“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 one stormy night in his chamber, half-dreaming about his beloved deceased mistress. He hears a tapping at his window and opens it to admit a raven, obviously someone’s pet which has escaped its master, seeking shelter from the storm. The raven can speak only one word, “nevermore.” When the student, amused by this incident, asks the raven questions, its reply of “nevermore” strikes a melancholic echo in his heart. Although he knows that the raven can only speak this one word, he is compelled by what Poe calls the universal human need for self-torture to ask the bird questions to which the response “nevermore” will cause his suffering to be even more intense. When this self-torture reaches its most extreme level, Poe says, the poem then naturally ends.
The sorrow of the young student and the stormy midnight hour contribute to the overall effect of the poem, but the most important feature is the sound of the refrain—a sound that is established even before the raven appears by the dead mistress’s name “Lenore.” The echo of the word “Lenore” by “nevermore” is further emphasized in stanza 5, when the student peers into the darkness and whispers “Lenore?” only to have the word echoed back, “Merely this and nothing more.”
Once the lost Lenore is projected as the source of the student’s sorrow, the appearance of the raven as a sort of objectification of this sorrow seems poetically justified. When he asks the raven its name and hears the ominous word, “nevermore,” the student marvels at the bird’s ability to utter the word but realizes that the word has no inherent meaning or relevance. The relevance of the bird’s answer depends solely on the nature of the questions or remarks the student puts to it. For example, when he says that the bird will leave tomorrow, like all his “hopes have flown before,” he is startled by the seemingly relevant reply, “nevermore.”
The student begins to wonder what the ominous bird “means” by repeating “nevermore.” When he cries that perhaps his god has sent him respite from his sorrow and memory of Lenore, the bird’s response of “nevermore” makes him call the bird “prophet” and compels him to ask it if, after death, he will clasp the sainted maiden whom the angels call Lenore; to this question he knows he will receive the reply, “nevermore.” Obsessively pushing his need for self-torture to its ultimate extreme, the young man calls for the bird to take its beak from its heart and its form from his door, once again knowing what response he will receive. Although the poem is often dismissed as a cold-blooded contrivance, it is actually a carefully designed embodiment of the human need to torture the self and to find meaning in meaninglessness.