The Raven Themes
The main themes in “The Raven” are “the human thirst for self-torture” and confronting grief and death.
- “The human thirst for self-torture”: This phrase comes from “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which Edgar Allan Poe describes how he wrote “The Raven.” The poem examines how much of the speaker’s pain is inflicted by his own questioning.
- Confronting grief and death: The speaker searches the world for symbols and meaning after the death of his love, Lenore.
“The Human Thirst for Self-Torture”
In his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe wrote that “The Raven” explores “the human thirst for self-torture.” As we look back on its lines, we find that the speaker’s anguish is, to a large degree, self-inflicted. Although the raven supplies its one-word answers, it is the speaker who chooses the questions. More importantly, he traces the implications of “Nevermore” in personal terms that aggravate his heartache. It is the associations in his mind that link the raven’s cries of “Nevermore” to his grief over the death of Lenore and the finality of that loss.
Perhaps the most significant evidence for the speaker’s tendency towards “self-torture” can be found in his changing view of the bird. At first, the raven is an oddity who beguiles the speaker’s “sad fancy into smiling.” The raven’s first croak of “Nevermore” “little meaning—little relevancy bore.” Only after his thoughts return to his lost Lenore—“the cushion’s velvet lining[…] she shall press, ah, nevermore!”—does the speaker begin to deepen his own anguish by making the raven’s word relevant. Seen in this light of “self-torture,” the speaker’s dreadful exchange with the raven is a fiction of his own design. Why he would choose to thus dramatize his own sorrow is an open question.
Confronting Grief and Death
Poe launched into the composition of “The Raven” with the intention of producing great pathos through a story of a beautiful woman who has died. Poe considered death the most melancholically poetic subject and a beautiful woman the most tragic victim of death. “The Raven,” however, is not so much about death as its aftermath. In the second stanza, the speaker reveals his grief and “sorrow for the lost Lenore.” What follows—the arrival of the raven and the speaker’s interaction with it—unfold on the stage of the speaker’s grief.
At the start of the poem, the speaker attempts to distract himself from his sorrow by reading his “volume[s] of forgotten lore.” The raven soon arrives and renders the distraction futile. The raven bears two wings of significance: it is a mere bird and also a manifestation of the speaker’s grief. In actuality, the raven utters “Nevermore” rotely; it has no stake in the speaker’s soul. Poe goes so far as to classify the raven “a non-reasoning creature capable of speech.” In the speaker’s view, however, each successive “Nevermore” is a personal prophecy that shines through the raven from some divine source. Poe gestures at the gap between the two ravens, allowing readers to grasp the sad irony.
That the speaker tries to read the raven, however, is understandable. To scout the world for codes, messages, and meanings is an inevitable impulse, and the speaker is particularly desperate for meaning, given his grief. It is a testament to the speaker’s desperation that he initially casts a skeptical gaze on the raven’s “Nevermore”—“what it utters is its only stock and store”—before his heartache gets the best of him. The speaker’s questions grow more insistent. He wonders whether there might be “nepenthe” or “balm in Gilead,” some means of soothing his anguish. The answer: “Nevermore.” In a bolder spirit, he wonders whether he might reunite with Lenore in some “distant Aidenn.” Again: “Nevermore.” In the end, it matters little to the speaker whether the raven is a “prophet” or a “non-reasoning creature.” His grief remains unrelieved, his soul “nevermore” to be lifted from the shadows.