Poe's poem The Raven contains the following words in the fifteenth stanza:

[...] tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!"

What does 'Gilead' mean here? I've looked it up on the internet, but apparently the only places known as Gilead are real-life places in the Middle East - perhaps with some religious significance, but not literally Paradise. Why, then, does the narrator ask about "balm in Gilead"? What is the significance of this question put to the raven?

  • 3
    It is a reference to the Bible -- Jeremiah 8:22 "Is there no balm in Gilead". I'll try to put an answer together, but I need to do some research.
    – Mick
    Jan 25 '17 at 0:16
  • If I could choose one question so far as an example question for this site, it would be this one. +1, great question.
    – CHEESE
    Jan 25 '17 at 0:33

Commentators like William Giraldi, The Annotated Poe, point out that this refers to Jeremiah 8:22:

Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?

Wikipedia says that the Balm of Gilead, speaking figuratively, is a "universal cure," and Les Harding writes:

To ask the question found in Jeremiah 8:22, "Is there no balm in Gilead?" is to ask "Is there no relief or consolation for the evils which befall us?" (source)

David L. Jeffrey cites "The Raven" as an example of an ironic use of the phrase, while retaining the biblical association:

In Poe's "The Raven" a desperate speaker cries out for hope, but does so to a "thing of evil" (source)

Kevin Reynaud interprets it similarly, and connects the phrase to the broader context of the poem:

The mention of Gilead refers to the Bible in which the balm of Gilead was a healing ointment, implying that the narrator's only cure to depression is to be reunited with Lenore in Heaven. (source)


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