The Isolating Power of Grief
The poem explores how grief can overcome a person’s ability to live in the present and engage with society. Over the course of the poem, the speaker’s inability to forget his lost love Lenore drives him to despair and madness. At the beginning, the speaker describes himself as “weak and weary,” suggesting that his attempts to distract himself from Lenore’s memory by reading have only exhausted him. Although he is initially amused by the raven, the raven’s word “nevermore” soon reminds the speaker of how he won’t ever see Lenore again. The power of this revelation moves him so deeply that he believes the air has grown “denser,” making it more difficult to breathe and emphasizing that Lenore’s presence in his memory completely changes his perception of reality. Though the speaker tries to convince himself that he should forget his grief, the raven’s refrain takes him back to the reality of his loss, again taking him out of the present moment. When he tells the raven to leave his loneliness “unbroken,” he’s emphasizing that his grief has caused him to shut himself off from the world, but, paradoxically, he’s not truly alone because the memory of Lenore keeps him company.
Read about how Poe returns to grief as a theme in his later poem, “Annabel Lee.”
Whether the speaker finds himself haunted by demons of his own making or by truly supernatural beings remains ambiguous. Despite the poem’s eerie atmosphere, everything that happens could actually have a rational explanation. The speaker begins the poem in an unsettled state, trying to distract himself from his grief, and the “quaint and curious volume” he reads could certainly put him in a dark and suggestible state of mind that the dreary December night only enhances. Ravens can imitate human speech, and a raven could theoretically make a noise similar to the word “nevermore.” However, the events of the poem are undeniably ghostly, and the bird’s refrain perfectly suiting the speaker’s mental state seems too coincidental, hinting at the presence of something supernatural. This ambiguity demonstrates both the mind’s capacity to terrorize itself and the fact that psychological hauntings can disturb and destroy as much as physical danger. Whether we believe the bird can only repeat one word or whether it delivers a prophecy of doom, hearing “nevermore”—a word that emphasizes the eternal nature of the speaker’s grief and loss—is what ultimately leaves the speaker mentally wrecked.
Read about how Robert Browning also uses psychological portraits as a motif in his poetry.
The poem emphasizes the hopelessness of the speaker’s situation—he will never again reunite with his beloved Lenore, physically or spiritually. As the poem progresses, the speaker finds three possible comforts to his grief that he quickly realizes will never come to pass, leaving him without hope of relief. First, when he hears the tapping on the door, the speaker allows himself some hope that he will see Lenore again, as evidenced when he opens the door and calls her name into the darkness. Hearing only his voice echo back at him quashes this hope, and the raven’s repetition of the word “nevermore” further emphasizes that the speaker has physically lost Lenore forever. Next, the speaker takes the bird’s appearance as a sign that perhaps he can forget Lenore and find relief in forgetting. Again, the word “nevermore” dashes this hope as earlier in the poem, the speaker’s own attempt to distract himself from grief by reading also failed. Finally, the speaker asks the raven about seeing Lenore in Heaven, which the raven again rejects. The bird’s refrain, “nevermore,” is an inarguable absolute, meaning that nothing can change about the speaker’s situation.
Because the speaker only asks the raven questions about Lenore after he establishes that the bird will always say “nevermore,” his pleas for mercy act as a self-fulfilling prophecy of despair. While we have ample textual evidence that the speaker will not see Lenore again and probably will not forget her, we cannot know whether or not the speaker will see Lenore in the afterlife, which suggests that he uses the raven’s single word to reflect his own emotional state. He has placed himself in a position where he will only receive an answer that dooms him to endless sorrow, emphasizing that he has created his own hopelessness.