As Poe proclaims in “The Philosophy of Composition,” the aim of his poem was to elevate the soul, a goal that could best be reached by the presentation of “Beauty.” For Poe, Beauty is most readily perceived in a mood of sadness, and the most mournful event that the artist could conceive was “the death of a beautiful woman” (an incident that he believed was “the most poetical topic in the world”). So, a sense of loss, with no hope of ever again seeing the beloved is the real topic of the poem.
To address this topic, only two characters are needed—one of them the mourning lover and the other a grimly symbolic bird, an omen of evil. Poe carefully selected a raven for two sensible reasons: the bird suggests melancholy associations; and sometimes such a creature can utter a few syllables. In this case, the syllables are cleverly chosen by the poet: “Nevermore.” It is important to note that the meaning of this one word, which is repeated throughout the poem, depends on the questions posed by the melancholy student.
As the stanzas advance, the student loses his initial surprise at the appearance of the raven, and each question becomes more serious and portentous. Thus, the entire poem can be seen as a vision of the unhappy flow of tragic emotions and hopeless thoughts in the mind and heart of the student. The bird may be taken as merely a device by which the young man reflects on his loss and penetrates more deeply into his own suffering.