At a Glance

"The Raven" key themes:

  • In his “Philosophy of Composition,” Poe claimed he wrote “The Raven” to be an aesthetic experience of poetic beauty created by complex rhythm and sound structures.

  • Through the distraught speaker, Poe portrays the human tendency toward self-destruction and self-torture; the narrator continues to ask distressing questions even though he knows the raven’s response is predetermined.

  • The speaker also reflects the human search for meaning where there is none; the narrator knows the raven’s speech is meaningless, but with his questions he tries to imbue it with significance.

  • The speaker prefers loneliness to pain as he tries not to think of his lost lover.

  • The poem questions whether the supernatural provokes fear, or whether it is fear that provokes delusions of the supernatural.

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“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...

(The entire section is 590 words.)