The Philosophy of Composition  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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"The Philosophy of Composition" is an essay written by Edgar Allan Poe that elucidates a theory about how good writers write when they write well. He concludes that length, "unity of effect" and a logical method are important considerations for good writing. He also makes the assertion that "the death... of a beautiful woman" is "unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world". Poe uses the composition of his own poem "The Raven" as an example. The essay first appeared in the April 1846 issue of Graham's Magazine. It is unclear if it is an authentic portrayal of Poe's own method.

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Poe's philosophy of composition

Generally, the essay introduces three of Poe's theories regarding literature. The author recounts this idealized process by which he says he wrote his most famous poem, "The Raven" to illustrate the theory, which is in deliberate contrast to the "spontaneous creation" explanation put forth, for example, by Coleridge as an explanation for his poem Kubla Khan. Poe's explanation of the process of writing is so rigidly logical, however, that some have suggested the essay was meant as a satire or hoax.

The three central elements of Poe's philosophy of composition are:

Length

Poe believed that all literary works should be short. "There is," he writes, "a distinct limit... to all works of literary art - the limit of a single sitting." He especially emphasized this "rule" with regards to poetry, but also noted that the short story is superior to the novel for this reason.

Method

Poe dismissed the notion of artistic intuition and argued that writing is methodical and analytical, not spontaneous. He writes that no other author has yet admitted this because most writers would "positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes... at the fully matured fancies discarded in despair... at the cautious selections and rejections."

"Unity of effect"

The essay states Poe's conviction that a work of fiction should be written only after the author has decided how it is to end and which emotional response, or "effect," he wishes to create, commonly known as the "unity of effect." Once this effect has been determined, the writer should decide all other matters pertaining to the composition of the work, including tone, theme, setting, characters, conflict, and plot. In this case, Poe logically decides on "the death... of a beautiful woman" as it "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." Some commentators have taken this to imply that pure poetry can only be attained by the eradication of female beauty. Biographers and critics have often suggested that Poe's obsession with this theme stems from the repeated loss of women throughout his life, including his mother Eliza Poe, his foster mother Frances Allan and, later, his wife Virginia.

"The Raven"

In the essay, Poe traces the logical progression of his creation of "The Raven" as an attempt to compose "a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste." He claims that he considered every aspect of the poem. For example, he purposely set the poem on a tempestuous evening, causing the raven to seek shelter. He purposefully chose a pallid bust to contrast with the dark plume of the bird. The bust was of Pallas in order to evoke the notion of scholar, to match with the presumed student narrator poring over his "volume[s] of forgotten lore." No aspect of the poem was an accident, he claims, but is based on total control by the author.

Even the term "Nevermore," he says, is based on logic following the "unity of effect." The sounds in the vowels in particular, he writes, have more meaning than the definition of the word itself. He had previously used words like "Lenore" for the same effect.

The raven itself, Poe says, is meant to symbolize Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance.<ref>Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991. p. 240 ISBN 0060923318</ref> This may imply an autobiographical significance to the poem, alluding to the many people in Poe's life who had died.<ref>Kopley, Richard and Kevin J. Hayes. "Two verse masterworks: 'The Raven' and 'Ulalume'," collected in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Kevin J. Hayes. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. pp. 194-5. ISBN 0521797276</ref>

Authenticity

It is uncertain if Poe really followed the method he describes in "The Philosophy of Composition." T. S. Eliot said: "It is difficult for us to read that essay without reflecting that if Poe plotted out his poem with such calculation, he might have taken a little more pains over it: the result hardly does credit to the method."<ref>Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Louisiana State University Press, 1972. p. 76 ISBN 0807123218</ref> Biographer Joseph Wood Krutch described the essay as, "a rather highly ingenious exercise in the art of rationalization than literary criticism."<ref>Krutch, Joseph Wood. Edgar Allan Poe: A Study in Genius. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926. p. 98</ref>

Publication history

George Rex Graham, a friend and former employer of Poe, declined Poe's offer to be the first to print "The Raven". Graham said he did not like the poem but offered $15 as a charity. Graham made up for his poor decision by publishing "The Philosophy of Composition".<ref>Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 0807123218. p. 79–80</ref>

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