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Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
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“The Philosophy of Composition” Background Information

Edgar Allan Poe was one of the leaders of the Romanticism literary movement. He wrote “The Philosophy of Composition” in 1846 as a way of expounding upon the success of his very successful poem. “The Raven”, which was published one year earlier in 1845. While “The Philosophy of Composition” was at first focused on “The Raven”, the scope of the essay widened, and the essay remains the most significant piece of nonfiction work we have from Poe today. Poe’s essay on composition is written for other writers with the intention of outlining ways in which the writer can methodically approach the desired effect in writing. Poe died of unknown causes only a few years after the publication of “The Philosophy of Composition.”

Edgar Allan Poe captured the imagination of many artists and thinkers years after he died. This is a drawing of Poe by Edourd Manet.

Manet drawing of Poe

Edgar Allan Poe’s Theory of Composition

Edgar Allan Poe’s theory of composition was written as a way of sharing his methodology with other writers. Among the theories shared, three concepts form the structure of Poe’s Ars Poetica. The writer must take care in the choice of length, effect conveyed, and writing techniques as he or she develops an intended effect on the reader.


The first job of the writer, for Poe, is to determine the length of the work. A work of literature should not be overly long. In fact, for Poe, if the reader cannot read the work in one sitting, the effect of that work will be lost to the interruptions of daily living. Poe sees long poems as a series of poetical effects. He sees novels as not having the same goals of unity of effect as short stories and poems. When Poe wrote “The Raven” he decided to make it around 100 lines. Poe wished for “The Raven” to hold a certain amount of intensity that he believed would get lost in longer lengths. “The brevity,” he wrote, “must be in direct ratio to the intensity of the intended effect.” Long poems and novels were still viable genres for Poe, but he preferred to work with short forms that allowed his intended emotional effect to be the central focus of the reader’s experience.

Effect Conveyed

One of the central focuses of Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition” has to do with “effect conveyed.” The ultimate goal of a writer is to consider the “effect conveyed” by his or her piece of writing. If the writer wants to convey a serious tone, what images or words can help evoke that tone? Poe advised that the writer should start with the end in mind. Poe refers to Dickens’ letter to Poe in which Dickens praises the writer William Godwin’s use of backward chronology in Godwin’s novel, Caleb Williams. Similarly, Poe argues that the writer must be constantly thinking of the intended effect the writer wants to have on the reader and then consistently make choices to help the reader get there. From here, the writers must decide what the work should convey. Poe explains that he wanted “The Raven” to convey beauty first and foremost, and so all other attributes would need to come after the beauty was developed.

The use of methodical structure also aids in the development of a specific effect. Poe is quite proud of his use of denouement, for example, in bringing “The Raven” to a very solemn moment that sets the stage for the drama and seriousness in the line after his denoument: ”But the Raven, sitting lonely on that placid bust, spoke only”.

Citing the stanza in “The Raven” that begins with ”Prophet! said I, thing of evil! prophet still if bird or devil!”, Poe explains that all choices serve the effect that he wishes to convey, which is a climactic seriousness. He explains that all choices including rhythm, meter, and length, serve that aim: ”that I might definitely settle the rhythm, the metre, and the length and general arrangement of the stanza, as well as graduate the stanzas which were to precede, so that none of them might surpass this in rhythmical effect”

Edourd Manet drew The Raven inspired by Poe.

a drawing of a raven

Writing Techniques Utilized

In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe argues that writers should be more cognizant of the methodology by which they work. They likewise do not need to make the reader feel as if there is only inspiration and no methodology. The methodology is useful and effective. The following outlines the direction given by Poe in his philosophy to develop the tone. Since Poe wanted to convey sadness in “The Raven,” he chooses to use the refrain, a monotone, lyrical verse repeated often throughout a piece, “Nevermore.” Poe explains in his essay, “As commonly used, the refrain, or burden, not only is limited to lyric verse, but depends for its impression upon the force of monotone-both in sound and thought. The pleasure is deduced solely from the sense of identity-of repetition.”

As he explains, all literary choices serve the overarching goals of the work. The literary choice becomes significant for Poe, and he argues that the choices of what to leave out and what “not” to do become more important than the choices of what to do. Poe’s emphasis on methodology as the means by which a writer writes well opposes the Romantic movement’s theory that writers write well because they are inspired by their genius. Poe’s essay argues that writing is a matter of “painful erasures and interpolations,” indeed, labor that comes by time and attention rather than from the sky.

Lesson Summary

Edgar Allan Poe wrote “The Philosophy of Composition” in 1846 as a way of explaining to other writers his process of writing. Poe was a leader in the Romanticism movement, though his composition essay suggests an anti-romantic notion that writing is methodical rather than inspired. “The Philosophy of Composition” was specifically meant to describe Poe’s process in his very successful poem, “The Raven”. Poe died only a few years after publishing “The Raven” and “The Philosophy of Composition” due to unknown causes.

The major tenets of good writing for Poe include a choice of length, effect conveyed, and writing techniques such as refrain in the development of tone. A refrain is a phrase or verse that is repeated throughout a poem. Specifically, “The Raven” uses around 100 lines, and develops a sense of melancholy and beauty by repeating the refrain, “nevermore.”

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