Stanza XIV of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven is one of the hardest pieces of English literature to understand for a non-native speaker. The following explanation is based on my book about the whole poem. Note: The whole stanza is divided into “half verses”.
You can read the whole stanza rewritten in simpler English as well as the original at the end of the article.
Then, methought1, the air grew denser2,
US ˈðɛn mɪˈθɔːt ði ˈɛr ɡruː ˈdɛnsɚ
UK ˈðɛn mɪˈθɔːt ði ˈɛə ɡruː ˈdɛnsə
1 “methinks” means “it seems to me”. This word, found in abundance in the works of Shakespeare, is only used in modern English as a humorous way to express an opinion.
2 “grew denser” means “became denser”.
perfumed from an unseen1 censer2
US ˈpɝːfjuːmd frəm ən ʌnˈsiːn ˈsɛnsɚ
UK ˈpɜːfjuːmd frəm ən ʌnˈsiːn ˈsɛnsə
1 that cannot be seen.
2 a container used to burn incense (a ritual perfume) during religious ceremonies.
Swung by Seraphim1 whose foot-falls2 tinkled3
US ˈswʌŋ baɪ ˈsɛrəfɪm huːz ˈfʊtfɔːlz ˈtɪŋkld
UK ˈswʌŋ baɪ ˈsɛrəfɪm huːz ˈfʊtfɔːlz ˈtɪŋkld
1 seraphs or seraphim (both being the plural of “seraph”) are angelic beings belonging to the highest order of the celestial hierarchy.
2 a footfall (alternatively spelled foot-fall) is the sound made by footsteps.
3 made a light metallic sound.
on the tufted1 floor.
US ɔn ðə ˈtʌftɪd ˈflɔːr
UK ɒn ðə ˈtʌftɪd flɔː
1 having tufts. A tuft is a bunch of feathers, grass, hair, moss, or another soft material joined at the base. Here, “tufted floor” probably refers to the tufts found on a mat on the floor.
Note: Tufts also refer to the clusters of threads with buttons at both ends that are often used in mattresses, cushions, etc., to strengthen the padding (the ﬁlling material), and the adjective “tufted” is mostly used when talking about types of mattresses and cushions.
“Wretch1,” I cried, “thy God hath2 lent thee3—
US ˈrɛtʃ aɪ kraɪd ðaɪ ˈɡɑːd hæθ ˈlɛnt ðiː
UK ˈrɛtʃ aɪ ˈkraɪd ðaɪ ˈɡɒd hæθ ˈlɛnt ðiː
1 an unfortunate and miserable person, here referring to the speaker himself.
2 archaic third person singular of “have”, i.e. “has”.
3 accusative of “thou”, an archaic form of “you”.
by these angels he hath sent thee
US+UK baɪ ðiːz ˈeɪndʒəlz ˈhiː hæθ ˈsɛnt ðiː
Respite1—respite and nepenthe2
US ˈrɛspɪt ˈrɛspɪt ˈænd nɪˈpɛnθiː
UK ˈrɛspaɪt ˈrɛspaɪt ˈænd nɪˈpɛnθiː
1 a brief interval of relief.
2 a mythological Greek drug that provides relief from grief or sorrow.
from thy memories of Lenore;
US frəm ðaɪ ˈmɛməriz əv ləˈnɔːr
UK frəm ðaɪ ˈmɛməriz əv ləˈnɔː
Quaff1, oh quaff this kind2 nepenthe
US ˈkwæf oʊ ˈkwæf ðɪs ˈkaɪnd nɪˈpɛnθiː
UK ˈkwɒf əʊ ˈkwɒf ðɪs ˈkaɪnd nɪˈpɛnθiː
1 drink a large amount quickly; overindulge in drinking.
2 benevolent, nice.
and forget this lost Lenore!”
US ˈænd fɚˈɡɛt ðɪs ˈlɔːst ləˈnɔːr
UK ˈænd fəˈɡɛt ðɪs ˈlɒst ləˈnɔː
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
US ˈkwoʊθ ðə ˈreɪvn ˌnɛvɚˈmɔːr
UK ˈkwəʊθ ðə ˈreɪvn ˌnɛvəˈmɔː
* * *
In a moment of madness, the speaker is talking to himself, imagining that angels brought him relief from his sorrow. Here is the whole stanza in simpler language:
Then I thought the air got denser perfumed by an invisible censer
Which was swung by angels whose footfalls tinkled on the floor.
“You poor thing,” I said, “your God has lent you relief and medicine
(which he sent you by these angels) from your memories of Lenore
Drink, oh drink this good medicine and forget this lost Lenore!”
The Raven replied: “Nevermore.”
Now, read the original again:
Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee–by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe, from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”