The concept of beauty in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition"

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2014

19 Seiten, Note: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The superiority of POEtry?

3. Poe’s concept of beauty
3.1. Beauty, beautiful and the supernal beauty?
3.2. The Faculty of Ideality
3.3. Taste
3.4. Music and POEtry
3.5. Melancholy

4. Fancy and OR Fancy versus Imagination?

5. To Helen - An Approach

6. Criticism

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliography

Primary Literature

Secondary Literature

1. Introduction

Edgar Allan Poe - a 19th century American writer is well known as the inventor of the detective story, author of several of Gothic tales and literary critic. Here, he breaks the adapted English tradition of criticism and establishes his own style: sharply analytic. With this, he not only shapes the American criticism sustainably, but he demands a whole lot of discipline from the contemporaries authors concerning their works. Moreover, he develops his own definite theories concerning the body of standards according to which literature should be judged. Poe’s essays The Philosophy of Composition and The Poetic Principle form the matrix of his theory. In his concepts about poetry the concern about beauty takes in a salient role. Having the dying heroine of the Schauerroman on the hand, and the mad psychopath on the other in mind, the arousing question is: in Poe’s view, what constitutes beauty and is there a coherent concept?

His holistic literary theory thinks outside the frame of the particular work and builds bridges to contemporary philosophical theories, especially those of the romantic era. Concerning the fact that in the context of romanticism most literates understood themselves as artists, philosophers and poets at once, this may be unsurprising. But Poe’s achievements are unique in that way that he adapts thoughts of the psychological, scientific and philosophical discourses, i.e. disciplines of Enlightenment (Knapp 1926:44), and therewith creates his own concepts of contemporary concerns. Although his ideas deal with literature in general, they are most elaborated when it comes to the description of poetry, the genre he highly appreciates and whose writing excited and tantalized Poe. (Knapp 1926:45) Just like the topics of his poems and tales, his theories are between the conflicting priorities of the neo-classicistic and romantic perspective of art, its origins and its intentions. Hence, the rising movement of Aestheticism, a term introduced by the German philosopher Friedrich Schlegel, influenced by Immanuel Kant’s thoughts on the Critique on Judgement and unwittingly adapted by other European authors (Polonsky 2002:42ff.), finds entrance in Poe’s criticism. Taking a closer look, one finds out that “beauty” is more than the beautiful heroine in his Gothic novels and departed lover in his poems. Moreover, it is an anthropological and ontological perspective, which comprises scientific areas such as Phrenology, and develops throughout his life into an independent concept of Edgar Allan Poe’s theory of literary art, respectively poetry.

However, Edgar Allan Poe never published a compendium of his philosophical thoughts, rather he expresses them within his essays of literary criticism. Poe’s multifacetedness, his polemic undertone and his reader-directed writing style, makes it difficult to understand his concept, as later works may contradict with statements of former essays.

Nevertheless, this paper wants to research into the constituents of Poe’s concept of beauty by taking a choice of his critical essays into account, making the above mentioned texts more comprehensible and thus, to filter out the essence of his idea of beauty. Further, I will point out that a coherent concept exists. Since this is an all-embracing undertaking, I will take works of critics into account, who are concerned with Poe’s relation to the American press and the dependence on romantic philosophers. After the establishment of a coherent concept, I will proof it by applying it to one of his poems.

2. The superiority of POEtry?

As Poe’s use of the term “beauty” is mostly referred to in his essays about poetry, it is mandatory to have a look at his description of this genre first. Since there is a strong interdependence of beauty and poetry, this paragraph will inevitably use terms, which are explained in detail in the later course of this paper.

Although Edgar Allan Poe wrote poems as well as prose fiction, he maintains a clear hierarchy of the different forms of literature or, more general, of art. The basic principle for his ranking is the accomplishment of the effect’s demands.[1] This effect is not restricted solely to the poem, rather, Poe states, any form of art can stimulate it: sculpture, the dance, even the composition of the landscape garden. (Poe 1850:7) However, being an author, Poe is interested in the manifestations of the effect in words. Hence, poetry, respectively the lyrical poem, is not only the most generic of terms, but according to Poe, the highest form of literate art. (Weissberg 1991:144) The reason for this conclusion derives from his definition of poetry as the “rhythmical creation of beauty” (Poe 1850:8). Here, he builds bridges to music, a form of art he highly appreciates and which serves for several comparisons in his works. Now, combining the qualities of music with poetry, he comes to the fact that, “[…] there can be little doubt that in the union of Poetry with Music in its popular sense, we shall find the widest field for the Poetic development.” (Poe 1850:8). Consequently, if rhythm is one of the major criterions for beauty in its literate form, Poe regards the lyrical poem as the highest manifestation.[2] The consequence resulting from this definition is of a twofold character: first, he stresses poetry as the highly privileged form of literate art for the establishment of the desired effect of beauty, i.e. pleasure. Secondly, due to its relation to music, Poe places the poem within the province of beauty so that any form of Truth is denied from its ambitions, since beauty is related to the Faculty of Taste and not Intellect.[3] Poe argues:

The demands of Truth are severe. She has no sympathy wit the myrtles. All that which is so indispensible in Song, is precisely all that with which she has nothing whatever to do. It is but making her a flaunting paradox, to wreathe her in gems and flowers.” (Poe 1850:6)

He reinforces even clearer this separation of Truth and poetry in The Poetic Principle:

He must be blind, indeed, who does not perceive the radical and chasmal modes of inculcation. He must be theory- mad beyond redemption who, in spite of these differences, shall still persist in attempting to reconcile the obstinate oils and waters of Poetry and Truth. (Poe 1850:6)

Hence, Patrick Full concludes concerning the poem’s aim and in distinction to Truth as follows:

Dichtung kann nicht als universals Erkenntnisinstrument verstanden warden, durch welches die höheren geistigen Vermögen des Menschen zur Anschauung kommen, sondern dient allein dem Zweck pleasure und happiness als Effekt im Leser hervorzurufen. (Full 2007:100)

However, Poe does not intend to exclude any form of Truth from the poem in general, nor does he exclude beauty from the tale, rather he states that Truth is a legitimate quality of the poem, if it is supportive for the desired effect:

And in regard to Truth- if, to be sure, through the attainment of a truth, we are led to perceive a harmony where none was apparent before, we experience, at once, the true poetical effect- but this effect is referable to the harmony alone, and not in the least degree to the truth which merely served to render the harmony manifest. (Poe 1850:20)

Nevertheless, he definitely excludes the neo-classicistic view on poetry whose aim is to imply a certain form of didactic or philosophic verse. (1965:XVI) In his essay The Poetic Principle Poe is very clear on this:

It has been assumed, tacitly and avowedly, directly and indirectly, that the ultimate object of all Poetry is Truth. Every poem, it is said, should inculcate a moral; and by this moral is the poetical merit of the work to be adjudged. We Americans especially have patronized this happy idea; and we Bostonians, very especially, have developed it in full. We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem's sake, and to acknowledge such to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting in the true Poetic dignity and force. (3)

Consequently, these “poets” fail to create poetry in Poe’s sense because they fail beauty. Therewith, the achievement of the Poetic Sentiment becomes the ultimate valuation standard of poetry[4], as well as it contributes immensely to Poe’s definition of it: “And now it appears evident, that since Poetry, in this new sense, is the practical result, expressed in language, of this Poetic Sentiment […].” (Poe 1836)

Another element Poe is continuously referring to in his descriptions of poetry, is the poem’s length. In his Philosophy of Composition he maintains a length of one hundred and eight lines, as the optimal amount. (Poe 1846:2) With this, the reader can read the poem in one sitting, without risking the interference of any external factors, giving the poetic sentiment enough space to develop and preserve unity. Certainly, his Philosophy of Composition should be considered carefully in the light of Poe’s rationalizing of his metaphysics and, as critics maintain, in the context of reasoning his ingenuity.[5] He refers to length in The Poetic Principle as well. However, his demands on brevity are indecisive. He criticises epics such as Iliad for their length , in contrast, he praises John Milton’s Paradise Lost as being rather a series of lyric. (Poe 1850:3f.) Here, he skirts the length in his reasoning by dividing the epics into a compendium of shorter poems. (Knapp 1926:51) Further, Poe’s Eureka is of even more contradictory character as being a so-called prose- poem, which then is a contradiction par excellence. (Hoffman 1972: 279ff) However, concluding Poe’s judgments about the optimal range of a poem, one should certainly keep in mind that Poe’s idea is that the poem itself should contain everything, which is necessary to understand its content. Further, he considers the lecture of a poem to be a moment of contemplating the beautiful, isolated from any external disturbances in favour of its unity of effect.[6] Accordingly, he concludes about the poem to distinguish it from prose:

We need only here say, upon this topic, that, in almost all classes of composition, the unity of effect or impression is a point of the greatest importance. It is clear, moreover, that this unity cannot be thoroughly preserved in productions whose perusal cannot be completed at one sitting. We may continue the reading of a prose composition, from the very nature of prose itself, much longer than we can persevere, to any good purpose, in the perusal of a poem. This latter, if truly fulfilling the demands of the poetic sentiment, induces an exaltation of the soul which cannot be long sustained. All high excitements are necessarily transient. Thus a long poem is a paradox. And, without unity of impression, the deepest effects cannot be brought about. Epics were the offspring of an imperfect sense of Art, and their reign is no more. A poem too brief may produce a vivid, but never an intense or enduring impression. Without a certain continuity of effort--without a certain duration or repetition of purpose--the soul is never deeply moved.[7] (Poe: 1836)

Hence, poetry is due to the demands of effect ranked first (Criticism 1965:xxi), and it remains clear that in Poe’s view on poetry as a “created thing” (Criticism 1965:xviii), it “[…] is a poem and nothing more--this poem written solely for the poem's sake.“ However, due to the heavenly pleasures it evokes in the contemplation of the beautiful, it bears another dimension: “Poesy is the sentiment of Intellectual Happiness here, and the Hope of a higher Intellectual happiness hereafter.“ (Poe 1836) Therewith, the definition of POE try forms the fundament for the conception of beauty.

3. Poe’s concept of beauty

3.1. Beauty, beautiful and the supernal beauty?

Referring to something as beautiful is known as a matter of individual taste. Hence, the term has a wide range of possible meanings and references, and this is exactly the same fashion Poe makes use of it: the word “beauty” is increasingly significant for Poe’s comprehensive theory. However, depending on the context, in which he makes use of the term, it can either mean one thing, whereas the next paragraph refers to another sense of beauty. Nevertheless, there is an underlying conceptual schema of beauty so that it is obligatory for the following part of my research, to first identify its semantic fields and filter out a central meaning for “beauty”. Hereafter, the semantic and conceptual complexities of the theory can be added and examined in detail.

As outlined before, the beautiful as forming a part of aestheticism is a major concern in the romantic era and its philosophical streams, e.g. August Wilhelm Schlegel’s concept of poetry so that hence one can draw various parallels between the respective philosophies and their influence or adaption into Poe’s view on things. But keeping the focus and the limits of this paper in mind, I will avoid too extensive excurses.

Referring back to Edgar Allan Poe, his understanding of the word “beauty” is a transpersonal, eternal and transcendental real whose “substance” is outside the empirical- recordable world, beyond the known. (Knapp 1926:48) Therefore, it is also name the “indefinite, [which] is an element in the true ποιησς.” (Poe 1844)

This concern points beyond the world’s spheres to a transcendental realm of beauty, which can be “glimpsed at” through a certain faculty of the brain:

“In every glimpse of beauty presented, we catch, through long and wild vistas, dim bewildering visions of a far more ethereal beauty beyond.” (Poe 1840:82)

Therewith, Poe locates beauty into a dimension that no longer bears the impress of the living person grounded in earthly needs and lies beyond the visible spheres: “It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above.” (Poe 1850:7)

By this, the basic principle of beauty is stated and in the following specified, though unable to be ultimately identified: a universal human desideratum of a transcendental real called beauty on the one hand, and on the other an earthly real, as being immanent to the human due to its location within a division of the brain. Hence, the poet and especially Poe then, mediates in his works of syntheses between the material sphere and the supernatural:

In the philosophy of the medieval alchemists Poe found a ready-made system of tropes and allegories that offered as its ultimate goal not merely the creation of the mythical philosopher’s stone and the transmutation of base metal into gold, but intimations of a process that transmute (through the power of the imagination) his readers’ mundane perceptions of the material world into visionary experiences of the supernal realm. (Clack quoted in Full 2007: 4)

