Critical Overview

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“The Raven” met with high critical acclaim upon its first appearance and subsequent publications during Poe’s life. Between 1845 and 1849 several critics called it the best American poem ever written. One overwhelmingly positive commentary by John Moncure Daniel appeared in an 1849 Richmond Examiner article a month before Poe’s death. Daniel praises the poem’s "strange, beautiful and fantastic imagery," its "grave and supernatural tone," and its "musicality" with the verses "winding convoluted about like the mazes of some complicated overture by Beethoven"; he calls it a "superior . . . work of pure art."

For all his genius, Poe made a major error in naming Rufus Wilmot Griswold as the executor of his literary estate. In his biographical analyses of Poe’s work, Griswold created the image of the author as a victim of opium and alcohol abuse and of extreme personal sorrow. A onetime friend of Poe, Griswold published reviews—sometimes under a pseudonym—after the poet’s death when he could not defend himself. Certainly this presentation of Poe captured the interest of a public thirsty for sensationalism, but it tainted his character and made him more interesting to the public as a tragic figure than as a writer. Of "The Raven," Griswold wrote in 1849, almost immediately after Poe’s death, that it is "a reflection and an echo of his own history. He was that bird’s 'unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster / Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore— / Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore / Of Never—never more.'"

Griswold’s statement led, over the years, to the misconception that the poem tells of Poe’s own sorrows, of his own grief at the loss of his young wife, Virginia Clemm Poe. Virginia, however, died in 1847, two years after the first publication of "The Raven."

Modern critics focus more on the poem’s construction than did Griswold. Poet W. H. Auden, for instance, observes in his 1950 work Forewords and Afterwords that while the form of "The Raven" is excellent, it does not necessarily complement Poe’s subject; he concludes that the poem is "faulty" because "the thematic interest and the prosodic interest, both of which are considerable, do not combine and are even often at odds." Floyd Stovall, in Edgar Poe the Poet, states that "The Raven" reveals a tragic "certainty as the poem progresses [to reveal] that there is no life after death." He values the poem for its poetic technique but does not see in it an ability to deeply move the reader: "Its composition was the performance of a virtuoso," he states; "its appeal is therefore more to the intellect than to the feelings." The irony here is that in "The Philosophy of Composition" Poe states that the aim of a poem is the "elevation of soul not of intellect."

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Essays and Criticism