Outsourcing "The Raven": retroactive origins.
It has appeared in all shapes and styles, from the little penny Glasgow edition to the magnificent folios of Mallarmd in Paris and Stedman in New York. The journals of America and Europe are never weary of quoting it ... and no collection of modern poetry would be deemed complete without it. It has been translated and commented upon by the leading literati of two continents, and an entire literature has been founded upon it. (1)
Promoting the poem's transatlantic renown from his vantage point in England, Ingram dedicates his edition of "The Raven," which includes the "cream" of that literature, as well as literary and historical commentary, to
STEPHANE MALLARME, Paris EDUARD ENGEL, Berlin, AND EDMUND CLARENCE STEDMAN, New York, Translator of and Commentators on "The Raven"
By the turn of the nineteenth century, "The Raven" had been translated into German, French, Hungarian, Latin, Dutch, and Portuguese (by the Brazilian writer Machado de Assis). What was true then is perhaps more true today; "The Raven" is quite likely the most popular American lyric poem in the world. Any Google search will show that translations, versions, and renditions continue to proliferate. Many of us are familiar with the Simpson episode in which the raven sports Bart's head, or Lou Reed's recent CD that bears the title of Poe's poem. (2) This essay inquires into the reason for the extreme popularity of "The Raven." Without too much help from academics of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, "The Raven" continues to flourish in the mass media and among artists and ordinary people alike.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, according to Ingram, "an American journalist in want of a subject to eke out the scanty interest of his columns appears to revert to Poe and his works as natural prey: he has only to devise a paragraph--the more absurd and palpably false the better for his Purpose--about how 'The Raven' was written, or by whom it was written other than Poe, to draw attention to his paper and to get his fabrication copied into the journals of every town in the United States" (p. 84). Though Ingram claims that "one outcome of the immense popularity in its native country of 'The Raven' is the wonderful and continuous series of fabrications to which it has given rise," I will argue the reverse: that the poem's ability to engender fabrications results in its immense popularity (p. 84). The seeds of these fabrications--accusations of plagiarism, stories of collaboration, eyewitness accounts of the poem's creation, posthumous versions delivered by spirit mediums, hoax prototype poems, parodies, and translations-are cultivated within the poem itself. Paradoxically, they are related to the idea that the lyric poem originates deep within an individual psychology. In its diction, sonic properties, dramatic staging, and narrative form, "The Raven" stages questions about whether lyric poetry emerges from within or without the poet's mind. I will claim that the poem's ability to encourage readers to search for its origins results in its immense popularity. This essay will examine the relation of the poem's formal properties to the rumors and theories of origin surrounding it-including the theory that Poe himself advances in "The Philosophy of Composition" and the theories of his academic critics--that proliferate after its publication. I want to suggest that "The Raven" cultivates modes of interpretation that connect the poem to multiple locations of cultural significance via readers' quests for the poem's origins. Unlike Whitman's Leaves of Grass, which predicts its own dissemination among the people as an American Bible, "The Raven" instructs its readers to look backwards, towards the moment of the poem's inception, as a means of writing its own reception. By encouraging readers to cultivate fantasies of origin, the poem installs itself as a reference point inside and outside of American culture. The more retroactive origins the poem accrues, the more its significance multiplies, at the expense of its intrinsic, individual identity. In the place of the lost origins of "The Raven" emerge the myths, stories, rumors, and theories that ensure the poem's survival and transmission.
The story of the immediate popularity of "The Raven" is well rehearsed; biographer Kenneth Silverman likens its reception to that of "some uproariously successful hit song today." (3) Within a month of its first publications in January 1845 in the American Review and February 1845 in the Evening Mirror, the poem appeared in the New York Morning News, the New York Daily Tribune, the Broadway Journal, the Weekly Mirror, the New York Weekly Tribune, the Howard District Press of Maryland, the Pennsylvania Inquirer and National Gazette, and the Western Literary Messenger of Buffalo, New York. (4) By April 1846, in response to Poe's gift of The Raven and Other Poems, which he had dedicated to her, Elizabeth Barrett Barrett wrote:
Your "Raven" has produced a sensation ... a "fit horror" ... here in England. Some of my friends are taken by the fear of it & some by the music-I hear of persons haunted by the "Nevermore" .. and one acquaintance of mine who has the misfortune of possessing a bust of Pallas, never can bear to look at it in the twilight. (5)
Reprinted far and wide, "The Raven" was designed, Poe told correspondent Frederick Thomas, "for the express purpose of running--just as I did 'The Gold-Bug,' you know. The bird beat the bug, though, all hollow." (6)
Critics have repeatedly pointed out what Barrett herself did not: that the closest rhythmic prototype of "The Raven" is her own "Lady Geraldine's Courtship." (7) According to Ingram, Thomas Buchanan Read informed Robert Browning that Poe had said that his entire poem was suggested by Barrett's single line "With a murmurous stir uncertain, in the air, the purple curtain." (8) Poe advertised rather than hid Barrett's influence by discussing her poem in a Broadway Journal review just weeks before "The Raven" was published. (9) Critics also suggest that Poe potentially identified another eminent English source in 1842, in a review of Dickens' Barnaby Rudge, in which he suggests a way to improve on Dickens' bird: "The raven, too, intensely amusing as it is, might have been made, more than we now see it, a portion of the conception of the fantastic Barnaby. Its croakings might have been prophetically heard in the course of the drama." (10) In the case of both Barrett and Dickens, a narrative of improvement supplants the suggestion that Poe is overly influenced by, or has borrowed too liberally from, his more distinguished English peers. Assigning to Barrett's poem "the utmost conceivable intensity and vigor," "the fiercest passion," and "the most ethereal fancy," Poe goes on to "admit" that "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" is "a very palpable imitation" of Tennyson's "Locksley Hall" (ER, p. 127). Poe implicitly suggests that his own "palpable imitation" is also a palpable improvement of an imperfect poem. Likewise, his raven's croakings, unlike Dickens', are a "portion of the conception" of his speaker and are "prophetically heard in the course of the drama." Prophetic after-the-fact, Poe stages his poem's upstaging of its English predecessors.
