Obscure Poe: “The Philosophy of Composition”

Obscure Poe: “The Philosophy of Composition”, Edgar Allan Poe, 1846.

McDougall Portrait of Poe
Miniature of Poe by John A. McDougall, ca. 1846 from The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe by Michael J. Deas

A questionable choice, perhaps, for this series since you may know at least one phrase in this essay:

 . . . the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.

This is nothing less than Edgar Allan Poe explaining how, in a cold, analytical, and logical fashion he wrote his most popular work: “The Raven”.

It’s not just that poem. Poe claims his essay describes the “modus operandi by which some of my own works was put together [sic]”.

The Poe steps of composition for the poem follow.

Pick your length. Poe felt the poems lost their effect after a certain length. He aimed for 100 lines. “The Raven” is a 108 lines long.

Next decide on the impression you want to leave. Poe wanted something “universally appreciable”. For Poe, “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem”. But beauty, for Poe, is not a quality but the “intense and pure elevation of soul”. “Truth” and “Passion” are better addressed in prose. The precision to depict Truth and the “homeliness” needed for depicting Passion are “antagonistic” to creating a sense of beauty.

How to depict Beauty in the best way? Pick your tone for “the highest manifestation” of Beauty. “ . . . all experience has shown that this tone is one of sadness.”

Poe then, through “ordinary induction”, wanted some “pivot upon which the whole structure might turn”: a refrain. Specifically, a refrain applied in various ways. Furthermore, the refrain should be brief so it could be worked into sentences of various length. A single word would do that.

What should the refrain sound like? It should be sonorous which Poe says

inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as them most producible consonant.

What word? “Nevermore . . . was the very first [word] which presented itself”.

However, a human repeating “nevermore” did not seem reasonable or sane, so a non-human was needed. Obviously, a talking bird would work. Poe says he first thought of a parrot but chose the raven as more appropriate to the tone.

And then we get to the essay’s most famous passage:

Now, never losing sight of the object of supremeness, or perfection, at all points, I asked myself – ‘Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?’ Death – was the most obvious reply. ‘And when,’ I said, ‘is the most melancholy of topics most poetical?’ From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious – ‘When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, 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.’

Poe then talks about how “nevermore” allows varied application. First the raven says it, later the lover. This “forced” him to construct the poem for “Nevermore” to be, at the conclusion, the answer to a question.

Theme and refrain set, what about the minor matters of “rhythm, the metre, and the length and general arrangements of the stanzas”?

Poe wanted his versification to be original. There are few choices in “mere rhythm”; however, metre and stanza length can be varied infinitely. (Poe has a little aside here about how little thought to originality is given by poets.) Furthermore, originality, to Poe, is not a matter of “impulse or intuition”. You have to work for it.

Poe admits his rhythm (trochaic) and metre (“octameter acatalectic alternating with heptameter catalectic tetrameter catalectic”). Neither is unique by themselves. In combination, “nothing even remotely approaching this combination has ever been attempted”.

Now for the drama and incident of the poem. Poe says he chose an indoor setting for a “circumspection of space” to frame the incident like a picture. Specifically, “the lover in his chamber” was the indoor setting used because it was “rendered sacred by memories of her who had frequented it”.

We then get a discussion of why the Raven acts as he does – his “tapping” at the door with his wings brings the lover’s curiosity to the fore and intimates a spirit knocking at the door. The “night tempestuous” is contrasted with the serenity of the chamber. Pallas’ bust is mentioned to suggest scholarship and for the “sonorousness” of the word.

In the poem’s middle, Poe develops the idea of the Raven as more than just a bird.

At the end of the essay, Poe warns against an “excess of the suggested meaning” when developing a theme. That turns poetry into prose or “the so called poetry of the so called transcendentalists”.

Did Poe really write “The Raven” using this method? Or did he just write some lines, cross some lines and words out, rearrange stanzas, and add some new lines? Did it really come to him like this?

We don’t know. No original manuscript for the poem exists.

Critical opinions vary from seeing this whole essay as another of Poe’s hoaxes to seeing it as elucidating Poe’s method for creating some of his works, particularly his fiction, to it being close to representing how this poem came about.

