A Summary and Analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘Why is a raven like a writing desk?’ This was the riddle posed by the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll’s 1865 book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Probably the most famous solution proposed to this riddle (for the riddle has never been answered with a definitive solution) is: ‘Because Poe wrote on both.’ ‘The Raven’ is undoubtedly Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous poem.

It was first published under Poe’s name in January 1845, and has been popular ever since. It is the only literary work to inspire the name of a sporting team (the American Football team the Baltimore Ravens).

According to Poe himself, in a later work of literary analysis, if he hadn’t had a change of heart we might well be reading a poem called, not ‘The Raven’, but ‘The Parrot’. The poem is so famous, so widely anthologised, that perhaps a closer analysis of its features and language is necessary to strip away some of our preconceptions about it.


First, here is a summary of the poem.

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.
‘’Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.’

The unnamed narrator (we can call him a narrator as ‘The Raven’ just about qualifies as a narrative poem) sits up late one December night, mourning the loss of his beloved, Lenore, when a raven appears at the window and speaks the repeated single word, ‘Nevermore’. The narrator starts to view the raven as some sort of prophet.

Throughout the poem, the narrator sits and ponders the meaning of the raven, and asks it questions, such as whether he will be see his beloved Lenore again in heaven, but the bird simply responds enigmatically each time, ‘Nevermore’. In the end, the narrator demands that the raven leave him alone, but it replies once again, ‘Nevermore.’

The poem ends:

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!


Poe credited two chief literary works in the genesis and composition of ‘The Raven’: he got the idea of the raven from Charles Dickens’s novel Barnaby Rudge (whose title character has a pet raven, Grip – the same name of Dickens’s own pet raven in real life), and he borrowed the metre for his poem from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘Lady Geraldine’s Courtship’. Here is a stanza from Barrett Browning’s poem:

Dear my friend and fellow-student, I would lean my spirit o’er you:
Down the purple of this chamber, tears should scarcely run at will:
I am humbled who was humble! Friend,—I bow my head before you!
You should lead me to my peasants!—but their faces are too still.

The metre of this poem, and of Poe’s ‘The Raven’, is relatively rare in English-language verse: trochaic octameter. (Trochaic because the stress falls on the first syllable in each foot, so ‘Dear my friend and fellow student’, and ‘Once upon a midnight dreary’; octameter because there are eight feet in each line, so ‘Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary’.

But Poe added something to this rhythm, by including internal rhyme in each stanza of ‘The Raven’:

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.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

So although each stanza of ‘The Raven’ is rhymed abcbbb, with the ‘ore’ rhyme being constant throughout the poem, the a and c rhymes are complemented by a mid-line rhyme: dreary/weary, napping/tapping.

This makes ‘The Raven’ the perfect poem for reading aloud on a dark, wintry night – but it also arguably underscores the poem’s focus on speech, and on the talking raven that provides the refrain, and final word, of many of the poem’s stanzas. ‘Nevermore’ rhymes with the dead beloved of the poem’s narrator, Lenore, but it is also an inherently ‘poetic’ turn of phrase to end a poem (or successive stanzas of a poem): compare Hardy’s ‘never again’, or Edward Thomas’s, or Tennyson’s ‘the days that are no more’.

The word ‘Nevermore’, like ‘never again’ and ‘no more’, evokes finality, something gone from us that will not be regained: time, our youth, a lost lover. Whether Lenore in ‘The Raven’ is the narrator’s dead beloved – perhaps even his wife – is not spelt out in the poem, leaving us not so much to analyse as to speculate upon that point. But the broader point remains: a door has closed that will not be opened again.

As we mentioned at the beginning of this analysis, there is reason to believe that Poe originally planned to have a parrot, rather than a raven, utter the refrain ‘Nevermore’ in the poem. In his ‘Philosophy of Composition’, he wrote that in his mind there ‘arose the idea of a non-reasoning creature capable of speech; and very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech.’

Whether Poe was merely retrospectively having us on, or whether he was being genuine here, the parrot does seem the natural choice for a bird capable of mimicking human speech, and Poe implies that he soon dropped the idea of writing a poem called ‘The Parrot’. Ravens are closely associated with omens and with the dead: it had to be ‘The Raven’.

5 thoughts on “A Summary and Analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’”

  1. Many years ago, my mum had me make a recording reading “The Raven.” And I did the best I could as far as enunciating and pausing, etc. She was teaching art in K-8, and for the older grades she played the tape and they were always silent/enraptured listening and then they were to make a drawing of the Raven, or anything from their imagination inspired by the poem. Usually she did it around Halloween and she got some really interesting illustrations/interpretations.


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