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 lines; “The Raven” is actually 108 lines.
Second, Poe decided on the “impression” or “effect” that he wished to convey. Because for Poe the sole province of all poetry is beauty, he decided that his poem should focus on this universally appreciable effect. Once making that decision, he had to decide on the “tone” of the poem. Because beauty always excites tears in the sensitive person, he concluded that his tone should be one of sadness and melancholy. Having made these decisions about the effect he wished to achieve, Poe then made decisions about what techniques would best bring about these effects. His first decision about method was to make use of the refrain, for it is universally appreciated in poetry, and its impression depends on repetition and a monotone of sound. Although the sound would remain the same, however, the thought conveyed by the sound should constantly vary. Deciding that the best refrain would be a single word, Poe claims that the first word that came to his mind to suggest the melancholy tone he had chosen was the word “nevermore.”
After he made those decisions, Poe says he then decided on a “pretext” for the use of this word in such a manner. This is an important point, for Poe does not begin with the plot, theme, or the so-called personal dilemma of his primary character. Rather, the character and the plot—what one often thinks are the most important elements—are really only a pretext or an excuse for using the techniques that will create the effect that he wants.
Realizing that the monotonous repetition of the word “nevermore” would belie any reasoning person, Poe decided to have an unreasoning creature utter the word; the raven, a bird of ill omen, was the natural choice. Next, Poe decided on the subject of the poem. After admitting that the most melancholy subject is death, Poe then, in one of his famous pronouncements, asserts that the most melancholy subject occurs when death is associated with beauty: “the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”
Readers and critics have often criticized Poe for this essay, arguing...
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