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The First American Poem:
Edgar Allan Poe's »The Raven«
Unparalleled by any other of Edgar Allan Poe's works is his famous poem entitled »The Raven.« This extremely popular work, which was incredibly well-received by
both the public and his contemporary literary critics, is perhaps the work most widely associated with this well known author. It won nationwide, as well as
trans-Atlantic, praise unceasingly since its first publication, and continues today to be praised and studied as a model of originality and genius. No matter how well or
poorly received any of his earlier and later works were, and despite the numerous parodies and imitations, »The Raven« never failed to receive the respect and
recognition that Poe sought for his work. Edward Patterson of an Illinois newspaper wrote on November 7, 1849, exactly one month after Poe's death, "That Mr.
Poe's fame will ever become 'merely traditional' we cannot believe; so long as our language endures will that remarkable poem --'The Raven'-- continue to be read
with interest" (Walker 322).
In a farmhouse sitting on 216 acres adjacent to the Hudson River, Edgar Allan Poe began composing his most famous work. He lived the garret of the house, which
was owned by Patrick Brennan, with his wife Virginia and his aunt during the winter of 1843-44, when his fortunes were on a definite downswing. It was during this
hard time that he was inspired by a character in Charles Dicken's novel Barnaby Rudge: Grip, the Raven. There in his study, where a bust of Pallas stood on a shelf
above the doorway, Poe began to weave together two very distinct images using a tone and poem structure unique to his new creation.
When Poe walked into the offices of the Graham's magazine in an attempt to sell his first copy of »The Raven,« it was rejected outright, despite his pleading that he
desperately needed the money for his family. Not much later, a better version of the same poem was bought by Colton's American Whig Review for fifteen dollars. It
is ironic indeed that the author of some of the most successful and widely-circulated works in American literature should have earned practically nothing by writing
them. »The Raven« seems to have netted its author less than $20." (Wagenknecht, 90)It was published by that magazine in its February, 1845, edition. Along with it
was a copy of Poe's »The Philosophy of Composition,« which some critics take to have been a direct discussion on the writing of »The Raven,« while others dismiss it
as being rubbish.
This publication was in fact not the poem's first time in print. The Evening Mirror obtained a copy of the poem somehow from the American Review and "in advance
of publication" published it in the January 26, 1845, edition (Walker 140). It was published under the pen name of Quarles, with a glowing preface by Nathaniel Willis,
the editor of that magazine and a good friend of Poe's at the time. This version of the poem had some uncorrected errors in it which did not appear in the American
Review's first publication, but the Evening Mirror's second publishing of the poem on February 8 was an again incomplete copy of the other magazine's corrected
version. Poe made further corrections for the Broadway Journal's publication which came out later that month and which which contained a major rewriting of the
eleventh stanza, lines 61-65. After this, Poe had little opportunity to make corrections to »The Raven,« for, due to its incredible initial and subsequent success, other
publications began to copy it without going through Poe.
Poe sold another copy to the Southern Literary Messenger, his old magazine to which he had contributed greatly in the past, for its March, 1845 edition. During the
course of 1845, »The Raven« spread rapidly across the United States, gaining incredible popularity and fame for Poe, but no money. Late in that year, the publishers
Wiley & Putnam produced approximately fifteen hundred copies of Poe's book Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, which had petered out two years previous
with another publishing company. It sold a mere 750 copies, and resulted in no payment of any kind for Poe. Based on the mild success of the second printing of this
book, and the wild success of »The Raven,« Poe was given $75 dollars to produce a collection entitled The Raven and Other Poems. Unfortunately for Poe, he was
»not a sound commercial property, and Wiley & Putnam could hardly have been expected to print a new edition when they could not readily move their 1845 printing,«
(Walker 8). The new book stagnated when, in 1846, Poe tried to get its copyright sold to another publisher for fifty dollars. It wasn't until much later that it saw any
Despite Poe's personal monetary and publication problems, »The Raven« continued to increase in popularity. American society was entranced with the poem, and Poe
himself became quite a popular figure because of it. He was constantly called to recite »The Raven« to groups of flocking socialites, and he was in the spotlight
throughout 1845. During this time, many of the unpleasant aspects of his character made him the target of many personal criticisms, including renewed comments
about the inferior quality of much of his other work.
