[page 163, full page:]
THE PHILOSOPHY OF COMPOSITION.
BY EDGAR A. POE.
CHARLES DICKENS, in a note now lying before me, alluding to an examination I once made of the mechanism of “Barnaby Rudge,” says — “By the way, are you aware that Godwin wrote his ‘Caleb Williams’ backwards? He first involved his hero in a web of difficulties, forming the second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done.”
I cannot think this the precise mode of procedure on the part of Godwin — and indeed what he himself acknowledges, is not altogether in accordance with Mr. Dickens’ idea — but the author of “Caleb Williams” was too good an artist not to perceive the advantage derivable from at least a somewhat similar process. Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before any thing be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.
There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis — or one is suggested by an incident of the day — or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative — designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.
I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view — for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest — I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can best be wrought by incident or tone — whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone — afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.
I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would — that is to say, who could — detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such [column 2:] a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to say — but, perhaps, the autorial vanity has had more to do with the omission than any one other cause. Most writers — poets in especial — prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy — an ecstatic intuition — and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought — at the true purposes seized only at the last moment — at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view — at the fully matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable — at the cautious selections and rejections — at the painful erasures and interpolations — in a word, at the wheels and pinions — the tackle for scene-shifting — the step-ladders and demon-traps — the cock’s feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of the hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.
I am aware, on the other hand, that the case is by no means common, in which an author is at all in condition to retrace the steps by which his conclusions have been attained. In general, suggestions, having arisen pell-mell, are pursued and forgotten in a similar manner.
For my own part, I have neither sympathy with the repugnance alluded to, nor, at any time, the least difficulty in recalling to mind the progressive steps of any of my compositions; and, since the interest of an analysis, or reconstruction, such as I have considered a desideratum, is quite independent of any real or fancied interest in the thing analyzed, it will not be regarded as a breach of decorum on my part to show the modus operandi by which some one of my own works was put together. I select “The Raven,” as most generally known. It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referrible either to accident or intuition — that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.
Let us dismiss, as irrelevant to the poem per se, the circumstance — or say the necessity — which, in the first place, gave rise to the intention of composing a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste.
We commence, then, with this intention.
The initial consideration was that of extent. If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression — [page 164:] for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and every thing like totality is at once destroyed. But since, ceteris paribus, no poet can afford to dispense with any thing that may advance his design, it but remains to be seen whether there is, in extent, any advantage to counterbalance the loss of unity which attends it. Here I say no, at once. What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones — that is to say, of brief poetical effects. It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such, only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating, the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief. For this reason, at least one half of the “Paradise Lost” is essentially prose — a succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably, with corresponding depressions — the whole being deprived, through the extremeness of its length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity, of effect.
It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art — the limit of a single sitting — and that, although in certain classes of prose composition, such as “Robinson Crusoe,” (demanding no unity,) this limit may be advantageously overpassed, it can never properly be overpassed in a poem. Within this limit, the extent of a poem may be made to bear mathematical relation to its merit — in other words, to the excitement or elevation — again in other words, to the degree of the true poetical effect which it is capable of inducing; for it is clear that the brevity must be in direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect: — this, with one proviso — that a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all.
Holding in view these considerations, as well as that degree of excitement which I deemed not above the popular, while not below the critical, taste, I reached at once what I conceived the proper length for my intended poem — a length of about one hundred lines. It is, in fact, a hundred and eight.
