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 .
- 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”  (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.
- Consider effect to be conveyed: Poem should be universally appreciable. “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of a poem.”
- 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.”
- Artistic piquancy: here, he realized that refrains as an artistic effect were vastly underused.
- 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!”
- 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).
- 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.”
- 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.
 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.
 The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (Norton Critical Edition). Ed. G.R. Thompson. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. pp57.