From the beginning, there was constant praise by esteemed literary critics for »The Raven.« The Evening Mirror editor Nathaniel Willis's high praise in his
introductory note for »The Raven's« first publication established the trend of Poe's contemporaries' opinions of his masterpiece. In the Southern Literary Messenger's
first publication of Poe's poem, the introductory note quotes the editor of the New York Express, Mr Brooks, who says, "There is a poem in this book [the American
Review], which far surpasses anything that has been done by the best poets of the age:- indeed there are none of them who could pretend to enter into competition
with it, except, perhaps, Alfred Tennyson; and he only to be excelled out of measure» (142). A review of «The Raven" by Thomas English typifies much of the literary
review done on this topic. »We hold the poem to be of high merit, which can effect our mind as «The Raven" did, and does; and that the common-place has been raised
from degradation by a master hand, is sufficient to place Mr Poe in a high rank. It requires more power to raise a demon to heaven, than to drag an angel down to hell"
(232). English praises »The Raven« for the masterpiece that it is, while at the same time pointing out the fact that it truly is a diamond among pebbles, for Poe's other
poems hardly merit positive comment by most critics when mentioned in these reviews.
George Colton, in his introduction for the American Review's release of »The Raven,« highlights the bold and inventive new rhythm and rhyme structure that Poe had
produced in the poem. It is this well thought out and original poetry which contributes greatly to the poem's critical appeal. It is this which takes his incredibly
descriptive work and sets it apart from other American authors of the time, leading to John Daniel's praise in the Richmond Examiner's September 25, 1849,
publication. "'The Raven' has taken rank over the whole world of literature, as the very first poem yet produced on the American continent. There is indeed but one
other -»The Humble Bee« of Ralph Waldo Emerson, which can be ranked near it. The latter is superior to it, as a work of construction and design, while the former is
superior to the latter as a work of pure art» (145). The critics of England reluctantly gave Poe credit, although «The Raven" evidently was quite popular with the
general public. One stout London literary critic proceeds through his article in a definite scorn of American poetry, using such lines as "when we speak of a literature
or a style as American, we mean a strain of thought, utterly without nationality, and a style peculiarly its own...they are essentially imitative; they echo the ideas wafted
to them from England, and with the feebleness of echos" (260). This same author eventually does admit that there is something special about Poe's masterpiece,
despite the fact that all his previous poetry »has not escaped the error of his countrymen« (261). In fact, he conceeds "That Mr Poe has something in him, but that he
wants pruning and training, will be apparent from the singular poem of 'The Raven,'..." (261).
Philip Cooke's essay in the Southern Literary Messenger's January 1848 issue quotes Miss Barrett, of England, soon to be the wife of the author Robert Browning,
who is much more enthusiastic about Poe's famous poem. »This vivid writing!- this power which is felt! 'The Raven' has produced a sensation- a «fit horror" here in
England.... Our great poet, Mr Browning, author of Paracelsus, etc., is enthusiastic in his admiration of the rhythm.... The certain thing in the tale in question is the
power of the writer" (271).
Even with this international renown, his work was not beyond the reach of those who cared not for his style. Lewis Clark's review in the Knickerbocker Magazine
states that Poe's "reputation as a poet rests mainly upon 'The Raven,' which, as we have already said, we consider an unique and musical piece of versification, but as
a poem it will not bear scrutiny" (243). Poe had made many enemies in his own criticisms of other authors, and many took the opportunity of his moment in the
spotlight to point out his many failings. From the comparison of his solitary truly successful work with all his other blander poetic attempts, to analyzing the truly bizarre
nature of his stories, to critiquing his conduct and personal shortcomings, Poe's enemies contributed greatly to his ignoble last years before his early death in 1849. But
no matter the fading of Edgar Allan Poe's personal popularity, for his masterpiece »The Raven« continues even today to be one of the most popular and influential
works by an American author.
Allen, H. Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe, Volume II. New York: George H. Doran Company, 1926.
Porges, I. Edgar Allan Poe, 3rd edition. Philadelphia: Chilton Book Company, 1963.
Quinn, A.H. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc., 1941.
Wagenknecht, E. Edgar Allan Poe: The Man Behind the Legend. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963.
Walker, I.M. Edgar Allan Poe: The Critical Heritage. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Inc., 1986.