Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition” was first published in the April 1846 issue of Graham’s Magazine. George Rex Graham formally declined to print “The Raven” and instead offered Poe $15 as a charity. Supposedly, Graham’s decision to be the first to publish “The Philosophy of Composition” was an effort to make up for his earlier poor decision.
Because of the extremely rigid and mechanical process which Poe describes in “The Philosophy of Composition,” many believe that the essay is a form of satire.
Poe opens the essay stating that he will share his ideal process of creating literature. He uses “The Raven” to illustrate this method, claiming that it was created through this deliberate, mechanical process rather than through “spontaneous creation.” He claims that one must always have the denouement and the “effect” in mind as he or she writes. Poe also focuses on three main elements of the process:
- Length- Poe argues that literature should be short so that any piece can be read in one sitting. He emphasizes this rule for poetry, and he also states that short stories are inherently superior to novels for this reason.
- Method- He claims that writing fiction is methodical, almost like a science. In saying this, he goes against the more popular claim that writing is based on artistic intuition and spontaneity.
- Unity of effect- Poe beliefs that the author of fiction must always keep the desired emotional response of the reader in his or her mind while writing. The decision of an effect must be made before writing can even begin. Once the decision is made, all elements of the fiction must be selected based on their ability to elicit this desired emotion (i.e.: tone, theme, setting, etc.). Through his example of “The Raven,” Poe decides to create the effect of “beauty,” and in order to accomplish this, he decides on the various elements to be included in the poem. Perhaps most famously, he chooses “the death, then, of a beautiful woman” as his topic which is, to Poe, “the most poetical topic in the world.”
Notes & Quotes
- Poe views the “effect” of literature as “that intense and pure elevation of soul– not of intellect, or of heart.” He also defines it as an “impression.” These descriptions of “effect” lead to an easy connection to modern-day affect theory: Ahmed has riffed on the word “impression” while defining affect; and many other affect theorists (Teresa Brennan and Brian Massumi come first to mind) believe that affect is somewhere in between the mind and the heart- instead operating in this space that transmits across bodies and environments. Poe also describes “Beauty” (his chosen effect for “The Raven”) as “that …which is the atmosphere and the essence of the poem.” This is very helpful for my work in the ecogothic and affect theory since I’m interested in the way that American environments and atmospheres infect porous human bodies and destabilize the individual self.