My next thought concerned the choice of an impression, or effect, to be conveyed: and here I may as well observe that, throughout the construction, I kept steadily in view the design of rendering the work universally appreciable. I should be carried too far out of my immediate topic were I to demonstrate a point upon which I have repeatedly insisted, and which, with the poetical, stands not in the slightest need of demonstration — the point, I mean, that Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem. A few words, however, in elucidation of my real meaning, which some of my friends have evinced a disposition to misrepresent. That pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure, is, I believe, found in the contemplation of the beautiful. When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect — they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul — not of intellect, or of heart — upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating “the beautiful.” Now I designate [column 2:] Beauty as the province of the poem, merely because it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring from direct causes — that objects should be attained through means best adapted for their attainment — no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the peculiar elevation alluded to, is most readily attained in the poem. Now the object, Truth, or the satisfaction of the intellect, and the object Passion, or the excitement of the heart, are, although attainable, to a certain extent, in poetry, far more readily attainable in prose. Truth, in fact, demands a precision, and Passion, a homeliness (the truly passionate will comprehend me) which are absolutely antagonistic to that Beauty which, I maintain, is the excitement, or pleasurable elevation, of the soul. It by no means follows from any thing here said, that passion, or even truth, may not be introduced, and even profitably introduced, into a poem — for they may serve in elucidation, or aid the general effect, as do discords in music, by contrast — but the true artist will always contrive, first, to tone them into proper subservience to the predominant aim, and, secondly, to enveil them, as far as possible, in that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the essence of the poem.
Regarding, then, Beauty as my province, my next question referred to the tone of its highest manifestation — and all experience has shown that this tone is one of sadness. Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.
The length, the province, and the tone, being thus determined, I betook myself to ordinary induction, with the view of obtaining some artistic piquancy which might serve me as a key-note in the construction of the poem — some pivot upon which the whole structure might turn. In carefully thinking over all the usual artistic effects — or more properly points, in the theatrical sense — I did not fail to perceive immediately that no one had been so universally employed as that of the refrain. The universality of its employment sufficed to assure me of its intrinsic value, and spared me the necessity of submitting it to analysis. I considered it, however, with regard to its susceptibility of improvement, and soon saw it to be in a primitive condition. As commonly used, the refrain, or burden, not only is limited to lyric verse, but depends for its impression upon the force of monotone — both in sound and thought. The pleasure is deduced solely from the sense of identity — of repetition. I resolved to diversify, and so vastly heighten, the effect, by adhering, in general, to the monotone of sound, while I continually varied that of thought: that is to say, I determined to produce continuously novel effects, by the variation of the application of the refrain — the refrain itself remaining, for the most part, unvaried.
These points being settled, I next bethought me of the nature of my refrain. Since its application was to be repeatedly varied, it was clear that the refrain itself must be brief, for there would have been an insurmountable difficulty in frequent variations of [page 165:] application in any sentence of length. In proportion to the brevity of the sentence, would, of course, be the facility of the variation. This led me at once to a single word as the best refrain.
The question now arose as to the character of the word. Having made up my mind to a refrain, the division of the poem into stanzas was, of course, a corollary: the refrain forming the close to each stanza. That such a close, to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis, admitted no doubt: and these considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as the most producible consonant.
The sound of the refrain being thus determined, it became necessary to select a word embodying this sound, and at the same time in the fullest possible keeping with that melancholy which I had predetermined as the tone of the poem. In such a search it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word “Nevermore.” In fact, it was the very first which presented itself.
The next desideratum was a pretext for the continuous use of the one word “nevermore.” In observing the difficulty which I at once found in inventing a sufficiently plausible reason for its continuous repetition, I did not fail to perceive that this difficulty arose solely from the pre-assumption that the word was to be so continuously or monotonously spoken by a human being — I did not fail to perceive, in short, that the difficulty lay in the reconciliation of this monotony with the exercise of reason on the part of the creature repeating the word. 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.