In addition to recalling distinguished English prototypes, "The Raven" also reminded readers of countless contemportary American poems in U.S. periodicals; in this way it multiplied its debts and promoted its reputation. For whether these poems were composed before or after "The Raven," they all sounded like it by virtue of Poe's poem's extreme popularity, as well as his exaggerated use of familiar poetic practices. Perhaps this is why friends and strangers, in earnest and in hoaxes, insisted that Poe stole "The Raven." Thomas Holley Chivers, for example, claimed in the Macon Georgia Citizen of July 12, 1850, that Poe plagiarized an elegy to his infant daughter entitled "To Allegra Florence in Heaven" (Poems, p. 357). Printed in a Georgia magazine in the spring of 1843, "To Allegra" bears some resemblance to Poe's poem:
Holy angels now are bending To receive thy soul ascending Up to Heaven to joys unending, And to bliss which is divine. (qtd. in Poems, p. 357)
Both poems are characterized by insistent "ing" endings, and an exaggerated monotony of perfect disyllabic end rhymes. Like many poems of the period, Chivers' four beat trochaic lines are exactly half the length of Poe's octameter lines that have a conspicuous caesura in the middle, underscoring the ghost of a partially elided tetrameter structure. The poems also share the ubiquitous theme of the death of a beloved.
Chivers was not alone in his belated sense of betrayal. Henry Hirst, a lawyer who had a pet raven, wrote a book on birds, and was Poe's Philadelphia friend in the years prior to the publication of "The Raven," came to believe later in life, when he was "harmlessly insane" (according to Mabbott) that he had written Poe's poem (Poems, p. 355 n.7). In Snowden's Ladies' Companion for September 1842, in Hirst's poem entitled "To a Ruined Fountain in a Grecian Picture," lines appear that recall Poe's poem. Leaving aside the question of genealogy, the poems possess shared traits that bear precisely on the issue of deferred origins, so Hirst's assertion of authorship makes logical sense even if it is not literally true:
Forms of chiefs and maidens bright Whom the never-dying raven Hath forgotten, nameless even In the poet's lay of might. (qtd. in Poems, p. 355 n. 7)
Sharing a "never-dying raven," the poems of Hirst and Poe carry words in insistent trochees--the meter of chants and enforced forgetting. Indeed, the raven seems to travel from one poem to another, forgetting the form from whence it came. Participating in the poem's scene of forgetful mimicry, Hirst's poet purges names. Poe's poet, meanwhile, obsessively revives one name--Lenore--which is nevertheless, like Hirst's forms, "Nameless here for evermore!" Neither speaker can access his bright forms (Poems, pp. 365, 1. 12). Poe more directly recognized an affiliation with Hirst when he expressed admiration for his ballads of lost women, "Isabelle" and "Geraldine," in a review written after the publication of "The Raven" (ER, pp. 596-597). Poe moreover cultivated the idea that Hirst's poems were fair game for theft when he accused Thomas Dunn English of such an act in the Literati: "He has taken ... most unwarrantable liberties, in the way of downright plagiarism, from a Philadelphian poet whose high merits have not been properly appreciated--Mr. Henry B. Hirst" (ER, p. 1166). In retrospect or prospect, Hirst's poem, like Chivers', communicates with Poe's to the point that they mirror one another. Rather than reclaiming their poetic property, Chivers and Hirst succeed in promoting Poe's poem through their narratives of theft, narratives that Poe and "The Raven" encourage rather than deny.
