Edgar Allan Poe's Literary Theory and its Application in "The Fall of the House of Usher"

Term Paper, 2009
25 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Literary Theory
2.1 Effect
2.2 Beauty and Truth as the Domains of Poetry and Prose
2.3 Poe’s Literary Theory in the Context of his Time

3. The Fall of the House of Usher
3.1 Poe’s Composition Standards in Usage?
3.2 “The Haunted Palace” - Beauty serving Truth?
3.3 The “Mad Trist” – Merging of a Horror Tale with a Love Story

4. Final Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Edgar Allan Poe’s name is related to the American short story like none other in the history of American Literature. While Washington Irving is commonly seen as the creator of the short story, Edgar Allan Poe is regarded as the first to have realised its potential and the first to have created an aesthetical theory of the short story. This theory though, especially Poe’s depiction of the skilful artist and his/her perfect way of creating art, gave rise to many heated discussions, which strongly shaped the image of Poe. Thus he is likely to be seen as the cold-blooded, emotionally unaffected author who creates art on demand, contriving compositions with an unparalleled precision and brilliancy. Many critics therefore rather based their criticism on the life and the person of Edgar Allan Poe, instead of his contributions to the development of literature. This work strictly wants to avoid to draw any populist parallels between the author Poe and the person Poe.

The first part of this term paper therefore deals with Poe’s literary theory as such. I will focus mainly on Poe’s major concerns of effect and the genres of poetry and prose. Furthermore I will pose the question, what is the actual matter of Poe’s theory, is it a profound concept or just a vague and hasty response to Emerson’s “The Poet”, with the mere purpose of provoking his contemporaries and thus to get attention?

Since the formulation of a theory always raises the question of its applicability, especially on the part of its originator, the second part will scrutinise to what extent Edgar Allan Poe stuck to his own principles. Is there a discrepancy between theory and practice in the work of Edgar Allan Poe, and if so how can this be explained? His short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” will provide the paradigm, as it is in general, and even by Poe himself, considered one of his masterpieces. It is not the intention of said scrutiny to develop an overall-interpretation of the story, furthermore, the presented conclusions, drawn from the story’s symbolism, do not claim exclusiveness, they rather present possible ways of reading next to which other perspectives can coexist with just the same plausibility.

2. Literary Theory

The explanation of Poe’s theory will focus on his three major essays on this topic, his review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (1842), “The Philosophy of Composition”(1846) and “The Poetic Principle”(1850). Usually, it would be problematic to reconstruct a theory from essays that are separated by four years each, it is however legitimate in the elucidation at hand, since Poe’s concept of his theory remained mostly the same in the course of time, which is evidenced by the reoccurrence of certain phrases.

2.1 Effect

It is to be hoped that common sense … will prefer deciding upon a work of art, rather … by the effect it produces, than by the time it took, to impress the effect or by the amount of ‘sustained effort’ which had been found necessary in effecting the impression. (Poe p.176)

This excerpt from “The Poetic Principle” perfectly illustrates Poe’s primary concern for the classification of Art as both critic and author: that Art does not depend on the size of a composition, but rather on the effect induced in its perceiver. Thus the effect of a literary composition constitutes its core around which all of its properties are supposed to be arranged in the way they best aid the conveyance of said effect.

Throughout all of his critical essays which constitute ideas of his literary theory Poe constantly recurs to the “certain unique or single effect” as the main attainment of all works of art. Yet this effect can be achieved by fulfilling the following requirements (ibid. p.59).

Of highest priority in the achievement of this effect for Poe is due length. Due length is essential in both prose and poetic fiction and is characterised by the composition’s perusal within one sitting. In terms of poetry due length implies what may not exceed a perusal from half an hour to one hour (ibid. p.174,58). Whereas “the short prose narrative requires from a half-hour to one or two in its perusal” (ibid. p.59). While a composition too brief will only become an epigram, and therefore lack “momentum” and “repetition of purpose”, a composition too long will exceed one sitting and thus “deprive itself … of the immense force derivable from totality” (ibid. p.59). With this totality being disrupted, the unity of impression is disrupted as well “and, without unity of impression, the deepest effects cannot be wrought out” so any author who disregards the principle of due length, or totality, fails essentially in producing a piece of art (ibid. p.58).

