The Philosophy of Composition, by Edgar Allan Poe

Gustave Dore

I just finished reading “The Philosophy of Composition,” by Edgar Allan Poe, which is an essay published in 1846 in response to nasty critiques and parodies of his poem “The Raven.” Keep in mind, Poe was himself a rather feisty critic, so he probably needed to take a little of what he’d been dishing out. The purpose of the essay was to show the modus operandi by which he assembled his poem. 

It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable 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 [1].

If I hadn’t been forewarned by G. R. Thompson that this essay may have been half tongue-in-cheek [2], I might have been quite confused. In his essay, Poe provides a step-by-step description of the birth and growth of “The Raven.” 
  1. Consider length: “there is a distinct limit, as regards to length, to all works of literary art–the limit of a single sitting…can never properly be overpassed in a poem” [1] (Here, he inserts an aside suggesting that Paradise Lost, by John Milton, is half-poetry/half-prose, since it is too long for one sitting.) However, “a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all.” Thus, approximately 100 lines was chosen for his new poem.
  2. Consider effect to be conveyed: Poem should be universally appreciable. “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of a poem.” 
  3. Consider tone: “Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all poetical tones.”
  4. Artistic piquancy: here, he realized that refrains as an artistic effect were vastly underused.
  5. Refrain choice: Limited to lyric verse. Depends on the force of repetition for its effect. Decides to diversify by changing the context, but leaving the answer the same. Refrain must be brief. Must form the end of each stanza. Must be “sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis.” The long “o” is the most sonorous vowel, and “r” is the most producible consonant. Hmmm, what word has a long “o” and an “r” in it, but keeps the tone of the poem? Oh, of course! “Nevermore!”
  6. Pretext for refrain: A human being wouldn’t say “nevermore” over and over again, but an unthinking being might. Like a talking parrot, or better, a raven (for they talk too, and ravens are fitting for the tone). 
  7. Subject: “I asked myself–‘Of all the 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?'” This was also obvious: “death…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.”
  8. He then wrote the denouement because “nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before any thing be attempted with the pen.
And the poem continued to be written through the same process. Without Thompson’s forewarning, I would have been shocked and skeptical that Poe actually wrote his poems in this way. This mechanical process might pump out a poem-esque work, but would it have any soul? The whole process seems rather art-defying. According to enotes, critics have suggested that “The Philosophy of Composition” was anything from a deliberate hoax to “possibly half tongue-in-cheek [2].” However, I have also noticed quite a few people on the internet who find it inspirational and say that it really helps them to compose their own works. I’m sure these people really DO find the structure helpful. It is very sensible. But I imagine, if anything, that Poe came up with the idea of “The Raven” and THEN went through a rigorous process of refining it. 

That said, I think the essay is a fantastic look into the mind of Poe. It explains why the majority of his poems are about dead women–because he felt that melancholy is the most legitimate of poetic tones, and that the most melancholy of all themes is the death of a beautiful woman. My dad disagrees with Poe here and says that the death of a child is the most melancholy topic. Personally, I think that doubt in God’s existence or in his love for me would be the most melancholy. But I agree that the death of a child is more melancholy than the death of a beautiful woman. 

Out of curiosity, what do other people think the most melancholy theme is?

Find all of Gustave Dore’s illustrations for The Raven here:

[1] The Philosophy of Composition, by Edgar Allan Poe. Reprinted in: The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (Norton Critical Edition). Ed. G.R. Thompson. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. pp675-684. 

[2] The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (Norton Critical Edition). Ed. G.R. Thompson. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. pp57.

One thought on “The Philosophy of Composition, by Edgar Allan Poe

  1. Mabbott says: “Poe admitted freely that his “Philosophy of Composition,” published in Graham’s Magazine for April 1846, was not expected to be taken as literal truth, but it is a dramatized account of the actual writing of the earliest published version.” But gives no source for this free admission. As far as I know it is, if it exists, the basis for doubting Poe's sincerity that might not be based on simple opinion.

    Critics saying it is “possibly half tongue-in-cheek” is meaningless. Like saying: 'possibly Rachel B doesn't mean what she writes.' It is possible, but it' possibility is not supported by anything except opinion. Try googling (Valery 'philosophy of compostion') or (Ravel 'philosophy of composition) for some very different, and vastly more productive, opinions.

    You go to the heart of the matter when you say: “This mechanical process might pump out a poem-esque work, but would it have any soul? The whole process seems rather art-defying.” But that is perhaps mere prejudice. Ravel says of PoC: “the finest treatise on composition, in my opinion, and the one which in any case had the greatest influence upon me was [Poe's] “Philosophy of Composition… I am convinced that Poe indeed wrote his poem “The Raven” in the way that he indicated.”

    Poe is one of the first artists to understand that art and intellect can go together as well as art and inspiriation do. His ideas were probably among the most influential in the history of aesthetics and part of that influence was based on his masterpieces showing his ideas in action. No doubt Poe WAS an inspired artist, no doubt there are depths and undercurrents in ALL of his masterpieces that can not be accounted for by what he says in PoC about how he wrote the Raven. But that is hardly a reason to doubt his sincerity. Nor should we think Poe was a gigantic computer, he was a man, and the full, multidimensional complexity of his individual writings could not be expressed in a single essay. But as history proves, I believe, the inspirational power of intellect, theory, planning, and so on is most definitely not 'art defying'. I believe many painters informed their art with meticulously executed theories. Is Seurat's Grand Jatte art-defying?

    Lastly I will say that much of the doubt came from a time when the writings of Poe were much valued in the English speaking world, but the lofty minded and highly naive spirit of American criticism led to a rather ambiguous, often disparaging, attitudes towards Poe. People like Alan Tate and Daniel Hoffman were fascinated but looked down on Poe from their high minded new critical perches. When in the late 60s French literary thinking brought American literary thinking into the modern, international, world so that lofty minded doubts about Poe were swept away and the IMMENSE, century old, literary reputation of Poe in France was thoroughly vindicated as was his IMMENSE influence on the world beyond America's shores. Poe was doing things with words that people like Tate and Hoffman just could not understand*. Of course those French (and Italians and Germans and so on) had the advantage of having read and absorbed the theories of Poe without fussiness or squeamishness. I always think of America's pre 60s critical literary establishment as people who would have been rather comfortable discussing art and literature around Judge Hardy's Sunday dinner table. Lofty minded but very naive.

    * Alan Tate for example brags about how already by age 12 he found the Mad Tryst scene in Usher very questionable however fine a tale Usher may have been. But half a century earlier Andre Gide had already identified the Mad Tryst as a canonical instance of a mise-en-abyme. Tate and Gide were reading with very different levels of literary sophistication.


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