The Raven Summary
It's late at night, and late in the year (after midnight on a December evening, to be precise). A man is sitting in his room, half reading, half falling asleep, and trying to forget his lost love, Lenore. Suddenly, he hears someone (or something) knocking at the door.
He calls out, apologizing to the "visitor" he imagines must be outside. Then he opens the door and finds…nothing. This freaks him out a little, and he reassures himself that it is just the wind against the window. So he goes and opens the window, and in flies (you guessed it) a raven.
The Raven settles in on a statue above the door, and for some reason, our speaker's first instinct is to talk to it. He asks for its name, just like you usually do with strange birds that fly into your house, right? Amazingly enough, though, the Raven answers back, with a single word: "Nevermore."
Understandably surprised, the man asks more questions. The bird's vocabulary turns out to be pretty limited, though; all it says is "Nevermore." Our narrator catches on to this rather slowly and asks more and more questions, which get more painful and personal. The Raven, though, doesn't change his story, and the poor speaker starts to lose his sanity.
Stanzas I & II
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore –
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door –
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door –
Only this and nothing more."
- Poe jumps right in here and begins to create the atmosphere that is so important in this poem.
- In the first two lines, we find out that it's late on a "dreary" night, and that our speaker is reading weird old books and feeling "weak and weary."
- Do you get a feeling for this already? Do you know those nights where you're tired and maybe a little depressed, but you can't quite go to sleep? You turn things over in your mind, and as you do, you start to feel worse? Maybe you're reading a scary book or watching a spooky movie, and suddenly the whole world seems a little dark and scary? That's exactly where Poe wants to put us.
- In line 3, the speaker is just starting to nod off, and then…tap, tap, tap. Just a little noise, but suddenly he's jolted awake, and he's a little nervous.
- He tries to calm himself down, telling himself that "tis some visitor" (6) who has dropped by unexpectedly. But, just like in a horror movie, we know it won't be that easy…
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; – vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow – sorrow for the lost Lenore –
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore –
Nameless here for evermore.
- Just as we're wondering whom that visitor might be, as we start to feel the suspense, Poe steps back. He almost starts the poem over again, telling us a little bit more about the speaker and more about that already spooky atmosphere.
- In line 6, we find out that not only is this a dark, late, dreary night, but it's December too. Poe is really piling it on here: dark, late, cold, and "bleak."
- It sure doesn't sound like anything happy is going to pop up here. Even the fire is going out, and the last coals, the " dying embers," are making creepy, ghost-like shadows on the floor (8).
- The room almost starts to feel haunted, and in a way, it is.
- In the next four lines we learn that there's a reason why our speaker is sitting up late, trying to distract himself with these old books.
- He's grieving for a lost woman, someone named Lenore. This woman (His wife? His girlfriend?) is among the angels and has left him behind, alone.
- He hopes for an end to the pain, what he calls "surcease from sorrow" (10), but maybe staying up and reading late in December isn't the best way to get your mind off of a loved one's death.
Stanzas III & IV
And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me – filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
"'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door –
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; –
This it is and nothing more."
- In fact, it seems like the room and its creepy atmosphere might really be getting to our speaker. Even the rustling sound of the curtains seems sad to him (13).
- As he listens, he begins to really freak out, his head filling with "fantastic terrors."
- His heart starts to beat faster too; to calm himself down, he has to tell himself (twice) that the knocking sound he hears is just a visitor.
- The more he says it though, the more we all know that it can't just be that, or at least not the kind of visitor he might be expecting…
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
"Sir," said I, "or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you" – here I opened wide the door; – –
Darkness there and nothing more.
- Eventually, he gets a hold of himself: "presently my soul grew stronger" (19).
- He calls out to the visitor he imagines must be there, and apologizes for taking so long.
- He explains that he was almost asleep and wasn't sure if he was just hearing things (20-23). Then, suddenly, he throws open the door and finds…nothing. Just the black night: "Darkness there and nothing more" (24).
- Poe is really keying up the suspense now. Again, it's hard for us not to think of a horror movie, where the nervous main character walks up to a door, slowly turns the knob, and finds nothing. That's always the sure sign that the surprise is coming, and when we least expect it.
Stanzas V & VI
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore?"
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!" –
Merely this and nothing more.
- For a while, then, he's almost hypnotized by the darkness.
- He stares out into it, "peering […] fearing" (having fun with the rhymes yet?).
- Now might be about the time that you realize that our narrator isn't in great shape.
- He could close the door and go back to his book or his nap like a normal person, but he's clearly looking for something else. His mind is filled with strange ideas and terrible dreams (26). More than anything, though, he's obsessed with one idea, or, we should say, with one person.
- Suddenly, out of the total dark and quiet, we hear her name, "Lenore."
- Just that name, appearing in an eerie whisper out of nowhere (28). Or at least it seems like it comes from nowhere.
- In the next line, we find out that it is the speaker who has whispered her name, and just an echo that has "murmured back" the word "Lenore."
