Matthews, Brander, ed. (18521929). The Oxford Book of American Essays. 1914.
XI. The Philosophy of Composition
Edgar Allan Poe (18091849)
CHARLES DICKENS, in a note now lying before me, alluding to an examination I once made of the mechanism of Barnaby Rudge, saysBy the way, are you aware that Godwin wrote his Caleb Williams backwards? He first involved his hero in a web of difficulties, forming the second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done.
I cannot think this the precise mode of procedure on the part of Godwinand indeed what he himself acknowledges, is not altogether in accordance with Mr. Dickens ideabut the author of Caleb Williams was too good an artist not to perceive the advantage derivable from at least a somewhat similar process. Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before anything be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.
There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesisor one is suggested by an incident of the dayor, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrativedesigning, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.
I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in viewfor he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interestI say to myself, in the first place, Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select? Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can be best wrought by incident or tonewhether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and toneafterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.
I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who wouldthat is to say, who coulddetail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to saybut, perhaps, the autorial vanity has had more to do with the omission than any one other cause. Most writerspoets in especialprefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzyan ecstatic intuitionand would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thoughtat the true purposes seized only at the last momentat the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full viewat the fully matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageableat the cautious selections and rejectionsat the painful erasures and interpolationsin a word, at the wheels and pinionsthe tackle for scene-shiftingthe step-ladders and demon-trapsthe cocks feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of the hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.
I am aware, on the other hand, that the case is by no means common, in which an author is at all in condition to retrace the steps by which his conclusions have been attained. In general, suggestions, having arisen pell-mell, are pursued and forgotten in a similar manner.
For my own part, I have neither sympathy with the repugnance alluded to, nor, at any time, the least difficulty in recalling to mind the progressive steps of any of my compositions; and, since the interest of an analysis, or reconstruction, such as I have considered a desideratum, is quite independent of any real or fancied interest in the thing analyzed, it will not be regarded as a breach of decorum on my part to show the modus operandi by which some one of my own works was put together. I select The Raven, as the most generally known. It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuitionthat the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.
Let us dismiss, as irrelevant to the poem, per se, the circumstanceor say the necessitywhich, in the first place, gave rise to the intention of composing a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste.
The initial consideration was that of extent. If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impressionfor, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed. But since, ceteris paribus, no poet can afford to dispense with anything that may advance his design, it but remains to be seen whether there is, in extent, any advantage to counterbalance the loss of unity which attends it. Here I say no, at once. What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief onesthat is to say, of brief poetical effects. It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such, only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating, the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief. For this reason, at least one-half of the Paradise Lost is essentially prosea succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably, with corresponding depressionsthe whole being deprived, through the extremeness of its length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity, of effect.
It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary artthe limit of a single sittingand that, although in certain classes of prose composition, such as Robinson Crusoe, (demanding no unity,) this limit may be advantageously overpassed, it can never properly be overpassed in a poem. Within this limit, the extent of a poem may be made to bear mathematical relation to its meritin other words, to the excitement or elevationagain in other words, to the degree of the true poetical effect which it is capable of inducing; for it is clear that the brevity must be in direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect :this, with one provisothat a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all.
Holding in view these considerations, as well as that degree of excitement which I deemed not above the popular, while not below the critical, taste, I reached at once what I conceived the proper length for my intended poema length of about one hundred lines. It is, in fact, a hundred and eight.
