic tetrameter. Mostly, the first and third lines of each stanza have an internal rhyme but other lines do as well. For example: in the first stanza ‘dreary’ and ‘weary’ in the first line and ‘napping’ and ‘tapping’ in the third line rhyme. Moreover, the second: fourth: fifth and sixth lines of each stanza rhyme. Another interesting pattern is the repetition of identical words/phrases at the end of the fourth and fifth lines of each stanza, for instance: ‘at my chamber door’ in the first and third stanzas and ‘Lenore’ in second and fifth stanzas. Such a brief account of the form of the poem shows the careful planning that went into verification in this case.
Poe’s mastery of technique in this poem is best seen in the versatile use of other sound devices to create the required atmosphere. Alliteration, assonance, auxesis, repetition and onomatopoeia can be teased out in a rhetorical analysis of the poem. The overall effect of sound contributes to the sense. More specifically, it enhances the sense of gloom in the lyric.
Analysis of The Raven
‘The Raven” begins with a variation of fairy tale opening — “Once upon a midnight dreary _ ” which is further specified as “in the bleak December” in the second stanza and plunges directly into the experience of the narrator in that melancholy December midnight The language: the atmosphere and the situation progressively heighten a keen sense of the exotic and the mysterious. But the plotline is simple and centres around a common literary theme, the death of a beloved and the unrelieved gloom of bereavement. The success of the poem lies in the paranormal feeling and outlook growing out of the repetition and accumulation of unusual details in ordinary circumstances. What lends urgency to the little piece of the action is the first person report of a curious encounter.
Stanzas 1 to 3 function as a false cue to lure the reader into the narrative. The dramatic speaker remembers his predicament in the late hours of a fateful December night when half dozing in his chamber after poring over arcane books he thinks he hears a gentle tapping sound at the door. He goes on to say that he has been engaged: without any success: in a diversionary act of reading books so that he could get over his sorrow for the loss of Lenore: “the rare and radiant maiden” Admittedly he is very sad and confused. He surmises that someone is knocking at his door to gain entry. Although he has been paralysed in his somnolent state with ‘fantastic terrors” by any movement or noise he musters courage. Half talking to himself and addressing “Sir… or Madam” purportedly present outside he throws open the door. But he finds nothing except darkness. He is transfixed in a state of fear and doubt for some time before whispering the word Lenore, which comes back to him in an unsettling echo. The whole experience embarrasses him as he finds his complacent assumptions about the causes of “rapping” completely unfounded. But as soon as he steps back into the chamber the tapping sound is repeated: this time a little louder and at the window. For the narrator, the mystery deepens and he steels his nerves to open the window.
The opening of the window in stanza 7 introduces the second character into the situation. It is “a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore”. This raven – no ordinary bird: the stuff of myths and legends- majestically flutters into the room, settles on a bust of Pallas above the chamber door. This is the beginning of a curious exchange between the bereaved lover and the “ebony bird” in which the narrator moves from an initial bemused state of tolerant scorn for the bird to a final cry of enraged despair Immersed as he is in the sorrow of losing his beloved the student treats the bird playfully, to start with. Imagining the visitor to have arrived from the infernal world of death and darkness the narrator seeks to know the name of the intruder. This allows the poet to introduce a well-known refrain in the poem — Quoth the Raven: “Nevermore” In a tone of ominous irony the narrator speculates on the meaning of that answer, Nevermore, understood as the name of the bird. While as a name it is meaningless it acquires some meaning when one takes it to be the only rote word the raven has learnt from the previous master. In his agitated state, the speaker imagines the bird’s owner dogged by misfortunes: given to muttering a melancholy “nevermore”: which is picked up by the pet bird.
But matters do not stop there in the poem. The narrator: having decided to indulge in his fancies, seats himself on a cushion in front of the bird: with the lamplight streaming over him. This naturally rekindles the memory of the lost beloved who was associated with the same cushioned seat and the lamplight While the “fiery eyes” of the bird offer no consoling answer, the narrator imagines a changed atmosphere in the chamber induced by censer-wielding angels. He assumes that the bird is there at God’s behest and that the whole visit is meant as a palliative for his intense mouming_ He imagines the whole experience as a relief from the tormenting memories of Lenore which persist unabated. But strangely enough: the bird’s single word of utterance, Nevermore, runs counter to the narrator’s desire for forgetfulness. As the poem progresses, the bird’s repeated word of negation assumes the dimension of an ominous prophecy. The narrator, in a rising frenzy: blurts out two questions to the bird. The first one demands to know some balm or cure for his festering sorrow The second one probes the possibility of a reunion with Lenore in some future paradise To both these impassioned but desperate queries the bird’s response is
The last two stanzas bring the narrator’s emotions to a crescendo dramatizing the irrevocability of lost love. At the same time: the bird acquires a strong symbolic significance in relation to the unresolved sorrow of the speaker. When the narrator cries out in the penultimate stanza: “Take thy beak from out my heart”, he has the accidental visitor to his chamber: dumb but for one devastatingly uttered appropriate word: into a fiendish presence of negation. In the opening stanzas: a word that appears repeatedly is ‘Lenore”: radiating love’s promised bliss. In the progress of the narrative right up to the climax the recurring word is “Nevermore”, caught up in images of darkness and death. Not only do these two words rhyme but joined together as in ‘Lenore nevermore” they underline the impossible hopes of bereavement and the frail: transient nature of human love. Poe’s poetic performance has succeeded in matching sound with sense in a profoundly original way. That, in part, accounts for the poem’s critical success in his time and its continued popularity now.
In ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ Poe offers a deceptively simple description of the dramatic action of the poem; “A raven having learnt by rote a single word ‘Nevermore, ‘and having escaped from the custody of its owner, is driven at midnight, through the violence of a storm, to seek admission at a window from which a light still gleams – the chamber-window of a student, occupied half in poring over a volume, half in dreaming of a beloved mistress deceased.” But this bare-bones summary hardly does justice to the finished poem as we have it. The finished poem with its archaic, allusive and rhythmic language, is a rare blend of well-crafted narration and mysterious evocation.
Questions and Answers
Q. How does the poem open and where?
A. It has a fairytale-like opening. It opens in a bleak December midnight inside a student’s chamber
Q. Who is the speaker in the poem? Is he different from the poet?
A. The speaker of the poem is a student poring over an ancient volume in the late hours of a December night. He is not be confused with Poe the poet although the poem begins Mith a subject speaking in the first person
Q. What does the narrator presume when he opens his chamber door?
A. The speaker thinks that there is a late-night visitor seeking permission to enter into his chamber.
Q. How does the raven behave after he gains entry into the student’s chamber?
A. As perceived by the narrator the raven behaves majestically without paying attention to the human presence. Moreover, to all queries, the bird has one answer, “nevermore.”
Q. How does the narrator explain the bird’s repetition of the word “nevermore” in stanza 11?
A. The narrator thinks that the raven has picked up the word “nevermore” from its owner who may have repeated it often in a life marked by a series of misfortunes
Q. Why is the speaker not sure whether the bird is an ordinary bird or a devil?
A. The mental state of the narrator is fluctuating between lucidity and frenzy. So he sees the bird in two different dimensions.
Q. Comment on the last two stanzas of the poem.
A. In spite of all that is reported the narrator is unable to find relief from the gloom induced by the loss of his beloved. In the last two stanzas, his disintegration is near total.