I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven — the bird of ill omen — monotonously repeating the one word, “Nevermore,” at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone, and in length about one hundred lines. Now, never losing sight of the object supremeness, or perfection, at all points, I asked myself — “Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death — was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious — “When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world — and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”
I had now to combine the two ideas, of a lover lamenting his deceased mistress and a Raven continuously repeating the word “Nevermore” — I had to combine these, bearing in mind my design of varying, at every turn, the application of the word repeated; but the only intelligible mode of such combination is that of imagining the Raven employing the word in [column 2:] answer to the queries of the lover. And here it was that I saw at once the opportunity afforded for the effect on which I had been depending — that is to say, the effect of the variation of application. I saw that I could make the first query propounded by the lover — the first query to which the Raven should reply “Nevermore” — that I could make this first query a commonplace one — the second less so — the third still less, and so on — until at length the lover, startled from his original nonchalance by the melancholy character of the word itself — by its frequent repetition — and by a consideration of the ominous reputation of the fowl that uttered it — is at length excited to superstition, and wildly propounds queries of a far different character — queries whose solution he has passionately at heart — propounds them half in superstition and half in that species of despair which delights in self-torture — propounds them not altogether because he believes in the prophetic or demoniac character of the bird (which, reason assures him, is merely repeating a lesson learned by rote) but because he experiences a phrenzied pleasure in so modeling his questions as to receive from the expected “Nevermore” the most delicious because the most intolerable of sorrow. Perceiving the opportunity thus afforded me — or, more strictly, thus forced upon me in the progress of the construction — I first established in mind the climax, or concluding query — that to which “Nevermore” should be in the last place an answer — that in reply to which this 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 that 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.”
I composed this stanza, at this point, first that, by establishing the climax, I might the better vary and graduate, as regards seriousness and importance, the preceding queries of the lover — and, secondly, that I might definitely settle the rhythm, the metre, and the length and general arrangement of the stanza — as well as graduate the stanzas which were to precede, so that none of them might surpass this in rhythmical effect. Had I been able, in the subsequent composition, to construct more vigorous stanzas, I should, without scruple, have purposely enfeebled them, so as not to interfere with the climacteric effect.
And here I may as well say a few words of the versification. My first object (as usual) was originality. The extent to which this has been neglected, in versification, is one of the most unaccountable things in the world. Admitting that there is little [page 166:] possibility of variety in mere rhythm, it is still clear that the possible varieties of metre and stanza are absolutely infinite — and yet, for centuries, no man, in verse, has ever done, or ever seemed to think of doing, an original thing. The fact is, originality (unless in minds of very unusual force) is by no means a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition. In general, to be found, it must be elaborately sought, and although a positive merit of the highest class, demands in its attainment less of invention than negation.
Of course, I pretend to no originality in either the rhythm or metre of the “Raven.” The former is trochaic — the latter is octametre acatalectic, alternating with heptameter catalectic repeated in the refrain of the fifth verse, and terminating with tetrameter catalectic. Less pedantically — the feet employed throughout (trochees) consist of a long syllable followed by a short: the first line of the stanza consists of eight of these feet — the second of seven and a half (in effect two-thirds) — the third of eight — the fourth of seven and a half — the fifth the same — the sixth three and a half. 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 effect of this originality of combination is aided by other unusual, and some altogether novel effects, arising from an extension of the application of the principles of rhyme and alliteration.
The next point to be considered was the mode of bringing together the lover and the Raven — and the first branch of this consideration was the locale. For this the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fields — but it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident: — it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place.
I determined, then, to place the lover in his chamber — in a chamber rendered sacred to him by memories of her who had frequented it. The room is represented as richly furnished — this in mere pursuance of the ideas I have already explained on the subject of Beauty, as the sole true poetical thesis.
The locale being thus determined, I had now to introduce the bird — and the thought of introducing him through the window, was inevitable. The idea of making the lover suppose, in the first instance, that the flapping of the wings of the bird against the shutter, is a “tapping” at the door, originated in a wish to increase, by prolonging, the reader’s curiosity, and in a desire to admit the incidental effect arising from the lover’s throwing open the door, finding all dark, and thence adopting the half-fancy that it was the spirit of his mistress that knocked.
I made the night tempestuous, first, to account for the Raven’s seeking admission, and secondly, for the effect of contrast with the (physical) serenity within the chamber.
I made the bird alight on the bust of Pallas, also for [column 2:] the effect of contrast between the marble and the plumage — it being understood that the bust was absolutely suggested by the bird — the bust of Pallas being chosen, first, as most in keeping with the scholarship of the lover, and, secondly, for the sonorousness of the word, Pallas, itself.
About the middle of the poem, also, I have availed myself of the force of contrast, with a view of deepening the ultimate impression. For example, an air of the fantastic — approaching as nearly to the ludicrous as was admissible — is given to the Raven’s entrance. He comes in “with many a flirt and flutter.
