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...
(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 powers of speech: he hopes to hear more, but the raven's vocabulary is limited to that one word. He reassures himself that the raven will depart in the morning, but the raven seems to oppose this prospect by uttering "nevermore" again. The narrator speculates that the bird was trained to say "nevermore" by some melancholy master. He smiles to himself, but then begins to think about what the raven means by "nevermore." The creature begins to take on demonic qualities in the student's mind as he...
(The entire section is 790 words.)
As usual with Poe's poetry, and in accord with his theory, "The Raven" is not a long poem. In its one hundred eight lines, however, are packed a great deal of emotion and literary skill. It can be read on one level for Poe's impressive choice of words and striking figures of speech. On another level, it can be appreciated for the story contained in the text—the true nature of the brief narrative can be understood fully only through careful study. The text of the "The Raven" provides a lesson on the structure of Romantic verse.
(The entire section is 97 words.)
The opening lines identify the speaker as someone who feels tired and weak but is still awake in the middle of a gloomy night. He passes the time by reading a strange book of ancient knowledge. The first line of the poem contains alliteration of w in “while,” “weak,” and “weary” to produce the effect of unsteadiness. This line also sets the poem’s rhythmical pattern and provides the first example of the use of internal rhyme in “dreary” and “weary.”
The speaker tells of becoming more tired and beginning to doze but being wakened by a sound that he assumes is a quiet knock. Internal rhymes of “napping,” “tapping,” and “rapping” along with repetition of these last two words, create a musical effect. This effect is also produced by alliteration of n. These sound devices and the steady rhythm of these lines are almost hypnotic. The use of “nothing more” is the first example of what will evolve into the refrain “Nevermore.” In this first instance, the speaker presents the phrase in a low key, attached to his bland explanation that the tapping sound is “nothing more” than a late visitor knocking at his door.
In this second stanza the narrator tells what he remembers about the setting and action at the time of the Raven’s visit. It was December, the first month of winter and a time...
(The entire section is 2314 words.)