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.

The Bells, by Edgar Allan Poe

Listen to The Bells

The first of Poe’s poems that I’ve read (recently) is The Bells (you might want to listen to it before reading my commentary). This poem was written in 1948, in the year following his wife Virginia’s death of consumption at the age of 25. Wikipedia suggests that the poem depicts a man mourning his lost wife. He courted her at Christmas to the sound of sleigh-bells in stanza one, married her in the second stanza, and then she dies in a fire as the husband watches in the third stanza. In the fourth stanza,  the grief-stricken husband goes mad. This is certainly an approachable interpretation. I think a life-cycle interpretation is more interesting though. In my opinion:

The first stanza is about the playful innocence of childhood. The merry tinkling of sleigh bells suggests a care-free mood–pure enjoyment of the moment. Even the Heavens twinkle with delight at the youthful merriment. But the poem also suggests that time is passing: 
              Keeping time, time, time
              In a sort of Runic rhyme 

“Runic rhyme” suggests an occult influence…perhaps a spell is cast over the innocents, trapping them in a ghoulish foreplay for the dance that lay ahead.

In the second stanza, the poem has matured. It is no longer care-free, since it is motivated by love for a new spouse, rather than by simple delight at existence. The bells are now “mellow” with “molten-golden notes.” These words suggest a sunset. Immediately following this symbolic sunset, the moon rises:

              What a liquid ditty floats
              To the turtle-dove that listens while she gloats
              On the moon!

Notice in this stanza the Heavens no longer join in the celebration, instead they are admired from afar. The universe has distanced itself from the poem. 

The third stanza tells of torture in the eve of death. This torture could represent a plethora of pains. To me, the fire recollected the turbulence of war and politics. Throughout Poe’s life he would have experienced the tortuous birth-pains of a new nation in a world at war. It could also symbolize the suffering of someone dying of disease–such as consumption, like his wife. Or the “deaf and frantic fire” could be the moral or religious guilt of a man who has lived a life of profligacy and regrets his youthful vices. He might be overcome by waves of self-abhorrence.

             Yet the ear, it fully knows,
             By the twanging 
             And the clanging,
             How the danger ebbs and flows–
In this third stanza the poet is “now to sit, or never / By the side of the pale-faced moon.” No longer does the poet admire the splendor of the moon. It is pale–it has lost its glory. Now, or never, he must sit and mourn by the Heavens which have deserted him.

In the final stanza Death (or perhaps Satan) triumphs. There are people–ah, the people! that dwell up in the steeple…all alone. These are spirits separated from their bodies. 

             They are neither man nor woman–
             They are neither brute nor human,
             They are Ghouls:

These ghouls have lost their identities. They are now simply servants of the king, Death. With finality they: “Feel a glory in so rolling / On the human heart a stone–” This is a tombstone, rolled over their hearts so they can no longer love. And the king’s merry bosom swells as he dances and yells

             Keeping time, time, time,
             In a sort of Runic rhyme
             To the throbbing of the bells–

Again, the “Runic rhyme” casts its spell over the ghouls. And they are captured for eternity.

Similarity to Paradise Lost:

While writing my interpretation of The Bells, I was reminded of my studies of Milton’s Paradise Lost. In lecture 18 of his series Why Evil Exists, Professor Charles Mathewes suggests that the difference between Satanic sin and human sin is that Satan sins out of a self-aware wish to rebel against God; Adam’s sin is that he loves Eve more than he loves God. He eats the forbidden fruit because Eve has already partaken. If he denies her, she will be “dead” to him, and he can’t handle that loss. So human sin ropes in feelings about other people. (See my full summary of the lecture here.)

While I was pondering how to express my feelings on Stanza II, I thought that this second stanza could represent Adam’s choice of Eve over God. It represents his marriage to her, and his subsequent separation from the Heavens–which, now, he could only admire from afar instead of living in its presence as in the first stanza. Following this train of thought, the third stanza would represent a human’s life on earth after the fall–filled with waves of earthly disaster. The final stanza would be the torment of Hell. 

Of course, I’m not suggesting that this is what Poe had in mind when he wrote the poem. But I think it’s interesting how such themes recur in literature. They are very powerful images that resound throughout time. Perhaps I’ll even wax Jungian and suggest that they are an archetype of our collective consciousness. 😉

Another issue that struck me while I was reading this poem is thematic similarities between Poe’s poem and Quasimodo’s song about his bells in Notre Dame de Paris. I wonder if the playwright was influenced by Poe when he wrote this song? 🙂

Image taken from:

Alice Transformed: Coursera Essay

Lewis Carroll*

In the beginning, Alice falls down a rabbit-hole, landing in a room containing a tiny key, a tiny door, and a large table. When she is small, the door is locked–she’s not allowed out. But then she grows very large…so large, she can hardly fit into the womb room anymore. Ah! Now she can reach the key! But the way out is so tiny! Luckily, she is taken up by a force outside of her control (a sea of tears) and is thrust into Wonderland.

