“The Raven” is a ballad of eighteen six-line stanzas with decidedly emphatic meter and rhymes. The ballad is a nightmarish narrative of a young man who, bereaved by the death of the woman he loved, compulsively constructs self-destructive meaning around a raven’s repetition of the word “Nevermore,” until he finally despairs of being reunited with his beloved Lenore in another world.
Narrated from the first-person point of view, the poem conveys, with dramatic immediacy, the speaker’s shift from weary, sorrowful composure to a state of nervous collapse as he recounts his strange experience with the mysterious ebony bird. The first seven stanzas establish the setting and the narrator’s melancholic, impressionable state of mind. Weak and worn out with grief, the speaker had sought distraction from his sorrow by reading curiously esoteric books. Awakened at midnight by a sound outside his chamber, he opens the door, expecting a visitor; he finds only darkness. Apprehensive, he whispers the name Lenore and closes the door. When the tapping persists, he opens a window, admitting a raven that perches upon a bust of Pallas (Athena).
In stanzas 8 to 11, the narrator, beguiled by the ludicrous image of the black bird in his room, playfully asks the raven its name, as if to reassure himself that it portends nothing ominous. He is startled, however, to hear the raven respond, saying, “Nevermore.” Although the word apparently has little relevance to any discoverable meaning, the narrator is sobered by the bird’s forlorn utterance. He assumes that the raven’s owner, having suffered unendurable disasters, taught the bird to imitate human speech in order to utter the one word most expressive of the owner’s sense of hopelessness.
In stanzas 12 and 13, the narrator settles himself on a velvet cushion in front of the bird and whimsically ponders what the raven meant by repeating a word he inevitably associated with thoughts of the departed Lenore. At this point, the grieving lover, in anticipation of the raven’s maddening repetition of “Nevermore,” begins masochistically to frame increasingly painful questions.
Imagining a perfumed presence in the room, the narrator, in a state of growing agitation, asks the raven whether God had mercifully sent him to induce in the poet forgetfulness of the lost Lenore; the inevitable response causes the narrator to plead with the raven—now addressed as a prophet of evil sent by the “Temptor”—to tell him whether there is any healing in heaven for his grief. The raven’s predictable answer provokes the grieving lover, now almost in a state of maddened frenzy, to ask bluntly whether his soul would ever be reunited with Lenore in heaven. Receiving the horrific “Nevermore” in reply to his ultimate question, the distraught narrator demands that the raven, whether actual bird or fiend, leave his chambers and quit torturing his heart; the raven’s unendurable answer drives the bereaved lover into a state of maddened despair. The raven becomes a permanent fixture in the room, a symbolic presence presiding over the narrator’s self-inflicted mental and spiritual collapse.