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.

Analysis

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Last Updated on January 17, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1214

A year after he published “The Raven,” Poe published an essay titled “The Philosophy of Composition.” True to its title, the essay serves as a statement of Poe’s creative principles. In Poe’s view, the ideal poem or story is brief, beautiful, and musical. More specifically, it ought to be digestible...

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A year after he published “The Raven,” Poe published an essay titled “The Philosophy of Composition.” True to its title, the essay serves as a statement of Poe’s creative principles. In Poe’s view, the ideal poem or story is brief, beautiful, and musical. More specifically, it ought to be digestible in a single sitting, deliver aesthetic impact over morals, and captivate the ear. Poe then illustrates these principles by outlining his composition of “The Raven,” a poem that exemplifies his values, because he wrote it with his values in mind.

According to Poe, he began writing “The Raven” with the aim of producing a singular emotion. He then chose melancholy as the most persuasive emotion, death the most melancholic experience, and the death of a beautiful woman the most heart-rending variety. From there, the musical architecture of the piece coalesced. Poe decided to structure the poem around a short refrain, for which he chose “Nevermore,” deeming it a richly sonorous word. From “Nevermore” followed the raven, an apt utterer of the refrain, and the rhyme “Lenore,” the name of the beautiful deceased woman. At that point, the poem had found its wings, and Poe let it fly. “The Philosophy of Composition” remains an essential window into “The Raven” as well as Poe’s methods as a poet and writer.

Form and Structure

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” is a highly musical composition. With its eighteen uniformly measured sestets, its unvarying ABCBBB rhyme pattern, its internal rhymes and rich alliteration, the poem weaves a distinctive sonic tapestry. The primary thread in the tapestry is the string of words that contain a sonorous “-ore” syllable at their core, most notably the words “Lenore” and “Nevermore.” This combination of devices make the poem’s lines easy to remember and, indeed, difficult to forget. The speaker’s language shifts back and forth from direct, conversational English to an elevated, erudite pitch as his mind moves from his familiar surroundings to the imagined realms of heaven and hell.

Poe employs a distinctive stanza structure in “The Raven.” In each stanza, the first five lines are octameter, carrying eight beats, and the final line is tetrameter, only four beats. The final line thus leaves a conspicuous space in its wake. Readers cannot move freely from the end of one stanza to the start of the next. Rather, the pause of the final line forces a moment of meditation and allows the previous stanza to sink into the mind. Many stanzas end with the word “Nevermore,” and so the subsequent silence may suggest the speaker’s stunned reaction. In his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe also credits the shortened final line for making the refrain—the raven’s answers of “Nevermore”—more pliant and ready to incorporate throughout the poem.

Poe devised “The Raven” out of neat chains of trochees. The trochee is a metrical foot in which a stressed syllable is followed by an unstressed counterpart. (“Once upon a midnight dreary…”) The trochaic tone is rushed and frantic compared to that of the statelier iamb. Given the poem’s story—the anxious questionings and yearnings of a grief-stricken man—Poe’s metrical choice is apt.

Rhyme & Alliteration

On its surface, “The Raven” follows an ABCBBB rhyme scheme, with each of its eighteen stanzas cohering to the plan. However, Poe treats the trochaic octameter of each line as a pair of tetrameter lines, resulting in a more intricate rhyme scheme than initially meets the eye. The first line of each stanza actually carries the A rhyme twice, at the fourth and eighth beats. The third line does the same with the C rhyme. These A and C rhymes often echo again midway through the subsequent line. The fourth and fifth lines of each stanza share an identical rhyme—the same word rhyming with itself, such as “door” and “door.” As a result, the rhyme scheme can be more accurately expressed as AB1CB2B2B3. Altogether, Poe achieves an intricate pattern of rhymes that often appear to be internal but which all arise from the poem’s essential architecture.

Poe’s use of alliteration in “The Raven” makes the poem’s landscape of rhyme richer and denser. The alliterations arise according to circumstance, rather than by a systematic pattern. In the phrase “my soul grew stronger,” the sonic strength of the words conveys that of the speaker’s soul. The phrase “tapping, tapping” makes the raven’s tapping repeatedly ring out through onomatopoeia. “Weak and weary,” with its alliteration and assonance, drives home the speaker’s low state after having lost Lenore. Poe employs alliteration to achieve his broader aim of conveying a singular emotional effect.

Allusions

Pallas

The bust of Pallas is a statue of Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. The presence of Pallas Athena underscores the speaker’s scholarly pursuits. The raven’s perching upon the bust may be symbolic of the speaker’s inability to attain the wisdom he desires. His persistent questions yield the raven’s cryptic croaks of “Nevermore,” rather than the rich understanding he seeks. Pallas may also allude to the daughter of the Greek sea-god Triton, who also raised Athena. According to myth, Athena killed Pallas and, in repentance, took her name and became “Pallas Athena.” In light of that legend, the presence of Pallas in “The Raven” may offer a parallel story to that of the speaker’s lost love, Lenore. Both Pallas and Lenore were maidens who tragically died.

Night’s Plutonian Shore

The “Night’s Plutonian Shore” is a reference to Hades, the underworld of Greek myth where the souls of the dead gather. Pluto is the god of the underworld, though he is often referred to by the name Hades as well. The shore is a reference to the River Styx, which runs through Hades, separating the realms of the living and the dead. Night’s Plutonian Shore is specifically the far shore of Styx, beyond which the dead can be found. In “The Raven,” the speaker assumes the raven comes from Hades, a result of the raven’s reputation as a harbinger of bad luck and as a prophetic messenger. The speaker thus believes that the raven may have news of Lenore from the world of the dead.

Nepenthe

In Greek mythology, nepenthe is a drug that causes forgetfulness. In “The Raven,” the grief-stricken speaker yearns for “nepenthe, from thy memories of Lenore.” For the speaker, however, respite from those painful memories can be found. It remains a “bleak December” in his soul.

Balm in Gilead

Gilead is an archaic name for Jordan, a region known in biblical times for its medicinal plants. The speaker wonders whether he might find a “balm in Gilead” that might cure his grief. The question is futile; there is no balm for his wound, in Gilead or elsewhere.

Aidenn

Aidenn is an embellished spelling of Eden, the biblical realm of Paradise from which Adam and Eve are expelled in the Book of Genesis. Imagining reuniting with Lenore, the speaker asks whether he will clasp hands with her in “distant Aidenn.” The adjective “distant” suggests the unlikeliness of this paradisal prospect. As the speaker laments in the poem’s final moments, his soul “shall be lifted—nevermore!”

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