Not the least obeisance made he — not a moment stopped or stayed he,
But with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door.
In the two stanzas which follow, the design is more obviously carried out: —
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the nightly shore —
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning — little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door —
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”
The effect of the dénouement being thus provided for, I immediately drop the fantastic for a tone of the most profound seriousness: — this tone commencing in the stanza directly following the one last quoted, with the line,
But the Raven, sitting lonely on that placid bust, spoke only, etc.
From this epoch the lover no longer jests — no longer sees any thing even of the fantastic in the Raven’s demeanor. He speaks of him as a “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore,” and feels the “fiery eyes” burning into his “bosom’s core.” This revolution of thought, or fancy, on the lover’s part, is intended to induce a similar one on the part of the reader — to bring the mind into a proper frame for the dénouement — which is now brought about as rapidly and as directly as possible.
With the dénouement proper — with the Raven’s reply, “Nevermore,” to the lover’s final demand if he shall meet his mistress in another world — the poem, in its obvious phase, that of a simple narrative, may be said to have its completion. So far, every thing is within the limits of the accountable — of the real. A raven, having learned by rote the single word “Nevermore,” and having escaped from the custody of its owner, is driven, at midnight, through the violence of a storm, to seek admission at a window from which a light still gleams — the chamber-window of a student, occupied half in poring over a volume, half in dreaming of a beloved mistress deceased. [page 167:] The casement being thrown open at the fluttering of the bird’s wings, the bird itself perches on the most convenient seat out of the immediate reach of the student, who, amused by the incident and the oddity of the visiter’s demeanor, demands of it, in jest and without looking for a reply, its name. The raven addressed, answers with its customary word, “Nevermore” — a word which finds immediate echo in the melancholy heart of the student, who, giving utterance aloud to certain thoughts suggested by the occasion, is again startled by the fowl’s repetition of “Nevermore.” The student now guesses the state of the case, but is impelled, as I have before explained, by the human thirst for self-torture, and in part by superstition, to propound such queries to the bird as will bring him, the lover, the most of the luxury of sorrow, through the anticipated answer “Nevermore.” With the indulgence, to the utmost extreme, of this self-torture, the narration, in what I have termed its first or obvious phase, has a natural termination, and so far there has been no overstepping of the limits of the real.
But in subjects so handled, however skilfully, or with however vivid an array of incident, there is always a certain hardness or nakedness, which repels the artistical eye. Two things are invariably required — first, some amount of complexity, or more properly, adaptation; and, secondly, some amount of suggestiveness — some under[[-]]current, however indefinite of meaning. It is this latter, in especial, which imparts to a work of art so much of that richness (to [column 2:] borrow from colloquy a forcible term) which we are too fond of confounding with the ideal. It is the excess of the suggested meaning — it is the rendering this the upper instead of the under[[-]]current of the theme — which turns into prose (and that of the very flattest kind) the so called poetry of the so called transcendentalists.
Holding these opinions, I added the two concluding stanzas of the poem — their suggestiveness being thus made to pervade all the narrative which has preceded them. The under-current of meaning is rendered first apparent in the lines —
“Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore!”
It will be observed that the words, “from out my heart,” involve the first metaphorical expression in the poem. They, with the answer, “Nevermore,” dispose the mind to seek a moral in all that has been previously narrated. The reader begins now to regard the Raven as emblematical — but it is not until the very last line of the very last stanza, that the intention of making him emblematical of Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance is permitted distinctly to be seen:
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting,
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted — nevermore.
In spring of 1846, Edgar Allan Poe (1809849) moved from New York City to his country cottage in Fordham where he wrote "The Philosophy of Composition," an essay that promises to recount the method he used to write his famous poem "The Raven" (1845). In the essay Poe challenges those who suggest that writing is a mysterious process prompted solely by the imagination. Although the it offers a number of precepts for good writing, at the end of the essay, Poe undercuts his step-by-step instructions by insisting that all writing should have an "under-current" of meaning. Because he never demonstrates how to create that "under-current," Poe's essay never completely reveals the process that makes his work so powerful.
