You know what’s a good way to think about “The Raven”? As a one-hit wonder—or rather, the biggest one-hit wonderiest wonder that ever wondered. Because, really, that’s exactly what it was back in the day of its publication.
Edgar Allan Poe was already a working writer, trying to make a living by the pen in the U.S. back in the days before intellectual property was protected by law. Back then, it wasn't easy making the big bucks off the written word, because without copyright laws, publishers could just pirate some stuff from England for free rather than actually pay money to some American author to, you know, author. So as a starving artist, Poe earned just enough to survive on, writing some poems, spooky stories, and some super sharp and stabby criticism of other people’s work. Nothing too fancy.
Then, wham-bam, in 1845, he published “The Raven” in two newspapers at once. It's a lyrical narrative poem about a student who goes crazy questioning a bird about his lost love Lenore and only ever getting one answer: “Nevermore.” And the thing took off like wildfire (we guess people like their birds taciturn). In the course of a few months, it was published over and over again, in newspaper after newspaper. By the end of the century, it would be translated into almost every European language. And in between? It became the most popular and famous lyrical poem from America.
Not only that, but its crazy popularity spawned a whole cottage industry of “The Raven” merchandise. Well, okay, not merchandise per se. Sadly for Poe, who never made much money from the poem, there weren't really any hats or t-shirts or key chains—just reams and reams of books and myths and lore about the poem, most if which was written after Poe’s death in 1849.
This flood was kicked off by Poe’s longtime frenemy Rufus Griswold, who used Poe’s death as an occasion for his signature jerk move: writing an obituary that was actually a series of attacks, accusing Poe of being immoral, crazy, and depressive. Somehow, though, this takedown was totally reframed by other folks almost immediately, and things ended up turning out okay for the late Poe. Because you know what “immoral, crazy, and depressive” sounds like? That’s right, it sounds just like all the other moody heroes of the Romantic Movement: Byron, Keats, and Shelley. Throw in the word “genius”, like other Poe obituaries did, and you’ve got yourself a bona fide star.
To this day “The Raven” is surrounded by legend and controversy. Was Poe a plagiarist? Did he steal the raven from Dickens’s “Barnaby Rudge” and his meter and rhyme scheme from Elizabeth Barrett Browning? Did he write it alone? With the help of some other poet? With the help of random strangers at a bar? There are endless criticisms answering all of these questions and generating still others. So will there ever be complete factual account of "The Raven"? Say it with us now, “Nevermore.”
Why Should I Care?
So, we know this poem is famous and important and everything, but more than that, we think it's just a lot of fun. It's spooky and a little spine-tingling, like a good horror movie. It's fun to read – we almost can't stop ourselves from reciting it out loud. We recommend you try it and see how satisfying these lines are when they roll off the tongue.
Poe really knows how to create a mood, to make his reader feel the shadows, the creepy noises in the room, the croak of the bird. This is a poem that pulls you into a moment. Like anything that scares you in a fun way, this is all about making you feel like you are experiencing the story while you read it.
It's kind of cool to think that people have been excited by stories like this for hundreds of years. Folks in the 19th century read Poe for the same reasons we read Stephen King: that creepy thrill in reading about scary things happening to other people. When you read a story about someone slowly losing his mind, you might be horrified, but it's also pretty hard to put it down. So, we don't think you'll be able to resist Poe.