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Poe's Philosophy of Composition

Shreya is an avid reader and writer who enjoys spending her free time analysing and studying various literary works.

Like many, I’ve long believed that writing is a craft largely influenced by intuition and emotion. When the art of writing is brought up, the stereotype of the troubled writer channelling fits of emotion into their pen often comes to mind. Regardless of whether you’re an amateur writer, a full-fledged author or someone who is not at all concerned with matters of literature, I think you would agree that all art forms involve some degree of intuitive spontaneity.

Whether it’s writing, painting, dancing or music, these forms of expression do not have to play by the rules of science simply because they are not sciences. I’ve always felt that the very thing that makes art, well, art, is the freedom of the creative process. In my experience writing and getting to know fellow writers, most seem to agree that when they are writing a piece, be it poetry or prose, they tend to allow their intuition and emotion to play some role in how the piece progresses.

However, Edgar Allan Poe, it seems, would categorically denounce this approach. In 1846, Poe’s now-famous essay, ‘The Philosophy of Composition,’ was published in Graham’s Magazine. In this piece, Poe eschews the very idea of artistic intuition being of any importance to the writing process. He implies that writing must be carried out in a manner that is fully and rigorously methodical.

Now, this assertion really came as a surprise to me. Poe was one of my favourite authors growing up. To this day, I find myself revisiting some of his classics. Most of us are probably familiar with at least a few of his works from our high school classrooms. ‘The Raven’ and ‘Annabel Lee’ are probably some of his most widely read works. I found myself drawn to his works primarily because they possessed a certain ‘raw’ characteristic, for lack of a better term.

I could feel how Alone he was, and I felt a yearning for both Annabel Lee and Lenore as though I had known both for a lifetime. Indeed, Poe’s works often elicit powerful emotional responses from the readers. This is why I could not bring myself to believe his assertion that his writing process was strictly formulaic, without any room for emotion or spontaneity.

I’d first like to make clear that I don’t disagree with the techniques themselves that Poe brings up in this essay. He states that knowing how your piece will end before you begin writing it is key. And this is useful advice, as it can give you a brief roadmap to make the job easier. He also brings up a concept known as ‘Unity of Effect,’ which is the idea of first determining what effect you want your piece to have on readers and then tailoring every aspect of your writing accordingly. Again, this is a useful approach as it could help you achieve the desired effect with your writing.

The techniques he suggests in his essay are evidently sensible approaches to use in one’s writing process. However, I disagree with and find it hard to wrap my head around the flippant manner in which Poe completely dismisses the role of intuition and emotion in the writing process. He even goes so far as to state the following with regard to his writing process for ‘The Raven’:

It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition — that the work proceeded step by step, to its completion, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.

Many have doubted whether Poe stuck to this rigidly methodical approach himself. T.S. Eliot once said,

It is difficult for us to read that essay without reflecting that if Poe plotted out his poem with such calculation, he might have taken a little more pains over it: the result hardly does credit to the method.

T. S. Eliot, photographed one Sunday afternoon in 1923 by Lady Ottoline Morrell

T. S. Eliot, photographed one Sunday afternoon in 1923 by Lady Ottoline Morrell

Now, I find myself struggling to understand what Eliot means by this. Is he indirectly insulting Poe by insinuating that such a methodical approach should have resulted in higher-quality writing? Or is he simply stating that such a thought-provoking and seemingly emotional piece could not have been conceived via such a strictly formulaic approach?

Indeed, some have been so taken aback by the almost extreme rigidity that Poe seems to champion in this essay as the best approach to writing. So much so that many believe that ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ was intended to be a satire or a hoax.

It would be lovely if we could ask Poe himself what his intentions were when penning this essay. Seeing as that is not an option, we can only speculate. However, I began to think that maybe I was getting so caught up in my amateur sleuthing of Poe’s true intentions that I had lost the point.

Regardless of what you think about the true nature of ‘The Philosophy of Composition,’ there is a lot of insight that we can gain from it. Firstly, the methodology toe prescribes for writing, though rigid, can be adapted and used along with a more intuitive approach to facilitate the writing process.

Secondly, I think an analysis of this essay can give us some insight into Poe’s psyche. What I found particularly interesting was Poe’s insistence that one of the saddest, most beautiful and poetic phenomena that one could possibly write about is the death of a beautiful woman. Now, Poe is known to be one of the most prolific writers of the subgenre of Dark Romanticism. Dark Romanticism as a genre delves into the bizarre, the grotesque, and the demonically dark side of humanity.

Dark Romanticism explores concepts such as guilt, insanity, sin, suicide, death, madness, criminality and melancholia. So overall, one can say that it focuses on the negative aspects of humanity. It definitely is not a genre that praises the mainstream idea of beauty. So the fact that Poe considers the subject of a woman’s death so beautiful is fascinating. It leads me to think that perhaps these subjects, such as death and sin and suicide which most would find unpleasant, were things that Poe genuinely found attractive. It makes me look at his works differently. Perhaps the purpose of Ligeia and Annabel Lee was not to evoke sadness but to explore and convey the concept of beauty?

It is also worth noting that in ‘The Philosophy of Composition,’ Poe asserts that the primary purpose of poetry is to convey ‘Beauty’ and to ‘elevate the soul,’ whereas the main goal of prose is to stimulate one’s intellect and to arouse one’s passions. Now, if these statements are indeed true and not satire, this gives us some insight when it comes to reading his works. It tells us that with his poetry, Poe’s intention was to make the reader see beauty and experience and appreciate beauty. It tells us that his prose was intended to make us not only feel passionately for the subject in question but also to make us think. If this was indeed Poe’s true belief, then keeping this in mind while interpreting his works would possibly help us get a more accurate result of what that work is trying to convey to the reader.

Nevertheless, I do still find myself contemplating the true nature of ‘The Philosophy of Composition.’ Was it written in earnest? Was it a piece of clever satire? Even if it was not satire, did Poe truly believe in the ideals he presents in this piece? The truth is we will probably never know.

Original burial spot of Edgar Allan Poe in Westminster Burial Ground in Baltimore, Maryland, USA

Original burial spot of Edgar Allan Poe in Westminster Burial Ground in Baltimore, Maryland, USA


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Shreya Alagramam