This initial entrance into Wonderland is a metaphor for Alice’s birth into a new life. In Wonderland, she sees many unusual sights that amaze, frustrate, and/or delight her. The Caterpillar leads her to question her own identity—an elusive concept in the ever-changing world of Wonderland. The Cheshire Cat encourages her to be self-aware: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” The Cat is the only creature in Wonderland who recognizes his own madness! After talking to the Cat, Alice is less frustrated by the madness that surrounds her. She allows the Mad Tea-Partiers to entertain instead of frustrate her.

After the tea party, she again finds the room from which she was first thrust into Wonderland. This time, she does not hesitate. She confidently grabs the key, drinks the shrinking potion, and walks through the door–reborn as a new, confident Alice.

Alice is essentially “born” into Wonderland twice. The first birth is full of frustration and self-doubt. But the second birth is followed by self-confidence. She now applies lessons that she learned the first time around. For instance, she stops herself before telling the Mock-Turtle that she eats lobsters and fish. She confidently deals with the intimidation tactics of the Queen of Hearts, whereas she would have been frightened or angry before. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is an allegory in transformation. It’s a story about growing up.

Yes, I have done the unthinkable. Just to spite all those angry essay-format-Nazis, I have written *dum dum dum* AN ESSAY WITHOUT A THESIS STATEMENT. I hope you will all forgive me for this unkindness. 😉

*Images were taken from: 

The Confidence of Alice

As I said in my previous post on Alice (Alice, the Caterpillar, and the Serpent), Lewis Carroll used asterisks to denote metamorphoses in Alice. The last row of asterisks in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was when she shrunk back from a serpent to a reasonably-sized girl at the end of Chapter V. This sudden absence in transformative asterisks suggests that Alice is beginning to gain confidence in herself and to settle into the Alice she will be. 

Chapter VI introduces another well-recognized icon of the Alice books: the Cheshire Cat. The conversation that commences is probably the most sensible she has in Wonderland. Alice asks:

“Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.  

Alice, in her newly acquired perfectly-sized body, is now feeling ready for an adventure. But she doesn’t know where to find one. The Cat, in the guise of nonsense, sensibly points out that if she doesn’t have a goal, she’ll be wandering aimlessly through life. This prods Alice into a decision–she’d like to meet more creatures in Wonderland, but she doesn’t want to “go among mad people.”

“Oh, you ca’n’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

The Cat is the only creature of Wonderland who recognizes that he’s mad! This self-awareness allows him to sensibly see the rest of the world as it really is–mad. I believe that, like the Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat is Alice’s alter-ego. He represents the sense, self-confidence, and goal-orientation that arises from self-awareness. After meeting the Cat, Alice marches right up to the Mad Tea-Party and sits down despite the party’s calls of “No room! No room!” Later, in the Queen’s croquet ground, she stands proud and erect as the queen’s procession nears. Her companions lie quaking face-down in the dirt. The Queen interrogates Alice:  

“Off with her head! Off with–“

“Nonsense!” said Alice, very loudly and decidedly, and the Queen was silent.  

Ever since meeting the Cat, Alice does not need to be over-sized to have self-confidence. Her responses to the Mad Tea-Party and the Queen are quite sensible and self-assured. Earlier in the book, Alice’s self-confidence fluctuated with size. But the self-assurance she demonstrates at the end of the book is unlike the childish spats she had when she was over-sized. Think of the incident in Chapter IV, where she was stuck in the White Rabbit’s house. Instead of sensibly standing up for herself, as with the Queen, she simply used her bulk to terrorize the White Rabbit and poor Bill. 

Alice also demonstrates a mature self-assurance when she bursts out laughing (twice) in the Queen’s croquet ground. Earlier in the story, Alice’s main emotions were tear-soaking-frustration, foot-stomping-frustration, timidity, and confusion. Now that she is self-aware, she can see the rest of the world as it is–amusingly silly. 
*Images were taken from: 

Alice, the Caterpillar, and the Serpent

In chapter IV, we see the first evidence that Alice’s feistiness grows and shrinks with her size. When Alice is small she rushes off to do the White Rabbit’s bidding, so frightened by him that she doesn’t bother explaining that he’s mistaken her for someone else. But when she “grows up,” as she calls it, she confidently attacks first the White Rabbit (through the window) and then Bill (in the chimney). This pattern of fluctuating confidence-with-size continues throughout the book. Such changes are emphasized by a row asterisks that Lewis Carroll included to indicate a transformation in Alice. Alice’s frequent metamorphoses could be perceived as symbolizing both the inexplicable changes in a pubescent body and fluctuations in confidence and timidity during puberty.