THE IMPACT OF "THE RAVEN"
At dawn on the full-moon morning of 19 July 1845 explosions at a saltpeter storehouse in lower Manhattan caused a widespread fire, rivaling the disastrous New York fire of 1835; hundreds of buildings went up in flames and many people died. Quite coincidentally, or maybe not so coincidentally, this was the day Edgar Allan Poe would give his recitation of "The Raven" at the home of Anna Lynch (1815891), the well-known literary salon hostess. Ms. Lynch described Poe's performance that night as "electrifying" in a letter to the poet Sarah Helen Whitman (1803878), who later had a short-lived relationship with Poe. Granted, Poe was known for his intent performances, but his reading "The Raven" on a night of full moon and devastation must have enhanced the drama and haunting effect of his poem.
Poe's poem had dazzled many readers, and numerous printings of "The Raven" appeared in magazines and newspapers around the country and abroad after its initial appearance in The New York Evening Mirror on 29 January 1845 (in which it was printed as an "advance of publication" copy that would appear in the American Review the next month). On 19 November 1845, almost a year after its initial appearance in the Mirror, "The Raven" was publishedby Wiley and Putnam in a collection using the famous poem in its title, The Raven and Other Poems. Two days later, the book was reviewed in the Mirror by the poet and editor George Pope Morris (1802864), a friend of Poe's. Morris described Poe's poetry this way: "Tall shadows and a sighing silence seem to close around us as we read. We feel dream land to be more real and more touching than the actual life we have left" (Thomas and Jackson, p. 592). A month later, Thomas Dunn English (1819902), a poet, physician, editor, politician, and sometime friend of Poe's, wrote a review in the New York monthly magazine the Aristidean and described Poe's poetics in the following terms: "much of the effect depends upon the mode of construction, and the peculiar arrangement of words and incidents" (Thomas and Jackson, p. 599). Poe would later use these two approaches to his poetryoncern with effect and constructiono chart the process he used in composing "The Raven" and to suggest that "no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition" (p. 195). But this dissertation would come much after Poe had enjoyed the fame his "raven" had brought him.
With this newfound popularity and his position as owner and editor of The Broadway Journal, Poe was finally able to live in a fashionable neighborhood near Washington Square Park at 85 Amity Street. In this neighborhood and in his role as editor, Poe came into contact with prominent writers and artists of his time and because of the appeal of "The Raven," his fame as a poet grew at home and abroad. This idyllic time, however, was short-lived. On 3 January 1846 The Broadway Journal folded, and by the end of February Poe was forced to move his family from 85 Amity. In addition, his wife's poor health and her displeasure with the gossip about Poe's "affairs" and his "pending institutionalization" to cure his "insanity" prompted Poe's move from the city to the country in Fordham (Thomas and Jackson, pp. 62324).
Shortly after this move, Poe wrote "The Philosophy of Composition," partly to build on the popularity that "The Raven" had afforded him and partly to counter the negative criticism written about his poetry and the numerous parodies of "The Raven" that had appeared in the press. Having earned the reputation of the "tomahawk critic" for his harsh analyses of other poets' works, Poe's poetry received similarly harsh appraisals; though praised by many, his poetry was also called "childish," "puerile," and "absurd" (Thomas and Jackson, p. 627). One of Poe's answers to such criticism was "The Philosophy of Composition," an essay that purports to detail the method he used to write poetry, a method that proceeds with "the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem" (p. 195).
AN EXPLICATION OF "THE PHILOSOPHY OF COMPOSITION"
Poe's essay opens with an intimate tone; the first few words bring the reader into his study, as he points to "a note now lying before me" (p. 193). Referring to this note from the famous British novelist Charles Dickens is a purposeful pose on Poe's part to grant his treatise credibility. The basic premise of his dissertation seems to derive from two of England's most prominent authorsickens and William Godwin, a philosopher and novelist and the father of Mary Shelley. In his letter to Poe, Dickens remarked that Godwin wrote the second volume of his popular novel, Caleb Williams (1794), first and then "cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done" (p. 193). Although Poe believed that Godwin did not "precisely" follow the method Dickens suggested, Poe, nonetheless, asserts that the overall approach of keeping the end "constantly in view" is essential to effective composition (p. 193). He appears to base his philosophy of composition on this revelation from Dickens about Godwin's writing process.
