Love Intertwined with Loss as Theme: The narrator is consumed by memories of Lenore, the young woman he loved who has died, and by his overwhelming grief in losing her. As the poem begins, he recalls that feeling “weak and weary,” he had been reading “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore” and pondering over them in seeking “surcease of sorrow” for the “lost Lenore.” Very succinctly, Poe quickly establishes the depth of the narrator’s grief and his desperation to be reunited with Lenore in some way, setting the tone for the subsequent appearance of the mysterious raven.
- For discussion: The description of the books as strange and mysterious, containing knowledge from a much earlier time, suggest that he had been searching for a way alleviate his grief by contacting Lenore in the afterlife through magic or some supernatural means. How does this set the tone for his encounter with the raven? What does the narrator want throughout the “conversation”?
Lenore as Idealized Lover: Lenore is idealized in the poem; more than a lovely young woman, she is a “rare and radiant maiden” whose name is known by the angels. It is clear that the narrator loved Lenore and has been unable to find another who is as perfect as she was.
- For discussion: What does the narrator’s idealization of Lenore suggest about him? What does he compare her to? What do we know for sure about Lenore?
Theme of Madness as a Result of Insurmountable Grief: As the raven continues its refrain of “Nevermore,” the narrator continues to ask it more disturbing questions about the fate of Lenore and himself. The effects of the narrator’s grief are cataloged in stages as the poem develops. More than feeling melancholy, the narrator becomes increasingly unhinged, mentally and emotionally.
- For discussion: Highlight the mysterious nature of the raven. Is the raven a supernatural being or only a bird? Does the narrator’s thinking about the raven ever become irrational? In what ways?
“The Raven” as an Introduction to Poetic Structure: Written in 18 stanzas, each with 6 lines, “The Raven” is an ideal poem for teaching the foundations of poetic structure. Its rhyme scheme does not vary, contributing to its musicality and hypnotic effects. Furthermore, because its meter is consistent, it’s a good introductory example for students learning how to scan poems. Poe also employs many other poetic elements, such as onomatopoeia (“tapping”), alliteration (“I nodded, nearly napping”), assonance (“thrilled me—filled me”), and metaphor (“each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor”).
- For discussion: After a short lesson on rhyme scheme, have students determine the poem’s rhyme scheme (ABCBBB). Take a look at the words most repeated throughout: door, nevermore, Lenore, floor, etc. How does the consistent rhyme contribute to what Poe calls the “unity of effect”—the singular feeling created by a text? What examples of internal rhyme (such as “dreary” and “weary” in the poem’s first line) can students find?
- For discussion: What is the meter of the poem? How does the meter change in the final line of each stanza? What effect does the change have on readers?
- For discussion: Note the words that Poe chooses to capitalize. Why do you think that he chose to capitalize words that are not usually capitalized in everyday speech?
- For discussion: How and why does the narrator personify the raven? Does the raven seem to exhibit any human qualities?
Additional Discussion Questions:
- In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe writes that he wanted “The Raven” to appeal to both “the popular and the critical taste.” Ask students to discuss why the...
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- poem has remained popular with readers and why critics admire it.
- How is the narrator haunted, both emotionally and literally? Would you describe this poem as a ghost story? Why or why not?
- Note the repetition of the words “Lenore” and “nevermore.” What does their continued repetition suggest about the connection between them?
- How reliable is the narrator’s version of events? What parts of his story do you find believable and which do you question?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
Poe’s Diction Is Unfamiliar: “The Raven” features vocabulary words and sentence structures that may be unfamiliar to students, even those who have encountered poetry before.
- What to do: Before teaching the poem, have students complete a vocabulary study of the more challenging words they will encounter in the text. Rather than giving students a list of vocabulary words, give them a handout with phrases from the text that contain the words, thus placing the words in context. Highlight or underline the vocabulary word in each phrase.
- What to do: Many words in the poem communicate connotative as well as denotative, or literal, meaning. Before teaching the poem, distinguish between denotative and connotative meaning and have students discuss the connotations of some words they will encounter in the text.
- What to do: To help students appreciate the hypnotic musicality of “The Raven,” play a recording of the poem. (Don’t show students a video with someone reading or reciting the poem; the visuals will interfere with focusing on the sounds in the poem.)
Erroneous Notions about Poe: Because Poe wrote horror stories featuring bizarre settings and acts of insanity committed by crazed protagonists, students sometimes assume that Poe himself was deranged. Let students know that was not the case.
- What to do: Point out that besides being a gifted short story writer and poet, Poe was also an astute literary critic whose essays on fiction writing demonstrate a clear understanding of literature and the creative process. Explain that Poe developed a theory of the short story and followed it in writing his horror stories; a short story, he contended, should be brief enough to read in one sitting, should be unified in all elements, and should create in the reader a primary emotional response. Point out that Poe’s firm control of his material, command of language, and artistry in employing literary elements to develop themes and create a specific emotional response in readers are not the characteristics of a deranged mind.
- What to do: Also, explain that Poe created the detective story and that Sherlock Holmes was subsequently modeled on Poe’s character, Auguste Dupin, who solves crimes through ratiocination.
The Narrator Is Depressed and Mentally Unstable: Though unstable and melancholy to begin with, the narrator’s mental state rapidly deteriorates over the course of the poem. Students may find this intense portrayal of a depressed person upsetting. Conversely, they may also be tempted to tell the narrator to “just get over it.”
- What to do: Take some time to discuss modern understandings of depression and mental illness, emphasizing that illness is something that takes concerted effort to live with and cannot simply be willed away. Show students resources available for depression, and talk about ways to deal with grief when a loved one has passed away.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching "The Raven"
To have students consider this frequently taught poem from an alternative perspective, focus on the following in teaching the text:
Focus on “The Raven” as a gothic tale. Following a short unit on gothic literature as it developed from 19th-century Romanticism, establish the characteristics of gothic literature and have students identify gothic elements in the poem.
Focus on “The Raven” as a narrative rather than only a poem. Discuss with students Poe’s theory of the short story (outlined in his “Philosophy of Composition”) and examine how it is illustrated in the poem. Most notable are the poem’s short length— Poe believed it was important to be able to read a text in a single sitting—and it’s uniformly eerie atmosphere, which equates to his theory that a text should strive for a “single effect.” Ask students what effect reading the poem provides. Have students create storyboards of the various stages of “conversation” the narrator has with the raven.