Edgar Allan Poe’s famous work of existential horror begins as many stories typical of the genre do, on “a midnight dreary” in “the bleak December,” so described by the reader’s host for the duration of the story, a man haunted by the memories of his lost love Lenore in the late hours.
He’s visited by a raven, who sits upon a bust of Pallas over his door, repeating the phrase Nevermore over and over, as the answer to every increasingly panicked question posed by the tortured speaker, even as he begs the raven to leave him.
The poem ends ambiguously with the raven still perched upon the bust to this day. Macabre and fantastic, “The Raven” presents a story with plenty to unpack and is an interesting piece to analyze in the light of a commentary on the afterlife and the effect of grief on the mind.
A good place to start is the setting of the piece: a library at midnight in December. Truly Poe could not have picked a darker setting; midwinter’s December nearly anywhere in the Northern hemisphere is the coldest and darkest time of the year, with sunset occurring earlier than in any other season.
Metaphorically, it is a dark setting as well; the wee hours of the morning, surrounded by “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.” The setting could have been in his bedroom, but he instead is falling asleep here, and so the audience is led to believe that he is up late for a reason, that something is bound to happen. The speaker does not seem to care for keeping himself in a well-lit or heated room, given that the fire was dying, leaving him in a setting surely full of shadows twisting themselves along the walls.
It is from these descriptions alone in the first stanza that a sense of foreboding is developed in the reader, driving them to listen with more attention to the dramatic wording of the rest of the poem, and truly understand what is being said.
There are very few characters actually present in The Raven. There is Lenore, present only in the pained memory of the speaker; she is his lost love, the reason for his late-night broodings, “the rare and radiant maiden [named by] the angels.” It is her absence from the poem that makes her important.
Then there is the speaker himself, driven to despair by the silence left in the wake of his love’s disappearance; the first-person perspective of the story in his words gives a look into his deteriorating mental state the further into it one gets.
The raven itself is the most interesting and least detailed of the characters presented. It is seen by the speaker as a prophet, as he says multiple times, come to deliver his doom, sent by the Devil himself to damn him. Its position on the bust of Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom and war (is this a hint to the concept of internal struggles?) implies its connection to the divine, and the fact that it is still there after the events of the poem point to a connection with eternity.
Perhaps the raven is a messenger, sent from the Seraphim to the speaker as a reminder of Lenore. It could also be an interpretation of the Grim Reaper, come to collect the soul of a man driven to death by despair, answering every question in the same, finite and unquestionable way, with the simple word “nevermore.”
Interpreting The Raven
There are many interpretations of “The Raven”; as a simple, shock value horror piece; as a warning against the dangers of obsession and grief; as a piece with a deeper meaning that perhaps cannot even be explained. It certainly causes reflection on the meaning of death, and what lies beyond it, in that silent night the raven flies out of, and in the “shadow that lies floating on the floor.”
Perhaps, though, the haunting story of the raven that answers to and with “Nevermore” is just that: a story. Perhaps it is a lyrical tale meant to enthrall and entertain, based in the mind of a tortured soul bent on expressing the darkness he felt with the rest of the world.