Further, during the glimmerings of the contemplation of beauty, the unconscious seems to become open to cosmic vibrations: “[I]t grasps, mixes, blends, sorts, and rearranges images, feelings, and sounds- conglomerates of infinite particles- into a new awareness.” (Knapp 1926:48). Knapp goes even a step further when she concludes in her work on Edgar Allan Poe: “When the poet brings forth his work, inculcating it with beauty and sublimity, he is reflecting God’s design in His created universe.” (Knapp 1926:53) This reference is reinforced by Poe’s definition of the supernal beauty, which is “a beauty which is not afforded the soul by any existing collocation of earth’s forms.” (Poe 1842). Additionally, John Phelps Fruit concludes and reinforces these divine attributes of beauty in his analysis of Poe’s poetry that, “the essential qualities of a thing of beauty are in some way typical of the Divine attributes.” (Fruit 1899:35)

3.2. The Faculty of Ideality

Based in the uprising science of Phrenology in the first half of the 19th century, a discipline which declares that the human consciousness and its inherent faculties are based within the brain, found great approval all over the world. (Polonsky 1991:43) Further, it proclaims, that the form of the head points to the markedness of the particular faculty, which is concerned with creative powers. Applied to the head’s shape of the most prestigious poets, Franz Joseph Gall discovers in the course of his “Schädellehre” the Faculty of Ideality. Therewith, Gall can determine the person’s “Vermögen der Idealität” by the measurement of the poet’s head. Unsurprisingly, Homer was found to have an extraordinary markedness of the Faculty of Ideality. (Full 2007:92) Although, Poe was sceptical about these scientific ideas, as he expresses in his satire The Buisness Man, he adapted it in his concept of beauty. (Polonsky 1991:44) In his critical review on the poets Joseph Rodman Drake and Fitz- Greene Halleck, he defines, “the Faculty of Ideality – which is the sentiment of Poesy”. (Poe 1836) Further, by the help of this capacity, every human is able to contemplate beauty, develops a certain admiration and even longing for beauty:

There is still something in the distance which he has been unable to attain. We have still a thirst unquenchenable, to ally which he has not shown us the crystal springs. This thirst belongs to the immoratlity of Man. It is at once a consequence and an indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us- but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle, by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time, to attain a portion of that loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain to eternity alone. (Poe 1850:7)

Every man and the poet in particular, is due to a universal part of the brain able to identify the beautiful things he sees, for example, in nature. Moreover, he not only appreciates the beauty in the real world, but it is a fundamental quality of the particular faculty to strive for the supernal beauty. Additionally, it forms the basis for the sentiment of pleasure caused by the beauty’s contemplation:

The function of this is to produce a peculiarly grand and intense emotion of a delightful nature, on surveying certain qualities in external objects; and it surpasses so vastly in strength and sublimity the perceptions of beauty communicated by the other faculties, that it may itself be regarded as the fountain of this delightful emotion, and be styled the Faculty of emotion of Beauty. (Combe quoted in Full 2007: 93)


[1] The effect is the element of poetry. For this section the preliminary defintion is: The effect is the pleasurable feeling poetry causes in the reader.

[2] Or as Liliane Weissberg points out: „Poes Theorie des Gedichts ist eigentlich die des lyrischen Gedichts. Dichter muß über die Musik eine Verbindung zum idealen Schönen schaffen: Die Harfe kann einen Ton hervorbringen, der Engeln nicht unbekannt ist.” (Weissberg 1991:146).

[3] Some critics raise the question whether “Truth” in Poe’s sense actually means truth in the inculcation of a moral or whether it is the basis for a more complex definition. (see: Shen 2008:325ff.)

[4] See : ”It is more than possible that the man who, of all writers, living or dead, has been most successful in writing the purest of all poems- that is to say, poems which excite most purely, most exclusively, and most powerfully the imaginative faculties in men- owed his extraordinary and almost magical pre-eminence rather to metaphysical than poetical powers.” (Criticism 1965:6)

[5] For further detail see paragraph on criticism.

[6] Lecture in its literate sense. Due to the rhythmical creation of a poem, Poe advises to read it out loud.

[7] As Poe’s theory is based on Friedrich Schlegel, the term contemplation, which is also used in religious context, should be re- considered as well in its religious character, since the parallels to the Christian theology are obvious in Poe’s description of beauty.

Ende der Leseprobe aus 19 Seiten


The concept of beauty in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition"
Universität zu Köln  (Englisches Seminar)
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The Philosophy of Composition, Edgar Allan Poe, The Poetic Principle, Romantic Philosophy, To Helen
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Jochen Mueller (Autor), 2014, The concept of beauty in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition", München, GRIN Verlag,


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