Edgar Allen Poe - "The philosophy of composition"

An analysis of his work

Term Paper, 2005

31 Pages, Grade: 2,3




1 “The Philosophy of Composition” - an analysis
1.1 Effect
1.2 Extent
1.3 Province
1.4 Tone
1.5 Refrain
1.6 The raven
1.7 The beauty and the death
1.8 Versification
1.9 Locale
1.10 Arguments for symbols
1.10.1 Introduction of the raven
1.10.2 Night
1.10.3 Pallas

2 “The Raven” - an analysis
2.1 Sequence
2.2 Rhymes
2.3 Internal rhymes
2.4 Caesural pauses
2.5 Alliterations
2.6 Anaphoras

3 Poe - poet or analyst ?
3.1 On what purpose did Poe write “The Philosophy of Composition”?
3.2 Poetry and mathematics
3.3 Is the theme unimportant?
3.4 Can Poe cope with his ideas?

4 Conclusion




Edgar Allan Poe (January 19, 1809 - October 7, 1849) was an American poet. He wrote several short stories (e.g. The Fall of the House of Usher), worked as an editor and critic and became famous for his macabre stories and poems. On January 29, 1845, his poem “The Raven” was published in the Evening Mirror. It made Poe famous and is known as his greatest achievement in poetry.

In April 1846 “The Raven” was discussed in Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition” which appeared in Graham’s Magazine and started a big discussion among the “Society of writing”. Because of its logical explaining for any detail of a fiction work some suggested the essay was meant as a satire or hoax because nobody, not even Poe himself, would create a poem this way.

Poe always created the metrical patterns carefully. He compared the technique of verse to that of music. According to him the melody of a song is what the effect is for a poem.

In “The Philosophy of Composition” which stands out for Poe’s ambition for elaborateness he implied that writing a poem was only a methodical process, like solving a mathematical problem. Moreover his essay states that a work should only be written after the author has decided how it has to end and more important which emotional response, Poe calls it the “effect”, is wished to reach. To underline his theory Poe took his poem “The Raven” and points out in detail how for example the theme, the setting, the characters and the plot have to be created to get a perfect poem.

On the next pages we will have a look on Poe’s “The Raven”, his essay “The philosophy of Composition” and get in detail with questions like: What is his essay about and what was the author’s intention writing an essay about the only way creating a fiction work? Did Poe compose his “Raven” exactly that way or are there clues that Poe couldn’t cope with his own ideas?

1. “The Philosophy of Composition” - an analysis

“The Philosophy of Composition” was written by Edgar Allan Poe in April 1846. It was first published in Graham’s Magazine, Philadelphia.

According to Poe his reason of writing this essay was the fact that “there is a radical error […] in the usual mode of constructing a story”1. Poe himself “thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by an author who would […] detail step by step, the process by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion.”2 Because there has not been written an article like this and no one seems able doing that Poe decides writing it by himself.

He analyses how effect, length, province, tone and refrain can come together to the supreme poem. Discussing his poem “The Raven”, published in 1845, Poe defines how to write the perfect work including all necessary components named above.

Furthermore Poe shows that “The Raven” was neither an “accident” nor an “intuition” but definitely a work written “with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem”3 and this is the method for him creating the perfect story.

1.1 Effect

The effect of a poem is the first thing to determine. Always “keeping originality” in his mind Poe searches for the impression of which “heart, intellect or soul are susceptible for.”4

When he finds something out he gets over to choose whether to write it “by incident or tone” and how to combine these two things.

1.2 Extent

The length of a work is very important for Poe. On the one hand a work might be too long for being a good one and on the other hand it might be too short. In conclusion Poe says that a good literary work must “be read at one sitting” otherwise the impression of the work will be destroyed.

The second thought Poe utters in this part is the question if a long poem has any advantages. He immediately denies it explaining that in truth a long poem is only “a succession of brief […] poetical effects”5.

