23 pages 46 minutes read

Edgar Allan Poe

The Philosophy of Composition

Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | Published in 1846

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Summary: “The Philosophy of Composition”

Edgar Allan Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition” first appeared in Graham’s Magazine in 1846. A year earlier, his poem “The Raven” made him a celebrity. In the essay, Poe describes the process he claims to have followed in writing that poem. The essay illustrates Poe’s aesthetic principles according to which a poem must have a certain length, “unity of effect,” and connection among its elements. It also presents his ideas concerning beauty in poetry and a commentary on versification. The current guide refers to the reprint of the essay in The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, published by Penguin Books in 2006.

Poe starts by noting that the novelist William Godwin wrote Caleb Williams backward, first imagining his hero in a tangled situation and then writing how the hero got there. Poe says that, before beginning to write, a writer must think of the outcome or “denouement” of the plot, which will allow him to create a causal connection between the incidents. When Poe writes, he decides the effect he wants to produce and then he goes back, choosing the incidents and tone best suited to produce that effect. Poe argues that most writers do not like to share their writing process because they want the public to believe they write “by a species of fine frenzy” (544). Other writers simply forget the details of their activity. Poe claims to remember his process and is willing to disclose it. Using “The Raven” as an example, he explains that a poem is not the result of “accident or intuition” (545) but of a process as precise as the solution to a mathematical problem.

Poe says the starting point of “The Raven” was the intention to write a poem that appealed to both popular and critical audiences. He then thought about length. He says a poem must be brief to provoke intense emotions and that the reader should be able to read it in one sitting. Otherwise, the “unity of impression” is lost (545), and the effect is weakened. He concluded that the poem should be approximately 100 lines.

Next, Poe considered which impression or effect to convey keeping in mind that he wanted his poem to be “universally appreciable” (546). He argues that contemplating beauty through poetry produces an “intense and pure elevation of the soul” (546). While truth satisfies the intellect and passion satisfies the heart, “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of poetry” (546). He then asked which tone provides the highest manifestation of beauty, and he concluded it is sadness or melancholy.

Once he decided “length, province, and tone” (547), Poe’s next step was to find a key element around which to structure the poem. He thought of the literary device known as a “refrain,” which is the repetition of a word or phrase. He argues that such a repetition is pleasant to the reader. However, he determined the effect would be stronger if the meaning of the repeated word changes each time it appears. He decided the refrain must be brief and concluded it should be a single word. And since the refrain will appear at the end of each stanza, it must be “sonorous” (548), and for that effect, the long “o” sound combined with “r” is best. A word that is both melancholy and has those sounds is “nevermore.” Poe then had to justify the repetition of this word. Since it is difficult to imagine a human being repeating the same word several times, he decided an animal should do it. A raven was a good option because it is appropriate for the tone of the poem.

Subsequently, Poe asked what is the “most melancholy” topic (548), to which he answered death; he adds that death is most poetic when it is aligned with beauty. He asserts that “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” (548).

Next, Poe decided how to combine the topic of his poem and the refrain. A good solution is for the refrain to be a response to questions the lover asks and for the lover to become more frantic to receive the raven’s answer. Poe thus varied the context each time and made the raven’s responses gradually more unsettling until the poem’s climax, which reveals the lover’s enormous sorrow. Poe reiterates that he wrote this climax first; doing so allowed him to escalate the lover’s questions and establish the correct meter and rhythm.

Poe then discusses the formal elements of meter and rhyme. Each verse is a combination of units known as “feet,” and each of these feet is a long syllable and a short one. Some verses have eight feet, others seven and a half, others three and a half. Although each of these meters has been used before, the originality of the poem lies in their combination. Rhyme and alliteration also contribute to this effect.

The next step was to choose a setting where the lover and the raven meet. He concluded that an enclosed space, the lover’s chamber, strengthens the desired effect because the lover is surrounded by memories of the beloved. Additionally, the bird’s flapping wings sound like someone—maybe the lover’s spirit—knocking at the door. Poe set the poem on a stormy night, explaining why the raven enters the room and creating a contrast between the inside and the outside. The poem begins in a fanciful, almost amusing tone, with a bird arriving in a lover’s room and settling on a bust of the goddess Pallas. But as the raven continues to answer the lover’s questions with the word “nevermore,” the tone becomes more serious. The poem gradually builds to the conclusion, in which the lover asks whether he will be reunited with his lady in another life, only to receive the same negative answer.

Poe claims his poem is grounded within the limits of the real. However, he has incorporated the “suggestiveness” of a supernatural dimension to enrich the poem (553). In the final lines, the lover begs the raven to take its beak out of his heart. Poe states that only here will the reader understand the raven can be read as a symbol.