Chapter V of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland can be split into two sections. The first section is Alice’s identity crisis with the caterpillar, and the second section is Alice’s mistaken-identity issue with the pigeon. I will discuss how both of these sections play into the puberty allegory.  
Once Alice escapes being eaten by a playful puppy 10 times her size, she finds a Caterpillar who contentedly smokes his hookah while reclining on a mushroom. When he sees Alice he demands “Who are you?” Rather timidly, Alice responds that she doesn’t know who she is. 

“I–I hardly know, Sir, just at present–at least, I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

Thus commences one of the best known conversations in the Alice books. The Caterpillar continues to demand that she identify and explain herself, and she timidly suggests that she can’t. Finally, she decides that the Caterpillar is in a rotten mood, and turns away. But the Caterpillar demands she return; so she timidly waits for “some minutes” until the Caterpillar finally tells her something useful–one side of the mushroom will make her grow larger, and the other will make her smaller. 

Caterpillars are well-recognized symbols of metamorphosis–they transform first into a chrysalis and then into a magnificent butterfly. Alice points out that the Caterpillar should feel a little bit “queer” when he’s changing, though the Caterpillar insists that he won’t. I believe that the Caterpillar represents an alter-ego of the metaphorically pubescent Alice. He’s that niggle in the mind of a pubescent girl that questions her identity. He represents the uncertainty in change.

After Alice’s Caterpillar-induced identity crisis, she tries a bit of mushroom to modify her size. Throughout Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice refers to growing larger as “growing up.” Here, she realizes that one problem of “growing up” is that some body parts (in this case, her neck) may grow out of proportion with the rest of her body. When Alice begins to wind her serpentine neck through the foliage in hopes of reaching her hands (and the size-morphing mushrooms) a pigeon pops out and attacks her with enraged shrieks of “serpent!” Although Alice has already made the association between her neck and a serpent’s sinuous body, she insists that she’s not a serpent. Remembering all the changes she’s been through that day, she’s not entirely certain that she’s a little girl anymore, but she is quite certain that she’s not a serpent. In this “grown up” state, she argues with a confidence that is absent in the first part of the chapter.

There are two ways of viewing a serpent symbolically. We could take the Biblical/Freudian approach and say that Alice has turned into a temptress–a sexual being. Or, we could view a snake as a creature of change–one that sheds its skin and is born again.** Clearly, both of these interpretations fit with the puberty allegory.

My final blog post on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is: The Confidence of Alice.

*Images were taken from: 

**snakeskin metaphor is compliments of Laura Gibbs, whose Coursera blog can be found here:

Fantasy Media in the Classroom, ed. Emily Dial-Driver

2012 Book 107: Fantasy Media in the Classroom, ed. Emily Dial-Driver (7/12/2012)

Categories: Other

Reason for Reading: Early Reviewer’s Book. 

My Review 4/5 stars
Fantasy Media in the Classroom is a collection of essays which describe why fantasy media and popular culture are useful in the classroom. For instance students can learn the same techniques using popular fiction as they can with an old-school class, but they feel more confident in their analyses because they already feel like they are experts on popular culture. These lessons and confidence can then be extrapolated on to classical literature. Fantasy Media in the Classroom also gives examples of how popular culture can be used to design lessons. This book was written mostly from the perspective of teaching college students, but a few essays talk about high school students. It’s possible these lessons could also be changed a bit and used for younger students, as well. I think this book would be useful to teachers, even if they don’t plan on fully incorporating popular culture in their classrooms, because it may help them to see the benefit of popular culture references their students make during class…and how such references could be embraced as an interesting interpretation rather than brushed off. I am not a teacher, but I found this book interesting because it helped me to better understand what fantasy media says about psychology/sociology/politics.

A Preface to Paradise Lost, by C. S. Lewis

2012 Book 41: A Preface to Paradise Lost, by C. S. Lewis (2/29/2012)

Reason for Reading: Wanted to better understand Paradise Lost. I’m not very good at poetry.

My Review: 4/5 stars
In this preface, Lewis first outlines what an epic poem is and what Milton was trying to do with Paradise Lost. Then he discusses his views on how Milton’s theology played a role in this epic. Lewis debunks the view that Milton had compassion for Satan. It was a good introduction, which I read before the poem because I thought it might help me comprehend the poem while I’m reading it. It was helpful, though it managed to make me more skeptical that I’ll comprehend Paradise Lost.