Poe's ostensible purpose in publishing "The Philosophy of Composition" is simple: to demonstrate his ability to describe a step-by-step process that leads to a successful poem or narrative. No other author, Poe observes, had had either the desire or ability to do so. Unlike other poets and novelists who resist "letting the public take a peep behind the scenes," Poe promises to reveal all (p. 194).
To be successful, Poe advises, a writer must choose a desired effect before putting pen to paper, he must consider originality at all times, and, of course, he should have the dénouement always in mind. To create a desired effect a writer must determine which combination of tone and incident best provokes this effect (ordinary incident and peculiar tone, peculiar incident and ordinary tone, peculiar tone and peculiar incident). He then must decide upon a suitable length, one that sustains "unity of impression" (p. 196). The length should be directly proportional to the merit of the subject, or, in Poe's words, "the extent of a poem may be made to bear mathematical relation to its merit" (pp. 19697). The length, however, should be sufficient enough to induce an effect, or, in Poe's words, "a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all" (p. 197). However, no "literary work" should require more than "one sitting"; otherwise, Poe argues, "the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity, of effect" is lost (p. 196).
After determining length, the author must choose a theme that is "universally appreciable" and induces pleasure (p. 197). Then the writer must decide what form is appropriate to that purpose: poetry, Poe asserts, should elevate the soul and effect "Beauty" while prose should impress the intellect and effect "Truth" and/or impress the heart and effect "Passion." Poe reminds the reader that "Truth" demands precision and "Passion" requires "homeliness" (p. 198). Having set these parameters for writing in general, Poe turns to the specific requirements needed to create an effective poem. He allows that poetry can embrace both "Truth" and "Passion" but not at the expense of "Beauty"; "the true artist will always contrive, first, to tone them into proper subservience to the predominant aim, and, secondly, to enveil them, as far as possible, in that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the essence of the poem" (p. 197).
In using his experience of writing "The Raven" as a concrete example of how to write a poem, Poe, again, defers to "experience" rather than "inspiration" as the arbiter of the best choice of tone for poetry: "all experience [he writes] has shown that this tone is one of sadness" (p. 198). He continues by posing a rhetorical question: "Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?" (p. 201). Poe provides a simple, clear answer: "the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world" (p. 201). Such clarity on Poe's part may be why critics and poets so often quote this part of his advice.
After determining length and tone, Poe advises the poet to choose a mechanism, a pivot, around which the poem would be constructed. For "The Raven," Poe chose the refrain, ostensibly because "its employment sufficed to assure me of its intrinsic value" (p. 199). Poe improved the shape of the refrain by insisting on monotone "both in sound and thought" (p. 199). After making this choice, Poe lists the considerations that led him to choose the word "nevermore" for "The Raven." Most important, Poe concludes that he made his choice by imagining the last refrain of the poem: "I first established in mind the climax, or concluding queryhat to which 'Nevermore' should be in the last place an answerhat in reply to which this word 'Nevermore' should involve the utmost conceivable amount of sorrow and despair" (p. 202). At this juncture, about halfway through his essay, Poe returns to the initial premise of keeping the ending "always in view," reminding his readers that "the poem may be said to have its beginningt the end, where all works of art should begin" (p. 202).
Once the pivot is established the poet would then choose an appropriate locale and characters to reinforce the desired tone and effect. Complementary versification is essential. Yet Poe insists that originality in versification is not a matter of intuition but rather a matter of "negation"; such negation presumes a thorough knowledge of prosody and poetic precedent. Poe asserts that his "Raven" exhibits originality of versification only because of the way he combined individual lines of ordinary rhythm and meter: "nothing even remotely approaching this combination has ever been attempted" (p. 204). As Thomas O. Mabbott points out, this claim is suspect, and he suggests that Poe borrowed heavily from Elizabeth Barrett's "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" (1844), especially its "stanzaic form" (p. 356).
