The Raven Summary & Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 19-page guide for the poem “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe includes detailed a summary and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes key themes like Grief and the Burden of Memory and Death and Victorian Love.
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.”
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.
“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.