If the claims of Chivers and Hirst might have some validity, many of the accusations launched against Poe were completely unhinged from reality. In Edgar Poe and his Critics, Sarah Helen Whitman rebutted the rumor that Poe killed his wife Virginia (who died after the poem was published) in order to have a fit subject for "The Raven." (11) The accusation implies that the poem arises from the theft of a female life. Someone else proposed that Poe "merely polished" a composition stolen from an inmate in an insane asylum (Poems, p. 359 n. 17). And, according to an apocryphal letter of confession assigned to Poe in the New Orleans Times in July 1870, Poe received the poem from a shy poet who asked that his name be withheld. Poe published the poem "when I was, unfortunately, intoxicated, and not knowing what I did. I signed my name to it, and thus it went to the printer, and was published. The sensation it produced made me dishonest enough to conceal the name of the real author, who had died, as you know, some time before" (Ingram, p. 91).
In a 1901 book on Poe, Colonel John A. Joyce claims that Poe stole "The Raven" from an Italian poem called "The Parrot," by Leo Penzoni, published in the Milan Art Journal of 1809; Mabbott tells us that "Penzoni and the periodical are unknown to bibliographies, and the English 'translation' presented is obviously a concoction by Joyce" (Poems, p. 353). "The Raven" is also said to be a translation from the Chinese of Kia Yi (Poems, p. 359 n. 16); and from an unspecified Persian poem. Ingram recounts that a tale
after running the usual rounds of the American press, found its way to England, and was published in the London Star in the summer of 1864. It was to the effect that Mr. Lang, the well-known Oriental traveler, had discovered that Poe's poem of The Raven was a literary imposture. "Poe's sole accomplishment," so ran the announcement, 'was a minute and accurate acquaintance with Oriental languages, and that he turned to account by translating, almost literally, the poem of The Raven, from the Persian! (Ingram, p. 84).
Literally untrue, these stories nevertheless replicate the logic of Poe's own critical persona: he was constantly exposing the thefts of others, and in his unfinished manuscript "A Reviewer Reviewed," he turned the accusation on himself. Though "Mr. Poe has become notorious" for accusing others of plagiarism, he, according to himself, is guilty of the same charge "of willful and deliberate literary theft" (ER, pp. 1051-52). The ease with which people attribute the poem to other authors and other sources suggests that Poe's name attached in a slippery way to his words, as indeed it did, since it originally appeared under the name of "--Quarles" and "Poe" almost simultaneously. (12) Elizabeth Barrett wrote to R. H. Home on May 12, 1845:
As to the Raven ... tell me what you shall say about it? ... there's certainly a power, ... but it does not appear to me the natural expression of a sane intellect in whatever mood, and I think that this [should] be specified in the title of the poem. There is a fantastical myth about the "Sir or Madam" and things of the sort, which is ludicrous, you know, ... unless there is a specified insanity to justify the straws. Probably he, ... the author.... intended to be mad in the poem,--and he ought to have intended it. (Brownings' Correspondence, 10:208).
Elizabeth Barrett, as well as others, picks up on a way that the words are alienated from both speaker and author; Poe's words seem to be foreign, translated from another language or another state of consciousness.
Taken together, these convolutions suggest that, rather than setting himself in contradistinction to the plagiarist, as many critics have argued, Poe encourages his readers to launch these accusations against himself. (13) "The Raven" cultivates its reception as stolen or "borrowed" words. The raven, after all, mechanically repeats the word of an unknown person to profound effect. Poe's tormented speaker bestows upon the bird powers of mind it cannot dream of possessing. He also generates a personal narrative from a very minimal and generic prompt. The bird repeats a borrowed word; the speaker seeks in vain to "borrow" "surcease of sorrow" from the books of "forgotten lore" and sits reclining and divining in Lenore's place while he repeats her name; and the author Poe borrows Lenore's name from his own earlier poems. (14) Following this poetic logic, readers' search for the origins of "The Raven" turn up countless poems that bear sonic, atmospheric, and thematic resemblances. The magic lies not only in the poet's act of creation, but also in his modes of inheriting the credit.
In addition to theft narratives, stories of collaboration surround "The Raven," in which people singly or in groups claim credit for some portion of the poem's composition. Others compose entirely new versions of the poem, claiming authority as conduits for Poe's work. "Eyewitness" accounts-sometimes second or third hand-locate the poem's genesis in multiple geographical locations and compositional logics. Among other places, "The Raven" is said to have been composed in bars in Merion, Pennsylvania and New York City, under a streetlight in the rain after the theatre in New York City, on the site of the future Yaddo Artists' Colony in Saratoga Springs, in a farmhouse by the Hudson River, and in a Southern parlor (Poems, pp. 357-362). In these accounts, rather than Poe carrying away people's words, he is carried away by them; in either case, he becomes a figure of composition that extends beyond himself.