The rest of "The Philosophy of Composition" outlines the decisions Poe made in constructing "The Raven," purportedly revealing the linear progression of thought that produced his poem while citing complete stanzas as examples. In fact, the essay ends with the last stanza of "The Raven": "And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor / Shall be liftedevermore" (p. 208). Yet just before this dramatic ending is a paragraph that effectively undoes most of Poe's insistence that poetry can be written with "the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem" (p. 195).
In this important paragraph Poe reveals that even if a poet diligently follows all of the suggestions he poses, an "under-current, however indefinite, of meaning" must be imbedded in the poem (p. 207). That "under-current," Poe claims, creates the "richness" so necessary to any poem of merit (p. 207). Poe also takes aim here at the "Frogpondians," Poe's disdainful nickname for the New England transcendentalists including, for example, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Poe's strong rejection of pedantic poetry is evident when he asserts that "excess" of meaning "turns poetry into prose" (pp. 20708). For Poe the most important element of poetry is the "suggestiveness" that underlies a poem's effect. Even though Poe asserts that didacticism turns poetry into prose, he writes that the very suggestiveness of "The Raven" "disposes the mind to seek a moral in all that has been previously narrated" (p. 208). This is a curious contradiction that does not square with Poe's overall disdain for poetry that has a "moral" agenda. Following this conclusion is another questionable assertion. Poe claims that the phrase found in the last stanza of "The Raven," "from out my heart," is the "first metaphorical expression in the poem" (p. 208). This claim is simply not true. What about "Night's Plutonian shore," or "fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core," or "perfumed from an unseen censer / Swung by seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor"? These two contradictions lead the reader to question Poe's claim that he will reveal the "wheels and pinions" of his writing process (p. 195).
In his introduction to "The Raven," Mabbott says quite simply that "The Philosophy of Composition" "includes a partly fictional account of the planning of 'The Raven'" (Poe, "The Raven," p. 353) and reminds readers that Poe "admitted freely that his 'Philosophy of Composition' . . . was not expected to be taken as literal truth" (p. 359). Some critics have suggested that Poe's essay is a purposeful hoax while others make a less strident assessment, as G. R. Thompson does when he characterizes the essay as "possibly half tongue-in-cheek" (p. xl). Daniel Hoffman argues that in "The Philosophy of Composition," Poe reveals "the method of his art [that] enables the madness of his matter to be spoken" (p. 92). Hoffman also points out that Poe must have taken pleasure in having George Graham publish his essay after rejecting "The Raven" years earlier. As Hoffman succinctly puts it, Poe made Graham "eat raven" (p. 80). Dennis Pahl argues that "The Philosophy of Composition" not only "ends up reproducing many of the poem's featuresecoming as it were seduced by the very rhetoric it is supposed to analyze" (p. 10) but also ultimately "engages in violating boundaries, in questioning assertions of mastery, in what might be called in other words, 'writing in the feminine'" (p. 20). No one has suggested that the essay is simply a recipe for good writing, yet many have excerpted particular ideas as nodal points of Poe's literary sensibility, especially the following: the death of a beautiful woman as "the most poetical topic in the world," the need for an "under-current" of meaning in all artworks, and the importance of "unity of effect."
Clues to whether or not Poe actually revealed his writing method in "The Philosophy of Composition" can be found in the essay itself. Poe often advises the writer to do what is ordinarily done; for example, when he explains how he chose the refrain as the pivot of "The Raven," he says he chose it above all other devices because "no one had been so universally applied as that of the refrain" (p. 199). He further advises a writer to rely on themes that are "universally appreciable" and tones that allow for "universal understanding" (p. 201)s if universality is most important, as if it is best to please the mob. Yet, considering that "The Raven" accomplished its goal of pleasing both "the popular and the critical taste," it is no wonder that Poe chose this poem as the concrete example for explicating his "modus operandi" (p. 195). But anyone who knows Poe's work knows a concern for universality would not be utmost in his mind at all times. Granted, he did wish his poetry and fiction to be read and, more importantly, to sell, but his aesthetic principles went far beyond a mere desire to please the populace and earn a living.
