Essay on writing by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), first published in Graham's Magazine, April 1846.
It's not altogether clear how serious this essay is. While taken seriously in France, it's often considered to poke fun at simplistic decoders of literature in the United States. Poe wrote "The Philosophy of Composition" at a time when he was quite interested in hoaxes and generally screwing with the public mind.
In the essay, Poe suggests a formulaic approach to writing, beginning with the effect the author wants to achieve and then systematically selecting devices to achieve that effect. Poe discusses this selection process as if it were combinatorial, a matter of checking boxes:
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 of both incident and tone ...
Declaring no sympathy whatever with the inspired-artist model
, Poe sets out to schematize his own formula of composition, using his poem "The Raven
" as a case study
. He aims to show that "The Raven" owes nothing at all to intuition or inspiration, but rather "proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem
(Of course, it is debatable that a mathematical problem must proceed rigidly, but as he shows in "The Balloon-Hoax," the mere suggestion of numbers is generally quite impressive to the public. On this topic, see the 1996 Sokal affair.)
Poe first addresses length. As in "The Poetic Principle" (1850), he argues that too long a poem cannot sustain its unity or tone. Here, he goes further, suggesting that a poem's merit is in direct proportion (or "mathematical relation," as he writes) to its length. He discusses this as though there is some Platonic ideal of poem lengths that each poet must discover, but the actual practice he relates consists of finding a happy medium between the brevity favored by "popular" taste and the length favored by "critical" taste. His criteria for judging these are not explained, and seem to be relatively arbitrary. Nonetheless, he triumphantly reports both the "ideal" length (100 lines) and the actual length (108 lines) for "The Raven," as if he's just experimentally confirmed a theory.
Poe next addresses "the choice of an impression, or effect, to be conveyed."
He argues that Beauty is the sole object of poetry (this argument is similar to that in "The Poetic Principle"). While Passion (a function of the heart) and Truth (a function of the intellect) may enter into poetry to good effect, they must be brought into "proper subservience to the predominant aim," namely Beauty (a function of the soul).
Beauty having been established as the object of the poem, Poe easily settles the next question, that of tone. As "all experience" indicates, the tone appropriate for conveying Beauty is one of melancholy. Poe lays this idea out with no explanation whatsoever, but such an explanation does appear in "The Poetic Principle."
Poe next seeks what amounts to a formal gimmick -- "some artistic piquancy which might serve me as a key-note in the construction of the poem." He lights on the device of the refrain or burden (in this case, "Nevermore"). Poe particularly highlights this as a mindless choice:
The universality of its employment sufficed to assure me of its intrinsic value, and spared me the necessity of submitting it to analysis.
Poe apparently selects a tried-and-true
poetic device from the archives and then, having "considered it ... with regard to its susceptibility of improvement," adds a twist: the meaning or context of the refrain will change each time is used. For convenience, he picks as short a refrain as possible -- just one word long
Well, if his refrain's only going to be one word, Poe wants to make it good, "sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis." Identifying the long O as "the most sonorous vowel" and R as "the most producible consonant" (based on what criteria, I know not), Poe picks the word "nevermore," it being "the very first which presented itself." Prima!
Poe next needs a reason to repeat the word "nevermore," and hits upon the happy expedient of putting it into the mouth of some nonreasoning vocalizer, like a parrot. A parrot? No, no, too bright and plumy for the melancholy tone we settled on earlier. A raven? Better. A raven it is.
And speaking of melancholy, we need a nice melancholy topic for this poem. What's really melancholy? Why, death. The death, preferably, of a lovely lady with whom Our Hero is in love.
Now Poe draws connections. He has to have a besotted dude in dialogue with a talking raven, repeat the word "nevermore" at the end of each stanza, and vary the context of "nevermore" each time it's used. One can see how there's something a bit Oulipo about this exercise. For Poe, being Poe, it generates a narrative of obsessive superstition encountering unreasoned repetition, resulting in increasingly frenzied inquiries being put to the raven.
Having established the general premise of the poem, Poe writes the climactic stanza first, molding the rest of the poem to suit it.
Of course, personally, I don't buy that the narrative of "The Raven" is the logical or necessary result of formal constraints, in the way that Poe suggests. Moments when he treats individual and highly idiosyncratic decisions as "logical" or "natural" highlight the tenuousness, and perhaps the irony, of the project. For example, when choosing the poem's setting, he writes:
...the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fields [because there's a raven involved] -- but it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of spaceis asolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident.
"Absolutely necessary"... for what, now? Logically proceeding from what? Oh, yes, the "effect of insulated incident," or more directly, Poe's particular gothic
It would be an interesting experiment to try this prescriptive
formula on, say, a class of reasonably witty undergraduates
and see what they come up with. I somehow doubt Poe's internalized terror narrative would come up.
One notion to consider, in light of the essay's unstable status, is that, if it does not offer a legitimate lesson in how to write, it may well make suggestions on how to read. Whether or not Poe's methodology truly holds as a "logical" process for the production of a poem, it does insist that each element of the poem has a concrete purpose. This is both a general claim about poetry and a specific claim about Poe's work: that there is purpose to literature, and calculation, and hard work.