Text: Kevin M. McCarthy, “Another Source for ‘The Raven ’: Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” Poe Newsletter­, October 1968, vol. I, no. 2, 1:29


[page 29, column 1:]

Another Source for “The Raven”:
Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Despite the several sources suggested for Poe’s “The Raven,” one that may have been his principal source has never been mentioned: John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. That Locke influenced Poe has been pointed out by several critics. Margaret Alterton has noted that Poe probably had first-hand acquaintance with Locke’s Essay and that he used Locke’s ideas in his article “Genius” and in his tale “Morella” (1). S. Gerald Sandler has pointed out Lockean influence not only in “Morella” but also in “The Colloquy of Monos and Una,” “The Purloined Letter,” and Eureka (2). A closer look at the Lockean passages that Poe refers to in “Morella,” however, reveals similarities to his ideas not only in “The Raven” but also in “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which Poe tells how he supposedly wrote the poem.

The reference to Locke in “Morella” is to the Essay, Book II, Chapter xxvii, in which Locke spends many pages on the distinction between a man (a creature having the accidental features of a rational man) speaking gibberish and an animal (a creature having the accidental features of a creature below man) speaking coherent words and sentences (3). Locke asks whether a creature having the form of a man but speaking nonsense is more rational than a creature having the form of an animal or bird but speaking coherent sentences. His favorite example of the latter is the parrot that can be taught to make articulate sounds and clear sentences.

Poe seems to touch on this philosophical problem when he has the grieved lover in the poem at first marvel at the bird’s “Nevermore,” though its “answer little meaning — little relevancy bore,” and then later begin to wonder what the bird “Meant” in “croaking ‘Nevermore ’.” More importantly, in “The Philosophy of Composition” Poe seems to echo Locke as he tells us how he chose the raven: “Here, then, immediately arose the idea of a non -reasoning creature capable of speech; and, very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone “ (4).

If, as Poe supposedly told Susan Archer Weiss, the poem had “lain for more than ten years in his desk unfinished” (5), the first composition of a version of “The Raven” (published 1845) would have been about the time he wrote “Morella” (published 1835), the tale in which the reference to Locke’s chapter on form, rationality, and speech occurs. Although Poe’s alleged remarks to Mrs. Weiss should probably not be taken at face value, the possible correspondence is suggestive enough. The passage from Locke may well have been the source for Poe’s choice of a bird for the major symbol of the poem; and the poem as a whole may exemplify some of Locke’s ideas.



(1)  Origins of Poe’s Critical Theory (Iowa City, 1925), pp. 99-102.

(2)  “Poe’s Indebtedness to Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” Boston University Studies in English, V (1961),107-121.

(3)  See the 1824 New York edition, pp. 297-314.

(4)  The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York, 1902), XIV, 200.

(5)  The Home Life of Poe (New York, 1907), p. 185.


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[S:1 - PSDR, 1968]