‘The Philosophy of Composition’ is an 1846 essay by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49). Although he wrote the essay in order to explain how he came to write his hugely successful poem ‘The Raven’, it has become a key non-fiction work – probably the key work – produced by Poe, and an important document in helping us to understand his approach to writing.
You can read Poe’s ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of his argument below.
‘The Philosophy of Composition’: summary
Poe begins his essay by acknowledging the importance of having the end-point in sight when writing something: he refers to a letter he received from Charles Dickens, in which Dickens noted that William Godwin wrote his novel Caleb Williams backwards. Although Poe is not sure that Godwin did exactly this, he must, Poe maintains, have written his novel with some idea of what the denouement or end of the novel would be.
Poe tells us that he begins any new piece of writing by searching for an effect which he wishes to create in the reader’s mind and heart. He then searches for the right tone or sequence of events (in a story) to help him to create that effect.
He wishes that more focus was given to the methods by which writers compose their works. He thinks that most writers, through ‘autorial [sic] vanity’, prefer to hide their methods from their readers, concealing their processes and giving the impression that they create in a ‘fine frenzy’ of inspiration. Poe also acknowledges, though, that many writers may only be partially conscious of these processes as they take place, so wouldn’t be able to recall them afterwards.
Poe, by contrast, can readily recall the processes undertaken to write his works, and says he has chosen ‘The Raven’, his 1845 poem, as his example. He argues that a work of literature should not be too long if it is to create an effect: a poem or story should be capable of being read in one sitting, otherwise the real world interrupts the reader and the effect is lost. Long poems are really a series of brief poetical effects joined together. Novels are different in that they aren’t aiming for this unity of ‘effect’ in the same way. He decided, when sitting down to write ‘The Raven’, that it should be about 100 lines.
Next, he chose the effect that he wished ‘The Raven’ to convey. He wanted the poem to convey ‘Beauty’ first and foremost: this is more important than ‘truth’ or ‘passion’, and, if they appear in a poem, should always be subordinate to the chief effect, which is Beauty.
The next question was what tone he wanted the poem to convey, and he decided that the tone would be one of sadness. With these three things – length, effect, and tone – all decided, Poe could sit down and compose his poem. He decided to use a refrain to structure his poem: a repeated line at the end of each stanza. He chose a single word, which would remain the same throughout the poem, but with the thoughts expressed in the rest of the stanza varying throughout the poem, in contrast to the consistency of this repeated refrain.
Having come up with the idea of the single-word refrain ‘Nevermore’, Poe tells us that he decided it would be good to have a non-human speaker repeat this line. At first he considered a parrot, but realised a raven would be more in keeping with the desired tone of his poem. Poe wanted death to be a part of the poem and, in keeping with his intended focus on Beauty, realised that the death of a beautiful woman (that recurring trope in Poe’s writing) would be suitable.
This brings us to one of the most interesting parts of Poe’s argument in ‘The Philosophy of Composition’: he maintains that originality, in a writer, is less about ‘impulse or intuition’ than it is about rejection: it is ‘less of invention than negation’. An original writer reads deep and wide and then rejects whatever ideas do not fit his approach, and by such a process he arrives at a new way of approaching his work. In the case of ‘The Raven’, Poe acknowledges that the individual details of the poem’s rhythm and metre are not in themselves new, but he has put them together in a new way.
The rest of ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ is devoted to showing how Poe then brings these elements together so that they appear natural but also possess a rich symbolism. The end-point is that the raven comes to signify or emblematise the young man’s remembrance of his deceased lover, Lenore.
‘The Philosophy of Composition’: analysis
One of the most important aspects of ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ is Poe’s rejection of the Romantic myth that the poet is an original genius who relies on ‘Eureka’ moments of inspiration to create his works. Although he was a Romantic in many respects, Poe denies that such flashes of inspiration are the chief mode by which works of literature are produced. Instead, he emphasises the ‘painful erasures and interpolations’ which go into the creative process: the various drafts and redrafts, the deletions and rewritings.
Indeed, in some respects Poe’s argument about literary ‘originality’ and composition prefigures what twentieth-century poets and critics, such as T. S. Eliot, would say about this topic. Eliot, in his famous 1919 essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, would argue that every poet forges his own ‘originality’ off the back of what poets have achieved before: in what almost strikes us as a paradox, there can be no originality without drawing on what other writers have done. It is by making small modifications to what past poets have achieved that the new poet shows his ‘originality’, in however slight a way.
Another aspect of Poe’s argument in ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ which foreshadows Eliot’s own later influential thesis is his view on the topic of ‘effect’. In another essay from 1919, ‘Hamlet and his Problems’, Eliot would put forward his theory of the ‘objective correlative’, which is the formula (i.e., a set of objects or, in a play or a narrative work, a chain of events) which enables the writer to create the desired effect he wants to achieve with his work. As with Poe, the emphasis is on the end goal: the writer must create with a clear end in view (e.g., the death of the main character, the union of the two love interests, and so on). Once again, Poe’s ‘philosophy’ in his essay pre-empts some of what Eliot would later argue.
Some critics have suggested that Poe – who was elsewhere known for perpetrating hoaxes and for pulling his readers’ legs – may have had his tongue in his cheek when writing ‘The Philosophy of Composition’: that it is less a serious work of philosophical literary criticism than it is a bit of a joke.
Certainly, one wonders whether Poe ever seriously contemplating having a parrot appear in his poem about tragic lost love, when, as he acknowledges, such a bird would have been at odds with the poem’s tone. But Poe is clearly advancing some very sensible points about poetic composition in this essay, and every fan and student of his work should be familiar with his argument here and the light it can shed on his writing as a whole.