Poe’s poem The Raven explained for English learners

by Jakub Marian

Tip: You can read a detailed explanation of all stanzas in my book about The Raven for English Learners (there is also a PDF version).

Each line of the poem (apart from the last line of each stanza) is divided into two halves in the following text (which is based on my book). While these are usually exact halves, sometimes it was necessary to break the rhythmic structure for the two parts to make sense.

Don’t worry about your reading experience being affected by the division; you will have the opportunity to read the whole stanza again at the end. Here is the first “half-line”:

Once upon a midnight1 dreary2,

US ˈwʌns əˈpɔːn3 ə ˈmɪdnaɪt ˈdrɪri

UK ˈwʌns əˈpɒn ə ˈmɪdnaɪt ˈdrɪəri

1 fairy tales traditionally begin with “once upon a time”. Poe’s poem starts in a grimmer setting.

2dreary” is an adjective meaning “dark, cheerless, depressive”. Adjectives in literature sometimes follow the nouns they modify to create a more dramatic effect, e.g. “a sight yet unseen”, “a world undiscovered”; we would more commonly say “a dreary midnight”.

3 “upon” is also often pronounced /əˈpɑːn/ in American English.

while I pondered1, weak and weary2,

US ˈwaɪl aɪ ˈpɑːndɚd ˈwiːk ənd3 ˈwɪri2

UK ˈwaɪl aɪ ˈpɒndəd ˈwiːk ənd3 ˈwɪəri2

1 thought deeply; was lost in thought.

2 exhausted, tired, fatigued; note the pronunciation, which differs from that of the similar-looking word “wear” /wɛɚ/ US, /wɛə/ UK.

3 “and” has two possible pronunciations in English: the strong form and the weak form. What we see here is the weak form /ənd/, which is used when the word is not stressed. The strong form, used for emphasis, is pronounced /ænd/.

There are many words in English that have a weak form (for example “at” /ət/, “can” /kən/, “do” // or /du/, and many others). Pay attention to the pronunciation line; whenever you see a monosyllabic word unexpectedly pronounced with a schwa /ə/ or with a short vowel where you would expect a long vowel, what you see is in fact the weak form of the word, while the strong form is used only for emphasis. Many learners aren’t aware of the fact that the weak forms exist, but the distinction is important in poetry.

Over many a1 quaint2 and curious3 volume4

US ˈoʊvɚ ˈmɛni ə ˈkweɪnt ənd ˈkjʊriəs ˈvɑːljuːm

UK ˈəʊvə ˈmɛni ə ˈkweɪnt ənd ˈkjʊriəs ˈvɒljuːm

1 “many a + singular noun” means the same as “many + plural noun”. This form is quite uncommon in modern English but can still be found in formal writing.

2 unusual in a pleasing way, especially when having old-fashioned charm.

3 out of the ordinary, bizarre; it may also refer to its archaic meaning of artfully constructed, elaborate.

4 a formal word for a book.

of forgotten lore1

US əf fɚˈɡɑːtn ˈlɔːr

UK əf fəˈɡɒtn ˈlɔː

1 facts, beliefs, and traditions related to a particular subject accumulated over time. The word “folklore”, which may be known to you from your mother tongue, is derived from it (it is literally “the lore of the folk”).

While I nodded1, nearly napping2,

US ˈwaɪl aɪ ˈnɑːdɪd ˈnɪrli ˈnæpɪŋ

UK ˈwaɪl aɪ ˈnɒdɪd ˈnɪəli ˈnæpɪŋ

1 “to nod” means “to move one’s head down and up”, usually to express agreement or as a form of greeting. Somewhat figuratively, it is used also in connection with the movement of one’s head when a person falls asleep in a sitting position.

2 a nap is a short sleep, usually during the day.

Here we see a nice example of alliteration. Alliteration is a literary device defined as the occurrence of the same sound at the beginning of several words in a row or close to each other; the repeated letter here is N: While I nodded, nearly napping… Alliteration is used to emphasize the rhythmic structure of the verse, and we will see it many times throughout the poemin fact, we have already seen it in “while I pondered, weak and weary”.

suddenly there came a tapping1,

US ˈsʌdənli ðɛɚ keɪm ə ˈtæpɪŋ

UK ˈsʌdənli ðɛə keɪm ə ˈtæpɪŋ

1 “to tap” means “to hit something lightly”, as when you drum your fingers on a table.

As of some one1 gently rapping2,

US+UK ˈæz əv ˈsʌmwʌn ˈdʒɛntli ˈræpɪŋ

1someone” is spelled as a single word in modern English.

2to rap” means “to hit an object several times making noise”. In this context, it refers to knocking.

rapping at my chamber1 door.

US ˈræpɪŋ ət maɪ ˈtʃeɪmbɚ ˈdɔːr

UK ˈræpɪŋ ət maɪ ˈtʃeɪmbə ˈdɔː

1chamber” is used to refer to a bedroom or a private room in older literature.

“’Tis1 some visiter2,” I muttered3,

US ˈtɪz ˈsʌm ˈvɪzɪtɚ aɪ ˈmʌtɚd

UK ˈtɪz ˈsʌm ˈvɪzɪtə aɪ ˈmʌtəd

1 a literary expression meaning “it is”.

2 an archaic spelling of “visitor”; sometimes rendered as “visitor” in newer editions.

3 muttering is saying something under one’s breath, that is, with lips partly closed and in a quiet voice, so that only the speaker himself or herself and the people nearby can understand, usually because the statement being said expresses some form of criticism or anger.

“tapping at my chamber door

US ˈtæpɪŋ ət maɪ ˈtʃeɪmbɚ ˈdɔːr

UK ˈtæpɪŋ ət maɪ ˈtʃeɪmbə ˈdɔː

Only this and nothing more1.”

US ˈoʊnli ˈðɪs ənd ˈnʌθɪŋ mɔːr

UK ˈəʊnli ˈðɪs ənd ˈnʌθɪŋ mɔː

1 notice the recurring theme of the poemthe word “more” that will eventually turn into the Raven’s “Nevermore.”

In the last two lines, the speaker is trying to convince himself that the source of tapping is merely a visitor (and nothing more). We will later see what he is secretly hoping the tapping could mean.

* * *

Now that you have finished reading about the first stanza, read it again as a whole to remember all that you have learned:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door
          Only this and nothing more.”

This article was based on my ebook about The Raven. It explains vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar used in the ebook in detail—why don’t you check it out?