“The Philosophy of Composition” is an essay written by 19th century writer, Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s writing of poetry and short stories has lead to him being considered one of the most influential characters on American literature. “The Philosophy of Composition” outlines the writer’s both structural and textual rules which he supposes create good literature. Poe believes in beauty within conciseness and as such he provides evidence for the constitutes of a concise literary piece. 

Poe’s compiled argument consists of universal, rational rules that hold true under comparison to the author’s poem The Raven. The rules composing this essay are regarding the length of literature, the effect created, and the utilization of a rational approach towards the structure of literature.

Poe’s inciting argument or ‘intention’ is that of the advantages of applying brevity to a piece of literature. The  topic of brevity is discussed as an intention of Poe’s as it forms the basis of his philosophy towards composition. The intended nature of his arguments presented within this text is to fully outline the poetic revenant behind writing with conciseness.The belief being stated within this intention is that in order for the poetic value of a piece to be felt in full effect, it must be consumed in a single sitting. Poe states that, “if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed” (2). Poe uses this point to suppose that there is an existent limit at which the piece’s point is lost among a cluster of varied attempts at exuding effects. Poe expresses the cause and effect relationship that the limit is involved with through stating, “Within this limit, the extent of a poem may be made to bear mathematical relation to its … excitement” (3). The conclusion drawn from the limits corresponding relationship is that an effect is best proved in brevity. Poe allows this concept to contradict the notions of extended texts such as novels. In the writing of a novel the limit to express a point  is easily overpassed; however,  the form of a poem or a short story inherently limits the writer from overextending a piece’s effect into the complexity that comes with additional words. 

The essay progresses towards a separate but related conviction, the effect that is chosen in order to allow for a piece to be universally acceptable and appealing. Poe expresses that the effect of a poem is requiring of a compelling element in order for the most intense pleasure to be felt universally among readers. Poe states that the sole element that suffices in evoking the deepest pleasures is beauty. Poe speaks of the element of beauty as a precise manner stating, “not as a quality, as is supposed, but an effect” (3). Beauty becomes proof of the need for a direct driving reaction to art and literature alike as the general artistic motive of evoking emotion, regardless of the emotion, comes from the effects of one’s reaction to beauty. This is Poe’s supporting argument for the most driving poetic tone to be melancholy as beauty in whatever form “excites the sensitive soul to tears” (4). Poe later gives proof of melancholy’s application in successful literature via his poem, The Raven, stating, “of all melancholy topics what … is the most melancholy? Death” (4). 

The third essential principle presented within Poe’s essay is that of a rational methodology being applied to writing. The preciseness of Poe’s initial intention can be compared to his presented argument for a needed absence of artistic intuition within writing. Early on within the essay, Poe observes that writers refrain from revealing the non-artistic method they utilize as it would be letting “the public take a peep behind the scenes” (1). Later in the text, an additional argument is made in the essential nature of not utilizing artistic intuition and that is the composition of a story’s main faucets. Poe contends that a writer should know the ending of their story before they begin writing. The ending, which would encapsulate the effect, must be established before the notions of the characters, setting or main conflict are. Poe’s methodology and intention in composition is subsequently related to the prime example text of his poem The Raven

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Philosophy of Composition. G.R. Graham, 1846.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *