“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this, and nothing more.”
The opening stanza of “The Raven” establishes the tone and mood of the poem. “Once upon a midnight dreary” summons up the stock setting of any gothic tale. “Weak and weary” encapsulates the speaker’s aggrieved condition. The “quaint and curious volume[s] of forgotten lore” signal his cast of mind. When the speaker hears a rhythmic rapping, he figures it to be some visitor, then offers the telling final phrase: “Only this, and nothing more.” The phrase may or may not reflect the speaker’s sense of what lurks outside his chamber. However, the phrase—with its anxious grasping for certainty—signals to readers that there is indeed something more.
There may even exist a deeper clue in the phrase, if “nothing” can be read in its positive valence. As a messenger of death, the raven may be that “nothing more.” The embodiment of death in the raven turns death’s nothing—and Lenore’s absence—into something.
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore…
The eighth of the poem, with its atmospheric embers, foreshadows the central subject of the poem: the death of Lenore. The embers are made into an metaphor whose scope specifies as readers progress further into the stanza. At the first encounter, the embers are a metaphor for an extinguished life. The words “dying” and “ghost” extend the metaphor, giving it a paired quality. There is both the diminishing light of the ember—the dying soul—and the shadow cast by that light—the ghost of that soul.
Two lines later, the speaker reveals the source of his pain: “sorrow for the lost Lenore.” In light of the speaker’s plight, the metaphor of the embers is deepened and narrowed. The essential mechanism of the metaphor remains the same, but the soul suggested by the ember has been named. It is no longer the broad idea of a soul, but specifically Lenore’s soul. Thus the metaphorical imagination at work here can be understood as the speaker’s. The dying embers remind him of Lenore’s passing; the shadows remind him of her spirit, which continues to haunt him.
“Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore—Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!”Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
The raven’s continual cryptic utterance of “Nevermore” forms the thematic and formal backbone of the poem. Because each stanza ends with “Nevermore” or simply “more,” the word permeates the entire poem. Furthermore, each stanza contains three lines with an end rhyme of “-ore,” compounding the musical imprint of “Nevermore.” This is no accident. In his composition of “The Raven,” Poe selected the word “Nevermore” as a refrain and then wrote the poem based on that foundation. The word “Nevermore” preceded the plot of “The Raven” and undoubtedly influenced the course Poe took in crafting it.
The repetition of “Nevermore” gives the plot its essential movement and rhythm. As the speaker interacts with the raven, he imagines that the bird possesses prophetic powers and radiates ill omens. As he frantically questions the raven about Lenore, believing the bird to know the fates of the dead, he receives the mechanical “Nevermore” again and again. Readers see the irony as it unfolds. The raven knows nothing about Lenore and simply repeats the word...
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it has learned. The speaker confuses the pattern for deep prophecy and goes mad as he vainly tries to unlock the meaning of “Nevermore.”
Context: In this intricately structured, highly musical, and supremely melancholy poem, Poe reveals the haunted mind of a man who is tormented by the death of his beloved, "the lost Lenore." A mysterious raven appears at his window at midnight. The raven can speak only one word–"Nevermore." In the griefcrazed man's mind, the bird is a visitor from "the Night's Plutonian shore," a messenger who can bring him some news of Lenore, some hope of his seeing her again in another world. Unfortunately, the raven answers all of the man's frantically hopeful questions with that grimly final word, "Nevermore." When the bird first enters the room, the man marvels to hear it uttering such a strange word so clearly. He tries to explain the bird's one-word vocabulary in human terms, not yet daring to recognize the raven's supernatural nature. Unaware that the bird will be his eternal tormentor, the "neverflitting" reminder of his unending loneliness, the man tries to rationalize the ominous word, "Nevermore":
Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,"Doubtless," said I, "what it utters is its only stock and store,Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful DisasterFollowed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden boreOf 'Never—nevermore.'"
And the lamplight o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floorShall be lifted—nevermore!
Throughout the poem, the lamplight serves as a symbol for the difficult truth of Lenore’s death. Here, in the final stanza, the lamplight returns to serve its symbolic role. The light strikes the raven on his Pallas perch, casting “his shadow on the floor.” The shadow is a symbol of the speaker’s grief, created as it is by the “lamplight” of Lenore’s death. In the final lines of the poem, the speaker laments that he will never reclaim his soul from grief’s shadow; it “shall be lifted—nevermore!” In this note of despair, Poe attempts a final grasp for his intended effect: the melancholy of death.