Study Guide

The Raven Analysis

By Edgar Allan Poe

  • Sound Check

    We think this poem sounds exactly like a magic spell. If you wanted to curse someone, or summon an evil spirit, we bet you'd want something that sounded exactly like this poem. Do you feel the way the rhythm pushes you forward, the way it starts to sound almost like a drum beat? For us, that rhythm even becomes a little hypnotic. Throw in all the repetitive rhyming and the poem sounds even more like some kind of incantation. It picks up speed too, starting out slow and quiet, and then building, getting faster and more intense until you can almost imagine someone yelling it.

    Check out lines 63-64: "Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful disaster/ Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore." Just try to read that slowly and calmly, without getting caught up and swept along by the wild, frantic sound of the poem. That's the great thing about the sound of "The Raven." Even as the events of the poem grow more intense, the words and the rhythm of the poem pick up too. By the end it almost sounds like a fist pounding on a table: "Take thy beak from out my heart, and thy form from off my door!" – Boom, boom, boom. The spell that Poe is weaving over us comes to a wild peak, and then disappears suddenly.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Well, in one sense, the title is pretty basic. Since the poem is about a raven, "The Raven" makes a good title, as far as we're concerned. Still, Poe had other options. He could easily have called it "Nevermore" or "Lenore." Calling it "The Raven" does at least a couple of things. On the first reading, it prepares us for what is coming and gives us a little hint about the big event in this poem. After all, the Raven doesn't show up for a while, so we spend the first 38 lines wondering what the title refers to. More importantly though, the title focuses our attention completely on the bird. There are other things happening in this poem, but the title puts the raven at the head of the pack (or of the flock, if you will). It gives us one more reason to wonder what this bird is, where it comes from, and what it might represent.

  • Setting

    The Library in Your Rich Uncle's Mansion

    So, we aren't lucky enough to have a rich, eccentric, childless uncle. But if we did, we bet he'd hang out in a room like the one Poe describes in this poem. We bet the curtains would be "silken" and "purple" (line 13). We bet the cushions on the chairs would have velvet violet lining" (line 77). The room in this poem feels like the perfect place to brood and mutter to yourself, especially if you don't have to work and can spend all your time thinking gloomy thoughts.

    Poe doesn't say what exactly this room is, but we imagine it being a library, shelves piled high with musty old books. There's probably a pipe and a bottle of brandy on the side table. We can see the spooky light from the lanterns playing over the scene, making everything seem even stranger and more exciting.

  • Speaker

    So, we know this poem was written over 150 years ago, and we're sure that people talked differently back then. Still, we're not sure you would have met a lot of people in 1845 who walked around shouting things like: "Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe!" (line 83).

    Our speaker is definitely the melodramatic type. He starts out at an emotional level of about nine on a ten-point scale; he then heads right through the roof to about fifteen. His tone is intense, almost frantic. He seems super-focused one moment, and then a bit spaced-out the next. Now granted, he's had a tough night, but from the sound of his voice and the choice of his words, we get the sense that he's wound pretty tight even when he's not talking to birds.

    We don't mean to make fun of him, just to point out that he seems to live pretty close to the edge. In fact, it's his intensity that makes him so captivating. Like a mad scientist on the edge of a discovery, his tone is pretty exciting. He makes the events of his life as electrifying for us as they are for him.

  • Tough-O-Meter

    Base Camp (3)

    There's a really, great clear story driving this poem. Because of that, even when Poe gets a little carried away and the vocabulary gets a little dense, this is still an easy and fun poem to read.

  • Calling Card

    Spooky sounds, even spookier themes, and lots of fun rhymes.

    When the poem you are reading features death (especially deceased women), an elaborate rhyme, and mournful language, you can be pretty sure you're dealing with Poe. He loved to tell stories about depressed men, many of them pining for the women who have abandoned them by dying.

    Poe was also very, very meticulous about arranging his poems for a certain effect on the reader. This effect was usually depression. Starting to notice a theme here? In particular, Poe felt that certain words could have an emotive effect on you: they would call up a particular set of feelings. One of the words used in this poem is "Nevermore." It's filled with longing and despair, a sense that nothing will get better, no matter how badly you – the reader – want it to. Combine the feeling of being completely depressed with hypnotic rhythm and rhyme, and you've got the essence of Poe.

