The Raven Analysis

  • Edgar Allan Poe wrote "The Raven" as a ballad with eighteen six-line stanzas. It employs trochaic octameter, a dramatic form of meter, to emphasize its heavy use of rhyme.
  • The poem's first-person point of view allows readers to track the speaker's progression from weary scholar to grieving lover. The loss of his great love, Lenore, haunts him throughout the poem.
  • The raven itself symbolizes death. It forces its way into the room, standing as a reminder of Lenore's untimely death.

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Raven” is a ballad of eighteen six-line stanzas with decidedly emphatic meter and rhymes. The ballad is a nightmarish narrative of a young man who, bereaved by the death of the woman he loved, compulsively constructs self-destructive meaning around a raven’s repetition of the word “Nevermore,” until he finally despairs of being reunited with his beloved Lenore in another world.

Narrated from the first-person point of view, the poem conveys, with dramatic immediacy, the speaker’s shift from weary, sorrowful composure to a state of nervous collapse as he recounts his strange experience with the mysterious ebony bird. The first seven stanzas establish the setting and the narrator’s melancholic, impressionable state of mind. Weak and worn out with grief, the speaker had sought distraction from his sorrow by reading curiously esoteric books. Awakened at midnight by a sound outside his chamber, he opens the door, expecting a visitor; he finds only darkness. Apprehensive, he whispers the name Lenore and closes the door. When the tapping persists, he opens a window, admitting a raven that perches upon a bust of Pallas (Athena).

In stanzas 8 to 11, the narrator, beguiled by the ludicrous image of the black bird in his room, playfully asks the raven its name, as if to reassure himself that it portends nothing ominous. He is startled, however, to hear the raven respond, saying, “Nevermore.” Although the word apparently has little relevance to any discoverable meaning, the narrator is sobered by the bird’s forlorn utterance. He assumes that the raven’s owner, having suffered unendurable disasters, taught the bird to imitate human speech in order to utter the one word most expressive of the owner’s sense of hopelessness.

In stanzas 12 and 13, the narrator settles himself on a velvet cushion in front of the bird and whimsically ponders what the raven meant by repeating a word he inevitably associated with thoughts of the departed Lenore. At this point, the grieving lover, in anticipation of the raven’s maddening repetition of “Nevermore,” begins masochistically to frame increasingly painful questions.

Imagining a perfumed presence in the room, the narrator, in a state of growing agitation, asks the raven whether God had mercifully sent him to induce in the poet forgetfulness of the lost Lenore; the inevitable response causes the narrator to plead with the raven—now addressed as a prophet of evil sent by the “Temptor”—to tell him whether there is any healing in heaven for his grief. The raven’s predictable answer provokes the grieving lover, now almost in a state of maddened frenzy, to ask bluntly whether his soul would ever be reunited with Lenore in heaven. Receiving the horrific “Nevermore” in reply to his ultimate question, the distraught narrator demands that the raven, whether actual bird or fiend, leave his chambers and quit torturing his heart; the raven’s unendurable answer drives the bereaved lover into a state of maddened despair. The raven becomes a permanent fixture in the room, a symbolic presence presiding over the narrator’s self-inflicted mental and spiritual collapse.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Raven” is Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous poem, not only because of its immediate and continued popularity but also because Poe wrote “The Philosophy of Composition,” an essay reconstructing the step-by-step process of how he composed the poem as if it were a precise mathematical problem. Discounting the role of serendipity, romantic inspiration, or intuition, Poe accounted for every detail as the result of calculated effect. Although the essay may be a tour de force, informed readers of the poem—from the nineteenth century French poets Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Valéry to such twentieth century poets as Allen Tate and T. S. Eliot—have recognized the value of Poe’s essay in understanding the poem’s forms and poetic devices.

Poe’s analysis of the structure and texture of “The Raven” is too detailed to consider at length (and some of it must be taken with several grains of salt, allowing for considerable exaggeration on Poe’s part); however, his essay sheds light on three important aspects implicit in the poem’s form: its conception as a theatrical performance; the narrator’s anguished involvement in making meaning by obsessively asking increasingly self-lacerating questions; and the function of the maddening, incantatory rhythm and rhymes that help cast a mind-paralyzing spell over both the declaiming narrator and the reader.

Although the principles of brevity and unity of impression or effect that inform the poem rest on Poe’s aesthetic theories, derived from the facultative psychology of his time (the world of mind separated into faculties of intellect, taste, and the moral sense with crucial implications for the form and substance of poetry and romance), it is more helpful to see the contribution of this severe economy of means to the histrionic qualities of the poem. The persona narrates the poem as a kind of dramatic monologue, carefully arranging the scene of his chamber and the stage properties for maximum theatrical effect: the play of light and shadow from the hearth, the esoteric volumes, the silken, purple curtains, the door and window opening onto a tempestuous night offstage. There is also the dramatic juxtaposition of the black talking bird perched on the white bust of Pallas over the chamber door, the velvet cushion on which the narrator sits facing the raven, and the lamplight throwing shadows over the narrator’s soul “floating on the floor,” at the frenzied climax of the poem. Even the pivotal refrain that keynotes the poem’s structure contributes to the artistic effect “in the theatrical sense.”

The most original device of the poem is the way the narrator unconsciously arranges his questions. He begins nonchalantly with a commonplace question; under the hypnotic influence of the raven’s cacophonous, melancholic repetition of “Nevermore,” and driven by both the human thirst for self-torture and a superstitious mind, the bereaved lover luxuriates in sorrow by asking more distressful questions until the inexorable answer becomes intolerable, and he melodramatically sinks into maddened despair.

The nightmarish effect of the poem is reinforced by the relentless trochaic rhythm and the arrangement of the ballad stanzas into five lines of octameter followed by a refrain in tetrameter. This combination, along with emphatic alliteration, allows for strong internal and end rhymes, resulting in a mesmerizing syncopation of redundancies as inescapable as the sonorous refrain. This incantatory repetition creates an aural quality that helps force a collaboration between the poem and the reader, a maddening regularity aptly conveying the speaker’s disintegrating reason, while contributing to the theatrical effect of the poem as histrionic performance.

Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

The poem is comprised of eighteen stanzas of six lines each, and most frequently employs a meter known as trochaic octameter, which refers to a...

(The entire section is 252 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

1845: Henry David Thoreau took up residence at Walden Pond outside of Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau’s book about the...

(The entire section is 232 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Braddy, Haldeen. Glorious Incense: The Fulfillment of Edgar Allan Poe. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1953. This volume divides...

(The entire section is 323 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Burluck, Michael L. Grim Phantasms: Fear in Poe’s Short Fiction. New York: Garland, 1993.

Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.

Hutchisson, James M. Poe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

Irwin, John T. The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytical Detective Story. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Kennedy, J. Gerald. A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

May, Charles E. Edgar Allan Poe: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

Peeples, Scott. Edgar Allan Poe Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1998.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe, A to Z. New York: Facts On File, 2001.

Whalen, Terence. Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Auden, W. H., “Edgar Allan Poe,” in his Forewords and Afterwords, edited by Edward Mendelson,...

(The entire section is 469 words.)