As with many other of Poe’s works, “The Raven” explores death. More specifically, this poem explores the effects of death on the living, such as grief, mourning, and memories of the deceased, as well as a question that so often torments those who have lost loved ones to death: whether there is an afterlife in which they will be reunited with the dead.
At the beginning of the poem, the narrator is mourning alone in a dark, cheerless room. He portrays himself as trying to find “surcease of sorrow” by reading his books. One might read this as an effort to distract himself and thereby escape the pain of the death of a loved one. One might also interpret the narrator’s reading of books of “forgotten lore” to indicate that he is looking for arcane knowledge about how to reverse death. In either case, his reaction to the death of a loved one is rather typical: to try to escape the pain of it, or to attempt to deny death.
Before the Raven’s arrival, the narrator hears a knocking at the door of his room, and after finding no one there calls “Lenore?” into the darkness, as if sensing or hoping she has returned to him. Following the Raven’s arrival, he eventually asks the bird if there is “balm in Gilead,” implying a hope that he might see Lenore once more in heaven. In either case, the narrator’s desperate desire to be reunited with Lenore in some way is obvious.
In “Lenore,” another of Poe’s poems featuring a deceased woman named Lenore, the narrator, confronted with the loss of his wife, reassures himself with the prospect that he will see her again in heaven. In “The Raven,” however, the narrator ultimately takes a gloomier view. After the Raven arrives, cutting short the narrator’s sense that Lenore might be visiting as a ghost and answering his hopeful questions about Gilead with only the repeated “Nevermore,” the narrator resigns himself to believing that he will never encounter Lenore again. Poe leaves unclear whether the Raven is telling the narrator the truth or giving voice to the narrator’s own anxieties about having lost Lenore for good. Either way, the poem concludes on the pessimistic note that nothing can exist beyond death, that there is no “balm in Gilead.”
Death and the Afterlife ThemeTracker
Death and the Afterlife Quotes in The Raven
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore…
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”
Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor…
“Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
“Is there—is there balm in Gilead?”
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door…