Every once in awhile I remember how much I love Edgar Allan Poe’s detailed essay “Philosophy of Composition.” Don’t let its intimidating name fool you, though, this is an essay that is easy to read. In my intro to college writing course, I use this short essay to show the freshman college students how much thinking writing can take. And every now and again I return to it myself just to remember that even the “greats” like Poe do a lot of thinking and planning before they write.
Here’s the gist of “Philosophy of Composition”: Edgar Allan Poe–one of the most recognizable writers of our time, most students read something of his in high school–sets out to tell us all about the meticulous process of composing the–now iconic and very popular even at the time–poem “The Raven.” It’s an anatomy of a process that Poe likens to “a mathematical problem.”
The very first thing Poe does is think about form. He considers whether he wants someone to read his poem in one sitting or more than one sitting. A novel, he says, can easily be split into multiple sittings because it requires no “unity” of experience. But a poem must be able to be experienced all at the same time in order to produce the desired effect.
It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art—the limit of a single sitting—and that, although in certain classes of prose composition, such as Robinson Crusoe, (demanding no unity,) this limit may be advantageously overpassed, it can never properly be overpassed in a poem. Within this limit, the extent of a poem may be made to bear mathematical relation to its merit—in other words, to the excitement or elevation—again in other words, to the degree of the true poetical effect which it is capable of inducing; for it is clear that the brevity must be in direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect :—this, with one proviso—that a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all.
It’s almost a mathematical equation at that point: how long can a reader reasonably be expected to sit and read? And how many lines can he read in that time? Poe finally calculates that about 100 lines is the limit of how long a poem can be and still achieve its unity and effect.
After Poe has settled on form, he starts considering his subject by thinking about the end, the effect he wants to produce in the reader (i.e. melancholy, contemplation of Beauty). Beauty, Poe claims, is the province of the poem. Other effects may follow, but it is Beauty that most suits the form.
When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect—they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul—not of intellect, or of heart—upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating “the beautiful.”
Then he figures out how to produce this effect, taking into account everything from tone
Regarding, then, Beauty as my province, my next question referred to the tone of its highest manifestation—and all experience has shown that this tone is one of sadness. Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones. (my emphasis)
to the repeating of a refrain over and over again to stick in the reader’s mind
Since its application was to be repeatedly varied, it was clear that the refrain itself must be brief, for there would have been an insurmountable difficulty in frequent variations of application in any sentence of length. In proportion to the brevity of the sentence, would, of course, be the facility of the variation. This led me at once to a single word as the best refrain.
to the most melancholy sounds he can think of (“o” and “r” being both “sonorous” and “producible”)
That such a close, to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis, admitted no doubt: and these considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as the most producible consonant.
which leads to him finding a word that fits these sounds (the famous “nevermore”)
The sound of the refrain being thus determined, it became necessary to select a word embodying this sound, and at the same time in the fullest possible keeping with that melancholy which I had predetermined as the tone of the poem. In such a search it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word “Nevermore.” In fact, it was the very first which presented itself.
to the exact way the poem will build in intensity (the narrator asking ever more frenzied questions and the bird speaking the same word over and over)
The next desideratum was a pretext for the continuous use of the one word “nevermore.” In observing the difficulty which I at once found in inventing a sufficiently plausible reason for its continuous repetition, I did not fail to perceive that this difficulty arose solely from the pre-assumption that the word was to be so continuously or monotonously spoken by a humanbeing—I did not fail to perceive, in short, that the difficulty lay in the reconciliation of this monotony with the exercise of reason on the part of the creature repeating the word. Here, then, immediately arose the idea of a non -reasoning creature capable of speech; and, very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone.
to the final “moral” overtones produced by the last two stanzas.
It will be observed that the words, “from out my heart,” involve the first metaphorical expression in the poem. They, with the answer, “Nevermore,” dispose the mind to seek a moral in all that has been previously narrated. The reader begins now to regard the Raven as emblematical—but it is not until the very last line of the very last stanza, that the intention of making him emblematical of Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance is permitted distinctly to be seen:
“And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting,
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore.”
It’s an almost dizzyingly intricate dance between technique and personal style. Poe’s goal is to puncture our idea that literature springs whole from the thigh of the writer. It’s a labor-intensive, hard-thinking project. But at the end, you could produce something like “The Raven.”
If you’re a writer–of any kind, really–take a few moments and read “Philosophy of Composition” and “The Raven.” I hope they inspire you as they have done for me.