The unnamed narrator is wearily perusing an old book one bleak December night when he hears a tapping at the door to his room. He tells himself that it is merely a visitor, and he awaits tomorrow because he cannot find release in his sorrow over the death of Lenore. The rustling curtains frighten him, but he decides that it must be some late visitor and, going to the door, he asks for forgiveness from the visitor because he had been napping. However, when he opens the door, he sees and hears nothing except the word "Lenore," an echo of his own words.
Returning to his room, he again hears a tapping and reasons that it was probably the wind outside his window. When he opens the window, however, a raven enters and promptly perches "upon a bust of Pallas" above his door. Its grave appearance amuses the narrator, who asks it for its names. The raven responds, "Nevermore." He does not understand the reply, but the raven says nothing else until the narrator predicts aloud that it will leave him tomorrow like the rest of his friends. Then the bird again says, "Nevermore."
Startled, the narrator says that the raven must have learned this word from some unfortunate owner whose ill luck caused him to repeat the word frequently. Smiling, the narrator sits in front of the ominous raven to ponder about the meaning of its word. The raven continues to stare at him, as the narrator sits in the chair that Lenore will never again occupy. He then feels that angels have approached, and angrily calls the raven an evil prophet. He asks if there is respite in Gilead and if he will again see Lenore in Heaven, but the raven only responds, "Nevermore." In a fury, the narrator demands that the raven go back into the night and leave him alone again, but the raven says, "Nevermore," and it does not leave the bust of Pallas. The narrator feels that his soul will "nevermore" leave the raven's shadow.
"The Raven" is the most famous of Poe's poems, notable for its melodic and dramatic qualities. The meter of the poem is mostly trochaic octameter, with eight stressed-unstressed two-syllable feet per lines. Combined with the predominating ABCBBB end rhyme scheme and the frequent use of internal rhyme, the trochaic octameter and the refrain of "nothing more" and "nevermore" give the poem a musical lilt when read aloud. Poe also emphasizes the "O" sound in words such as "Lenore" and "nevermore" in order to underline the melancholy and lonely sound of the poem and to establish the overall atmosphere. Finally, the repetition of "nevermore" gives a circular sense to the poem and contributes to what Poe termed the unity of effect, where each word and line adds to the larger meaning of the poem.
The unnamed narrator appears in a typically Gothic setting with a lonely apartment, a dying fire, and a "bleak December" night while wearily studying his books in an attempt to distract himself from his troubles. He thinks occasionally of Lenore but is generally able to control his emotions, although the effort required to do so tires him and makes his words equally slow and outwardly pacified. However, over the course of the narrative, the protagonist becomes more and more agitated both in mind and in action, a progression that he demonstrates through his rationalizations and eventually through his increasingly exclamation-ridden monologue. In every stanza near the end, however, his exclamations are punctuated by the calm desolation of the sentence "Quoth the Raven, 'Nevermore,'" reflecting the despair of his soul.
Like a number of Poe's poems such as "Ulalume" and "Annabel Lee," "The Raven" refers to an agonized protagonist's memories of a deceased woman. Through poetry, Lenore's premature death is implicitly made aesthetic, and the narrator is unable to free himself of his reliance upon her memory. He asks the raven if there is "balm in Gilead" and therefore spiritual salvation, or if Lenore truly exists in the afterlife, but the raven confirms his worst suspicions by rejecting his supplications. The fear of death or of oblivion informs much of Poe's writing, and "The Raven" is one of his bleakest publications because it provides such a definitively negative answer. By contrast, when Poe uses the name Lenore in a similar situation in the poem "Lenore," the protagonist Guy de Vere concludes that he need not cry in his mourning because he is confident that he will meet Lenore in heaven.
Poe's choice of a raven as the bearer of ill news is appropriate for a number of reasons. Originally, Poe sought only a dumb beast that was capable of producing human-like sounds without understanding the words' meaning, and he claimed that earlier conceptions of "The Raven" included the use of a parrot. In this sense, the raven is important because it allows the narrator to be both the deliverer and interpreter of the sinister message, without the existence of a blatantly supernatural intervention. At the same time, the raven's black feather have traditionally been considered a magical sign of ill omen, and Poe may also be referring to Norse mythology, where the god Odin had two ravens named Hugin and Munin, which respectively meant "thought" and "memory." The narrator is a student and thus follows Hugin, but Munin continually interrupts his thoughts and in this case takes a physical form by landing on the bust of Pallas, which alludes to Athena, the Greek goddess of learning.
Due to the late hour of the poem's setting and to the narrator's mental turmoil, the poem calls the narrator's reliability into question. At first the narrator attempts to give his experiences a rational explanation, but by the end of the poem, he has ceased to give the raven any interpretation beyond that which he invents in his own head. The raven thus serves as a fragment of his soul and as the animal equivalent of Psyche in the poem "Ulalume." Each figure represents its respective character's subconscious that instinctively understands his need to obsess and to mourn. As in "Ulalume," the protagonist is unable to avoid the recollection of his beloved, but whereas Psyche of "Ulalume" sought to prevent the unearthing of painful memories, the raven actively stimulates his thoughts of Lenore, and he effectively causes his own fate through the medium of a non-sentient animal.