"The Raven" was published in New York just two years before Mrs. Poe died; it instantly made its author famous, although it brought him little or no money. It is said that he was paid only ten dollars for the poem; but as soon as it appeared it was the talk of the nation,—being copied into almost every newspaper. Poe had written and published many other poems, but none of them had attracted much attention.
We have spoken of Poe as a story-writer, and now in "The Raven" we see him a great poet.
It is not unusual to think of poetry as the work of inspiration or genius; but how it is written, nobody knows. Poe maintained that literary art is something that can be studied and learned. To illustrate this he told how he wrote "The Raven." Some people considered this a sort of joke; but it was not. When Poe began to write, his work was not at all good; as years went on, he learned by patient practice to write well. It was more than anything else this long course of training that made him so great.
The essay in which he tells how he wrote "The Raven," begins by saying that when he thought of writing it he decided that it must not be too long nor too short. It must be short enough so that one could read it through at a sitting; but also it must be long enough to express fully the idea which he had in mind.
Then, it must be beautiful. All true poetry is about beauty. It doesn't teach anything useful, or analyze anything, but it simply makes the reader feel a certain effect. When you read "The Raven" you hardly know what the poet is saying; but you feel the ghostly scene, and it makes you shudder; and there is a strange fascination about it that makes you like it, even if it is horrible.
He goes on to say that he decided to have a refrain at the end of each stanza, the single word "Nevermore." At first he thought he would have a parrot utter it; but a raven can talk as well as a parrot, and is more picturesque. The most striking subject he could think of was the death of a beautiful woman—this he felt to be so because of his own impressions concerning the approaching death of his sweet wife.
Besides this, Poe said that poetry and music are much alike, and he tried to have his poem produce the effect of solemn music. All his best poetry is very much like music.
With these materials at his command, he now turned his attention to the construction of the poem. He would ask questions, and the raven would always reply by croaking "Nevermore." As an answer to some questions, this would sound very terrible. Says he: "I first established in my mind the climax, or concluding query,—that query in reply to which the word 'nevermore' should involve the utmost conceivable amount of sorrow and despair. Here, then, the poem may be said to have its beginning—at the end, where all works of art should begin—for it was here, at this point of my preconsiderations, that I first put pen to paper in the composition of the stanza:—
"'Prophet!' said I, 'thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By the heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore!—
Tell this soul with sorrow laden, if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore,—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.'
Quoth the Raven, 'Nevermore.'"
This principle of beginning at the end or climax to write a poem or story was one so important that Poe insisted on it at great length. In the "Murders in the Rue Morgue" the author necessarily began at the end, imagined the solution of the mystery, and gradually worked back to the beginning, bringing in his detective after everything had been carefully constructed for him, though to the ordinary reader of the story it seems as if the detective came to a real mystery.
It may be observed that all of Poe's stories and poems are built up about some principle of the mind. They illustrate how the mind works. After the principle is stated the illustration is given.
Can anything be more important and interesting than to know how the mind thinks, how it is inspired with terror or love or a sense of beauty? If you know just how the mind of a man works in regard to these things, you can yourself create the conditions which will make others laugh or cry, be filled with horror, or overflow with a sense of divine holiness. Ordinary story-tellers and ordinary poets write poems or stories that are pretty and amusing; but it is only a master like Poe who writes to illustrate and explain some great principle. His stories teach us how we may go about producing similar effects in the affairs of life. We wish success in business, in society, in politics. To gain it we must make people think and feel as we think and feel. To do that we must understand the principles on which men's minds work, and no poet or writer analyzed and illustrated those principles so clearly as Poe.