A story told by Colonel Du Solle, editor of a Philadelphia newspaper and Poe's acquaintance, literalizes this idea. In an article published in Scribner's Monthly in October 1875, Francis Gerry Fairfield tells his readers that Du Solle told him that he learned from Mrs. Clemm, Poe's mother-in-law, that "The Raven" was composed in Sandy Welsh's wine cellar in New York City: "Du Solle says that the poem was produced stanza by stanza at small intervals, and submitted by Poe piecemeal to the criticism and emendation of his intimates, who suggested various alternations and substitutions. Poe adopted many of them/us A democratic enterprise, the project was deemed complete by consensus: "the structure was voted complete." Thus, according to Fairfield, "'The Raven' was a kind of joint-stock affair in which many minds held small shares of intellectual capital." (16) The story makes "The Raven" an emblem of democratic capitalism, allegorizing Poe's own idea, expressed in "The Philosophy of Composition," that the poet must search for the most universal "effect." There Poe describes the process of reaching into the collective mind of the public to write his poem, exhibiting their idea of the most mournful scenario, "the death ... of a beautiful woman" as heard from "the lips ... of a bereaved lover" (ER, p. 19).
At the same time that he recounts this fable, Fairfield speculates that the entire performance was staged by Poe because, "a madman of letters," he suffered from "cerebral epilepsy," a symptom of which is "habitual lying" (pp. 693,695). "The Raven" demonstrates that Poe suffered from the disease, which is characterized by visual and aural hallucinations: "the patient sees flames, fiery circles, red or purple objects, a ghost or a phantom; he hears the sound of bells, or a determined voice always repeating the same word" (p. 691). Claiming to know the true story of composition, which is precisely opposite to Du Solle's story, Fairfield says that while living at Fordham, Poe went out "wandering," because "his beloved Virginia was sick almost unto death; he was without money to procure the necessary medicines. He was out until about 10 o'clock. When he went in, he sat down at his writing table and dashed off The Raven. He submitted it to Mrs. Clemm for her consideration on the same night, and it was printed substantially as it was written" (p. 694). Lacking basis in fact, Fairfield's story recreates Poe in terms of the very poem whose origin Fairfield claims to know. Poe becomes his sorrowful poet lover, unable to find solace, rendered verbally mechanical in his grief, putting rhyme and rhythm before sense, and molding his train of thought to fit a single word, "nevermore," uttered by an unconscious creature. Fairfield, as well as others, extracts this figure from "The Raven," identifies it with Poe, and sets it loose in the American landscape.
The tradition at Yaddo Artists' Colony in Saratoga Springs, one that persists to the present day, is that Poe composed "The Raven" by a trout pond while visiting there in 1843. He discussed the poem with poetess Ann Barhyte, and her son claimed to remember Poe reciting it aloud in the open air. (17) According to Poe biographer Hervey Allen, "One day the boy remarked that he never heard of a bird with a name like that, at which the gentleman appeared much delighted and wrote something down. Later on other people read about it. (18) This story stresses the importance of accident and chance, encouraging participatory logic. It is absurd that Poe's lyric speaker suddenly thinks that the bird carries the name of "Nevermore;" the notion might as well have emerged from the misapprehension of a small child. The poem's ludicrous touches and random interjections encourage stories that it was composed haphazardly with the random interjections of others.
Reclaiming the poem for the poet's interior, critic Hervey Allen stresses that Poe may have started "The Raven" in the presence of others but finished it in a room where he "once absent-mindedly carved his name on the mantelpiece" (p. 488). Allen's fantasy of composition, like Fairfield's, projects Poe into the scene of his own poem: "the light behind the transom threw the shadow of the bust of Pallas on the floor, the mind of the poet fused the actual scene in which he found himself with the furniture of the ideal apartment of his dreams. Into this room, he introduced the raven from Barnaby Rudge with the improvement he had already suggested, that 'Its croakings might have been prophetically heard in the course of the drama'" (p. 488). The "ideal apartment" of Poe's poem enables the reincorporation of a collective scene of composition into a solitary poet's meditation--though one engaged in improving on another's raven--and Poe's critic facilitates the conversion.
These stories suggest that people thought of "The Raven" not in the way Ingram describes it, as an "immortal pyramid" (Ingram borrows his description of Poe's poem from Poe's description of Elizabeth Barrett's poetic accomplishments)19 that stands alone and rises above an otherwise flat landscape, but as a work in progress still in need of revision (though even the image of the pyramid suggests the idea of myriad nameless workers coming together to make a monument). Noting the flaws of "The Raven," in the way that Poe frequently noted the technical flaws of his contemporaries in his reviews, numerous people felt inspired to rework the poem, and even claimed to have done it with Poe's blessing. Poe did not take umbrage, for example, when Maine medical student George Eveleth complained that he could not conceive of how the seraphim's "foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor" (Poems, pp. 368, 80). Poe replied:
Your objection to the tinkling of the footfalls is far more pointed, and in the course of composition occurred so forcibly to myself that I hesitated to use the term. I finally used it, because I saw that it had, in its first conception, been suggested to my mind by the sense of the supernatural with which it was, at the moment, filled. No human or physical foot could tinkle on a soft carpet--therefore the tinkling of feet would vividly convey the supernatural impression. This was the idea, and it is good within itself; but if it fails (as I fear it does) to make itself immediately and generally felt according to my intention--then in so much is it badly conveyed, or expressed. (20)
Poe was apparently not convinced of the failure, for he did not change the line. But he also did not seem to fear that the "badly expressed" parts hurt the reception of the poem. Identifying the problems encouraged readers to participate in the composition, perpetuating and extending the reputation of the poem in the process. It is almost as if Poe planted problems in the poem so that readers would have something to fix.
