Poe, Edgar Allan

Assigned: Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Philosophy of Composition” (643-51). Also read the editors’ introduction (641-43).

“The Philosophy of Composition” (1846)

1. On 643-44 (“Charles Dickens, in a note…”), Poe begins with an anecdote about William Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams supposedly being plotted backwards, and says that he prefers a variant on this method: “commencing with the consideration of an effect” or “impression” that he means to generate in his readers’ souls (644 top). He then prepares readers for his coming explanation of how he conceived and executed “The Raven”—a process he describes as having “the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem” (644 bottom). Why is all of this a scandalous thing for a poet to admit—what notions about how poetry should be composed is Poe challenging at the very beginning of his critical essay?

2. On 645 (“We commence, then, with this…”), Poe explains his thinking on the appropriate length or “extent” of a given poem. How long should the ideal poem be, and why is that the case? How does Poe deal with the brute fact that in arguing as he does, he is excluding most of what people have long considered great literature—texts, for example, such as Milton’s 12-book epic, Paradise Lost?

3. On 645-46 (“My next thought concerned the choice…”), Poe comments that he sought a “universally appreciable” impression for “The Raven,” and goes on to declare that “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem” (645). What explanation does he provide for this remark and (by implication) for the captivating effect that “The Raven” has long exercised on its readers? What kind of “Beauty” does poetry deliver, and what pleasure does it afford the reader?

4. On 646-48 (“Regarding, then, Beauty as my province…”), Poe itemizes several additional factors he considered in the course of composing “The Raven.” These are “tone”; the choice of a brief and melancholy refrain (“Nevermore”) along with its attribution to a mysterious raven; and finally, the theme of the death of a beautiful woman and how to combine that theme with the refrain already chosen. What rationale does Poe give for the decisions he made regarding these considerations?

5. On 648-49 (“And here I may as well say…”), Poe addresses the romantic demand for originality in composition. In what sense does he think “The Raven” is, in fact, original? How does he define originality, and how does this definition differ from the common one?

6. On 649-51 (“The next point to be considered…”), Poe builds up to some thoughts about the kind of “suggestiveness” (651) appropriate to poetry. What kind of suggestiveness is he referring to, what examples does he offer, and what value does he ascribe to it? Why does it matter that the reader only emblematizes the bird (i.e., treats it as an eerie symbol, in this case) at the very end of “The Raven”? What criticism does he make of the American Transcendentalists’ poetry—why, according to Poe, does it scarcely amount to poetry at all? (651)

7. General question: French poets such as Baudelaire and Mallarmé have been among Poe’s greatest admirers, and especially as a poet, Poe continues, as the Norton editors say, to enjoy a higher reputation in French criticism than in American. Aside from Poe’s celebrated skill in Gothic effects, what is it about his ideas in “The Philosophy of Composition” that a literary theorist dissatisfied with standard romantic ideas about language, intentionality, and art might find attractive?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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