At the center of Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven sits a gentleman in his study lined with books and within which sits a bust of the mythological figure of Pallas. The gentleman is lamenting the loss of his "rare and radiant maiden," the "lost Lenore." He is, apparently, heartbroken and despondent and, possibly, slightly inebriated. Into his chamber comes a large black bird, the titular raven, the presence of which mystifies and increasingly frustrates him. The gentleman's inability to extract from this interloper a reason for its presence, and the large bird's habit of responding to his entreaties with the word "nevermore" all contribute to his growing discomfort. Continuing to press the bird for answers that are not forthcoming, the gentleman, in his exasperation, finally cries out:
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!— Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore, Desolate, yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted— On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore— Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!” Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
So, the context in which the narrator paraphrases from the Biblical Book of Jeremiah is established. The meaning of this particular phrase, however, can only be surmised, although educated suggestions are entirely possible. In the Bible, Jeremiah is a prophet, and one who has witnessed the destruction of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem -- a major event in the history of the Israelites and one that, as with many other passages in the Bible, represents man's failure to heed warnings of impending doom. When Jeremiah asks rhetorically "Is there no balm in Gilead," he is decrying the hopelessness of the situation to which he is witness. When Poe's forlorn and troubled narrator quotes that Biblical passage, he is similarly lamenting the apparent hopelessness of his situation. The mysterious bird is uncommunicative, yet appears to represent something or someone of relevance to the narrator's current situation. All the narrator knows is that he is getting no where with this peculiar visitor to his home and is increasingly immersed in feelings of hopelessness.