Often, memories of the dead are presented as purely positive – as a way for the departed to continue to exist in the hearts and minds of those who remember them, and as a source of comfort for those who are still alive. “The Raven” flips this notion on its head, envisioning memories of a deceased loved one as a sorrowful, inescapable burden.
As the poem begins, the narrator is struggling to put his anguished memories of Lenore aside, and attempts to distract himself by reading. But the insistent rapping at his study door interrupts his efforts, and he opens his study door and seems to sense the presence of Lenore and hear a whisper of her name. That moment of hearing the knock on the door and opening it to an almost-there ghostly presence can be read as supernatural, but it is also a perfect metaphor for obsessive memories that continue to intrude into one’s thoughts and from which one can’t escape.
With the arrival of the Raven, the narrator’s desire to escape from his sorrowful, overwhelming memories comes to seem even more unattainable. Because the narrator’s other friends and hopes “have flown before,” he at first reasonably expects that the Raven will do the same. But the bird remains a constant presence, becoming itself like memories of Lenore, ever-present and inescapable, and its cry of “Nevermore” enforces in the speaker a belief that he lacks the power to escape his memories.
In what may be read as another supernatural moment or as a manifestation of a final, desperate hope for relief, the narrator then perceives that the air grows dense, perfumed, and inhabited by “seraphim,” or angels. The narrator cries and cries, “Wretch, 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.” In Homer’s Odyssey, “nepenthe” is a drug that erases memories, and so in this moment the narrator is hoping that even if he cannot help himself escape his memories, that some sort of divine intervention will intercede on his behalf. The Raven, of course, answers only “Nevermore,” and in so doing quashes the narrator’s hope for escape from the torment of remembering his dead love. Memories of loss and sadness, the poem implies, can never be escaped, they flutter always in the brain, like a bird that will not leave a room.
Memory and Loss ThemeTracker
Memory and Loss 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, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy…
“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…
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!