Poe's "The Raven" is not only an American classic, it's a favorite of high school students around the world, as well as their teachers. That being said, it's still poetry and therefore can be difficult to understand. Read this summary to review the contents and get a better understanding.
Make everyone in class think you're really smart when you bust out everything you've learned in this summary.
Stanza 1: It's late. The poem's speaker is tired and weak, reading an old collection of folklore (note that Ravens are prevalent in folklore). As he's about to fall asleep, he hears something tapping at his door. The speaker, somewhat startled, consoles himself by muttering "tis some visitor" and "nothing more."
Analysis: The ambiguity of the narrator's mental state is introduced in the first stanza and becomes a topic of debate throughout the entire poem. Keep in mind that it's late and the narrator is extremely tired. It's quite possible he dreams the entire episode.
Stanza 2: We are told this incident takes place in December and that the narrator had been reading in order to forget about his lost love, Lenore.
Analysis: Stanza 2 provides background information. The incident takes place in December and the narrator suffers from depression. He is searching desperately to end his sorrow. The mood, somewhat established in Stanza 1 with "midnight dreary" and "forgotten lore," becomes entrenched as Poe includes details such as "bleak December," dying ember," "ghost upon the floor," sorrow," and a bevvy of alliterative phrases and words with Anglo-Saxon roots.
Stanza 3: To combat the fear caused by the wind blown curtains, the narrator repeats that the commotion is merely a visitor at the door.
Analysis: The opening line of the stanza contains the greatest example of consonance, alliteration, and internal rhyme in the history of poetry. Why the speaker is so frightened by the curtains fluttering in the wind is unclear. It could be a demonic movement of the curtains, which would cause even the most stalwart individual to mutter to himself, or the speaker could be crazy.
Stanza 4: The narrator musters the courage to speak to the "visitor" at his door. Nobody answers. He opens the door and sees only darkness.
Analysis: Things are getting stranger by the stanza. Poe builds suspense by delaying the unveiling of the "visitor."
Stanza 5: The narrator stares into the darkness. He stares. He stares some more. He starts dreaming about the impossible and finally whispers "Lenore." "Lenore" is echoed back.
Analysis: We begin to sense the heartbreak experienced by the narrator. He so longs for his lost love that he begins whispering her name, desperately hoping for a response. Does he actually hear a response or is he hallucinating?
Stanza 6: The narrator returns to his chamber and soon hears a louder tapping, this time at his window. He decides to explore the noise, telling himself it is merely the wind.
Analysis: Like the narrator, you're probably wondering when something's going to happen. The narrator is in denial. He knows something is there, but refuses to acknowledge it.
Stanza 7: The narrator opens the shutter and a raven flies in. He ignores the occupant and perches himself on a statue of Pallas Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom.
Analysis: The mystery has been solved. It's just a bird! Something tells me this bird is no ordinary feathered friend.
Stanza 8: The narrator is relieved and somewhat amused by the bird's appearance. He asks the raven its name and he replies, "Nevermore."
Analysis: We are presented with symbols of night and death in stanza 8: the "ebony" bird; "grave and stern decorum"; "nightly shore"; "Night's Plutonian (the Roman underworld) shore."
Stanza 9: The narrator marvels at this strange bird who has entered his room.
Analysis: Our bewildered narrator has no idea what to make of this bird, much like I'm not sure what to say about this stanza.
Stanza 10: The Raven just sits there and says "nevermore." The narrator, a little spooked by the entire episode mutters the bird will probably just leave tomorrow.
Analysis: There is something in the word "nevermore" that brings despair to the narrator. He believes the raven is pouring out his soul with each utterance of the word, similar to the pouring out of the narrator's soul as he longs for the return of Lenore.
Stanza 11: The narrator rationalizes that the raven's repetition of "nevermore" has nothing to do with his own hopeless state, and that the word is the only one the bird knows. He creates a plausible story about the bird probably having escaped from his master who met an ill fate at sea.
Analysis: The narrator experiences the paranoia/denial cycle. He unreasonably believes the raven is some bad omen, which it then becomes, omens being nothing more than a negative psychological interpretation of an otherwise neutral event, followed by a complete negation with an implausible explanation. The narrator is nuts.
Stanza 12: The narrator wheels his chair around, stares at the bird, and attempts to figure out what this all means.
Analysis: Although the narrator draws no explicit conclusion, descriptive words such as "grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt" displays the narrator's negative attitude toward the strange visitor.
Stanza 13: The narrator stares at the bird, whose eyes appear to be on fire and burn the narrator's heart. He ponders how he will nevermore see his lost Lenore.
Analysis: There's a raven in the living room with fiery eyes staring at the narrator and all he can think about is some girl!
Stanza 14: The narrator senses the arrival of angels who burn incense. He suspects the raven's purpose is to help the narrator forget about his sorrows. He asks to drink a magic potion for that purpose. The raven replies, "nevermore."
Analysis: Angels arrive. The narrator hopes that he will be spared despair and sorrow. He's wrong. Key words in this stanza: quaff means to drink; nepenthe is a drug used in ancient times to make people forget their sorrows.
Stanza 15: The narrator asks the raven if he is evil. He then asks the raven if he has brought healing. The raven replies, "nevermore."
Analysis: Despite several declarations by the raven himself that he is not there for good, the narrator holds on to the slim hope that the raven can help him forget his sorrows. The allusion to "balm in Gilead" in line 89 is an allusion to the Jeremiah in the Old Testament. Jeremiah asks "Is there no balm in Gilead?" while lamenting the plight of his people who need healing.
Stanza 16: The narrator asks the raven if he will ever see Lenore in heaven. The raven answers, "nevermore."
Analysis: The narrator isn't the smartest guy alive. He again asks the raven if he will be relieved of his suffering and at least be able to see Lenore in paradise. The raven answered "nevermore." At this point I'm getting really annoyed with the narrator. He's wallowing in self pity and enjoying every second of it. He knows what the raven's answer will be, yet he purposely asks questions that will justify him feeling sorry for himself. It's time to move on.
Stanza 17: The narrator commands the bird to leave. The bird says, "nevermore."
Analysis: The narrator is once again surprised by the raven's negative response. I'm not.
Stanza 18: The raven remains sitting. He overshadows the narrator, whose soul will never see happiness again.
Analysis: Boo! Hoo! Get a gun and shoot that freaking bird already! The raven's shadow most likely symbolizes sadness. It covers the narrator's soul, symbolic of the narrator never being happy again. Some claim the last stanza relates the narrator's death. They're wrong. The shadow remains on the floor and It's the narrator's soul that will never climb out from under the shadow of sadness. If your teacher tells you he died, tell him he's wrong. If he disagrees, ask him how a dead man can narrate a poem.
What did you think of the poem? Do you have a different interpretation of what happened?