Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” Summary & Meaning

November 26, 2023

the raven summary & meaning Edgar Allen Poe

I’m looking outside at the bleak November weather while writing this “The Raven” summary. Despite my modern electric lighting, it’s easy to feel spooked at this time of year. Dusk comes early and the wind blows the rain sideways, hard enough to rap on my window. I guess some things haven’t changed much since Edgar Allen Poe’s time. Perhaps everyone can identify with the feelings his most popular poem provokes—fear, grief, and something less tangible, lurking in the dark. A talking bird, perhaps? Before jumping to any conclusions, I suggest we take a closer look at what went into the making of the poem. Then we’ll make a “The Raven” summary and pick apart the various “The Raven” meanings.

“The Raven” Summary: Historical and Biographical Context

The 19th-century American Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) wrote poems, short stories, and essays. Perhaps you know him already from some of his famous Gothic-inspired stories. These include “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Then there’s his often-quoted poem “Annabel Lee,” which inspired Nabokov when writing Lolita. Poe himself drew poetic inspiration from earlier English romantics, including Lord Byron, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. His detective stories, including “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. As for Poe’s penchant for gloomy atmospheres and horrific revelations, he took his cues from leading Gothic novelist Ann Radcliff.

Despite this breadth of writing, Poe maintained that literature needn’t have a function beyond acting as a work of art. This theory, called “art for art’s sake,” was shared by some of Poe’s contemporaries, including Oscar Wilde. Poe’s aim with poetry involved invoking sadness, strangeness, and loss, which in turn would elicit a sense of beauty. This technique applied in particular to “The Raven,” which Poe wrote around 1845. Here, he wished to explore the loss of beauty and the impossibility of regaining it. He did so by incarnating beauty in a deceased love, which he called “the most poetical topic in the world.” This trope of a beloved’s untimely death dates back to Petrarch, who dedicated sonnets to his lost love, Laura. Dante followed, chasing his sweetheart Beatrice through hell, purgatory, and heaven. By maintaining this tradition, Poe strategically positioned himself in the same lauded literary canon.

“The Raven” Summary: Reception

While critics received “The Raven” with mixed opinions, the public responded favorably. This poem would become Poe’s most popular in his lifetime. It granted him at least some of the recognition he wished to obtain in his writing career. Later, Charles Baudelaire would translate “The Raven” into French. Thus, the poem went on to inspire the French Symbolists, including Arthur Rimbaud.

Even in the 20th and 21st centuries, “The Raven” has continued to inspire artists in high and popular culture. Perhaps you’ve heard of the British rock band The Alan Parsons Project. Their album “Tales of Mystery and Imagination, is entirely based on Poe’s writing, and contains a song called “The Raven.” Then there are the recent Poe-inspired Netflix adaptations, and even the football team, the Baltimore Ravens. Yet to understand what makes “The Raven” such a timeless and adaptable piece of literature, we must return to the source. So, without further ado, the poem, if you please.

“The Raven” 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.”


Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;

And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.

Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow

From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—

For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—

Nameless here for evermore.

The Raven Summary & Meaning (Continued)

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;

So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating

“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—

Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—

This it is and nothing more.”


Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,

“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;

But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,

And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,

That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—

Darkness there and nothing more.


Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,

Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal 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.


Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,

Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.

“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;

Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—

Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—

’Tis the wind and nothing more!”

The Raven Summary & Meaning (Continued)

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;

Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;

But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—

Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—

Perched, and sat, 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.”


Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,

Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;

For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being

Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—

Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,

With such name as “Nevermore.”


But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only

That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.

Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—

Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—

On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”

Then the bird said “Nevermore.”

The Raven Summary & Meaning (Continued)

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,

“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store

Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster

Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—

Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore

Of ‘Never—nevermore’.”

But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,

Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;

Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking

Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—

What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore

Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”


This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing

To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;

This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining

On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,

But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,

She shall press, ah, nevermore!


Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer

Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.

“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee

Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;

Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”

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.”

The Raven Summary & Meaning (Continued)

“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 name Lenore—

Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”

Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”


“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—

“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!

Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!

Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!

Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”

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!

“The Raven” Summary

“The Raven” begins with an unnamed narrator falling asleep while trying to lose himself in his books on a cold, dreary December night. He hopes these books will provide a distraction from his grief for Lenore. Yet the real distraction comes in the shape of a talking raven. He first hears the raven tapping at his door. Upon opening the door, the narrator finds nothing but darkness, and his own voice, echoing “Lenore.” Already, the narrator seems to be looking for some mystic sign of his lost love.

When the tapping continues, the narrator next opens the window. In steps a raven. Without pause, it enters and perches above the doorframe, on the bust of a Greek god. The corvid squawks only one word, “nevermore,” in response (or so it seems) to anything and everything the narrator says. What follows is fanciful, amusing, and melancholic, all at once.

The narrator, supposing the raven can only repeat a word he once heard, dismisses the meaning behind “nevermore.” Despite this rationale, he pulls up a chair, and cannot help but ask the raven questions. Distraught from Lenore’s recent death, the narrator seeks meaning in the raven’s unchanging responses. When he asks if angels have sent the bird to provide relief from his mourning, the raven answers “Nevermore.” Soon the narrator begins to suspect the bird has not come from heaven, but somewhere more devilish. Still, he continues to ask if he may hope to heal. The raven answers “Nevermore.” The narrator, becoming desperate, asks the raven if he will meet Lenore in Eden, meaning heaven. “Nevermore,” the raven responds. Enraged, the narrator asks the raven to leave. Naturally, the bird answers “Nevermore.” The poem ends with the raven perched above the narrator, whose soul is crushed.