In The Home Life of Poe (1907), Susan Archer Talley Weiss, a writer in Richmond, Virginia, suggests just that in her fascinating account of a morning spent rewriting the poem with the poet, at his request, after it was published. Weiss tells us that Poe "regretted that he had not fully completed" "The Raven" "before publishing it." (21) She moreover says that she "did not feel particularly flattered by his proposal, knowing that since his coming to Richmond he had made a similar request to at least two other persons" (p. 184). Working to perfect what another re-writer calls its "wondrous mechanism," Poe asked her to recite the poem as he held a pencil over a copy, waiting to underscore the flaws that she identified and noting his own points of dissatisfaction. Poe did not like the phrase "bird or beast above my chamber door," because "no beast could be expected to occupy such a position" (p. 189). (Though Weiss suggested that a mouse could plausibly perch there.) More serious was the "velvet violet lining," which Weiss called "a blunder obvious to every reader," since cushions have covers, not linings (p. 189). The privileging of alliteration and assonance over sense in the original poem encourages substitution. In the phrase "bird or beast" for example, the or along with the senseless combination encourages readers to continue searching for a more perfect word than beast that begins with b. Weiss thought these problems were enough to excise the whole stanza for the sake of the poem's perfection and claimed that Poe was ready to do it. They were interrupted just at that point, however, with a comic version of Coleridge's knock on the door: "For the moment he held the pencil poised, as if in doubt, and I have since wondered what would have been his decision. But just here we were interrupted by the tumultuous entrance of my little dog, Pink, in hot pursuit of the family cat" (p. 190).
Such gaps occur on the level of image in the poem as well. Readers had some difficulty visualizing the scene of Poe's poem. For Weiss the most severe blunder is
apparent to the world-the defect which mars the whole poem, and yet is obtained in but a single line: "And the lamplight o'er him streaming casts his shadow on the floor." Poe declared this to be hopeless, and that it was, in fact, the chief cause of his dissatisfaction with the poem. Indeed, it may well excite surprise that he, so careful and fastidious as to the completeness of his work, should have allowed "The Raven" to go from his hands marred by a defect so glaring, but this is proof that he did indeed regard it as hopeless. (p. 191)
A number of people talked about this problem: what sort of light source would be above the bust of Pallas above the door, especially when the poem already evokes lamplight "gloating o'er" the "velvet violet lining," as if the room were lit by low-slung lamps. Weiss said that a painter was stymied about how to paint the scene because of the problem of the light, which gave her an epiphany, and she suggested: "How would it do to have a glass transom above the door; one of those large fan-shaped transoms which we sometimes find in old colonial mansions, opening on a lofty galleried hall" (p. 192). Reinforcing the correction, Hervey Allen completes the picture in his scene of the poem's composition, a scene which he presents as factual but which is a production of his imagination: "The light behind the transom threw the shadow of the bust of Pallas upon the floor." His portrayal sounds as if it were borrowed from Weiss's epiphany (p. 488). Gustave Dore's famous illustrations at the turn of the century also solve the problem with a transom over the door. (22)
In addition to noting blunders in the verbal and visual aspects of the poem, Weiss claims that the central premise of "The Raven" reveals itself to be incompletely realized. She tells us that Poe had told her that he had started with an Owl and then "exchanged the Owl for the Raven for sake of the latter's Nevermore." In "adopting" the raven, however, Poe "evidently did not obliterate all traces of the Owl" (p. 184). Why else would the bird be sitting on top of the bust of Pallas Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who kept an owl and not a raven as a pet? Elizabeth Oakes Smith, who like Pallas Athena kept a pet owl, also recalls asking Poe about the conspicuous absence of this bird in his poem, and then concludes, before he could answer, "but there would have been no poem then." (23) Weiss and Oakes Smith see a palimpsest, a shadow text of an earlier version more fully aligned with female power. They imagine that it is their job to draw attention to the story behind "The Raven," making it more indebted to female accomplishment, and drawing out the relation. Following up on their suggestion, T. O. Mabbott tracked down a poem entitled "The Old Night Owl" by James Reese, published in the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper of June 28, 1843, "the very same issue in which appeared the first part of Poe's own 'Gold-Bug'--of which Reese was to write a dramatization produced on August 8, 1843" (Poems, p. 354). What goes around comes around apparently, and the icons circulating through the minds and poems of Poe's peers in the newspapers and magazines at this time haunt his own talking bird, on which, Arthur Hobson Quinn reminds us, "no one can have a corner" (Quinn, p. 440). Other writers, in turn, take an interest in his related poetic figure. Weiss says that Poe left the manuscript with her and then died, suggesting that had he lived, there would have been another poem, improved by her collaboration. But Poe did not need to oversee the poem's improvement; his fans offered plausible explanations for gaps that become part of later readings of the poem. Weiss, Allen, and Dore, among others, render the poem more plausible, taking pride in their authorial participation.
