The narrator of "The Raven" undergoes a range of emotions during his telling of the story. He begins the story in a sad mood because of the death of his love, Lenore; and in a heightened emotional state because of the gloomy literature he has been reading. He is somewhat frightened before realizing the true source of the tapping. At first he is curious to see that the noise he hears comes from a bird, and he seems happy to have some unexpected company in the middle of the night. When it rests upon the bust of the wise Pallas, the narrator considers that the bird, too, is "stately." To his amazement, he realizes that the bird's answer ("Nevermore") to his question makes sense. He becomes more startled at the bird's repeated answer; though it is always the same, the response seems to be a logical one. The narrator eventually becomes rattled; he "shrieked" at his guest. In the end, his view that the bird is infinitely wise causes him to believe tha its answers are in fact truth: That he can never recover from the grief he suffers for the lost Lenore.
At first the speaker does not take the Raven very seriously. He assumes it is a tame bird that somehow escaped from its owner and is only seeking temporary shelter. He describes it in a facetious manner.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he,
But with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door--
He actually smiles at the bird and jokes with it:
Then the ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore...
Tell me what thy lordly name is...
He assumes that the Raven will leave him eventually, and he is still feeling some amusement in the middle of the poem:
But the Raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling...
But he begins to speculate about what, if anything, the bird means by ""Nevermore." The narrator is beginning to take the black bird more seriously. The Raven is not a symbol of a lost maiden but a symbol of death and always had been a symbol of death since the saintly days of yore. When we are young we are immortal because we do not know we are mortal. When it occurs to us that some day we are going to die we think it is funny because that event is so far off that the day will never arrive--or maybe somebody will invent an immortality pill before our turn comes! The poem is about the way we view death throughout our lives. At first it seems amusing, then intriguing, then a little frightening, then ominous, then like a big black cloud hanging over us and everyone else, including those we love, and making life seem meaningless and horrible.
The Raven makes the speaker remember his lost Lenore, whom he had hoped to meet again in a later life. Actually the speaker had been half-hoping that the tapping he heard at his window might be the ghost of Lenore, which is why the only word spoken when he looked out the window "was the whispered word, "Lenore?" The name is followed by a question mark to show that the poet is wondering if he is being visited by his dead paramour. When the Raven tells him he will see her "Nevermore," he reacts with anger.
"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil!--prophet still, if bird or devil--
He asks if there is balm in Gilead? This is a way of asking if there is any truth to the customary, conventional religious answer to the mystery of death, specifically as contained in the Bible. Is there really any hope of resurrection? And the Raven tells him "Nevermore," meaning that death is nothing but eternal oblivion without any hope.
He tries to expel the Raven from his home.
"Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!" I shrieked, upstarting--
This is the speaker's way of saying that he will simply refuse to think about the subject of death. After all, what good is there in thinking about something so unpleasant? But the bird refuses to leave. This is how the shadow of death stays with us as we grow old. We have given up hope and can only await our final hour.
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor|
Shall be lifted--nevermore!
Edgar Allan Poe was preoccupied with death, as shown, for instance, in "The Masque of the Red Death," in which he dwells on the idea that death is inescapable, and in the story "Ligeia," in which he includes the poem "The Conqueror Worm" and has his heroine express the horror and desperation which apparently haunted Poe himself and made him such an unhappy person.
"O God!" half shrieked Ligeia, leaping to her feet and extending her arms aloft with a spasmodic movement, as I made an end of these lines --"O God! O Divine Father! --shall these things be undeviatingly so? --shall this Conqueror be not once conquered? Are we not part and parcel in Thee? Who --who knoweth the mysteries of the will with its vigor? Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will."