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The Philosophy of Composition by Edgar Allan Poe: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:01 Biography of Edgar Allan Poe
  • 0:51 Summary & Analysis
  • 5:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Beth Kulik

Beth has taught high school English for 7 years. She has a master's degree in Education Leadership.

In this lesson, we'll discuss a brief biography of Edgar Allan Poe, the famous American poet. We will then summarize and analyze his essay titled 'The Philosophy of Composition.'

Biography of Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) was a member of the American Romantic literary movement, and he is still considered one of the most famous American writers of all time. Although he is most well-known for writing poetry and short stories, he was also an editor and literary critic.

Poe is best known for his use of Gothicism, horror, and mystery in his tales. Some of his most famous works include 'The Raven,' 'The Tell-Tale Heart,' and 'The Cask of Amontillado.' For Poe, writing was his only source of income, which resulted in him struggling financially for the majority of his adult life. He died from unknown reasons in 1849. Some speculate he was an alcoholic, while others suggest it may have been a suicide.

'The Philosophy of Composition': Summary and Analysis

In 1846, Poe wrote an essay titled 'The Philosophy of Composition,' which was published in an edition of Graham's Magazine. Traditionally, Poe was a man of few words; he tried to write as concisely as possible. This proved true in this critical essay, as it is not very long. It does, however, accurately portray Poe's message; he wanted to explain to fellow writers his theory of how good writers write well.

As readers, we can assume that Poe wrote this piece based on the practice he followed when he was writing, but Poe never validated this. He does address how he utilized this theory during the time period in which he wrote 'The Raven.' According to Poe, there are three essential theories regarding the writing of literature: length, impression conveyed, and writing techniques.

Poe's first theory, the one discussing length, states that all works should be short. In paragraph 11, Poe writes that 'it appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art - the limit of a single sitting - and that, although in certain cases of prose composition…this limit may be advantageously overpassed, it can never properly be overpassed in a poem.' In other words, Poe is saying that if you cannot read a work in a single sitting, which one generally can with a poem or short story, then the work is not worth reading.

He makes a valid point at the conclusion of this paragraph by saying 'that a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all.' Poe's point is that if a reader is meant to invoke some type of feeling or emotion while reading a work, which one could argue is most definitely expected, he will have a difficult time doing this if he cannot read the piece in its entirety straight through. Of course, this is just a matter of Poe's opinion; if you do not agree with him, do not fret!

Throughout the essay, Poe discussed how all three of these theories are evident in his poem 'The Raven.' Regarding its length, Poe states, 'I reached at once what I conceived the proper length for my intended poem - a length of about one hundred lines. It is, in fact, one hundred and eight.'

Secondly, Poe theorizes that the 'Impression, or effect, to be conveyed' is essential to a good piece of writing. This theory may seem obvious to a reader because we, as readers, would like to assume that our writers had us in mind when they constructed the pieces we were meant to read. Poe did not go into much detail explaining this theory, but rather he discussed how it was portrayed in his poem.

At the beginning of this section of his essay, in paragraph 13, Poe explained that while writing 'The Raven,' he 'kept steadily in view the design of rendering the work universally appreciable.' He follows this statement up by adding, 'I should be carried too far out of my immediate topic were I to demonstrate a point upon which I repeatedly insisted, and which, with the poetical, stands not in the slightest need of demonstration…' In other words, Poe is explaining how he does not believe he needs to explain why he focused on the effect he was conveying because it was obvious.

The third and final theory Poe has regarding composing a good piece of literature is that the writer must focus on the techniques he uses in constructing his writing. This is the lengthiest section of Poe's essay. He discusses numerous modes of construction in detail that he utilized while writing 'The Raven,' including the refrain, the character of the words, how he composed each stanza, versification, etc.

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