The poem The Raven is one of the classics of the American literary canon. Its author Edgar Allan Poe, the quintessential American poet and short story writer, brings rhythm, style and high metaphor to bear on this work. Published in the era preceding the American Civil War, the poem captures sentiments common during the time. But in terms of its central theme – one of longing and loss – is universal in its appeal and relevance. The rest of this essay will lay out my personal interpretation and evaluation of this piece of literature.
The narrator of the poem – who is young and whose name is not given – starts on a verse soliloquy on a cold December night. As the young male narrator languishes in a mood of melancholy, a surprise visitor calls upon his abode. It is not a friend or a relative, but a Raven that has the magical power to speak! Carrying a serious disposition, the young narrator uses the services of the Raven to alleviate his forlornness. The opening lies of the poem showcase Poe at his lyrical best. The musicality of these lines is maintained throughout the long narrative:
“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.”
It is thus the young man acquaints himself to the arrival of the mysterious visitor. Gifted though the bird is, its articulation is quite limited, with ‘Nevermore’ being a standard response to most the narrator’s queries. Piqued by curiosity and also to distract himself briefly from the loss of his lover Lenore, the young man engages the Raven into more questions. But the deadpan answer of “nevermore” for his questions about his lover, their future, etc, only aggravates his grief. Within a short while, the neurotic repetition of “nevermore” from the bird wrecks the nerves of the young man, leading him to admit that his soul that is trapped in the Raven’s shadow shall “Nevermore” be released:
“On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon 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 poem is fascinating at several levels. The imposed anthropomorphic characteristic on the Raven, whereby it serves the role of a counsellor to the aggrieved youth, is conceptually brilliant on part of the author. The author does not make it clear if the Raven can make sense of what it is uttering or that if it is contextually responding to the question posed by the young man. Hence the repeated uttering of ‘Nevermore’ can be interpreted as the self-defeating neurosis transpiring within the narrator’s mind or as factual assessment of reality objectively seen from the outside. It is this ambiguity to the authorial intent that gives so much scope for reading between the lines. This aspect of the poem lends it intellectual beauty too.
Although the poem resonates with tragic verse forms in ancient Greek and Roman literature, the device of a predatory bird as fortune teller is original and brilliant. An equally impressive quality of the poem is its cool and pragmatic acceptance of separation, longing and loss, without resort to tragic melodramatic overtures. There is virtue and strength even in the gradual descent into madness, Poe seems to suggest. Moreover, the relative lack of didacticism in the poem is a merit.
The references to Greek and Roman mythology, as well as to several classical texts, lend color and richness to the poem. For example, the device of the bust of Pallas (upon which the Raven sits), the reading of books by the narrator (“reading many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore”), and the reference to the Greek goddess of wisdom Athena add layers of interpretation and historical context.
The extension of the gloomy state of the narrator’s mind is suitably reflected in the choice of the bird and the climatic setting. For example, the predatory bird Raven as well as the harsh winter associated with the month of December, both represent the state of gloom and conflict engulfing the young man’s psyche. It is for all these poetic merits that The Raven will continue to remain central to not just American literature but to Western intellectual tradition.
Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven [Text-02], American Review, February 1845, 1:143:145, retrieved from