Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Was Poe's "Raven" Plagiarised?

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Charges of plagiarism have dogged many fine writers for hundreds of years, and some of the names that pop up can take you by surprise. A quick internet search tells me that Obama, J.K. Rowling, Martin Luther King Jr., J.R.R. Tolkien, Alex Haley, Sen. Elizabeth Warren are names included in this list. But to include Edgar Allan Poe, a giant of American literature may be news to some. Is it just a case of a false accusation by someone who want to take credit for a poem that is arguably one of the best ever written? Perhaps it is. Check out this one article in World Review 1901 that I found:

A New Version of "The Raven”

A colonel of Kentucky has recently written a life of Poe in which he strangely hints that one Penzoni, an Italian, was the originator of "The Raven.” Penzoni’s bird was called “The Parrot.” The Kentucky colonel says further that the grandson of the Italian poet called his attention to Poe's plagiarism and sent him a translation of “The Parrot,” which he declared was published in the Art Journal of Milan in 1809.

"The Raven" was first published in 1845. The beginning of “The Parrot" is so remarkably like Poe’s haunting lines that, as Miss Gilder suggests, there is a strong suspicion that the date of the Italian publication is wrong and that the Italian parrot was originally an American raven. Parts of the beginning and close of the alleged translation from the Italian are here given:

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 
A rush of wings revolving above my oaken door.
"What's that?" said I, disturbing my melancholy sore— 
        ‘Tis my lost one, sweet “Belmore".'

The frosts of wild December ‘invoke me to dismember
My tired and tortured body on this dreary, dastard shore,
And I trust no waking morrow shall rise upon my sorrow,
With all its hideous horror that now thrills my inmost core—
For my brilliant. beaming beauty, beatic. ‘dear Belmore— 
             Lost, gone forevermore! 

“Horrid bird!" I shrieked emphatic, and ‘wildly, loud, lunatic, 
I flung the prattling Parrot through the night’s dark, shoreless 
While its gilded feathers fluttered in the darkness still, and 
"I'll not leave thee, doubling Devil, but remain above thy 
Sink my beak into thy trembling heart, and torture more and more — 
             Shrieked the Parrot "Evermore"!

And the Parrot still is posing, winking, blinking, dozing, 
On that marble bust, Minerva, just above my oaken door, 
And his hellish eyes are beaming like a Devil who is dreaming. 
While the sputtering, fluttering lamplight paints his shadow on 
       the floor. 
And my sole-lit spirit writhing in that shadow on the floor— 
          Dead and damned—“Forevermore”! 


Again, in 1902 I come across this article:

The Raven, the Parrot, and the Pidgin.

Sir,—Like Rosa Dartle, I merely ask for information; and it is possible that my need of it may do me little credit in the eyes of some of your learned readers. The case is this. There has come into my hands an American sheet which, so far as I can judge, is issued by a Mr. Charles Felton Pidgin, although it refers to that gentleman throughout in the third person.

It sets forth that on the evening of February 11 of the present year, Mr. Charles Felton Pidgin was present at a reception given by the New England Woman's Press Association at the Hotel Vendome, Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, Mass.

When called upon to speak by the lady President, Mr. Pidgin did not waste time in the usual after-dinner remarks, but intimated that he wished to call the attention of the Association to two remarkable literary coincidences. The first of these was concerned with Ella Wheeler Wilcox, and does not interest me. But the second "coincidence" (a rather velvety word considering what followed) had to do with Poe's "Raven."

Mr. Pidgin related that in 1873 Colonel Joyce, one of Poe's biographers, at the request of some friends who were assembled at the Sturtevant House, in New York, recited Poe's "Raven." Among the hearers was a young Italian named Leon Penzoni, an artist and a musician. When Colonel Joyce had delivered the last "Nevermore," Leon Penzoni was heard to remark that the poem was similar to one written by his grandfather, entitled "The Parrot." His hearers were incredulous, and in order to convince them, the youth repeated several verses from memory. He also told Colonel Joyce that "when he was next in Milan, he would refer to the files of the Art Journal of that city, and make a literal translation of the poem and send it to him."

We are then abruptly presented with Poe's "Raven" and Penzoni's "Parrot" in parallel columns, the only further introduction vouchsafed by Mr. Pidgin being this: "It will be noticed that 'The Parrot,' which bears so close a resemblance to 'The Raven,' was written in 1801), the year of Poe's birth, while 'The Raven' was not written until 1845, long after the death of Penzoni."

I shall not trouble you, sir, with parallel columns, because I am sure that no reader of the Academy can be otherwise than perfectly acquainted with the eighteen stanzas of "The Raven"; but here are some of the eighteen stanzas of "The Parrot" as presented by Mr. Pidgin:—

[The reader can read the same poem above.]

