The raven has long been a symbol of several things. In Greek mythology the raven symbolizes both prophecy and wisdom. It also is a brooding symbol of evil, death, loss, grief, and mental stress.
In Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven," the weary student exemplifies the human need to torment oneself with grief and relentless efforts to find meaning in what is without meaning.
Prophecy and Wisdom
In Poe's poem, the speaker sees the Raven perched on the bust of Athena. This position of the Raven suggests the powers of an oracle, who will impart wisdom. But, when the speaker asks him what his "lordly name" is, hoping for words of wisdom, the bird simply says, "Nevermore." This word then becomes a refrain which causes the speaker great mental distress while also acting as a prophecy.
In line 85, the speaker believes the bird does foretell the future; he addresses the Raven:
"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil--prophet still, if bird or devil!....
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if...
It shall clasp a sainted maiden.... (ll.85-87)
Loss and Despair
The speaker is in an agitated state, repeatedly and urgently seeking relief from the raven only to be given the word "Nevermore." Hearing this word repeated, the speaker begins to despair as he realizes that Lenore is lost to him.
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of 'Never – nevermore.'" (ll.65-66)
As he grieves for Lenore, the speaker calls out for relief:
Respite – respite and nepenthe (a medicine for sorrow), from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore! (ll.82-83)
Evil and Death
In the final stanza the speaker compares the Raven's eyes to those of a devil who looms over him, depressing his spirit:
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted – nevermore! (ll. 107-108)
As the poem ends, the bird still sits above the door, a brooding symbol of the speaker's distress.
One other thing that the raven represents in Poe's poem is wisdom. The first thing that indicates the wisdom of the raven is that it perches on the bust of Pallas as soon as it enters the room. Pallas is just another name for the ancient Greek goddess Athena, who was the goddess of wisdom, among other things such as courage, strength, and war strategy. In many stories, Athena lends her wisdom to the characters; one example is Perseus, whom Athena helps in his quest to behead Medusa; another is Odysseus in The Odyssey, who gains Athena's favor and thereby her help on his journey home. The fact that the raven perches on a bust of the goddess of wisdom lends credence to its utterance, even though the narrator chooses to disregard it at first. But when the raven continues to say it, the narrator puts a cushion on the floor and sits down in front of the raven to contemplate what the creature's meaning is.