"Philosophy of Composition" of Edjar Allan Poe

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What did Edjar Allan Poe regard as important in the creation of a literary work in The Philosophy of Compostion and how he thinks a writer accomplishes that?

-- Anonymous, October 31, 2000



Edgar Poe's essay, "The Philosophy of Composition" was first printed in April 1846 in Graham's magazine. Basically, it is a schematic, a construction plan in which he attempts to detail the processes through which the poem, "The Raven" had been constructed. There are many, including some Poe scholars, that feel this work does not necessarily reflect reality. That is to say that Poe was not entirely factual in his step by step description of his methods. That he used all of these procedural steps, generally, at one time or another, for his poetry, I have little doubt. However, that he did so with the poem "The Raven", I too have reasonable doubts.

Nevertheless, I am compelled to ask, does it matter?... is it important in the sense that Poe was being candid? My personal thoughts are that it is not at all important! By this, I merely mean to say that, in my view, this work was not really intended to characterize his creative approach or methodology so much as it was intended to restate and, perhaps, reinforce his fundamental poetic principles.

In January of 1845, the poem "The Raven" was printed in the Evening Mirror and in the American Review in the February edition. The poem became a nationwide sensation and went through numerous reprints. Poe's recognition as a poet of note soared and a repeat of this popularity occurred in England. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote to Poe of the haunting effects it had had on her husband and the English public. Even as they were accusing him of literary theft, Poe's enemies were also speaking of the powerful effects of the poem, its unique rhythm and its compelling, resonant refrain. The prophetic last line of the introduction to the poem in the Evening Mirror stated that, "It will stick to the memory of everybody who reads it," Today, 150 years later, it remains the single most immediately recognized poem by an American author.

The astounding popularity of the poem earned Poe little monetary reward beyond the $15 or so dollars he was originally paid. To my knowledge, history records no further recompense for this work in spite of the many reprints. It did, however, make him enormously popular as an author, critic, poet and lecturer. Poe most probably saw this as a vindication of his poetic principles and literary ideals and by April of 1846, took the opportunity to expound on these views in this essay. Not so subtly cloaked within the textual discourse of this "schematic", he thumbs his nose with snippets of his poetic philosophy at the New York Literati he loathed.

Some of these beliefs were developed and refined over time. He is known to have been a admirer of Coleridge, Milton, and Shakespeare. He firmly believed in the concept of "Unity of Effect". That is that an author should predetermine the effect he wished to impart to the reader. Once resolved, each and every element of the story or poem must remain subservient to this singular effect and nothing should provide distraction or divergence from the desired result. In his story "Ligeia", Poe does not misuse a single word and the story is astounding as much for the theme as it is for the brevity of the tale.

Another principle he argued repeatedly was that prose and poetry best served two different masters. In this essay he says that the "...sole legitimate province of the poem." is Beauty and he defines Beauty as "That pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure..." He goes further to state that he speaks of beauty, not as an attribute of aesthetic quality, but of effect, an "...intense and pure elevation of the soul - not of intellect, or of heart..." He felt that the intellect and the heart are best served by truth and passion; that this is best accomplished through prose and that poetry more readily stirs the soul to pleasure. To be clear here, he does not mean to exclude any one from the other. However, he felt that truth, that is to say factual truth, was much too limiting and placed intolerable boundaries upon poetic endeavors. Truth serves to satisfy the mind, the intellect and passion, the heart. Factual truth and/or passion may well find a place in poetry, but must remain, at all times, subservient to beauty. He clarifies this by the line, "... but the true artist will always contrive, first, to tone them [truth and passion] 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."

Yet another basic principle he believed in, but had clearly violated himself in his youth, was that no poem should exceed a length that could not be read in a single sitting. He proposed 100 lines, or there about, and "The Raven" counts 108. He felt that stopping or even pausing, for whatever reason, provided the diversion that greatly diminished the desired effect of the work. This would be similar to watching a portion of a movie and returning later to see the conclusion. The impact of the film may not be ruined, but it is certainly weakened. In Poe's essay "The Poetic Principle"(1850), he states in the first paragraph... "And here, in the beginning, permit me to say a few words in regard to a somewhat peculiar principle, which, whether rightfully or wrongfully, has always had its influence in my own critical estimate of the poem. I hold that a long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase, "a long poem," is simply a flat contradiction in terms."

Well... I hope you find this useful, Alma.


-- Anonymous, November 03, 2000

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