Study Guide

The Raven Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By Edgar Allan Poe

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.