Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“The Raven” is unquestionably Poe’s most famous poem. After its publication, it became so well known that its refrain “nevermore” became a catchphrase repeated by people on the street. Poe, who told one friend that he thought the poem was the greatest poem ever written, was delighted one night at the theater when an actor interpolated the word into his speech, and almost everyone in the audience seemed to recognize the allusion.
The work remains Poe’s best-known poem today partly because, in his “Philosophy of Composition,” Poe describes what he claims was the method by which he composed the poem. Whether or not that description is an accurate account of how the work was composed, it is surely a description of how Poe wished the poem to be read. Thus, Poe himself was the first, and is perhaps still the best, critic and interpreter of his own poem.
As Poe makes clear in “The Philosophy of Composition,” he wished to create an effect of beauty associated with melancholy in the poem; he decided that the refrain “nevermore,” uttered to a young man whose mistress has recently died, was perfectly calculated to achieve that effect. According to Poe, the basic situation, the central character, and the plot of the poem were all created as a pretext or excuse for setting up the “nevermore” refrain, to be repeated with a variation of meaning and impact each time.
The plot is a simple one: A young student is reading one stormy night in his chamber, half-dreaming about his beloved deceased mistress. He hears a tapping at his window and opens it to admit a raven, obviously someone’s pet which has escaped its master, seeking shelter from the storm. The raven can speak only one word, “nevermore.” When...
(The entire section is 717 words.)
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One Page Summary and Discussion
First published in the (New York) Evening Mirror in January, 1845, "The Raven" was an overnight sensation and remains the most popular and best known poem that Poe ever wrote. In fact, during the final years of his life, Poe was referred to as "the raven" and his readers often wove short passages of the piece or a simple "nevermore" into their daily talk. The poem is essentially a dramatic monologue; it tells a story that has no real climax but that nonetheless progresses through stages marked by changes in the narrator's mood as he successively interprets the raven's presence and the meaning of its "nevermore" replies.
Consisting of eighteen six-line stanzas, "The Raven" is told retrospectively by a first-person narrator. The setting throughout is the narrator's chambers at midnight on a bleak December, as the speaker or student lapses between reading an old book and falling asleep. He is aroused by a tapping sound that he presumes to be made by a visitor outside of his room. He does not immediately answer, but tells us that he is in a sorrowful mood because of the death of his lover, the "lost Lenore." He snaps out of these sad thoughts, assures himself that the sound is that of a visitor, he addresses his unknown guest, but finds no one there when he opens the door. Peering into the silent darkness, the student whispers Lenore's name to himself. When he returns to his room, however, the rapping sound resumes and is even louder than before. He now posits that it is merely the wind beating on the shutters of his window.
When he opens the shutter, a "stately" Raven appears. It flies to the top of the chamber door and perches upon a bust of Pallas (Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom). The narrator is initially amused by the raven's "grave and stern" looks. He addresses the bird in lofty terms, and asks what its "lordly" name is. The raven responds with the single word "Nevermore." The student marvels at the winged intruder's...
(The entire section is 790 words.)