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Edgar Allan Poe

The Raven

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1845

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Influenced by the English Romantic poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Lord” George Gordon Byron, and Percy Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe represents one of the essential American Romantic poets of the nineteenth century. Romanticism here refers to a literary movement of the late 1700s and 1800s which focused on the emotional life of the individual and curiosity about the self. This movement complemented a larger geopolitical and ideological shift in the United States. As a young nation forged a path into the West, so its writers and philosophers explored the unknown territory of the human mind.

Some Romantic poets, like the transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, saw potential for positive revelations within the self. Reflecting his belief in the inherent goodness of people, Emerson’s poetry spotlights lovely elements like natural features, water, and light. Poe, on the other hand, was interested in plumbing the darker depths of the human psyche. He uses gloomy Gothic set pieces and nightmarish sequences to suggest that self-reliance and turning inwards results not in enlightenment, but terror and anxiety. The human mind, Poe contends, needs no assistance from spooky exteriors: It is fully capable of creating horror from within. This theme of self-generated, internal torment plays a prominent role in “The Raven.”

Poe’s works defy categorization. They contain elements of detective fiction, Gothic thrillers, Victorian love poetry, and even comedy. He is sometimes credited as the creator of the modern short story, and his tales, including “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Cask of Amontillado” are among the most widely known in the literary world. His critical opinions were also influential, especially the idea that poetry must be musical, that it should focus on beauty over truth, and that it must elevate the soul.

Poe desired above all to be known as a poet, though he only wrote around fifty poems in total. His narrative poem “The Raven” is his most popular work, though others such as “Annabel Lee” and “Ulalume” are also widely read. Poe’s poetry features rigid rhyme schemes and stanza patterns. His speakers are always unnamed males—though it is tempting to read his poems as autobiographical, it is more likely that they represent an exercise in the subjective exploration of emotion, as did the works of other Romantic poets of his time. Poe’s speakers often embark on a literal journey or a journey of the mind. Starting from a place of rational credibility, they are gradually unseated and made unreliable by their emotions. “The Raven” fits this mold. The poem came to be associated so powerfully with Poe that the author himself is sometimes referred to as “the Raven.”

Poet Biography

Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts on January 19, 1809, but spent most of his youth in the South. His father, David Poe, abandoned the family while Poe was young; his mother, the actress Elizabeth Poe, died soon after the family’s move to Richmond, Virginia. Poe took the name “Allan” from his foster father there, John Allan.

After years of private schooling, Poe enrolled at the University of Virginia in 1826. He excelled in Classics and Modern Languages, but left the following year after racking up substantial gambling debts. Financial troubles would plague Poe throughout his life. His poverty drove him to write popular (and financially lucrative) works, and he proved to have an eye for up-and-coming trends in the publishing world. After a brief stint in the army, Poe served variously as editor, contributor, and literary critic for publications throughout the eastern seaboard.

In 1836 he married his cousin, Virginia Clemm. After ten years of living an itinerant writer’s lifestyle, the Poes finally settled in Fordham, New York in 1844. Three years later Virginia died of tuberculosis, but Poe’s career saw an upswing, particularly after the success of “The Raven,” which was published in 1845. Various scandals, however, coupled with the death of Virginia, contributed to Poe’s drinking problem. The cause of his death on October 7, 1849, after collapsing in the streets of Baltimore a few days prior, remains unknown, but may have been related to his abuse of alcohol.

Poem Text

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.”

   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.

   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.”

   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.

   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.

   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!”

   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.

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.”

   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 blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—

Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,

            With such name as “Nevermore.”

   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 farther 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.”

   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’.”

   But the Raven still beguiling all my 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.”

   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!

   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.”

   “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.”

   “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.”

   “Be that word our sign of 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.”

   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!

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Raven.” 1845. Poetry Foundation. 


“The Raven” opens on a wintry night in December. The speaker is an exhausted student or scholar, dozing as he reads, when he hears a sudden knocking at the door. He opens it, but there is no-one there. Startled and increasingly superstitious, he whispers a question: “Lenore?” The word is echoed back to him.

Back in the chamber the speaker ponders what this could mean. He hears the tapping again, this time from the window. He thinks it must be the wind, but instead a raven enters and perches on a bust of Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and the arts.

At first the speaker finds the sight of such a serious bird amusing. He remarks on its boldness—this bird is not “craven,” or a coward, even though it seems to sport the shorn hairstyle of a disgraced medieval knight. In jokingly elevated language (to match the raven’s kingly appearance), the speaker requests the bird’s name. The raven replies, “Nevermore.”

The speaker, falling back into his grief, suggests the bird will probably fly away and leave him soon, just like his hopes and friends. The raven replies “Nevermore” again, suggesting this time that it will never leave the speaker’s chamber. 

The speaker is startled by how uncannily fitting the raven’s response is. He tries to rationalize the experience: The raven doesn’t know what it’s saying, it’s just repeating a phrase it learned from a former owner. Still, the bird’s fiery eyes unsettle him. The velvet lining of the chair he’s sitting in reminds him, suddenly, of his lost Lenore, and how she will never sit here with him again.

The speaker thinks he smells church incense, perhaps swung by an angel (a seraphim), and accuses the raven of being sent by God to make him forget Lenore. He compares the bird to nepenthe, a drug of forgetfulness first mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey. Again, the raven replies “Nevermore.”

The speaker pivots to accusing the raven of being sent by the Devil, or perhaps arriving here by random chance. Its strange confidence makes him wonder if it has some special knowledge to share. He references the Bible, Jeremiah 8:22, asking if there is “balm in Gilead”; in effect, he wants to know if there is any hope of relief from his sorrow. Again, the raven says “Nevermore,” implying this time that the speaker will never recover from the loss of Lenore.

Increasingly desperate, the speaker asks if he will at least meet Lenore in “Aidenn,” an alternate spelling of Eden, meaning heaven. Again, the raven tells him “Nevermore.” His grief changed to rage, the speaker demands the bird return to “Night’s Plutonian shore,” or hell (Pluto is the Roman god of the Underworld, and “Plutonian shore” refers to the Styx, a river there). The raven refuses to leave.

In the last stanza, the speaker shifts from the past tense to the present. The poem ends with a confirmation that the raven perches still on the bust of Pallas above the speaker’s chamber door.