1.3 Province

Poe's second thought is about the choice of the right impression never forgetting that universal appreciation was one of his intentions. Naming beauty as the "sole legitimate province of a poem"6 Poe goes on explaining that beauty is not meant as a quality but rather an effect, which can only be pointed out in a poem.

Truth, satisfaction of the intellect and passion are topics that can be better explained in prose than in poetry because there accuracy stands in contrast with the beauty, which Poe describes as "the excitement […] elevation of the soul."7

1.4 Tone

The question of the tone is answered by Poe within two sentences for he is sure that there cannot exist a higher "manifestation" of the tone than sadness. Combined with beauty the melancholy is the only legitimate tone of a poem.

1.5 Refrain

According to Poe every poem needs an "artistic piquancy […] (solving) as a keynote".8

When defining the refrain as the best medium to realize his idea he now comes to the conclusion that it is "in a primitive condition".9

Now Poe searches for a variation of the refrain to heighten its effect. He thinks of the normal repetition combined with the simple variation of the thought but adheres to the "monotone sound"10 of the refrain. In the end he would achieve a new effect by different usage of the same refrain.

Having this determined Poe goes on thinking about the "nature"11 of the refrain.

Because of the varied usage of the refrain it has to be short. A long refrain would have been too complicated and would miss the intended effect. Quickly the thought of only one single word being the refrain comes to Poe's mind and he immediately thinks about the "character" this word must consist of.

Due to the fact that his poem is made of stanzas like nearly every poem the refrain has to form the end of each stanza. This close must be "sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis". Determining the long o as the "most sonorous vowel"12 Poe thinks about the connection with the most "producible consonant"13 r to reach the wanted result.

The first word that "presented itself"14 to Poe was "Nevermore" which Poe selected at once as being the right one for his supremely poem.

1.6 The raven

Now Poe tries to find a reason why to repeat the word “Nevermore”. Because of the simpleness of the word Poe doesn’t want to choose a human being repeating this word. He would rather go for an animal. Not wanting the typical speaking bird, a parrot, Poe picks the Raven. A big advantage of this bird is that it is “capable of speech”15 and at the same time fits into the melancholy theme.

1.7 The beauty and the death

“Never losing sight of the object supremeness or perfect at all points”16 Poe starts combining his above ideas and asks for the most melancholy topic. Finally he decides that “death” can be the only “obvious reply” and to make it most poetical death has to come together with “beauty”. Thus it appears that “the death […] of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.”17

Combing all his thoughts named above Poe now creates the plot of his supreme poem: a story of two lovers of which one of them is a deceased mistress and is believed to be seen by her lover while he is talking to a raven who can only repeat the one melancholy word “Nevermore”.

1.8 Versification

At this point Poe gives us very rare information.

He just says something about the rhythm or meter of “The Raven” and makes clear that there is originality.

Poe analyses the form as trochaic and the feet consisting of long syllables followed by short ones.

The only originality according to Poe is the way of using alliteration and rhyme but he doesn’t explain anything about this in detail.

1.9 Locale

The last point Poe defines clearly is the question about the place where the lover and the raven should come together.

At first Poe decides that a forest would be the only natural place but in this case a descriptive reason for the meeting of lover and raven cannot be found by Poe. Furthermore a huge forest would rather lead to lose sight of the original topic.

A small location has the effect of a picture frame and is thus the best alternative and the reason why Poe chooses a small chamber.

1.10 Arguments for symbols

On the last one and a half pages Poe finds arguments for a lot of things written in his poem:

1.10.1 Introduction of the raven:

“Introducing him (the raven) through the window was inevitable”18 because the raven should “tap” at the front door before followed by no reaction of the lover. Moreover a tapping of the wings of the raven would raise the reader’s curiosity that the knocking is a message of the lover mistress.