“The Raven” Meaning: Obscure Words and Allusions

To synthesize the above “The Raven” summary, I needed to look into a few key allusions and some difficult vocabulary. Many of Poe’s allusions refer to ancient texts, especially the Bible and classic Greco-Roman literature. Poe even hints he’ll be drawing on “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore” in the first stanza. Biblical allusions include the “Tempter” (the devil), heaven, angels, Seraphim, and Aidenn (Eden). Readers will also notice the “balm in Gilead” referring to a biblical cure-all.

As for Greek allusions, one involves “a bust of Pallas,” meaning the goddess Athena, who represents wisdom. Another is “nepenthe,” a plant-based narcotic mentioned in Homer’s The Odyssey, thought to erase memory. Finally, the crow itself carries certain ancient connotations. In Metamorphoses, Ovid writes that the “croaking raven” once had “silver white plumage.” Yet, “Because of his ready speech, he, who was once snow white, was now white’s opposite.” Poe takes up this trope of the chatty raven, yet here the man, and not the raven, undergoes punishment.

Because of the erudite vocabulary, readers may want to read “The Raven” with a dictionary. I’ll give you a head start. “Surcease” means a temporary halt or pause from something. In this case, it’s a pause from sorrow. The word “censer” refers to an incense holder. To “quaff” means to drink with enthusiasm. “Quoth,” means “said” or “spoke,” which our raven does often.

“The Raven” Summary: Poetic Structures

The structure of “The Raven” remains fairly uniform throughout. Eighteen six-line stanzas rely mainly on trochaic octameter. A trochaic foot involves one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable (essentially the opposite of an iambic foot). However, most lines actually end on a stressed syllable, giving the line 7.5 feet, or 15 syllables. (“Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”) Poe borrowed this meter from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship.”

Rhyme also reinforces the structure of “The Raven.” Not only does the poem follow the ABCBBB rhyme pattern, but the B lines all rhyme with “nevermore.” (Forgotten lore, chamber door, upon the floor, Lenore…) The rhyme scheme makes the poem catchy, fun to read aloud, and ultimately memorable. It also evokes the sound of an echo, reinforcing the spookiness of the poem’s atmosphere and plot. Internal rhymes (such as “sorrow laden”/“sainted maiden”) further this effect and enhances a certain sense of inevitability. This inevitable feeling works to suggest an implicit message in the poem, that death is inescapable and unalterable.

“The Raven” Summary: Poetic Devices

Caesura crops up in “The Raven” when a pause breaks the natural momentum of a line. For example, we see it with “Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking.” Caesura gives the lines and stanzas a prose-like quality we’d find in stories with full sentences. It allows Poe to give himself fully to the act of storytelling, rather than leave us with a more abstract, opaque style of poetry, such as the work of poets like Emily Dickinson.

“The Raven” makes use of other poetic devices as well. We find alliteration in lines like “Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.” Assonance appears in phrases like, “entreating entrance” and “Tempter/tempest.” Epistrophe, or the repetition of the same word at the end of multiple lines, is also present. Then there’s the repetition of whole lines or phrases. My favorite appears in the third stanza, and works on a psychological level. “I stood repeating/“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—/Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—.” In this repetition, we find a perfect example of form fitting function. Anyone who’s tried to reassure themself that nothing is wrong will recognize the inclination to repeat this reassurance. It’s soothing.

Apart from caesura, all of these poetic devices double down on similarities and sameness. They match the repetitive actions of the raven, his rapping and tapping, and his only utterance, “Nevermore.” These various reoccurrences create a haunting, even fateful feeling throughout the poem. Despite the strangeness of a talking raven, it seems as if everything had to happen this way. The reader is therefore hardly shocked when the poem ends with the narrator’s own sense of doom.

“The Raven” Meaning: Themes

We cannot avoid discussing themes of death and grief when looking for “The Raven” meanings. Death appears in the absence of Lenore and in the hope of a reunion in some afterlife. Grief, meanwhile, appears throughout the poem. We might go so far as to say that the mourning narrator embodies grief. Thus, “The Raven” juxtaposes not life and death, but grief and death. It asks the difficult question of how to carry on after losing someone permanently.

Some critics will say that Poe warns readers against the destructive nature of grief. (Don’t forget that the poem ends with the narrator’s soul lying on the floor!) The poem could be read as a cautionary tale: don’t go looking for signs and symbols from someone you’ve lost. Leave the dead alone.

And yet, if we glance at other literature, we’ll notice a pattern. Seeking messages from lost loved ones in the form of a bird is surprisingly commonplace. Perhaps it’s a universal human habit. The ancient Greeks took messages from birds and read the future that way. In contemporary literature, too, birds often appear in moments when someone seeks a message from the dead. (For a few examples, check out Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock and Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing With Feathers.) Poe, writing in a time when spiritual seances were gaining traction, understood that grief is more bearable when shared. Grief can contain hope. So while readers of “The Raven” may delight in its gloom, others who’ve felt grief may find solace in recognizing and sharing in the narrator’s sorrow.

What’s next?

We hope you enjoyed this article on “Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”: Summary & Meaning.” For helpful guides to reading comprehension, essay writing skills, and more, visit our page on High School Success. You’ll find links to other literary analyses, such as The Lottery by Shirley Jackson“We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks and “Because I could not stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson.