Critics have been baffled by “Lenore” for more than one hundred years. There is no consensus as to what the poem is about, or who the speakers are, or even how many speakers there are. Most of the clues to the poem’s meaning actually lie outside the poem, in Poe’s other writings.
In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe claimed that the most poetical topic was the death of a young woman. Further, he wrote, the best speaker to utter the mournful lines was the grieving lover. Poe went back to this idea again and again, creating poems such as “Ulalume,” “The Raven,” and “Annabel Lee.”
The woman Lenore is typical of the dead women mourned in Poe’s poetry. Her youth is emphasized; the phrase “died so young” occurs three times in the first two stanzas. Both the grieving lover and the other speaker refer to her innocence and her place in heaven. She is radiantly beautiful, in death as in life. Even the woman’s name is identifiable as a Poe creation. Lenore takes her place with Annabel Lee, Ulalume, Ligeia, Morella, Eleonora, Helen, and others—the letter l seemed to Poe somehow fitting for the name of a dead, loved woman.
The identity of the lover as Guy De Vere seems clear enough from the first stanza of the poem. Since he is addressed directly in stanza 1, it seems only logical that it is he who speaks the next stanza and the fourth stanza, which are framed in quotation marks. De Vere might be expected to wish for the return of his love, but this mournful lover does not. Rather, he is glad that she has finally escaped the suffering inflicted upon her by false friends and family.
In fact, the “wretches” are never identified in the version of the poem Poe finally left. Yet two earlier versions of the poem provide clues to their identities. The earlier versions clearly blame “friends” and “false friends” for Lenore’s suffering, and the 1843 version identifies Lenore as “yon heir,” suggesting that family members are among the mourners.
The dramatic purpose of the poem, then, is to establish a contrast between the sincere feelings of Guy De Vere, Lenore’s intended, and the false sentiments of her friends and family. The formal, ritualistic lines in stanzas 1 and 3 may be spoken by the group of mourners or perhaps, as has been suggested, by the officiating priest.
While critics have disagreed about its precise meaning, all agree that this poem—like many of Poe’s poetical works—is more significant for its sound than for its thematic significance.