Although Poe already expressed his admiration for Hawthorne’s originality and its general importance for literature of prose fiction in his review of Twice-Told Tales, he introduces originality as his first object of thought in the creative process since the “construction of the effect” is linked to novelty, or rather peculiarity, of either tone or incident, or both (ibid p.101,106). Furthermore, in “The Philosophy of Composition” Poe elucidates how the “skilful literary artist” is supposed to construct his composition, leaving no space for poetic intuition or coincidence in the progress of the creation of art, similar to the solution of a “mathematical problem” relying on “precision” and “rigid consequence” as the creative tools of the artist, always keeping the intended design in mind and the centre of the composition (ibid. p.102).

This method is reflected in another important constituent of his theory, namely the dense, teleological construction of the composition around the intended effect or dénouement, depending on the composition’s genre (Pattee p.301). The “skilful literary artist” is urged to conceive the single effect he wants to convey towards which every word and every event of the tale, direct or indirect, needs to be geared. “If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step” (Poe p.59).

The “construction of the effect” depends likewise on another major component which is the lynchpin of every work of narrative literature: the plot.

Every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before anything be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention. (Poe p.100)

For the dénouement to procure the most intense impression possible, the artist needs to arrange the tone, the incidents as well as the setting to prepare the reader’s mind for the climax of the plot, so that it can be “brought about as rapidly and directly as possible” (ibid. p.108).

After introducing the specific conditions for conveying and establishing the intended effect, the question presents itself what is actually meant by this effect. To answer this question properly, it is necessary to regard the literary genres of prose fiction (the brief tale) and poetry separately since the intended effect is in high degree dependent on the genre.

The purpose of Poetry is, according to Poe, the satisfaction of the “Poetic Sentiment” which he recognises as “that pleasurable elevation, or excitement, of the soul” (ibid. p. 59;180-181). Hence the intended effect of every poem must be the satisfaction of said “Poetic Sentiment”, all other possible effects such as “the heresy of The Didactic” do not have their province in the domain of Poetic Literature, but in prose fiction (ibid. p.178). It results that there is only one legitimate effect of the poem. In the creation of this effect the artist utilises the various effects caused by the application of those stylistic devices which best aid him/her in the “construction of the effect”.

So what is the relation between the “unique effect” and the effects of stylistic devices? Since Poe intends to “produce continuously novel effects [my italics, F.K.] by the variation of the application of the refrain [of “The Raven”], it is obvious that both terms are not identical (ibid. p.104). In fact, Poe refers to the effects of stylistic devices as “artistic effects” (ibid. p.104). These do not affect the reader’s soul like the “true poetical effect” does, but affect the composition, or rather the atmosphere of the composition, as it is constituted by the application of the diverse artistic effects (ibid. p.192). More precisely, the intended effect affects the reader, whereas the artistic effects, caused by different usages of stylistic devices, affect the composition and thus constitute its impression upon the reader.

From this elucidation again raises the next question: What is then meant by the unity of effect, is it rather the unity of effect on the reader, or unity of effect within the story? This question offers at least two answers.

First, unity of effect or impression is the “unblemished, because undisturbed” impression of the composition on the reader originating from its complete perusal within one sitting, without “external or extrinsic influences”, in brief, the reader’s attention is supposed to be focussed solely on the composition (ibid. p.59).

