In this poem, one of the most famous American poems ever, Poe uses several symbols to take the poem to a higher level.
The most obvious symbol is, of course, the raven itself. When Poe had decided to use a refrain that repeated the word “nevermore,” he found that it would be most effective if he used a non-reasoning creature to utter the word.
It would make little sense to use a human, since the human could reason to answer the questions (Poe, 1850). In “The Raven” it is important that the answers to the questions are already known, to illustrate the self-torture to which the narrator exposes himself.
This way of interpreting signs that do not bear a real meaning, is “one of the most profound impulses of human nature” (Quinn, 1998:441).
Poe also considered a parrot as the bird instead of the raven; however, because of the melancholy tone, and the symbolism of ravens as birds of ill-omen, he found the raven more suitable for the mood in the poem (Poe, 1850). Quoth the Parrot, “Nevermore?”
Another obvious symbol is the bust of Pallas. Why did the raven decide to perch on the goddess of wisdom?
One reason could be, because it would lead the narrator to believe that the raven spoke from wisdom, and was not just repeating its only “stock and store,” and to signify the scholarship of the narrator. Another reason for using “Pallas” in the poem was, according to Poe himself, simply because of the “sonorousness of the word, Pallas, itself” (Poe, 1850).
A less obvious symbol, might be the use of “midnight” in the first verse, and “December” in the second verse. Both midnight and December, symbolize an end of something, and also the anticipation of something new, a change, to happen.
The midnight in December, might very well be New Year’s eve, a date most of us connect with change. This also seems to be what Viktor Rydberg believes when he is translating “The Raven” to Swedish, since he uses the phrase “årets sista natt var inne, ” (“The last night of the year had arrived”). Kenneth Silverman connected the use of December with the death of Edgar’s mother (Silverman, 1992:241), who died in that month; whether this is true or not is, however, not significant to its meaning in the poem.
The chamber in which the narrator is positioned, is used to signify the loneliness of the man, and the sorrow he feels for the loss of Lenore. The room is richly furnished, and reminds the narrator of his lost love, which helps to create an effect of beauty in the poem.
The tempest outside, is used to even more signify the isolation of this man, to show a sharp contrast between the calmness in the chamber and the tempestuous night.
The phrase “from out my heart,” Poe claims, is used, in combination with the answer “Nevermore,” to let the narrator realize that he should not try to seek a moral in what has been previously narrated (Poe, 1850).
Poe had an extensive vocabulary, which is obvious to the readers of both his poetry as well as his fiction.
Sometimes this meant introducing words that were not commonly used. In “The Raven,” the use of ancient and poetic language seems appropriate, since the poem is about a man spending most of his time with books of “forgotten lore.”
“Seraphim,” in the fourteenth verse, “perfumed by an unseen censer / Swung by seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled…” is used to illustrate the swift, invisible way a scent spreads in a room. A seraphim is one of the six-winged angels standing in the presence of God.
“Nepenthe,” from the same verse, is a potion, used by ancients to induce forgetfullnes of pain or sorrow.
“Balm in Gilead,” from the following verse, is a soothing ointment made in Gilead, a mountainous region of Palestine east of the Jordan river.
“Aidenn,” from the sixteenth verse, is an Arabic word for Eden or paradise.
“Plutonian,” characteristic of Pluto, the god of the underworld in Roman mythology.