Study Guide

The Philosophy of Composition

by Edgar Allan Poe

The Philosophy of Composition Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

From the beginning of his career as a poet, short-story writer, and critic and reviewer, Poe was developing a body of critical doctrine about the nature of literature. Basically, the doctrine assumes that, whereas the lowest forms of literary art are realistic works and works created to illustrate a didactic moral lesson, the highest form of literary art is the aesthetic creation of beauty. Bits and pieces of this theory can be found developing from Poe’s earliest reviews and prefaces. The theory comes together in a unified fashion in Poe’s most extended and famous theoretical statement, “The Philosophy of Composition.”

Poe begins his discussion by asserting that literary works should start with the conclusion or denouement and then work back to the motivation or causes that lead to the “end.” Only in this way, Poe insists, can the writer give the plot an indispensable air of consequence by making both the incidents and the tone contribute to the development of the overall intention. Poe says he always begins with an “effect,” preferably a novel and a vivid one; then he determines what combination of incidents and tone will best aid him in the construction of that effect.

Poe then launches into an extended discussion of “The Raven,” his best-known poem, to illustrate this procedure. The first consideration in the writing of the poem, Poe asserts, was the issue of the length and scope of the work. Poe always argued that a long poem was a contradiction in terms—a long poem is actually a succession of brief ones. His first criterion for the length of a work is that it can be read at a single sitting. If the work is too long to be read at a single sitting, it loses the important effect derivable from unity of impression. Thus, Poe arbitrarily decided to limit his poem to about one hundred...

(The entire section is 750 words.)

The Philosophy of Composition Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Burluck, Michael L. Grim Phantasms: Fear in Poe’s Short Fiction. New York: Garland, 1993.

Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.

Hutchisson, James M. Poe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

Irwin, John T. The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytical Detective Story. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Kennedy, J. Gerald. A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

May, Charles E. Edgar Allan Poe: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

Peeples, Scott. Edgar Allan Poe Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1998.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe, A to Z. New York: Facts On File, 2001.

Whalen, Terence. Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.