  • Form and Meter

    Rhyming Trochaic Octameter

    This is a really carefully organized poem. Let's take a closer look at the first six lines (the first stanza), since what we see happening there gets repeated throughout the poem. Here it is, to jog our memory:

    Line 1: Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, A
    Line 2: Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore – B
    Line 3: While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, C
    Line 4: As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door – B
    Line 5:"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door – B
    Line 6: Only this and nothing more." B

    Let's start with the rhyming words (we put them in bold to make them easier to see). The first and third lines have a rhyming word at the middle and at the end of the line (as in "dreary" and "weary"). This is called internal rhyme. In the fourth line, the rhyme from the third line shows up in the middle of the sentence (see that "rapping" up there?)

    The most noticeable rhyme in the poem comes at the end of the second, fourth, fifth, and sixth lines in each stanza. It's easy to pick out, because it's always an "or" sound (e.g. lore, door, more, floor, Lenore, and of course, Nevermore). That means that two thirds of the lines in this poem end with the same sound. In English-professor jargon, this rhyme scheme would be called ABCBBB, with each letter standing for the sound that ends a line. (We put that up there, too, to make it easier to see.)

    As far as the meter goes, we can start by counting out the number of syllables. The first and third lines have sixteen syllables each. That makes eight pairs of syllables. The emphasis in these pairs is usually placed on the first syllable: (Once u/pon a /midnight/ dreary). This kind of syllable pair is called a trochee. Since there are eight syllable pairs in a line, we call it "octameter" (octo- standing for eight, as in octopus). So the meter is called trochaic octameter.

    One thing about having a regular meter, though, is that poets can't resist playing with it. You probably noticed that the last line of each stanza is a lot shorter, with only seven syllables or three and a half feet. Plus, if you look really closely, you can see that the second, fourth, and fifth lines only have seven and a half feet. The trick is that in each of the lines ending in an "or" sound, Poe leaves off a syllable. That way the crucial "or" sits out there by itself, unattached to another syllable, making it stand out even more. (Source)

    If you look, you can probably figure out a few of Poe's other little gimmicks. The point of all this is that he's trying to make his poem as musical, hypnotic, and captivating as possible. All of this complicated rhyme and rhythm aims at drawing you more completely into the world of the poem.

  • Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

    Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

    Lenore

    This particular lady is the main focus of the speaker's obsessive thoughts. He brings her up constantly, and even when he tries to think about something else, he always ends up back at Lenore. Despite this, we don't actually learn that much about her. We don't hear what she looks like or how she is related to our speaker (wife? girlfriend? sister?). She's an idea, a memory, but she never really becomes a full-fledged character.

    • Lines 10-11: Here's where we first hear Lenore's name. At almost the same moment, we hear that she is lost; it doesn't take us long to figure out that she is dead, since only the angels know her name now. We should also point out a major technique in the poem that shows up here. When the first sounds of two words begin with the same sound, as in "rare and radiant" (line 11), we call it alliteration. Poe uses it like it's going out of style. Once you start looking, you'll see it everywhere in this poem.
    • Lines 28-29: In the first line here (line 28), we hear Lenore's name being whispered, but can't tell where it's coming from. In Line 29, we find out that the speaker has spoken her name, and that this is just the echo whispering back. Lenore's presence seems to lurk everywhere in the poem.
    • Line 77-78: This is yet another moment in which the speaker's wandering thoughts take him back to Lenore. We think this one is intentionally a little over the top. Basically, he remembers that Lenore's butt used to press into this cushion when she was alive. He doesn't come right out and say it, but it's there, and it's pretty weird way to remember a loved one. You might remember the way someone laughed, or the way they smiled, but not necessarily the way she pressed on a chair. We think Poe is injecting some irony into this description, and helping us see how out of control this guy really is.
    • Line 83: Here our speaker fantasizes about forgetting Lenore forever. Her memory has become a curse, and all he wants is some relief from the pain of thinking about her. Little chance of that, though, since this is a Poe poem.
    • Lines 94-95: Here is the final direct mention of Lenore. Here he seems completely filled with love for this dead woman. It's almost a little too much. He calls her "sainted," "rare," "radiant." In a sense, this Lenore is not anything like a real person. She's an ideal, a symbol of what the narrator thinks a perfect, unspoiled, untouchable woman ought to be. To this grief-stricken man, she stops being human and becomes a heavenly saint.

    The Raven

    So this is a big one too. Not only is it the title of the poem, but even once we've heard all about Lenore, and the guy in his chamber, it's probably the image of the Raven that sticks most in our minds. It was a pretty great choice on Poe's part, a bird that looks like a part of the black night it came out of, a little scary looking, but also hard to read. The Raven is everywhere in this poem, but we'll hit a few key moments here.

