Small Things: Edgar Allan Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition”

While preparing for my writing class tomorrow, I found myself once again fascinated by a piece I’ve used for a few semesters now. This piece is Edgar Allan Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition.” I teach a intro to college writing course and use this short essay to show the freshman college students how much thinking writing can take.

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.”

He starts by thinking about the end, the effect he wants to produce in the reader (i.e. melancholy, contemplation of Beauty). Then he figures out how to produce this effect, taking into account everything from length of the poem (can the reader absorb it in one sitting?), to the most melancholy sounds he can think of (“o” and “r” being both “sonorous” and “producible”), to the exact way the poem will build in intensity (the narrator asking ever more frenzied questions), to the final “moral” overtones produced by the last two stanzas.

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.

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