Summary of “The Philosophy of Composition”*

“The Philosophy of Composition” was published in 1846. In this essay Poe analyses how effect, length, province, tone and refrain contributes to the construction of a good poem. He examines his poem “The Raven” and establishes what is important in poetry.

Poe disagrees with some authors who consider a poem as accident or product of frenzy. He affirms that a poem is a result of hard work in which the author has to advance step by step. A poem is as complex as a “mathematical problem”.

The first thing to be determined about a poem is the effect. Keeping originality in view, the author must choose an effect that touches “the heart, the intellect and the soul”. It can be constructed by incident, tone or a combination of events.

The second essential point to poetry is length. Poe declares that a good work has to be short enough to be read in one sitting. If it requires two sittings, the unity of impression is damaged. According to Poe, brevity is linked to the intensity of the effect. Consequently, a long poem can produce no effect at all – it’s only “a succession of brief poetical effects”. The author established a good length for his poems: one hundred lines (“The Raven” has a hundred and eight lines).

Another important object in poetry is the real province of the poem. Poe considers beauty as the heart of poetry. According to the author, the most intense pleasure is “found in the contemplation of the beautiful”. Other objects, such as truth and passion, are completely opponent to beauty because they require a certain extent in poetry, damaging the essence of poetry.

The fourth point answered by Poe is about the tone. According the writer, the most genuine of all the poetical tones is melancholy. Combined with beauty, it “invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears”. The next important point in poetry is the refrain. As the author says, it is not limited to lyric verse, but it depends on the force of monotone (words pronounced with the same volume and tone). Repetition combined with monotone creates a sense of identity to the poem. In the case of “The Raven, Poe chose the sonority of the vowel “o” in connection with the consonant “r”. Once he selected a sonorous sound, he should find a word that embodies this sound. He decided to pick up the word “nevermore” to be part of the refrain of his composition. However, the repetition of “nevermore” by a person would seem tedious in the poem. Thus, Poe had the idea “of a non-reasoning creature capable of speech” to repeat the word. Finally, he chose a raven, “a bird of ill-omen” to say “nevermore” at the end of each stanza of his composition.

In order to achieve perfection, Poe looked for a melancholy topic. He realized that death is the most melancholy topic, and the death of a beautiful woman, “the most poetical topic in the world”, is related to that concept of beauty he mentioned before. The author imagined the Raven pronouncing the word “nevermore” to answer the questions of the lover, who is self-torturing himself by insisting to ask the Raven. To bring the lover and the bird together, Poe thought about the lover’s chamber, a place in which all memories of the lover would take place. The author introduced the bird flapping its wings against the shutter inducing the lover to think someone is tapping at his door. The bird sat on the bust of Pallas (the bust was chosen because of the sonority of the word “Pallas” and because the author wanted to reinforce the scholarship of the lover) and started answering the queries of the lover.

In conclusion, Poe affirms that “some amount of complexity, or more properly, adaptation” and “some amount of suggestiveness of meaning” are required to an artist. According to him, the biggest objective is originality. This is not a matter of impulse or intuition; it is a result of hard work. He pretended not to be original in rhythm or metre in “The Raven”, but he combined novel effects and the principles of rhyme and alliteration in each stanza to find originality.

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OBS: Essay first published in Graham’s Magazine, April 1846.

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PS: Resumo publicado originalmente no meu extinto blog “To be”.

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4 comentários sobre “Summary of “The Philosophy of Composition”*

    • Well, Mr. Peterson, this post was an assignment for my English Literature class a couple of years ago. I wasn’t supposed to give my opinion. So I just summarized Poe’s text.

      And the point is, even if Poe was lying, we couldn’t say that for sure. I know that the Philosophy of Composition seems absurd, but there’s no way to discover the “truth”.

  1. Pingback: Fear of a Female Planet – what horror fiction tells us about men and women « The Ghostly Gentlewoman

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