Edgar Allan Poe's epic poem, The Raven (1845) is popular with English teachers. We hope this study guide is particularly helpful for students to more fully appreciate and enjoy Poe's writing style and references to the occult or black magic.
Read the poem: The Raven, Character Analysis & Plot Summary, Genre & Themes, Symbol & Allusions, Rhyming Scheme & Vocabulary, Historical Context, Quotes, Discussion Questions, Paired Reading, Useful Links, and Notes/Teacher Comments
Narrator - A young scholar who reads books of "lore" perhaps about the occult or black magic
The Raven - The non-reasoning creature is the main symbol of the poem, representing depression and death, who can speak (only one word) and won't leave the narrator alone! The narrator calls him many things, including: prophet, wretch, an ill-omen, thing of evil, "whether tempter sent" (probably sent by Satan)
Lost Lenore - The dead wife, representing tragic lost love, referenced reverently as "a radiant maiden" and "a sainted maiden whom the angels named Lenore"
A lonely man who misses his lost Lenore tries to distract his mind by reading old books, when he hears tapping at his door. Hoping it's his dead wife returning, all he hears is an echo. He goes back to his chamber and hears tapping on his window, where appeared a stately Raven, who lands on the bust of Pallas above his chamber door. The Raven can speak, answering the man's question about his name with the word repeated: "nevermore." Is the whole scene an hallucination marking his quick decent into madness?
Poe's poem is Dark Romanticism, in the genre of Gothic Literature due to its focus on death, the supernatural, and composition based on logic and rationality, versus emotions, which would be the opposite: Romanticism.
Mournful, never-ending remembrance: lost love, depression, grief over the death of a woman who will never return, and an annoying bird that will "nevermore" leave!
Poe employs rich symbols and allusions to deepen his reader's appreciation for the narrator's (or Poe's?) intellect.
The Raven - The central symbol of the story that represents depression and evil. The narrator's name-calling of the bird escalates into a rant by the narrator, including: wretch, thing of evil, ill-omen, prophet, devil. Poe chose it for the bird's dramatic, melancholy qualities, representing "mournful and never-ending remembrance."
Various mythological and folklore allusions, including:
Book of Lore - Poe represents this as the scholar of the narrator, probably referencing books about the occult or black magic
Pallas - The raven lands on the head of the bust representing Athena, the goddess of wisdom, meant to imply the narrator is a scholar
December and midnight - Month usually associated with dark forces, midnight in December could be New Year's eve, representing the brink of change or something new
"Night's Plutonian shore" - Pluto, god of the underworld, referencing the raven as a messenger from the afterlife
"Whither Tempter sent" - Satan may have sent the raven
Lost Lenore - Represents loss of his own loved ones: Poe's mother died and his wife Virginia suffered a long, painful illness. "The death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world."
Nevermore - The name the narrator gives the bird when he refuses to leave, it becomes a warning that he will never again see Lenore (or get rid of the bird!)
Tapping at my chamber door: The chamber represents loneliness and sorrow. Poe may be alluding to Charles Dickens' Barnaby Rudge: "What was that, him tapping at the door?" and been inspired by Dickens' raven, Grip
Balm in Gilead - A soothing oitnment made in a mountainous region of Palestine
Aidenn - An Arabic word meaning Garden of Eden or paradise, which Poe references to ask if Lenore can be accepted into Heaven
Seraphim: In The Bible, Isaiah 6: "fiery ones," a high ranking, six-winged angel. It also can mean an invisible way a scent spreads in a room.
Poe's poem is very lyrical, musical, and a bit mesmeric in its description of the supernatural. He borrowed its rhyming scheme from Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Lady Geraldine's Courtship. Poe's poem consists of eighteen stanzas, six lines each. Both Browning and Poe's poem are called Trochaic octameter, in which each foot has alternating syllables; one stressed, the next unstressed. Apparently it is very difficult to use consistently, and lends itself to heavy use of internal rhyme and alliteration (repetitive consonant sounds). Poe claimed he used a combination of other rhyming schemes involving heptameter and tetrameter catalectic-- we'll let you decide! Regardless of its structure's name, Poe achieves a mesmerizing effect.
