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Victorian Poetry 43.2 (2005) 205-221

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Outsourcing "The Raven":

Retroactive Origins

In 1885 Influential Poe Biographer And Critic John Henry Ingram proclaimed"The Raven" "the most popular lyric poem in the world":

It has appeared in all shapes and styles, from the little penny Glasgow edition to the magnificent folios of Mallarmé 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

                        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 [End Page 205] "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...


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