Symbols in The Raven

Several prominent symbols throughout "The Raven" include the bust of Pallas, the color purple, the light from the narrator's lamp, and the raven itself. The image of the dark raven seated upon the bust of Pallas Athena, carved of pale stone, comes to represent the conflict between emotion and reason at the heart of the poem. The physical hierarchy here—raven above Athena—tells us that the narrator’s grief will override his logical pleading. Two of the poem’s scenic details are conspicuously purple: the curtain and the chair. In both Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian symbolic systems, purple serves as a mark of class and aristocracy. The lamplight shed by the narrator’s lamp appears in a couple of places in the poem, always as a representation of the harsh truth of Lenore’s death. In the final stanza, the lamplight serves as the catalyst for the poem’s chilling closing image.

Symbols Examples in The Raven:

The Raven 8

"a stately raven..."   (The Raven)

As he shares in his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe selected the raven as his messenger of choice for two reasons. The raven serves as a “non-reasoning creature capable of speech” while adhering to the poem’s funereal tone in the way, say, a parrot could not. Poe also cites the raven as “the bird of ill omen,” which is consistent with many cultural depictions of the raven.

"And the lamplight o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;..."   (The Raven)

The lamplight serves as the catalyst for the poem’s chilling closing image. The light—once again a representation of the harsh truth of Lenore’s irreversible death—strikes the raven, casting a shadow on the floor. That shadow becomes a manifestation of the narrator’s grief, from which he “shall be lifted—nevermore!”

"lamplight gloating o'er..."   (The Raven)

The light shed by the narrator’s lamp serves as a representation of the harsh truth of Lenore’s death. Here we see the lamplight “gloating o’er” the cushion Lenore will never again sit on.

"purple curtain..."   (The Raven)

Two of the poem’s scenic details are conspicuously purple: the “purple curtain” and the chair, with its “velvet violet lining.” In both Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian symbolic systems, purple serves as a mark of class and aristocracy. If nothing else, Poe likely uses these touches of purple to give the narrator some social context. These suggestions of class are consistent with his scholarly nature.

"Perched upon a bust of Pallas..."   (The Raven)

Pallas may also refer to the daughter of the sea-god Triton, who raised Athena alongside his own children. According to some stories, Athena killed the young maiden Pallas. In her sorrow, Athena took Pallas’s name out of remembrance, referring to herself thenceforth as “Pallas Athena.” This myth is helpful in our understanding of “The Raven” in that Pallas represents a parallel of Lenore. Both Pallas and Lenore are tragically killed maidens who live on only in name.

"Tempter..."   (The Raven)

"Tempter" is another name for the Devil. The narrator begins to imagine the bird as an evil entity sent by the Devil. The Raven now takes on supernatural qualities—he is no longer a normal bird that learned a word from a former master, but the embodiment of death, the Devil's orders, and evil.

"dirges..."   (The Raven)

A dirge is a lament sung for the dead especially during funeral rites. Here the narrator plays on birdsong and blames the melancholic word for transforming the Raven's birdsong into a dirge. "Nevermore" therefore becomes a symbol of death and dying that destroys hope.

"name..."   (The Raven)

The narrator first interprets the repetitive line as the bird's name. Nevermore, the state of being no longer, at no future time, or never again, recalls the narrator's first description of Lenore being "nameless here for evermore" because she has died. This suggests that the Raven is either an embodiment of his lost lover or death incarnate. The narrator sees the Raven is a symbol of loss and mortality.