Whether or not "The Raven" was a "joint stock affair," the many stories of origin that inscribe this idea suggest that the poem lends itself to fantasies of collective ownership, composition, revision, and re-creation. Poe's own retroactive story of origin, "The Philosophy of Composition," sustains and encourages these fantasies in the way that it makes the author a speculator about his own work like any other. Modeling what it would mean to be a member of the joint stock company of Poe, Poe claims that strong compositions take their end as their beginning; his explanation of the construction of "The Raven" encourages readers to start from the poetic product and work backward toward the moment of conception: the chain of logic itself validates the end result. At the same time that he stresses the logic of narratives of composition, however, he demonstrates within the essay the arbitrariness of his own account, thus throwing the process into question and leaving room for readers to develop alternative narratives: that "nevermore" is necessarily the only word that can properly contain the most sonorous sounds in the English language, for example, or that the "death of a beautiful woman" is unquestionably "the most poetical topic in the world" (ER, pp. 18-19). Poe's confident proclamations of fact foreground the arbitrary nature of his assertions. Many nineteenth-century commentators, including Ingram, expressed disbelief at this and thought of Poe's story as a coverup or hoax. This conclusion encouraged them to discover the "true" story, and their quests make them active collaborators in the poem's inception as imagined through the process of reception.
Some writers did not stop at staking a claim to the poem's authorship, changing a word or two, or interjecting a transom. In Poems from the Inner Life, spirit medium Lizzie Doten translates and transmits Poe's "Farewell to Earth" from the spirit world in a full visionary revision of "The Raven." (24) Doten describes how Poe last appeared to her in his perfected form: "Around his brow, as a spiritual emblem, was an olive-wreath, whose leaves glowed like fire. He stood upon the side of a mountain, which was white and glittering like crystal, and the full tide of inspiration to which he gave utterance could not be comprehended in human speech." (25) She replaces what she imagines to be the poem's temporal imperfections with a poem that is closer to eternity. In that sense it is the ideal form of "The Raven," in which Poe, who has taken the place of his poem's speaker, proclaims that he "will sunder, and forever, /Every tie of human passion that can bind my soul to Earth--/ Every slavish tie that binds me to the things of little worth" ("Farewell," p. 163). Doten offers a prospective vantage point that renders Poe's poem an obsolete version: "Upon earth he was a meteor light, flashing with a startling brilliancy across the intellectual firmament; but now he is a star of ever-increasing magnitude" ("Word to the World," p. xxiv). Doten's comments about the awkwardness and strain of Poe's language suggest that he could not express his spiritual vision in earthly words. His inarticulateness in "The Raven" is a sign of the profundity of his vision and encourages readers like Doten to step into the position of spiritual translator and complete the poem. Her poem, like the many other contributions to "The Raven"'s literary canon, attributes her need for intervention with Poe's inability to speak.
Whereas Doten casts "The Raven" as the imperfect origin of a future heavenly ideal manifested through her, C. D. Gardette casts his hoax poem, "The Fire Fiend," as an imperfect forerunner of Poe's later "wondrous mechanism." Although Gardette was hoaxing in the style of Poe, "The Fire Fiend" kept getting attributed to Poe even after Gardette explained his trick in a pamphlet entitled "The Whole Truth in the Question of 'The Fire Fiend,' between Dr. R. Shelton Mackenzie and C. D. Gardette." (26) The poem was first printed in the New York Saturday Evening Press, November 19, 1859 accompanied by this letter:
The following fantastic poem was written by Mr Poe, while experimenting towards the wondrous mechanism, "The Raven"; but considering it incomplete, he threw it aside. Some time afterwards, finding it among his papers, he inclosed it in a letter to a friend, labeled facetiously, "To be read by firelight, at midnight, after thirty drops of laudanum."
The poem was reprinted for years as Poe's. In September 1864, an editorial in the Philadelphia Press entitled "Poe's Raven: Whence Came It?" chastised Gardette for exposing a failed poem that Poe, "rejecting as not good enough for publication,... laid ... among his failures." As late as June 1, 1901, William Gill, author of The Life of Edgar Allan Poe, writing to James Harrison, referred to the poem as Poe's "The Demon of the Fire." (27)
Commenting on its own status as retroactive origin, this poem takes as its theme problems of self-identification and identic conversion. The speaker looks into a fire and sees a burning demon face take shape "from a blazing knot of oak." The face mirrors his own and steals his ability to speak:
Speechless; struck with stony silence; frozen to the floor I stood, Till methought my brain was hissing with that hissing, bubbling blood:--Till I felt my life-blood oozing, oozing from those lambent lips:--Till the Demon seemed to name me;--then a wondrous calm o' ercame me, And my brow grew cold and dewy, with a death-damp stiff and gluey, And I fell back on my pillow in apparent soul-eclipse!
