Text: Cecil Don McVicker, “Poe and ‘Anacreon ’: A Classical Influence on ‘The Raven ’,” Poe Newsletter­, October 1968, vol. I, no. 2, 1:29-30


[page 29, column 1:]

Poe and “Anacreon”: A Classical Influence on “The Raven”?

Iowa State University

It is possible that Poe first met with some of the basic structural and symbolic elements which he ultimately incorporated into “The Raven” in his youthful perusal of Greek poetry, namely, in the writings of Anacreon or his translators or imitators. Poe’s abilities in Greek have been attested to, but more significantly, Poe himself speaks of the influence Anacreon’s poetry had on him:

For, being an idle boy lang syne,

Who read Anacreon, and drank wine,

I early found Anacreon rhymes

Were almost passionate sometimes —

And by strange alchemy of brain

His pleasures always turn ’d to pain —

His naivete to wild desire —

His wit to love — his wine to fire —

And so, being young and dipt in folly

I fell in love with melancholy,

And used to throw my earthly rest

And quiet all away in jest —

I could not love except where Death

Was mingling his with Beauty’s breath —

Or Hymen, Time, and Destiny

Were stalking between her and me (1).

Especially significant is the psychological twist which the young Poe gave to the Anacreontic philosophy of Venus and vine, producing a feeling of pain and melancholy, and converting it into the gloomy, even sinister atmosphere peculiar to the darker face of Romanticism.

The basic structural elements of “The Raven” are these: 1) night: outside, dreary and wet; inside, a cozy fire and the somnolent state of the host; 2) the knock on the door and the query from within; 3) the entrance of the stranger who represents supernatural forces controlling fate and love; 4) the host’s attempt to dismiss the stranger; 5) the useless rebellion of the host against the intruder, particularly after discovering the true intentions of the latter; 6) the infliction of pain upon the host, either psychologically or physically, by the unbidden guest.

The features of the following Anacreontic translated by Thomas Stanley (1625-1678) are strikingly similar to those listed above:

Downward was the wheeling Bear

Driven by the Waggoner:

Men by powerful sleep opprest,

Gave their busy troubles rest; [page 30:]

Love, in this still depth of night,

Lately at my house did light;

Where, perceiving all fast lock ’d,

At the door he boldly knock ’d.

“Who’s that,” said I, “that does keep

Such a noise and breaks my sleep?”

“Ope,” saith Love, “for pity hear;

‘Tis a child, thou needst not fear,

Wet and weary from his way

Led by this dark night astray.”

With compassion this I heard;

Light I struck, the door unbarr ’d;

Where a little boy appears,

Who wings, bow, and quiver bears;

Near the fire I made him stand,

With my own I chafed his hand.

And with kindly busy care

Wrung the chill drops from his hair.

“Now,” saith he, “ ‘tis time to try

If my bow no hurt did get,

For methinks the string is wet.”

With that, drawing it, a dart

He let fly that pierc ’d my heart;

Leaping then, and laughing said,

“Come, my friend, with me be glad;

For my bow thou seest is sound

Since thy heart has got a wound” (2).

It is true, of course, that the theme of the night visitor is by no means uncommon in literature. Poe himself used it again in “The Angel of the Odd.” But the structural similarities between the Anacreontic and “The Raven,” and Poe’s own comments in “Introduction” seem clearly to suggest an influence, and the substitution of the black raven of death for the winged god of love is just the sort of irony Poe shows elsewhere (3).

It is also interesting to note that in “Introduction,” just before speaking of Anacreon, Poe refers to Romance as “a painted paroquet/ . . . a most familiar bird — / [who] taught me my alphabet to say,” thereby associating in this earlier poem a talking bird with the Romantic theme of love and melancholy. Moreover, Time is characterized in the poem as “Condor years.” Perhaps the appearance of these figures of speech in the same context with the meditation on Anacreon is mere coincidence, but it is difficult to avoid the speculation that at least some influence of the Anacreontic is to be seen in “The Raven.”



(1)  See “Romance” under “Textual Notes and Variants,” pp. 202-204 in Floyd Stovall’s edition of The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (Charlottesville, 1965); the passage is from the 1831 version called “Introduction.” Interesting in this context is the possibility that Poe had thus early already conceived a “Raven” prototype; Edmund C. Stedman states that he had seen some verses in the handwriting of Poe, supposedly composed in his eighteenth year, which contained lines “suggestive” of “The Raven” [Introduction to The Raven (New York: Harper and Bros, 1884)].

(2)  Howe and Harrer, Greek Literature in Translation (New York, 1924), p. 115.

(3)  Granting for the moment Poe’s method of “twisting” a source, other possibilities for Anacreontic influence are to be found in the tradition of French light love verse, which contains many imitations of Anacreon, among them poems by Ronsard and Jean de la Fontaine, whom Poe could scarcely have avoided reading.


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[S:1 - PSDR, 1968]