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I've read that Poe's been accused of lifting significant elements from many authors including Elizabeth Barrett, Charles Dickens, Leo Penzoni, and Thomas Holley Chivers (and "unknown," of course). Since Poe himself was famous for accusing more successful poets of plagiarism, I'm inclined to think some of this is just tit for tat. Still, I'd like to know if there's anything even close to a definitive answer for any of these accusations.

Can we say confidently that Poe did or did not plagiarise someone else's work when writing "The Raven"?

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TL;DR:

There have been several major accusations that Poe plagiarized The Raven from a number of different works, many in other languages. However, those claims have little to no evidence to back them up, and they have been dismissed by most as being attempts at attention. We have no reliable evidence of any sort that Poe committed plagiarism here.


In the late 19th century, one major but unsubstantiated claim was made against Poe, saying that The Raven was either taken from (or inspired by) two an older work: The Parrot. In 1878, Colonel John A Joyce included a short section of his book, Edgar Allan Poe, that claimed that he had spoken with an Italian named Leo Penzoni. Penzoni told him that his grandfather (often also called Leo Penzoni) wrote a poem entitled The Parrot seven decades before, and published it in The Milan Art Journal in 1809. Here is the first verse, in the English translation:

I sit and pine so weary
in midnight sad and dreary.
Over long forgotten volumes
of historic love-lit lore;
And while winking, lonely blinking
I thought I heard while thinking
A rush of wings revolving above
my oaken door,
"What's that," said I, disturbing my
melancholy sore —
'Tis my lost one, sweet "Belmore"

Compare this to the first verse of The Raven:

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 visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
            Only this and nothing more.”

Similar connections can be found throughout the rest of both poems. It would seem, then, that Poe indeed plagiarized from Penzoni. There are, however, three major problems with Joyce's claim:

  1. No records of The Milan Art Journal were ever found.
  2. The poem was written in Italian, according to the younger Penzoni, meaning that certain liberties could have been taken in the translation of The Parrot. It seems more likely that Joyce wrote the "translation" in English, and possibly translated it "back" to Italian.
  3. There is no evidence that Poe was in Milan at the time - he was busy being born - or in future years, or that he was even aware of the journal's supposed existence.

In short, there's no evidence to back up Penzoni's story.

I've found bits and pieces pointing towards another - more damning if it's true - possible target of plagiarism. I originally found them made in this blog and this blog. They state that a poet named Jefferson Tiberius Faulkmore wrote a poem entitled The Magpie in 1829, publishing it in The Hartford Cabinet of Literature & Science (supposedly later the Hartford Literary Journal), a year after his death. According to the stories, the story was brought to Poe's attention in 1842 by a man named Rufus Wilmot Griswald, and Poe wrote him a letter in return. It included this passage:

Of particular interest in the Cabinet was Faulkmore’s “Magpie”, which is as fine a poem, in both the style of its versification & expression and its originality, as I have recently encountered. I wonder at its omission from your “Poets of America”.  That it has been published just once, years ago, and forgotten is as unfortunate for the public as it must have seemed for the poet.  Are you certain that it has not seen publication elsewhere?  Do you know what became of Faulkmore?

If you want my opinion, these claims are absolute rubbish. I can find no independent verification that The Hartford Cabinet of Literature & Science or even Faulkmore or Griswold themselves ever existed. I include it here only as a curiosity; I'd be interested to see if anyone can find something truthful on them. I suspect not.

A more academic study of certain claims is included in Outsourcing The Raven: Retroactive Origins, by Eliza Richards (the same paper is the source of the next few anecdotes and quotes about plagiarism). It seems to be acknowledge that Poe took the rhythm of The Raven from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Geraldine's Courtship, published in 1845. Even Poe stated this outright:

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." Poe advertised rather than hid Barrett's influence by discussing her poem in a Broadway Journal review just weeks before "The Raven" was published.

Looking at the text, the similarities between the two works does appear, in rhythm if not wording. There were certain other - though less substantial - cases where Poe may have been inspired by another work. Thomas Holley Chivers, in 1850, claimed that Poe stole the meter from To Allegra Florence in Heaven, written for his young (dead) daughter. Here is an excerpt from To Allegra:

Holy angels now are bending
To receive thy soul ascending
Up to Heaven to joys unending,
And to bliss which is divine.

Another poet, Henry Hirst, claimed that Poe stole inspiration for The Raven from his To a Ruined Fountain in a Grecian Picture. I'm a bit more skeptical that there is any significant similarity between the two, save the inclusion of a raven:

Forms of chiefs and maidens bright
Whom the never-dying raven
Hath forgotten, nameless even
In the poet's lay of might.

Finally, there were two independent and somewhat ridiculous claims: That Poe actually translated, word for word, an ancient Chinese poem by Kia Yi (see Chinese Legends and Other Poems), and that he translated an unknown Persian poem (who's very existence I have yet to confirm). In both cases, he supposedly copied them verbatim and published the poem under his own name, as The Raven. The interesting part about the claim about Kia Yi's poem, Fu-Niao (Bird of Fate), is that it mentions that month of November - a month that, as far as I know, was not used by the Chinese in 200 B.C.! It could be a translation change, but it could also indicate that liberties have been taken.