Poe wanted to be remembered as a poet even though most of his career was spent as a critic and magazine writer. In 1848, a year before his death, Poe dedicated his prose poem Eureka, the work he considered the culmination of his writing career, "to those who feel rather than to those who thinko the dreamers and those who put faith in dreams as in the only realities" (Poe, Eureka, p. 5). In Eureka, Poe defines intuition as "the conviction arising from those inductions or deductions of which the processes are so shadowy as to escape our consciousness, elude our reason, or defy our capacity of expression" (p. 22). This assertion counters his claim in "The Philosophy of Composition" that writers who claim "ecstatic intuition" as the means of production are deluding themselves and others (p. 194). Yet Poe valued most an "under-current" of meaning in a poem or narrative, and Poe's pupil can nowhere find the rule for creating this "suggestiveness" in Poe's "Philosophy." Such "suggestiveness" more often than not is created by a process akin to the definition of intuition found in Eureka. Those who follow the steps outlined in "The Philosophy of Composition" would be remiss were they to think that that would be all they need to do to create an "art product." Poems or narratives produced in this way, Poe claims, would "repel the artistical eye" because they lack "adaptation" and "suggestiveness," the two aspects of writing that cannot be taught (p. 207).
Careful readers of Poe's essay would be confounded by what they find in the penultimate paragraph. Here Poe states, "Holding these opinions, I added the two concluding stanzas of the poemheir suggestiveness being thus made to pervade all the narrative which has preceded them" (p. 208). Should not those two last stanzas have been conceived first, according to what Poe says in his introduction? How could he "add" these two stanzas to make the rest resonate with "suggestiveness," when Poe ostensibly holds to the rule of having "the end always in view"? Like the Prefect in Poe's short story "The Purloined Letter," do readers overlook what is "in plain view"? Do they overlook evidence "by dint of [its] being excessively obvious"? (Poe, "The Purloined Letter," p. 990).
This glaring but subtle contradiction makes the reader question Poe's "sincerity" and purpose in writing "The Philosophy of Composition." Other hints throughout are not quite so obvious but persistent nonetheless. For example, Poe's insistence on "universality" as a primary consideration for many compositional decisions is suspect. Finally, his direct statement that "from out my heart" is "the first metaphorical expression in the poem" is outright dissembling (p. 208). Poe's essay holds the clues to its project: to purport to reveal all the "modus operandi" while withholding the essential components that transform technical prowess into art. Nonetheless, Poe's "Philosophy of Composition" illuminates many of the principles that make Poe's writing so engaging: unity of effect, adaptation of complexity, suggestiveness, careful attention to form as a reflection of content, and a fascination with death and perversity.
See also"The Fall of the House of Usher"; Literary Criticism; "The Poet"; "The Raven"
Poe, Edgar Allan. Eureka. 1848. Edited by Stuart Levine and Susan Levine. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.
Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Philosophy of Composition." 1846. In The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, vol. 14, edited by James E. Harrison, pp. 19308. New York: AMS Press, 1979.
Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Purloined Letter." 1844. In Tales and Sketches, vol. 2, 1843849, edited Thomas Ollive Mabbott, pp. 97297. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Raven." 1845. In Edgar Allan Poe:Complete Poems, edited by Thomas Ollive Mabbott, pp. 35364. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
Pahl, Dennis. "De-Composing Poe's 'Philosophy.'" TexasStudies in Literature and Language, vol. 38, no. 1 (1996): 15.
Person, Leland S. "Poe's Composition of Philosophy: Reading and Writing 'The Raven.'" Arizona Quarterly 46, no. 3 (1990): 15.
Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. 1972. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998. See pp. 803.
Thomas, Dwight, and David K. Jackson. The Poe Log: ADocumentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1809849. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987.
Thompson, G. R. "Edgar A. Poe: An American Life." In The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, pp. xiiiii. New York: Norton, 2004.