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 in 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
'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:
- No records of The Milan Art Journal were ever found.
- 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.
- 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 (whose 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.