Poe said he structured the poem using math and logic, and that good writers create a "unity of effect." Read Poe's essay for useful background, published a year after the poem: The Philosophy of Composition
obeisance: A gesture expressing deferential respect, like a bow or curtsy
craven: archaic, a cowardly person (Poe needed to find plenty of "raven" rhyming words!)
quaff: to swallow in one gulp greedily
ominous: scary, sign of things to come
surcease: to stop
yore: a time in the past, long ago
What was going on in American when Poe was writing "The Raven" in 1845? The fragile peace between slave states and free states was coming undone. The presidential election of 1844 resulted in a close victory of James K. Polk, centering around the controversial issue of expanding slavery through annexation of Texas, which was an issue former president John Tyler had championed. Polk was considered a "dark horse candidate" (Poe would have liked that), and focused on territorial expansionism, "Manifest Destiny." Mexico considered Texas part of its territory, which prompted the Mexican-American War, 1846-1848.
Poe became an instant celebrity in 1845 after the poem was twice published, earning him the nickname, "The Raven." It did not give him financial security, however. It was practically unheard of at that time to make a living solely as a poet or fiction writer. Poe would remain broke most of his life, no doubt exacerbating his bouts of depression.
Explain what the following quotes mean and how they relate to the story:
"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."
"Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing, Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals 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."
"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.'"
"`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.'"
"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!"
1. Poe's rhyming scheme requires numerous internal rhyming words within each line, in addition to line-endings. He also uses alliteration extensively ("flirt and flutter"). Is the effect formulaic and stifling, or dreamily mesmerizing (as any good supernatural encounter should be)?
2. Identify and describe the meaning of several of Poe's borrowed allusions, particularly those that are mythological (such as "Plutonian") and Biblical ("Seraphim" and "Tempter").
3. Why did Poe choose a raven, supposedly a "non-reasoning creature"? What does it symbolize? Why was it so important to Poe that it could speak (why not choose a parrot instead?)
4. Explain Poe's use of the word "nevermore" (it conveniently rhymes with his lost love "Lenore." "Quoth the raven, 'Nevermore'"?
5. Read Poe's essay, The Philosophy of Composition. What does Poe mean that its composition was a mathematical problem? Why is it unlikely he composed the poem exactly as he described in this essay?
7. What was the poem's appeal leading Poe to become a household name? The poem was twice-published in 1845, offering vivid illustrations by leading artists of the day. Why was it such a hit? (and why do you think students still have to study it?)
8. Do some math: figure out what Poe is referencing in the composition of his poem, count syllables, rhyming patterns, and discuss its logic in technical terms.
9. Explain Poe's intention with his representation of "soul" in his second-to-the-last line. Is it code from decending into madness?:
"And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor"
10. The poem seems to end with a lack of closure; it's a stand-off between bird and man. No one is dead (yet), as in so many of Poe's other works. Who will leave the room first? What is Poe's purpose here in characterizing madness?
Essay prompt #1: What if the raven could speak more than one word, what would he say? Write an alternative dialog (or poem) between the narrator and the suddenly-articulate bird. Would the raven soothe his loneliness or plunge him deeper into depression and psychosis?
Essay prompt #2: How is Poe's poem similar to various styles of rap music? How is it different? Provide example lyrics to make your comparison.
Compare and contrast the gothic literary elements in The Raven with:
The Simpsons: The Raven by Matt Groening, with appropriate spooky narration by James Earl Jones. Comment on its impact as an animated retelling of Poe's most famous poem.
Poe Bonus: watch The Simpsons: Tell-Tale Heart
Trochaic octameter, understand Poe's rhyming scheme
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