In 1846 Edgar Allan Poe wrote an essay called The Philosophy of Composition, which explains how he wrote his most famous poem, The Raven.
Most artists and writers on art claim that art comes from inspiration (whatever that is). Poe claims the opposite (although he may be joking):
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.
Poe’s essay is a masterclass in marketing and design. Let’s look at the main steps.
Step One – Decide the length of the poem. To achieve unity of effect, Poe thinks a poem should be capable of being read in a single sitting. To make it popular yet seen as serious art, he decides on a length of around 100 lines.
Step Two – Decide the theme. How to make it universally appreciable? Poe decides that beauty should be the province of the poem and sadness the tone.
Step Three – Decide the refrain (the phrase that gets repeated). He decides to make it one word. Which word to choose?
these considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel in connection with r as the most producible consonant.
The word that embodies the criteria best is of course ‘Nevermore’.
Step Four – Decide the pretext for the regular repetition of the word nevermore. Realising that a human saying this repeatedly would not be plausible he thinks first of a parrot and then – better – a raven.
Step Five – Decide the circumstances. Poe asks:
Of all melancholy topics what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?
And the answer is:
the death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.
Step Six – Decide on the structure of the poem. Poe decides on the lover posing a question and the raven answering ‘nevermore’. With each successive response, the lover’s questions escalate in despair until the final climactic stanza, which Poe says, represents the “utmost conceivable amount of sorrow and despair”.
Step Seven – Write the climax, which sets the metre and rhythm of the entire poem.
Step Eight – Decide on the locale:
I determined, then, to place the lover in his chamber- in a chamber rendered sacred to him by memories of her who had frequented it
Step Nine – Develop the detailed storyline.
Step Ten – Take a step back and add finishing touches. This is where Poe’s essay gets really interesting. He claims he adds an ‘undercurrent of meaning’ which first becomes apparent in this line:
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore!”
The first line above is the first use of metaphor in the poem – before then, everything has been in the world of the real.
The last stanza makes it clear that the raven is a symbol of mourning and never-ending remembrance. The raven isn’t going away.
So was a famous poem really designed in this step-by-step way? Although I’m sure Poe’s method was messier than the linear process he describes, I do think it is a summary of how he wrote the poem, rather than an elaborate hoax.
The process describes clearly how Poe developed such a creepy poem that has been popular since it was published in 1845. Critics will continue to argue whether it is good poetry. For me, the essay is more interesting than the poem itself.