Last Updated 06 Jul 2020

Critical Analysis of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven

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Edgar Allen Poe, when people see his name many think of scary or melancholy. He has written many literary works that have traveled through the ages and become classics studied everywhere. The Raven published in January of 1845 by The Evening Mirror was the poem that escalated Poe into poet status.

Originally it is said that Poe went to his former employer a man named Rex Graham and tried to sell the poem to him but was politely declined but given 15 dollars as a simple charity.1 He later sold the poem to The American Review which gave him 9 dollars for it but published under a pseudonym of Quarles which was an English poet at the time. It was not until January 29, 1845 that The Evening Mirror gave Poe his fame and published The Raven under his actual name. The poem was an instant success and set his writing career soaring. There was much debate and discussion about the meaning and the symbolism of this poem once published. It caused quite a stir in the literary community. Critical opinion was divided as to this poems status but it has remained one of the most famous poems ever written.

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Because of the poems great success Poe wrote a follow up essay called The Philosophy of Composition which described the working of The Raven. He stated that the poem was written as if it was a mathematical problem. He stressed that the reader must be able to read the poem in its entirety in just one sitting. He believed you lost the meaning of the poem and the reader if they had to come back to it. They should be able to take it all in one read. Poe stated that a poem should stay somewhere around a hundred lines. The Raven has exactly 108 lines. This poem was actually written backwards. He wrote the 3rd to the last stanza first and then wrote backwards from there. He stated that the effect was determined first then the whole plot so the web will grow backwards from there for a single effect. Poe was a great believer that to truly write anything one must first have a truly great plot.

The symbolism in The Raven has been the most debated. Poe’s use of a raven in his poem has always been of great interest. Many believe he drew from many references. In Norse mythology Odin had two ravens Huginn and Muninn which represented though and memory. The book of Genesis makes the raven out to be a bird of ill omen. According to Hebrew folklore, Noah sends a white raven out to check conditions while on the ark. It learns that the flood waters are receding, but doesn’t come immediately back with the news. It is punished by being turned black and forced to feed on carrion forever.2

According to Adams in Ovids’s Metamorphoses, a raven also begins as white before Apollo punishes it by turning it black for delivering a message of a lover’s unfaithfulness.3A lot of his critics believe this is some of the history he may have pulled upon when deciding about what type of bird to use. By choosing the raven it made the poem more dark and supernatural , especially when Poe is describing the environment the young lover is sitting in while pining over his lost Lenore. In The Philosophy of Composition Poe stated that he had actually considered using a parrot for the bird but it did not give the supernatural and foreboding feeling that the raven would.

The raven’s only spoken word through the whole poem is “nevermore”. To give this more power in the poem he has the bird come in an perch on the bust of Pallus. This represents the goddess of wisdom. He chose this so that when the raven speaks the words nevermore it will possibly give him an air of wisdom instead “stock and store” being the only word he knows and just speaks it randomly. He believed by using the raven and having it speak this one word throughout the whole poem it made the “nevermores” much more powerful when spoken in response to the narrator or young man’s questions. Each time the narrator would ask a question the raven simply answered nevermore. He wanted to use something that would be utterly non-reasoning so it would have a powerful meaning when speaking, thus the use of the bird.

The poem is about an allegedly young man who is sitting alone on a dark and very bleak December night pining over the loss of his one true love Lenore. He is reading books of lore to help ease the pain of his loss. It is then that he hears the tapping on the chamber door and opens it to find only emptiness.

One can almost feel the bleakness and the loneness he must have felt being alone in his study with barely a fire left and everything dark around him. It almost is letting you think he is completely lost in his own misery from his loss. Everything is bleak and dark. When the raven comes a tapping he at first is startled and then starts questioning that maybe it is something else. He believes it could be the devil come to torture him over his loss. He says the raven is from the night’s plutonian shore or a messenger for the afterlife. When after each inquiry he gives the bird it only responds as nevermore. At first the nevermore response is taken as a silly bird that has only learned only one word and has accidentally flown from his master place, but when the bird actually makes his appearance and sits upon the bust of Pallus the young narrator starts to think maybe there is more to this raven than meets the eye.

When the bird has perched upon the bust the young man is mesmerized by his presence and pulls up a chair. He is now cast in the shadow of this mysterious bird and cannot leave his spot. He believes many different things of this bird always inquiring about his lost Lenore. The bird simply answers “nevermore”. This at first agitates the man but as the poem continues towards the end he simply admits that his soul is trapped forever under the raven’s shadow not to be lifted “nevermore”. Here is when one could believe that this is the turning point where the young narrator has finally given in to his sadness and simply doesn’t want to go on anymore without his beloved Lenore. The poem is actually sad. A young man has lost the love of his life and is simply alone in this world and is having trouble entertaining the thought of going on without his missed and mourned love.

