The speaker is a scholar mourning the loss of his beloved Lenore. He tries to keep his mind off of her by reading, but he is beset by melancholy thoughts of her. When a raven enters his room, he is at first amused, and then angered by its responses to his questions of life, death, and the afterlife. He gives in to despair.
The raven says only one word—"Nevermore"—that the speaker interprets in different ways to answer his own questions. The bird serves as a device to explore the speaker's grief.
Lenore is a young woman. The speaker refers to her as a "rare and radiant maiden."