The speaker's own lifeblood flows out of the demon's mouth, rendering the speaker "speechless" but giving the demon the power to "name" him. Like Poe's raven, the fire fiend absorbs the animating force of the speaker. In both poems, rather than the speaker consciously projecting onto his surroundings, the object of reflection takes on a life of its own and projects itself back onto the speaker. Baudelaire notes that the "idle fixe" is central to Poe's poetry and is manifested in his insistently repetitive rhythms and rhymes. Gardette foregrounds the way that Poe shows how the animating force of voice can be removed from the human and played through "a wondrous mechanism," whether it be a bird, a fiend, or a poem. The premise of Poe's poem encourages Gardette to create his own wondrous mechanism in turn.
In an appendix to the pamphlet, Gardette explains his motivation for the hoax in a way that underscores the convertibility between recycling and creation that I have been suggesting: "a discussion took place between a literary friend and myself, on the subject of Poe's poetic genius. In the course of this discussion, my friend maintained that Poe's marked originality of style, both in thought and expression, rendered difficult almost to impossibility a successful imitation of him. I denied this, and contended that this very particularity made such imitation facile; and that, generally, the more marked and singular the style of a writer, the easier it was to produce a literary counterfeit of his productions." Poe's singularity renders him reproducible, but the reproduction shows the way in which Poe's own works find their origin in a process of exaggerating poetic effects gathered from other poems.
In a process that reverses writers' creative dispersion of Poe's poem, his critics attempt to re-collect Poe by separating fact from fiction. The critical enterprise has consisted in large part of recovery and re-collection--separation of the genuine articles from the fakes, discernible as such only after the critical act. (28) Poe's critics often seem bent on minimizing the signs of influence of the most evident precursors in order to maximize Poe's original contribution. Ingram's pathbreaking early work not only exemplifies this trend; he also suggests that Poe himself strategically owns and disowns his literary precursors in order to throw readers off the track of his true process of composition. Ingram isolates his own story of the composition of "The Raven" under the heading "Genesis," apart from another section entitled "Fabrications," but it is not so different from the other stories I have re-told.
According to Ingram, a poem entitled "Isadore" by Albert Pike, published in N. P. Willis' New Mirror in 1843, is the primary "germ" of "The Raven":
Thou art lost to me forever,--I have lost thee, Isadore,--Thy head will never rest upon my loyal bosom more. Thy tender eyes will never more gaze fondly into mine, Nor thine arms around me lovingly and trustingly entwine: Thou art lost to me forever, Isadore!
In Ingram's words, Poe "carried out afterwards in 'The Raven'" Pike's true intent, which was inadequately realized in his original poem (p. 11). Ingram uses this story of composition as proof that Poe did not get his idea for the poem from Elizabeth Barrett's "Lady Geraldine's Courtship," one of the more obvious precursor poems (Mabbott calls the poem "unquestionably the cardinal source" and notes that Thomas Dunn English identified the debt in The Aristidean in December 1845 and the Southern Literary Messenger noted it in 1857) (Poems, p. 356). Though Ingram reports that Thomas Buchanan Read told Robert Browning that Poe had said that the whole construction of his poem was founded on a single line of Barrett's poem, "there was necessarily a misunderstanding in this: assuredly, Poe did derive useful hints from 'Lady Geraldine's Courtship' but not to the extent surmised: he has one line too close a parallel to that just cited to admit of accidental resemblance;--'And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain.'" Following a logic of secrecy and concealment, Ingram implies that the blatancy of the borrowing cancels the debt. Since Ingram believes he has proven beyond a doubt that Poe's poem borrowed from "Isadore," he has safely placed the date of Poe's composition process before Barrett's. Because "The Raven" was almost complete before he read Barrett's poem, she could only inspire him to tweak it. Ingram knocks out the strongest contender in order to give Poe temporal primacy and make Barrett the inadvertent imitator of Poe.
Regardless or because of Poe's dissemination into print culture--the capacity of "The Raven" to spawn dozens if not hundreds of parodies, versions, revisions, translations--his critics continue to cast his work in psychological terms, containing the processes which I have argued occur in transactions--on the pages of magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, and journals--within the space of Poe's own mind. For example, in the recently published Cambridge History of American Literature: Nineteenth-Century American Poetry 1800-1910, Shira Wolosky claims that Poe dramatizes his "obsessive concern with plagiarism" in the repetitions of "The Raven." She speaks of "enormous anxieties: regarding Poe's own claim to originality, his place in American letters, and the possibility of there being an American literature at all" (p. 262). Wolosky arrives at the conclusion that Poe's poems are "deeply self-reflective": "the interior processes Poe pursues in representing poetic process itself, emerge as empty mirror reflecting empty mirror" (p. 265). Looking outside of Poe's "The Raven" to the various poems it speaks to and inspires, however, shows us that the "empty mirror" is repeatedly filled with diverse images of American, English, French, and other cultures. Poe's poem globalizes itself, moving far outside the boundaries of the poet's mind and into the world in all directions.