    • Lines 38-40: The Raven's big entrance. Notice how much emphasis Poe puts on the way he comes into the room. The image we get is of a king or a queen walking into a throne room. He mentions that the Raven is "stately" and he also says that its "mien" (its way of acting) is like that of a "lord or lady."
    • Line 45: This quick reference to a shorn crest is an allusion to a medieval tradition. Sometimes when a knight behaved in a cowardly (craven) way, he would have his head shaved to humiliate him. This reference creates an even stronger link between the raven and an old world of kings and queens and knights.
    • Line 48: The famous line: "Quoth the Raven, Nevermore." When a line gets repeated again and again in a poem, we call it a refrain. This particular refrain is what totally takes apart our narrator, and turns him from a sad, nervous guy into a shuddering wreck. When the bird says it for the first time, the narrator thinks it's amusing nonsense. After a while, it starts to seem like a horrifying prophecy.
    • Line 85: Here the narrator starts to believe what the bird is saying. Since he thinks the word "nevermore" is actually foretelling the future, he refers to the bird as a prophet. He can't decide if this is just a bird, or some "devil," but he is completely convinced that it knows what it's talking about.
    • Line 105: Our final image of the bird is that of a sleeping demon with burning eyes. He casts a shadow over the whole room, and completely terrifies our poor narrator. Starting out as a sort of funny bird with a strange way of walking into a room, he's now the symbol of pure satanic evil. All that in just 60 lines.

    Night's Plutonian Shore

    This is the kind of big, spooky, complicated image that Poe just loves. It sounds spiffy and poetic, and it also manages to ball a bunch of mysterious images into one phrase. The phrase has three words, and also three parts:

    • The Night. Darkness and night are both major symbols in this poem. They both represent the mysterious, maybe dangerous and scary power of nature. In addition, they just make for a cool atmosphere for a poem – it definitely couldn't take place on a sunny afternoon.
    • Plutonian. This is an allusion to the Roman god of the underworld. The adjective "Plutonian" is meant to make us think of all the scary things that one associates with the underworld: darkness, death, the afterlife etc.
    • Shore is a little more mysterious. It may be a metaphor that helps us to see the night as a vast ocean, washing up against the edge of this chamber.
    • In a way, then, all these words help emphasize the ideas of darkness and night. Not just a dreary night, but also a vast ocean of hellish darkness. Very much Poe's style.
      • Line 47: This is the first time this phrase gets used. It associates the raven with the night, and since the speaker asks for the bird's "lordly name," we almost feel like he could be the king of the night.
      • Line 98: The phrase used here gets echoed later in the poem. Poe does this a lot, with all kinds of phrases. Where before the idea of the night was kind of intriguing to the speaker, now he just wants the bird gone. Since the narrator is all worked up now, we get a much stronger sense of how scary and threatening this Plutonian night really is.

      Nepenthe

      This is an allusion to a mythological drug that you might take to forget your grief. From what we can tell, we think our narrator might really need some of this stuff.

      • Lines 82-83: The idea of nepenthe occurs to our speaker in a kind of daydream/hallucination. He imagines that the room is filling with some sort of perfume, and thinks that God himself has decided to help him forget his misery. In the Odyssey, Homer describes nepenthe in exactly this way, as a drink that will take away all sadness.

  • Sex Rating

    G

    This poem is certainly all about feelings of love and desire. However, one half of the couple in question is dead, so things never get too steamy.

  • Shout Outs

    Literature, Philosophy, and Mythology

    • Pallas (41, 104): This is a reference to the Greek goddess Athena, often called Pallas Athena, or just simply Pallas. She is primarily associated with wisdom, which makes her head an ironic place for the Raven to sit, since we can never quite tell if the bird is actually wise or is just saying the only word it knows. Since she's a goddess, though, she's also a symbol of the ideal woman, perfectly beautiful wise, virtuous, and strong. For a man who spends all his time thinking about the perfect maiden he has lost (Lenore), a bust of Pallas seems like a pretty good choice.
    • Balm in Gilead (89): This refers to a biblical quote, from Jeremiah 8:22 "Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there?" In a general sense this famous balm (a kind of healing ointment) has come to represent hope, peace, an end to pain. Obviously, since the origin is Biblical, there's an aspect of the peace of Christian salvation, although we can't quite tell how much the speaker of the poem believes in that.