It begins with a scholar reading at midnight in December, a dark hour in a cold month that ends the year. He hears a rapping noise, throws open the door, and sees only "darkness there and nothing more." He whispers the name of his dead love, Lenore. A raven enters, a black bird associated with bad omens. To each of the narrator’s queries, the raven replies “nevermore,” which the narrator guesses is the one word a previous owner taught it. The narrator torments himself by asking questions to which he already knows the answers, despairing as the raven repeats "nevermore." At the end, the raven stays, and the narrator realizes he will never escape the raven’s shadow, the smothering grief of loss.
The poem helped to secure Poe’s fame, but he continued to be plagued by illness, alcoholism, and money problems. His wife died in 1847, and Poe himself died in 1849, under mysterious circumstances in Baltimore, at the age of 40.
“The Raven” is one of the most popular poems in the English language. The bird’s image is linked inextricably to Poe. Statues that honor him often include a raven, as did his gravestone. In works by later writers that feature Poe as a character, at least four books and three movies call back to the poem in their titles.
If you’d like to hear “The Raven,” you can listen online to renditions by James Earl Jones, Christopher Lee, Christopher Walken, or Vincent Price.
Reading “The Raven” at Halloween may whet your child’s appetite for all things Poe. A good biography for children is Poe: A Biography by Nancy Loewen and Tina Mucchi. The Who Was series for children has a biography of Poe coming in August 2015.