- For our depressed, grief-stricken narrator, the whole world seems bleak and terrifying, and everything, even the darkness, reminds him of his lost love.
Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
"Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore –
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; –
'Tis the wind and nothing more!"
- Finally, he turns away from the darkness, but it's clear that he isn't comforted at all; in fact, he's feeling worse than ever: "all my soul within me burning" (31).
- This is a story about a guy in a room, but also about the mind: what it can do to us when it's off-kilter and all the feelings and ideas it can create.
- Our speaker, with his burning soul, is going through some rough times here.
- Then he hears the tapping again.
- Like anyone who is near the edge, he tries to get a grip, to come up with a rational explanation. He decides the sound is coming from the window, and he forces himself to go take a look.
- He tells himself to calm down again: "let my heart be still a moment" (35).
- In a final effort to make things seem normal, he tells himself it's just the wind (36).
Stanzas VII & VIII
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door –
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door – Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
- Here it comes! You knew from the title that there was a raven in here somewhere. Now, in the first two lines of this stanza, it shows up. And not just any raven, but a really impressive, capital-R kind of Raven. A "stately" (that just means royal-looking) raven, one that makes the speaker think of older, nobler times, "the saintly days of yore" (38).
- This important-looking raven just prances in through the window. He doesn't even stop to say hi or to make a gesture of greeting (that's an "obeisance") to our speaker (39).
- He acts like an aristocrat ("with the mien of lord or lady") and doesn't waste any time making himself right at home. (40). In fact, he heads straight for that chamber door we've heard so much about and sits above it, on a statue.
- That statue is actually pretty important, and Poe definitely wants us to notice it, so let's take a moment to check it out.
- He describes it as a "bust" which is a statue that goes from the head to the middle of the torso. It's a statue of Pallas, another name for the ancient Greek goddess Athena. She is known primarily as a goddess of Wisdom.
- When a major symbol like this shows up, we know to be on our guard. It's a lot different from the speaker saying, "the raven perched upon my crappy old lamp," or something like that. Poe might be trying to get us to think about whether this bird is wise or not, whether it's a thinking thing or just a mimic.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
"Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou," I said, "art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore –
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!"
Quoth the Raven "Nevermore."
- At first, our speaker seems rather amused by his unexpected visitor.
- Poe gets a little fancy when he describes the raven, so we'll break it down: "Then this ebony [really black] bird beguiling [distracting him, capturing his attention] my sad fancy [imagination] into smiling,/By the grave [serious] and stern [serious again] decorum [proper way of acting] of the countenance (look on its face) it wore" (43-44).
- Fancy words aside, you might recognize this feeling. You're feeling down about something, and suddenly the sight of something strikes you as funny, and pulls you out of your funk a little.
- Our speaker really gets into this feeling of amusement, talking to the raven as if it were some noble person.
- He also goes out of his way to throw in some flourishes. The bit in line 45 refers to the way that a cowardly (craven) knight would sometimes have his head (crest) shaven to humiliate him. "Plutonian," in line 47, refers to the Roman god Pluto, who rules the Underworld. The adjective is meant to make us think about dark, scary, hellish things, like this particular dark, dreary night.
- If you're keeping score, that's two references to classical mythology in seven lines. We're starting to feel like our speaker might be a touch on the pompous side.
- All he really wants to know is the Raven's name.
- Of course the really big deal in this stanza doesn't come until the last line. The speaker runs his mouth with this jokey question and then, amazingly, the Raven answers him. He only speaks a single word: "Nevermore" (48).
Stanzas IX & X
Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning – little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blest with seeing bird above his chamber door –
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as "Nevermore."
- The speaker is more than a little surprised to hear this bird talk (49), but he doesn't really see how "Nevermore" answers his question (50). He underlines this by pointing out that no one before him has ever had a bird (or even an animal) named "Nevermore" sitting on a statue in his room. Pretty tough to argue with him there.
- We're pretty sure this bird-named-Nevermore thing is a joke, but we'll admit that maybe it's not laugh-out-loud funny.
But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered – not a feather then he fluttered –
Till I scarcely more than muttered "Other friends have flown before –
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before."
Then the bird said "Nevermore."
- After that one word, the bird clams up and refuses to say any more (55).
- There's something mysterious and powerful about that word, though, and the speaker has the feeling that it contains the bird's whole soul (56).
- The bird keeps quiet, and the speaker, now maybe a little bit annoyed, slips back into his depressed mode. Now he sees the bird not as a welcome, amusing visitor, but just one more in the long line of friends who have abandoned him.
- So, he keeps talking to himself, reminding himself that, "Other friends have flown before" (58). He is sure that the bird will disappear by tomorrow, leaving him as alone and hopeless as ever (59).
- Then the bird gives him his favorite line again: "Nevermore."
Stanzas XI & XII
Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
"Doubtless," said I, "what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore –
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of 'Never – nevermore.'"
- This time the answer is a little bit spookier. He said the bird was going to leave and the bird said, "Nevermore."