The whole mood of this poem is very Poe. Its dark and melancholy and scary no wonder so many have reprinted it. Another thing this poem is noted for is its poetic structure. This poem was made up of 18 stanzas with 6 lines each. According to Richard Kopely the meter is trochaic octameter-eight trochaic feet per line, with each foot having one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable.4 Poe claims that the poem is a combination of octameter acatalectic, heptameter catalectic and tetrameter catalectic. The rhyme scheme is ABCBBB or AA,B,CC,CB,B,B when accounting for the internal rhyme.5

Another structure that this poem uses heavily is alliteration. Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds in a series of words. An example would be such as doubting, dreaming dreams. Edgar Allen Poe was also reported as having a very extensive vocabulary. He would many times use words that were not commonly used. In The Raven Poe used ancient and poetic language together because he thought it was appropriate because of the meaning of the poem, A young lover who spends most of his time with books of “forgotten Lore”. Examples of words he used in this poem are Seraphim which is a six winged angel standing in the presence of God.

Another is Nepenthe which is a potion used by ancients to induce forgetfulness or sorrow. Balm of Gilead is a soothing ointment made in Palestine. Plutonian the God of the underworld in Roman mythology. Poe believed the use of these words only enhanced the meaning he wanted to achieve in writing The Raven.The internal words of rapping and tapping and napping create an internal rhyme that is said to be almost musical and combined with the alliteration it becomes hypnotic. Onomatopoeia is also used throughout this poem. This is words that sound like what they describe. An example would be in lines 13-18 where rustling is used.

As mentioned earlier the publication of the The Raven made Edgar Allen Poe and instant success. Not only was it printed for its large demand but also parodied. These showed up all over the North. There were some downfalls to this publication. Although loved and adored there were some who simply did not believe he actually wrote it. Some believed he stole it from a Charles Dickens Story titled Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty. The ravens in both stories are said to bear a great resemblance. An anonymous writer is said to have written in to The Evening Mirror the publication who printed The Raven and suggested that it was plagiarized from a poem called The Bird of the Dream by an unnamed author. They stated that 18 similarities between the poems existed. At Poe’s death his friend Thomas Chivers claimed that Poe’s Raven was plagiarized from one of his poem’s and also claimed he was the inspiration for the meter of the

poem. Whatever the case Edgar Allen Poe will always be the one credited for the great masterpiece. Many speculate that he wrote this poem in either 10 days or maybe 10 years one will never know. This poem did not bring him much financial success but did make him a literary success. His friend Elizabeth Barett wrote and told Poe that his “raven” had created a big sensation over in England. Many of her friends are overtaken with fear while others are by the music the lyrics seem to display as you read. Poe received many invitations public and private to recite this poem. Many thought just to hear him recite this poem was an event in one’s life. Poe would come in and turn the lamp light low until the entire room was almost dark. He would then stand near the center of the room and start to recite his poem in a very commanding voice. It was state that the chosen he read this poem to were so mesmerized that they would almost not draw

a breathe out of fright until he was done reading this poem. It takes quite a literary genius to illicit this kind of resonse from an audience listening to something you wrote. One can only imagine what the mood of the room must have been like, the room dark and foreboding and then one lone voice speaking of a lone young man who is lost and lonely and mourning the loss of his love. It takes a gifted writer to bring these kinds of emotions to a reader. Not many have come down in our literary history, especially one who can bring so many emotions to the table when reading one of his poems. All of his works seem to bring signs of foreboding or gloom around the corner. Edgar Allen Poe is renowned with this reputation. If it is dark and melancholy then it has to be Poe.


1. Silverman, Kenneth, Edgar A Poe: Mournful and never-ending Remembrance. New York: Harper Perennial. Pg 237

2. Hirsch, David H. “The Raven and the Nightingale” .pg 195

3. Adams, John.”Classical Raven Lore and Poes Raven” in Poe Studies. Vol. V, no. 2, December 1972. Pg 53

4. Kopley, Richard and Kevin J. Hayes. “Two verse masterworks: ‘The Raven’ and Ulalume”‘, collected in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allen Poe, edited by Kevin J. Hayes. New York: Cambridge University press, 2002. Pg 192-193

5. Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allen Poe: A to Z. New York City: Checkmark Books, 2001. Pg 208

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