Secondly, unity of effect or impression can be paraphrased by unity of atmosphere. Given that the true poetical effect is undoubtedly achieved by the unity of the composition, instead of its sole constituents, atmosphere itself is the product of the constituent’s interrelation, i.e. atmosphere derives from the unity of the artistic effects, tone and incident. This unity requires a homogeneous intertwinement of the single effects, which can only be attained, if during the creative process the artist always keeps in mind the intended impression upon the reader. Even though atmosphere cannot be the major intention of the author, it is, similar to the intended impression, only perceptible, and that only by the sum of said minor effects. Hence atmosphere is, akin to the “unique effect”, the overarching impression of a composition and, due to its analogous structure, can be justly equalised with “the pre-established design” the author needs to elaborate carefully[1].

As already mentioned poetry and prose differ in that respect that the aim of poetry is Beauty and the aim of the tale is Truth. Thus the Poetic Sentiment cannot be the ruling principle of the tale, it is in fact the dénouement, which will be examined more closely in the next paragraph.

2.2 Beauty and Truth as the Domains of Poetry and Prose

Poe’s main criterion for the classification of a literary composition is its province, although he mentions the form as an important characteristic of a composition, this form conforms itself to the province of its composition. The application of rhythm, for instance, depends in very great degree on Beauty as the composition’s province, since its “artificialities … are an inseparable to the development of all points of thought or expression which have their basis in Truth” (ibid. p.60). Thus it can be said that the province, or the domain, of a composition defines its constituents.

The following passage from “The Poetic Principle” will be taken as the staring point of the consecutive elucidation:

Dividing the world of mind into its three most immediately obvious distinctions, we have the Pure Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense ... Nevertheless, we find the offices of the trio marked with a sufficient distinction. Just as the Intellect concerns itself with Truth, so Taste informs us of the Beautiful while the Moral Sense is regardful of Duty. Of this latter, while Conscience teaches the obligation, and Reason the expediency, Taste concerns herself with displaying the charms … (Poe p.179).

This statement needs only to be completed by Poe’s opinion that “Truth … is the satisfaction of the intellect” (ibid. p. 105).

For Poe Beauty is the “elevation of the soul”, this effect is experienced immediately and in its purest manifestation “in consequence of contemplating ‘the beautiful’”, thus when he writes that “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem”, he intends the poem to become the trigger of Beauty, meaning that the poem is to become solely “beautiful” and to have “no concern whatever either with Duty or with Truth” (ibid. p.103;180). The degree of pleasure and delight deriving from this contemplation of the beautiful is measured by Man’s “sense of the Beautiful”, which is linked to Taste for reasons above-mentioned (ibid. p.178). Poe senses that the common definition of poetry, in terms of the creation of a rhymed poem, does not account for its relation to Beauty sufficiently, thus it immensely constricts his idea of Poetry. He defines Poetry as “the struggle to apprehend the supernal Loveliness, … the Beauty above, ... of which through the poem, … we attain to but brief and indeterminate glimpses” (ibid. p.180). Every representation of this “struggle” which is capable of allowing said “glimpses”, in brief, of inducing the “Poetic Sentiment” is called a poetic mode, or in other terms, Art. These modes can, as mentioned by Poe, occur in “Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Dance, Music” and even “the composition of the Landscape Garden” (ibid. p.180). What is in common defined as poetry then, Poe defines as “the Poetry of words”, or rather “The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty” (ibid. p.180).


[1] The relation between the true poetical effect, and thus the essence of Poe’s literary theory in concerns of Beauty, has been pointed out by Leo Spitzer in “A Reinterpretation of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (Spitzer p.62-65). However when I pondered upon this topic, his essay was unknown to me, which explains the differences in our notions of atmosphere.

Excerpt out of 25 pages


Edgar Allan Poe's Literary Theory and its Application in "The Fall of the House of Usher"
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald
North American Short Stories
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Edgar, Allan, Literary, Theory, Application, Fall, House, Usher
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Felix Kremser (Author), 2009, Edgar Allan Poe's Literary Theory and its Application in "The Fall of the House of Usher", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/145320


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