Though "The Raven" disseminates outwards and dissolves into the work of many writers of the period, many more than I have named, critics like Ingram and Allen re-collect Poe and use, rather incongruently, a tracing of sources to emphasize Poe's superiority: his surplus, his inexplicable gain. Inexplicability gives the poem an aura, as if, in a process reminiscent of the conversion of excess labor into a product's glamor, "The Raven" were an intellectual equivalent of a commodity fetish. As Ingram says: "When all the germs have been analyzed and all the suggested sources scrutinized what a wealth of imagination and a power of words remain the unalienable property of Poe" (pp. 14-15). Ingram stresses that Poe is greater, but what is Poe's is left unspecified, as if his wealth and power were unfairly claimed and needed to be naturalized through Ingram's imaginative critical act. I have been suggesting that Poe's critics have reconstituted his body of work as something separate from and even hostile to the print culture of which it was a part. But "The Raven" reaches outward to find and make relations in order to disseminate itself. Precisely by these gestures it managed to become quite possibly the "most popular lyric poem in the world."
(1) The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe, with Literary and Historical Commentary by John H. Ingram (New York, 1885).
(2) For translations, for example, see "The House of Usher," http://www.comnet. ca/~forrest/raven_translations.html.
(3) Kenneth Silverman, Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 237.
(4) Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore website, http://www.eapoe.org/works/poems/index.htm#R.
(5) The Brownings' Correspondence, ed. Philip Kelley and Scott Lewis (Winfield, Kansas: Wedgestone Press, 1994), 12:197.
(6) Quoted in Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (1941; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1998), p. 460.
(7) See, for example, The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Vol. I: Poems, ed. T. O. Mabbott (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1969), p. 356. Hereafter cited as Poems.
(8) Ingram, p. 12; Poe's corresponding line is "And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain" (Poems, pp. 365, 13).
(9) January 4 and 11, 1845, review of The Drama of Exile, and other Poems, in Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews (New York: Library of America, 1984), pp. 116-141. Hereafter cited as ER.
(10) Graham's Magazine, February 1842; ER, p. 243.
(11) Sarah Helen Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe and His Critics (1860; New York: Gordian Press, 1981), pp. 42-43.
(12) Poems, p. 360. Mabbott says that the pseudonym is "appropriate to an emblematic popular poem since the best-known work of Francis Quarles is called Emblems (1635)."
(13) Shira Wolosky, for example, speaks of Poe's "obsessive concern with plagiarism" in "Poetry and Public Discourse 1820-1910," The Cambridge History of American Literature, ed. Sacvan Bercovitch, vol. 4, Nineteenth-Century Poetry 1800-1910 (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2004), p. 262.
(14) On Poe's borrowing from women poets and vice-versa, see Eliza Richards, Gender and the Poetics of Reception in Poe's Circle (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004). Poe wrote and rewrote his poem "Lenore," starting in 1831 (Poems, p. 330).
(15) Fairfield says that he verified the story in a chat with Mrs Clemm in 1867 (p. 694).
(16) Mabbott says the story has been generally discredited, "but no one has considered the possibility of a consultation after publication, and the story persists among newspapermen in New York. Directories list Alexander Welsh's restaurant in the vicinity named, and once his place is described as a terrapin bar, which might well attract a Baltimorean" (Poems, p. 362 n. 21).
(17) Poems, p. 358; Mabbott recounts the story and says it is plausible.
(18) Hervey Allen, Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1934), p. 433.
(19) Ingram, pp. 12, 13, 15; Poe, Review of Barrett's Drama of Exile, ER, p. 129.
(20) Poe to Eveleth, December 15, 1846, quoted in Quinn, p. 443.
(21) Susan Archer Weiss, The Home Life of Poe (New York: Broadway Publishing Company, 1907), p. 184.
(22) Dore's illustrations were originally published in an edition of "The Raven" put out by Harper Brothers in New York in 1844, republished in Poe, The Raven. Illustrated by Gustave Dore (New York: Dover, 1996). See pp. 29, 33, 39, 43, 51.
(23) Quoted in Richards, p. 192. I discuss women's conversions of Poe's raven, pp. 191-198.
(24) Lizzie Doten, "Farewell to Earth," in Poems from the Inner Life (Boston, 1864), pp. 162-171.
(25) Lizzie Doten, "A Word to the World," in Poems from the Inner Life, pp. xxiii-xxiv.
(26) C.D. Gardette, The Whole Truth in the Question of 'The Fire Fiend,' between Dr. R. Shelton Mackenzie and C. D. Gardette Briefly stated by the latter (Philadelphia, 1864).
(27) Gerry de la Ree, "The Story Behind 'The Fire Fiend' and 'The Raven,'" in introduction to a reprint of Gardette's pamphlet (Saddle River, New Jersey: Gerry de la Ree, 1973).
(28) The problem of attribution in Poe studies, as Meredith McGill notes, is quite significant (American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting [Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2003], p. 145). McGill devotes two chapters to a meticulous study of the circulation of Poe's work in American "reprint culture."