Edgar Allan Poe published The Raven in 1845, four years before his death. In my opinion, it is his masterpiece.
In the first stanza, Poe prepares us for the strange event that is about to occur. He paints a somber scene. It is December, a month when the dark nights are longer than they are in any other month of the year. It is midnight, a time when eerie events tend to occur, at least in literature. The activity of the unnamed narrator intensifies the gloom. He is reading “quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore.” Poe does not tell us the titles of these books, but some may have dealt with the world of the dead, since the scholar later speaks of “Night’s Plutonian shore.”
Once I unwittingly drifted into a situation very similar to the scene here painted by Poe. Late at night, I believe it was close to midnight, I decided to play a recording of a musical composition of Rachmaninov entitled The Isle of the Dead. At the same time, I opened a book at random and started reading. It was the story of the journey of Gilgamesh to the world of the dead.
For some time, I continued listening to the music and reading. I did not see anything unusual in what I was doing. However, the eeriness of the scene eventually occurred to me. Not being of a superstitious temperament, I was not frightened, but amused.
In such a setting, the scholar hears someone or something rapping at the door of his chamber. He is slow to answer, partly because he is sleepy and partly because grief tends to paralyze his actions. He is grieving over his lost Lenore, a rare and radiant maiden who died before they had the opportunity to marry.
Finally, he rises from his cushioned seat. With a brief apology for his tardy response, he walks to the door and opens it. “Darkness there, and nothing more.”
Fear enters his heart. Has a specter come to visit? He dares to hope that the spirit of Leonore is blessing him with her presence. He timidly whispers her name, but the only answer is an echo.
Filled with agitation, he closes the door and returns to his chamber. A tapping at the window intensifies his trepidation. Hoping that it is nothing more than the wind, he flings open the shutter.
His visitor proves to be a stately raven that proudly enters and perches on a bust of Pallas Athene, just above his chamber door.
The raven makes him forget his sorrows, at least temporarily. Its stern decorum makes him smile. It looks like a noble being from the realm of the dead. In a fit of levity, he asks the raven what its name is. The bird replies: “Nevermore.”
The scholar is amazed at the raven’s ability to converse with him. Nevertheless, the answer of the raven does not make sense to him. He does not believe that its name is Nevermore.
While he is happy that his new-found friend has brought him a little cheer, he sadly observes: “On the morrow he will leave me as my hopes have flown before.” This time the raven surprises him with an appropriate answer. It replies: “Nevermore.” The wise scholar concludes that this is the only word that the bird knows.
He wheels his cushioned seat directly in front of his supposedly faithful friend. As he contemplates the raven and the sole word that it utters, he becomes drowsy. He imagines that seraphim are perfuming the air with an unseen censer. He feels that God has sent these heavenly beings to bless him with nepenthe, so that he would forget his sorrows. As he expresses this thought out loud, the raven startles him with the reply: “Nevermore.”
The bird’s discouraging answer fills him with agitation. He somehow forgets that this is the only word that the bird knows, so he feels that the raven’s answer is an evil omen. He calls it a prophet and a thing of evil. In a frenzy, he asks the raven whether he will ever enjoy a soothing balm that will heal his grief. Predictably, the bird replies: “Nevermore.”
With heightened agitation, he then asks the raven whether he will some day enjoy the comforting embraces of Lenore in heaven. Again the raven replies: “Nevermore.”
The scholar feels that the raven has abused his hospitality. He demands that it leave at once, not even leaving a single black feather to remind him of the lie that it has uttered.
The raven refuses to leave. In reply to the scholar’s imperious command, it says: “Nevermore.” It continues to sit on the bust of Pallas Athene, and the light of a lamp casts its shadow on the floor. In despair, the scholar concludes his narration with the words: “And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor shall be lifted nevermore!”
Was Poe thinking of his wife when he wrote this poem? Virginia was still alive, but she was very sick, so it is hard to answer this question. Virginia died in 1847, two years after the publication of the poem.
The Raven may be read online. It is presented by PoeStories.