This ludicrous doggerel is put forward as a proof of a "coincidence" which Mr. Pidgin will not call the flat plagiarism that is clearly in his mind. He euphemistically prefers to "leave his hearers to draw their own conclusions."

The first conclusion that I draw is that whatever these verses may be, they are not a literal translation of an Italian poem, for I am not aware that it is possible to translate a poem written in a foreign language into English rhyme without considerable sacrifice of literalness. Secondly, in the absence of the Italian text of "The Parrot," I conclude that I need not accept the translation as even moderately correct. Thirdly, it is admitted that no English rendering of "The Parrot" appeared until quite recently. From this I conclude that Poe, if he plagiarised at all, plagiarised from the Italian, and not from this or any other metrical translation. Therefore the charge against Poe, as formulated in Mr. Pidgin's sheet, rests on the good faith of a young interpreter, who had backed his opinion that Poe obtained the idea, incidents, and language of "The Raven" from a poem published by his grandfather in 1803 in a Milan art journal, of which, apparently, no copy could be seen except on the office file in Milan.

Thus presented, the case against Poe seems to be unworthy of attention. On the other hand, I have always vaguely understood that Poe did derive hints for "The Raven" from a poem called "The Parrot." I come back, therefore, to my initial request for information. Will any of your readers tell me what is known of this matter? I shall not be suprised to learn that Poe found the germ of his "Raven" in an Italian poem, and that he made excellent use of his material. But how deep was his debt, and did it pass the bounds of legitimacy?—I am, yours, &c.,
Loughton, Essex. Jackdaw.


This then led to a follow-up letter posted in the same magazine on May 10th of the same year"

The Raven and the Parrot.

Sir,—As a lover of the writings of Edgar Allan Poe I should like to have something to say about the letter signed "Jackdaw," in your issue of April 19.

Poe's life is still full of mystery, but his connection with "The Raven" threatens to become one of the most mysterious episodes in his strange life — unless someone behind the scenes is working a hoax after the manner of "Father Prout."

Let me number my points:—

(I.) This Penzoni incident had been used before Mr. Charles Felton Pidgin took it up, but it is different in some details from the version given by your correspondent. I have before me a copy of the Amrita Bazar Patrika, of Calcutta, dated August 29, 1901, which contains an article (apparently quoted, though the source is not acknowledged) giving the Penzoni story as follows:—

"Colonel" John A. Joyce, the irrepressible literary iconoclast, is smashing idols again. . . . The doughty Colonel asserts that Poe stole "The Raven" almost bodily from a poem called "The Parrot," written by an Italian named Penzoni, published in the Art Journal at Milan in 1809. And in proof of this Joyce produces the story of a peripatetic artist who says [the] Author Penzoni was his grandfather, and that he has in his possession a translation of the original poem.

"The Raven" was first published in the American Review, in February 1845, under the name "Quarles." Later it was reprinted in the Evening Mirror and credited to Poe with a laudatory review by N. P. Willis.

. . . If Colonel Joyce's Italian friend happened to read this explanation [Poe's account of how he wrote "The Raven "] and was inclined to palm off a literary forgery on his grandfather, he might very naturally have named a parody of "The Raven," "The Parrot."

Colonel Joyce says he met Leo Penzoni, a peripatetic Italian artist in 1878 [1873?]. According to the author, Penzoni had a bohemian disposition, and frequently painted the town red. On one of these jovial occasions when the Kentucky Colonel boasted of Poe as an American genius, Penzoni asserted that "The Raven" was taken almost bodily from his grandfather's poem "The Parrot," which was published in 1809.

"All the boys at the table," says the author, "defied him to produce the poem and back up the emphatic assertion. While he could not give at the time all the verses, he recited half a dozen or more, and promised that he would make a literal translation of the poem when next in Milan, and if possible get a copy of the paper, and on his return to New York let me know of his success.

"About four months afterwards I received from him the following letter and poem. It has lain for more than twenty two years in a pocket of my trunk, almost forgotten, but as the public will be interested and benefited by everything relating to the late Edgar Allan Poe, I give Penzoni's letter, and 'The Parrot' in the facsimile of his handwriting, just as I first saw it at the Sturtevant house.

"... There is certainly a very marked similarity between 'The Raven' and 'The Parrot,' and one might be taken directly from the other with but very little alteration. Whether Penzoni or Poe composed the original it is not for me to say."

Then follow a number of stanzas from "The Parrot," but not the letter. I enclose the pages of the Patrika, and you will see that, as sometimes happens with newspapers in India, the finish of the article has been lopped off to make room for advertisements, so that the source cannot be traced. Where did the Patrika get this article from? Was it published in any American periodical before August 1901?