In short, there have been a wide variety of people saying that they - or someone else - wrote The Raven before Poe did. However, all of them suffer from some or all of the following problems:

  • There are no records of the originals.
  • There are no explanations as to how Poe came across them.
  • There are often only passing similarities between the poems and The Raven.

I think, then that the available evidence indicates that Poe did not plagiarize The Raven.

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    Perhaps also worth mentioning: Poe in 1846 wrote The Philosophy of Composition in which he goes into pretty great detail on how he composed The Raven. He tries to show that the poem was almost inevitably "derived" from certain principles. – ShreevatsaR Feb 28 '17 at 9:54
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    @ShreevatsaR However, the authenticity of "The Philosophy of Composition" has also been called into question (more convincingly than the claims of plagiarism of "The Raven" itself, I believe), with one biographer describing it as "a rather highly ingenious exercise in the art of rationalization than literary criticism." – Rand al'Thor Aug 15 '17 at 14:41
  • @Randal'Thor Yes I've read that section of the Wikipedia article, and I'm not convinced (or at least it's not clear what the claimed point is). I don't think anyone disputes that Poe wrote The Philosophy of Composition by himself, which is what "authenticity […] called into question" can be interpreted as. And between Eliot saying The Raven isn't as good as the essay claims, and Krutch for some mysterious reason evaluating the essay's fitness as literary criticism (why on earth would you expect it to be?), it is not clear whether the claim is that the essay is too good or too bad. :-) – ShreevatsaR Aug 15 '17 at 14:59
  • @ShreevatsaR I thought the claim was that the essay doesn't really reflect how Poe wrote "The Raven", but is rather an a posteriori rationalisation of it. If so, of course, that would make it useless as evidence that he didn't plagiarise "The Raven". – Rand al'Thor Aug 15 '17 at 15:02
  • @Randal'Thor Yes if that's the claim… But IMO neither Eliot's remark (which seems primarily to judge The Raven as not a good poem) nor Krutch's remark (which seems primarily to judge The Philosophy of Composition as literary criticism) directly claims that Poe did not write the poem in that way. What one calls "rationalization" another may call "explanation of origins", and I get the impression Krutch would consider either of them as poor literary criticism, because for some reason literary criticism is what he's looking for, even from the author. – ShreevatsaR Aug 15 '17 at 15:11
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I will try, here, to provide a brief introduction to Mathew Franklin Whittier--who I believe was the original author of "The Raven"--if I have room. He was the younger brother, by five years, of poet John Greenleaf Whittier. Historically he is known to have written poems, but only a very early one he wrote in jest, for his mother, has ever been recorded. He is known only as the author of the satirical series, in Yankee dialect, about "Ethan Spike." In the process of delving into the question of whether I was his reincarnation, over a period of about nine years, I unearthed a great deal of information about him. Some of this I have 100% proof for--most of it I have a preponderance of evidence for, to a standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt," i.e., in my opinion. I don't have room to sort that out, here.

His personal and professional history, as I have ferreted it out, is as follows. He began publishing in the Boston-based "New-England Galaxy" at age 14, in 1827. In late 1829, he moved to New York City and began writing regularly for the "Constellation," which was edited by Asa Greene. He soon became the associate or junior editor, writing or collecting the entire editorial page. He was the author of the "Enoch Timbertoes" series of letters. Actually, it was Mathew who launched this genre in the United States, with his "Joe Strickland" letters for the "Galaxy"--not Seba Smith, who launched his "Major Jack Downing" in Jan. 1830.

I did, ultimately, find a great deal of Mathew's poetry. Even going back to 1843, his preferred style is consistent with what you see in "The Raven."

Mathew ghost-wrote at least one book, about "Dr. Dodimus Duckworth," for Greene in 1833; then he went back to work for him in New York, when Greene launched a new paper, the New York "Transcript." The bulk of the "Police Office" reports (attributed to another reporter by historians) were written by Mathew.

And here I need to clarify, that Mathew wrote almost all of his work anonymously. He had a few long-time pseudonyms, like a single asterisk, but most-often he would create pseudonyms at the drop of a hat, and drop them just as quickly. He would often create one-off pseudonyms, or use them for brief series.

In 1832, Mathew also wrote for the Boston-based young men's magazine, "The Essayist," primarily under his single asterisk (book reviews), or the name "Franklin, Jr." Under that latter signature, he wrote two lengthy reviews on the poetry of Francis Quarles, having obtained an original, antiquarian copy. He provided long quotes from Quarles' poetry. Mathew, himself, was of a similar temperament--a deeply devotional Christian, with tendencies toward austerity, just as Quarles seems to have been. It would have been a far more likely pseudonym for Mathew--who regularly adopted one-off signatures, which had personal meaning for him--than for Poe.

In 1845, Mathew wrote book reviews--several per week on average--for the New York "Tribune," edited by Horace Greeley. Mathew was an abolitionist, and didn't secret work for this cause. He had to keep his identity secret. Thus, he was a critic for the Tribune at the same time that Poe was a critic for the "Evening Mirror." You can see his work online via the Hathi Trust. All the asterisk-signed pieces on the front page are his, plus a few signed with his middle initial, "F."

I'd better stop and see if this will post, before I write more.

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