1.10.2 Night:

Because of two reasons the night has been made “tempestuous”: first because of the raven for he is often compared with darkness and secondly it is a “contrast with the physical serenity within the chamber.”19

1.10.3 Pallas:

As well the bust of Pallas is included by Poe to produce a contrast. In this case a contrast between “the marble and the plumage”20 are chosen because of the lover’s scholarship and the “sonorousness of the world”.21

Poe closes his essay with a kind of summary of “The Raven” including lots of arguments why exactly these topics belong to the supreme poem. The arguments are often highlighted within the last stanzas of “The Raven”.

2. “The Raven” - an analysis

The rhythm is monotonously regular and the meter is trochaic octameter. There exist “792 feet of which 776 are trochees, and 16 dactyls […] such as “many a” and “fiery”, which can be […] pronounced as trochees.”22

2.1 Sequence

The sequence is abcbbb whereas the a and c rhymes are always feminine: Stanza 1

Line 1: Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, Line 3: While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

2.2 Rhymes

The last word and rhyme in line 4 and 5 are always the same Stanza 2

Line 4: From my books surcease of sorrow--sorrow for the lost Lenore-- Line 5: For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore--

Most of the lines 4 and 5 are created equal in more than one word and rhyme Stanza 5

And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore?" This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!"--

Sometimes Poe repeats nearly the whole line

Stanza 3

"'Tis some visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door-- Some late visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door;

The last word of line 2 and 6 always rhyme: Stanza 11

Line 2: "Doubtless," said I, "what it utters is its only stock and store, Line 6: Of 'Never--nevermore.'"

There is no regularity about the end of all lines.

Line 1 of the stanzas 1, 2, 4-9, 11 and 12 end with a comma whereas line 1 one of the stanzas 3, 10, 13, 14 and 18 has no comma. Lines 15-17 vary in their ending.

During first reading the reader might find out that line 5 always ends with “- -“ maybe to make the refrain in line 6 more clearly. But often we find that Poe varies the end and sets the “- -“ at the of line 4 or 5 whereas in the middle of the poem the endings become absolutely different.

Only the last word or part of it in all stanzas, line 6 is the same: “more”

2.3 Internal rhymes

The first regular rhyme can be found in line 1 and 3. Here the fourth trochee always rhymes with the eighth:

Stanza 17

Line 1: "Be that our sign of parting, bird or fiend!" I shrieked, upstarting- Line 3: Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul has spoken!

Another internal rhyme can be found in the lines 3 and 4. Here the fourth and eighth trochee of line 3 always rhyme with the fourth trochee of line 4: Stanza 8

Line 3: "Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou," I said, "art sure no craven,

Line 4: Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore--


1 In: “The philosophy of Composition” (see Notes): page1: §3, line 1(abbr.: p. 1: 3, line 1)

2 p. 1: 5, line1-2

3 p. 2: 7, line 8-9

4 p. 1: 4, line 4

5 p. 2: 9, line 7-8

6 p. 2: 12, line 6

7 p. 2: 12, line 20-21

8 p. 3: 14, line 2

9 p. 3: 14, line 8-9

10 p. 3: 14, line 12

11 p. 3: 15, line 1

12 p. 3: 15, line 10

13 p. 3: 15, line 10

14 p. 4: 16, line 5

15 p. 4: 17, line 9

16 p. 4: 18, line 3

17 p. 4: 18, line 8

18 p. 5: 26, line 2

19 p. 6: 27, line 2

20 p. 6: 28, line 2

21 p. 6: 28, line 5

22 Stovall, p. 227

Excerpt out of 31 pages


Edgar Allen Poe - "The philosophy of composition"
An analysis of his work
University of Koblenz-Landau  (Institut für fremdsprachliche Philologien Anglistik)
The American Short Story in the 19th Century
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
505 KB
This work contains a complete analysis of Poe's "The Raven". Incl. Appendix (11 pages)
Edgar, Allen, American, Short, Story, Century
Quote paper
Babette Lippmann (Author), 2005, Edgar Allen Poe - "The philosophy of composition", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/59043


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