- That actually makes sense. It's "aptly spoken," as the speaker says. Again, he's a little freaked out, and again he looks for a plausible explanation.
- He tells himself that this bird only knows one word ("his only stock and store") and uses it for every situation. He even tells himself a little story about how the raven might have learned the word.
- He imagines that the bird had a really, really depressed former owner, whose life was such a mess that all he could say was "Nevermore."
But the Raven still beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore –
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking "Nevermore."
- For some reason he's still fascinated by the bird, and he repeats line 43, about how it beguiles his fancy. So he pulls up a chair, sits in front of the bird, and really lets his imagination go to work.
- He seems like an obsessive guy, and he's already pretty into this raven.
- He sinks into the chair and tries to think what this scary, ancient-looking bird could mean with this one word.
- Even though he guesses that it's just a random word the bird has learned, something still intrigues him; he can't quite let this go.
Stanzas XIII & XIV
This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!
- He sits and thinks, and sits and thinks, in silence, "not one syllable expressing" (73).
- He imagines the "fiery eyes" of the bird burning through into his "bosom's core" (74).
- We think it's safe to say that our narrator is a melodramatic kind of guy. So he does some more thinking and guessing (or "divining" as he rather pompously calls it).
- Poe gives us some details of the room here and, as always, they are rich and luxurious (like the velvet cushion and a little scary (even the lamp-light seems to "gloat") (76).
- For some reason, the light and the cushion push him back to his old obsession. He remembers that Lenore will never sit on this cushion again (78), and that she's really gone forever.
Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
"Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee – by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite – respite and nepenthe, from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!"
Quoth the Raven "Nevermore."
- Now things start to get a little weird. In his grief, our speaker imagines the air filling with perfume from an invisible censer (a globe that holds burning incense).
- To top that off, he imagines angels ("seraphim") swinging that censer. He even hears their footsteps on the carpet (80).
- Now that he's gone around the bend, he starts to yell at himself, calling himself a "wretch."
- He tells himself that this imaginary perfume thickening the air was sent from God to help him forget Lenore. He compares this perfume to nepenthe, a mythological drink that was supposed to comfort grieving people.
- He tells himself to "quaff" (that just means drink) this potion and forget Lenore.
- Just as we start to really wonder what he's raving about, the raven cuts him off by saying "Nevermore" (84).
Stanzas XV & XVI
"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! – prophet still, if bird or devil! –
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted –
On this home by Horror haunted – tell me truly, I implore –
Is there – is there balm in Gilead? – tell me – tell me, I implore!"
Quoth the Raven "Nevermore."
- Now the speaker starts to get seriously worked up and starts full-out yelling at the bird, calling him a "Prophet" and a "thing of evil" (85).
- Well, actually he backs off on the evil thing a little, moving back and forth between assuming that this bird has come straight from Satan (the "Tempter") or that it has just been blown in at random by a storm (86).
- The next line emphasizes the strangeness of the bird, who is all alone, but seems unshaken ("desolate yet all undaunted").
- It also reminds us of how completely miserable our speaker is, stuck in a "desert land enchanted" alone in a "home by Horror haunted" (88). All he really wants is a little bit of hope, some possibility of comfort.
- So he asks the bird a typically pompous, bookwormish question: "Is there balm in Gilead?" (89) It's a Biblical reference, basically meaning, is there hope in my future, a possibility of comfort, peace, etc?
- Predictably, the bird shoots him down with "Nevermore."
"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil – prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us – by that God we both adore –
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore –
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore."
Quoth the Raven "Nevermore."
- Our speaker seems to be pretty slow to catch on, or maybe he's starting to enjoy the torture the bird is inflicting on him. In any case, he keeps pumping this dry well, asking the bird another question, this one a little more to the point.
- He asks, in the name of God, if he will one day get to embrace his beloved Lenore again, in "the distant Aidenn" (i.e., Eden, or Heaven).
- The bird says, of course, "Nevermore."
Stanzas XVII & XVIII
"Be that word our sign in parting, bird or fiend!" I shrieked, upstarting –
"Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! – quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!"
Quoth the Raven "Nevermore."
- Finally, he completely loses it. That last "Nevermore" is the final straw, and he jumps up and tells the bird to get lost (97).
- He directs it to get back to the storm and the evil night it came from (98).
- He tells it not to leave any trace, not even a feather ("black plume"), and to take its lies elsewhere and leave him to his loneliness.
- He tells the raven to get off the statue, to take his beak out of his heart, and, basically, to go to hell. To which the Raven says, "Nevermore." This bird is here to stay.
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted – nevermore!
- All of a sudden, we switch to the present tense. This isn't a story from the past, it's right now, and the raven is still there.
- He has turned into a kind of statue himself, a glowing, scary demon statue, whose shadow is cast across the floor. That shadow has trapped the speaker, imprisoned his soul.
- We start out hearing a story about a talking raven on a dark night, and we end up watching a man descend into his own personal hell.