The Story of “The Raven” -- Poe’s Most Famous Work
“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."
In this date, January 29, 1845, Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven” appeared for the first time in print in the New York Evening Mirror. For many people, this is the most recognizable of Poe’s works and for others (like myself) it’s the only poem that they know very well. The publication of “The Raven” made Poe widely popular during his lifetime, although it never brought him the financial success that he wanted and needed. Soon reprinted, parodied, and illustrated, critical opinion is divided as to the poem's status, but it nevertheless remains one of the most famous poems ever written – largely due to the fact that Poe died mysteriously and tragically just a few years later.
Like far too many other literary lights in American history, Poe realized his greatest fame only after his death.
Edgar Allan Poe – perhaps America’s Most Haunted Writer
“The Raven” lyrically tells a simple tale. It follows an unnamed narrator on a night in December who sits reading "forgotten lore" as a way to forget the loss of his love, Lenore. (One of the names of lost women that Poe wrote about, echoing his own tragic loss of love during his life) A "rapping at [his] chamber door" reveals nothing, but excites his soul to "burning". A similar rapping, slightly louder, is heard at his window. When he goes to investigate, a raven steps into his chamber. Paying no attention to the man, the raven perches on a bust of Pallas above the door.
Amused by the raven's comically serious disposition, the man asks that the bird tell him its name. The raven's only answer is "Nevermore". The narrator is surprised that the raven can talk, though at this point it has said nothing further. The narrator remarks to himself that his "friend" the raven will soon fly out of his life, just as "other friends have flown before" along with his previous hopes. As if answering, the raven responds again with "Nevermore". The narrator reasons that the bird learned the word "Nevermore" from some "unhappy master" and that it is the only word it knows.
Even so, the narrator pulls his chair directly in front of the raven, determined to learn more about it. He thinks for a moment in silence, and his mind wanders back to his lost Lenore. He thinks the air grows denser and feels the presence of angels, and wonders if God is sending him a sign that he is to forget Lenore. The bird again replies in the negative, suggesting that he can never be free of his memories. The narrator becomes angry, calling the raven a "thing of evil.” Finally, he asks the raven whether he will be reunited with Lenore in Heaven. When the raven responds with its typical "Nevermore", he is enraged, and, calling it a liar, commands the bird to return to the "Plutonian shore", - but it does not move. Presumably at the time of the poem's recitation by the narrator, the raven "still is sitting" on the bust of Pallas. The narrator's final admission is that his soul is trapped beneath the raven's shadow and shall be lifted "Nevermore".
An illustration of “The Raven” by Gustave Dore, perhaps one of the greatest literary illustrators of the nineteenth century.
The poem did not have an auspicious start. Poe first brought it to his friend and employer George Rex Graham of Graham's Magazine in Philadelphia. Graham declined the poem, which may not have been in its final version, though he gave Poe $15 as charity. Poe then sold the poem to The American Review, which paid him $9 for it, and printed "The Raven" in its February 1845 issue under the pseudonym "Quarles", a reference to the English poet Francis Quarles. The poem's first publication with Poe's name was in the Evening Mirror on January 29, 1845, as an "advance copy". Nathaniel Parker Willis, editor of the Mirror, introduced it as a poem that will “…stick to the memory of everybody who reads it." Following this publication the poem appeared in periodicals across the United States, including the New York Tribune, Broadway Journal, Southern Literary Messenger, Literary Emporium, Saturday Courier and the Richmond Examiner. The immediate success of "The Raven" prompted Wiley and Putnam to publish a collection of Poe's prose called Tales in June 1845; it was his first book in five years. They also published a collection of his poetry called The Raven and Other Poems. The small volume, his first book of poetry in 14 years, was 100 pages and sold for 31 cents. In addition to the title poem, it included some of his now famous works like "The City in the Sea", "The Conqueror Worm", "The Haunted Palace" and eleven others. In the preface, Poe referred to them as "trifles" which had been altered without his permission as they made "the rounds of the press". Even when his work was drawing notice, Poe couldn’t help but sabotage his possible success. As it turned out, though, he needn’t have bothered. Despite the word of mouth that surrounded “The Raven,” Poe was still broke.
Thanks to its wide release, “The Raven” made Poe a household name. Readers began to identify poem with poet, earning Poe the nickname "The Raven". The poem was soon widely reprinted, imitated, and parodied – all for free. Poe made almost no money from its success. As he later complained, “I have made no money. I am as poor now as ever I was in my life – except in hope, which is by no means bankable".
For the most part, “The Raven” was widely praised. The Pennsylvania Inquirer reprinted it with the heading "A Beautiful Poem". Elizabeth Barrett wrote to Poe, "Your 'Raven' has produced a sensation, a fit o' horror, here in England. Some of my friends are taken by the fear of it and some by the music. I hear of persons haunted by 'Nevermore'."
Poe's popularity resulted in invitations to recite "The Raven" and to lecture – in public and at private social gatherings. At one literary salon, a guest noted, "to hear [Poe] repeat the Raven ... is an event in one's life." It was recalled by someone who experienced it, "He would turn down the lamps till the room was almost dark, then standing in the center of the apartment he would recite ... in the most melodious of voices ... So marvelous was his power as a reader that the auditors would be afraid to draw breath lest the enchanted spell be broken."
Of course, then as now, anything popular was sure to draw imitators and parodies. Some of the joke versions of the poem included "The Craven" by "Poh!", "The Gazelle", "The Whippoorwill", and "The Turkey". One parody, "The Pole-Cat", caught the attention of Andrew Johnston, a lawyer who sent it on to Abraham Lincoln. Though Lincoln admitted he had "several hearty laughs", he had not, at that point read "The Raven". However, Lincoln eventually read and memorized the poem. It should also be noted that no matter how popular the jokes were, those parody versions have faded into obscurity.
“The Raven” was praised by fellow writers William Gilmore Simms and Margaret Fuller, though it was denounced by William Butler Yeats, who called it "insincere and vulgar ... its execution a rhythmical trick". Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "I see nothing in it." A critic for the Southern Quarterly Review wrote in July 1848 that the poem was ruined by "a wild and unbridled extravagance" and that minor things like a rapping at the door and a fluttering curtain would only affect "a child who had been frightened to the verge of idiocy by terrible ghost stories.”
Poe’s notoriety – and yet lack of financial success – haunted him for the remainder of his life – a life that ended in mystery. On October 3, 1849, Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore delirious, "in great distress, and... in need of immediate assistance", according to the man who found him, Joseph W. Walker. He was taken to the Washington Medical College, where he died on Sunday, October 7, 1849, at 5:00 in the morning. Poe was never coherent long enough to explain how he came to be in his dire condition, and, oddly, was wearing clothes that were not his own. Poe is said to have repeatedly called out the name "Reynolds" on the night before his death, though it is unclear to whom he was referring. To this day, the actual cause of his death remains unknown.
Today, 168 years after the publication of the poem, “The Raven” remains a touchstone of American literature and a work that even those without interest in poetry can recite – at least a portion of it anyway. There is no question that it has endured over the years and if asked if the poem will be forgotten…? The raven would undoubtedly reply, “Nevermore.”