I leave your readers to compare the two versions of the story, and to reconcile the differences between them in matters of fact, some of which, of course, may be mere misprints on one side or the other.

(II.) Without presuming to give an opinion upon the questions whether the plagiarist was Poe or Penzoni, or whether someone is trying to make the literary world laugh, I may be allowed to point to some facts in Poe's life bearing upon the problem, taking them from the appreciative biographical sketch by N. H. Dole, prefixed to the selection from Poe's poems and prose published by Routledge in 1897, as I have no proper "Life" of Poe by me here.

(1.) When Poe was on the staff of the Southern Literary Messenger, at Richmond, "his learned notes," in that paper, were "taken at second hand, and he often made odd blunders."

(2.) His text book of Conchology was "a palpable plagiarism."

(3.) In 1844 he published the famous "Baloon Hoax" in New York.

(4.) "While half delirious with brain fever in 1847, "he dictated the strange story of his voyage to France, his duel, and his French novel. Needless to say the details are wholly untrue."

On the other hand we find that—

(1.) During his wife's long and painful illness he became, in his own words, "insane with long intervals of horrible sanity." (Might he not have plagiarised at this period, if he did plagiarise? It was during his wife's illness that "The Raven" was published first in the Evening Mirror of January 29, 1845 — printed "from advance sheets," the article above quoted says it was first published in the (North? American Review, for February 1845.)

(2.) In 1844 (it is curious to note) Poe, in a letter to Lowell, advocated an International Copyright Law, and also, in the same letter, the founding of a monthly journal of "Independence, Truth, Originality."

(3.) In 1845, when connected with the Broadway Journal, he made some bitter attacks upon literary plagiarism, especially as concerning Longfellow, who was accused of stealing some of the scenes in his "Spanish Student" from Poe's "Politian."

I conclude this part of the subject with two questions: (1) Was Poe ever in Italy and Milan? (He is supposed to have visited the Continent from England.) (2) Did he know Italian? (At the Virginia University he went through a course of modern languages.)

III. Further, I would like to remind your readers that in the Academy of June 22 last year, pp. 525—6, will be found a paragraph about a Chinese poet named Kia Yi, who lived before the birth of Christ, and wrote a poem, a translation of which runs:—

On his bed of straw reclining, 
Half despairing, half repining— 
When, athwart the window sill, 
In Hew a bird of omen ill, 
    And seemed inclined to stay.

To my book of occult learning 
Suddenly I thought of turning, 
All the mystery to know 
Of that shameless owl or crow, 
    That would not go away. 

"Wherever such a bird shall enter 
'Tis sure some power above has sent her," 
So said the mystic book, "to show 
The human dweller forth must go." 
    But where it did not say. 

Then anxiously the bird addressing, 
And my ignorance confessing, • 
"Gentle bird, in mercy deign, 
The will of fate to me explain, 
    Where is my future way?" 

It raised its head as if 'twere seeking 
To answer me by simple speaking: 
Then folded up its sable wing, 
Nor did it utter anything; 
But breathed a "Well-a-day!"

"These stanzas certainly remind one of 'The Raven,' though how did Poe get wind of Kia Yi?" says the Academy.

Strange to say they were brought to the notice of American readers by an article in the North American Review, written by Dr. Martin, of the Imperial University of Pekin. Still the North American Review! Poe described it as "the thing called The North American Review"!

In conclusion, let it be remembered that Poe wrote:—

Of course I pretend to no originality in either the rhythm or metre of "The Raven." The former is trochaic — the latter is octameter acatalectic....Now, each of these lines, taken individually, has been employed before, and what originality "The Raven" has is in their combination into stanza; nothing even remotely approaching this combination has ever been attempted.— (The Philosophy of Composition.)

Who can cut us a stright path through this labyrinth of mystery?

Hedley Vicars Storey. Yarmouth, Isle of Wight.

Sir,—It may interest "Jackdaw," the correspondent on Poe's "Raven," that Prof. Martin's recent History of Chinese Literature contains the translation of a poem (written by a banished Minister of State about the year 200 B.C.), which in spirit and incident also very much resembles Poe's "Raven."—Yours, &c,
27, Cluny Gardens, Edinburgh. T. N. F.


Some have also suggested that Poe took the rhythm of The Raven from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Geraldine's Courtship, also published in 1845. Here is a focussed excerpt:

With a murmurous stir uncertain, in the air, the purple curtain
Swelleth in and swelleth out around her motionless pale brows;
While the gliding of the river sends a rippling noise forever
Through the open casement whitened by the moonlight’s slant repose.

-Heinz Schmitz

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