Edgar Allan Poe published “The Raven” to mixed reviews in January of 1845. He was paid only a modest fee for his work, which did not become famous until well after his death five years later. The cause of Poe’s early death — he was only 40 — is unknown. Various scholars have attributed his passing to suicide, accidental overdose of alcohol or other drugs, tuberculosis and even rabies.
The plot of “The Raven” is relatively simple. A young man is trying to distract his mind from his deceased loved one named Lenore. (After the poem was published, Poe identified the narrator as a scholar, though there is no indication of that in the poem.)
As he begins to drift off to sleep, he hears a rapping at his chamber door. He answers it, but finds nothing there. Next, he gets a brief, hopeful sense that Lenore has returned to him as a spirit. He hears a sound from the window, opens it, and a raven walks in.
The raven knows only one word: “Nevermore.” At first the narrator is amused by the raven’s limited vocabulary, but then he feels the need to start talking to it about Lenore. The raven tells the narrator that he and Lenore will never be together again, even in heaven:
“’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 named Lenore –
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore.’
Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’”
The end of the poem finds the narrator in despair and still unable to rid himself of the raven. It is interesting that, at the beginning of the poem, the narrator is reading to try to distract himself from the memories of Lenore. The last line finds him obsessed with his long lost love and concluding,
“And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted – nevermore –”
You can read the entire poem here.
When Edgar Allan Poe spoke of “The Raven,” he said that his goal was to create a complex and methodical poem. Some people assume that he wrote this verse while grieving his wife, but in fact his wife did not die until two years after “The Raven” was published. The poem borrows elementsfrom the work of Charles Dickens, who also wrote about a talking raven. Poe believed that a raven would make a more stately and forbidding character than any other talking bird, such as a parrot.
Although the reaction to “The Raven” was lukewarm when Poe first published it, over the years it has become one of the best known poems about grief and death. It deals with the obsession bereaved people may feel and with how meaningless words, like the raven’s repetitive, “Nevermore,” can cause tremendous pain. If you are dealing with grief, reading “The Raven” may help you work through your feelings and provide some comfort and understanding.