I think it is conceivable Poe wrote his poem this way. He made very minor changes in later editions to the poem. (Which really means nothing either way. Most literary creations, however, good, can be improved in minor ways obvious after publication.) Poe, in several works, shows an interest in deductive and inductive reasoning. He invented the detective story which relies on these processes. (I’m assuming deductive logic in creating their plots.) He famously predicted, through such methods, the conclusion of Charles Dickens’ serialized Barnaby Rudge (which he mentions at the beginning of this essay). He tried to solve a real murder mystery through inductive logic in “The Mystery of Marie Roget”. He boasted he could solve cryptograms sent to him. He did write “The Gold Bug” which relies on inductive logic for its drama though, presumably, deductive logic in its creation. Finally, as William F. Hecker speculates in Private Perry and Mister Poe, Poe had non-literary experience, as an artillery artificer, in creating something whose diverse elements, combined by logic, acted in a desired way in time and space. That would argue for a mind trained in a couple of spheres to approach problems in the way he describes.


More reviews of Poe related work are indexed on the Poe page.

6 thoughts on “Obscure Poe: “The Philosophy of Composition”

  1. EG January 1, 2019 / 5:14 pm

    I’m glad that Poe chose to feature a raven and not a parrot for his famous poem. I think it would more or less have spoilt the mood to use such a colourful, showy tropical bird instead of a grim, dark bird associated with death and ill omen. And then it would have to have been called “The Parrot” instead of “The Raven,” which also doesn’t sound nearly as impressive.

    In thinking about it, it seems hard for me to imagine that he would have given more than a passing thought to using a parrot.

    By the way, I hadn’t seen the above portrait of Poe before, or don’t remember seeing it. He looks considerably younger and different from the later ones of him that are more commonly seen, so I wonder if it couldn’t be from, say, 1836 rather than 1846? There’s no hint, for instance, of the bags under his eyes in this portrait that are seen in the later photos or Daguerreotypes.

    • marzaat January 1, 2019 / 6:25 pm

      Deas has a discussion which puts it no earlier than 1844 when McDougall opened up his shop in New York City featuring “the English style of rapid miniature painting”. It was near Poe and his associate N. P. Willis.
      I’d say it’s definitely an idealized portrait.

      For my “Obscure Poe” series, I thought I’d put up life portraits and photos of Poe the nearest I could find in time to the article or essay being discussed.

  2. Khadija January 7, 2019 / 5:12 am

    Edgar Allan Poe is my undergrad research project. I really intended to start my own Poe series as soon as I had finished my project. It’s a little upsetting that someone got there first… just a little. But I like what you say about him. Not presenting him a mad, dark alcoholic or glorify him needlessly… just objective analysis that give a balanced view of his merits and demerits.
    I really admire the portrait too. I have wondered what he looked like as the charming Southerner he truly was.

    • marzaat January 7, 2019 / 6:47 am

      Glad you liked it.

      Yes, the Poe of legend is always this drunk, gloomy guy. Of course, he wrote a lot of stuff, including fiction, that doesn’t fit this image. He could even be funny.

      There’s a lot of Poe I’ve read that I haven’t blogged about and probably won’t since I read it before I started the blog. For instance, I’ve done few of the stories and haven’t really touched Eureka or Arthur Gordon Pym.

      I did just buy a monograph on the “Sociological Context of [Seventh Day] Adventism” on Poe which should be interesting.

      • Khadija January 7, 2019 / 8:31 am

        Definitely funny! They say dark humour was his thing, but I have become skeptical of anything anyone is saying when it comes Poe, until I read and understand that text myself. Not read his work in the humour genre, but loved the wit, sarcasm and humour in his essays and reviews.
        That’s good for me, haha. I can cover that in my Poe series.
        I have no idea what that is, I am not sure what it is about. But if it is religion and Poe even in the least bit, then yeaahh… it should be interesting. He was a deeply spiritual man, but put off by religion I guess. Liked to understand God through reason perhaps.

  3. Stephen Sakellarios February 21, 2023 / 3:38 pm

    Edgar Allan Poe falsely claimed authorship of “The Raven,” and “The Philosophy of Composition was simply damage control to convince skeptics that he had written it. The essay, and his claim to the poem, were scams. There is a great deal of evidence, because I located the original author in the deep historical record.

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