My next thought concerned the choice of an impression, or effect, to be conveyed : and here I may as well observe that, throughout the construction, I kept steadily in view the design of rendering the work universally appreciable. I should be carried too far out of my immediate topic were I to demonstrate a point upon which I have repeatedly insisted, and which, with the poetical, stands not in the slightest need of demonstrationthe point, I mean, that Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem. A few words, however, in elucidation of my real meaning, which some of my friends have evinced a disposition to misrepresent. That pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure, is, I believe, found in the contemplation of the beautiful. When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effectthey refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soulnot of intellect, or of heartupon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating the beautiful. Now I designate Beauty as the province of the poem, merely because it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring from direct causesthat objects should be attained through means best adapted for their attainmentno one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the peculiar elevation alluded to is most readily attained in the poem. Now the object, Truth, or the satisfaction of the intellect, and the object Passion, or the excitement of the heart, are, although attainable, to a certain extent, in poetry, far more readily attainable in prose. Truth, in fact, demands a precision, and Passion, a homeliness (the truly passionate will comprehend me) which are absolutely antagonistic to that Beauty which, I maintain, is the excitement, or pleasurable elevation, of the soul. It by no means follows from anything here said, that passion, or even truth, may not be introduced, and even profitably introduced, into a poemfor they may serve in elucidation, or aid the general effect, as do discords in music, by contrastbut the true artist will always contrive, first, to tone them into proper subservience to the predominant aim, and, secondly, to enveil them, as far as possible, in that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the essence of the poem.
Regarding, then, Beauty as my province, my next question referred to the tone of its highest manifestationand all experience has shown that this tone is one of sadness. Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.
The length, the province, and the tone, being thus determined, I betook myself to ordinary induction, with the view of obtaining some artistic piquancy which might serve me as a key-note in the construction of the poemsome pivot upon which the whole structure might turn. In carefully thinking over all the usual artistic effectsor more properly points, in the theatrical senseI did not fail to perceive immediately that no one had been so universally employed as that of the refrain. The universality of its employment sufficed to assure me of its intrinsic value, and spared me the necessity of submitting it to analysis. I considered it, however, with regard to its susceptibility of improvement, and soon saw it to be in a primitive condition. As commonly used, the refrain, or burden, not only is limited to lyric verse, but depends for its impression upon the force of monotoneboth in sound and thought. The pleasure is deduced solely from the sense of identityof repetition. I resolved to diversify, and so vastly heighten, the effect, by adhering, in general, to the monotone of sound, while I continually varied that of thought : that is to say, I determined to produce continuously novel effects, by the variation of the application of the refrainthe refrain itself remaining, for the most part, unvaried.
These points being settled, I next bethought me of the natureof my refrain. Since its application was to be repeatedly varied, it was clear that the refrain itself must be brief, for there would have been an insurmountable difficulty in frequent variations of application in any sentence of length. In proportion to the brevity of the sentence, would, of course, be the facility of the variation. This led me at once to a single word as the best refrain.
The question now arose as to the character of the word. Having made up my mind to a refrain, the division of the poem into stanzas was, of course, a corollary: the refrain forming the close to each stanza. That such a close, to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis, admitted no doubt: and these considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as the most producible consonant.
The sound of the refrain being thus determined, it became necessary to select a word embodying this sound, and at the same time in the fullest possible keeping with that melancholy which I had predetermined as the tone of the poem. In such a search it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word Nevermore. In fact, it was the very first which presented itself.
The next desideratum was a pretext for the continuous use of the one word nevermore. In observing the difficulty which I at once found in inventing a sufficiently plausible reason for its continuous repetition, I did not fail to perceive that this difficulty arose solely from the pre-assumption that the word was to be so continuously or monotonously spoken by a human beingI did not fail to perceive, in short, that the difficulty lay in the reconciliation of this monotony with the exercise of reason on the part of the creature repeating the word. Here, then, immediately arose the idea of a non -reasoning creature capable of speech; and, very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone.
I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raventhe bird of ill omenmonotonously repeating the one word, Nevermore, at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone, and in length about one hundred lines. Now, never losing sight of the object supremeness, or perfection, at all points, I asked myselfOf all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy? Deathwas the obvious reply. And when, I said, is this most melancholy of topics most poetical? From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obviousWhen it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the worldequally is beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.
I had now to combine the two ideas, of a lover lamenting his deceased mistress and a Raven continuously repeating the word NevermoreI had to combine these, bearing in mind my design of varying, at every turn, the application of the word repeated; but the only intelligible mode of such combination is that of imagining the Raven employing the word in answer to the queries of the lover. And here it was that I saw at once the opportunity afforded for the effect on which I had been dependingthat is to say, the effect of the variation of application. I saw that I could make the first query propounded by the loverthe first query to which the Raven should reply Nevermorethat I could make this first query a commonplace onethe second less sothe third still less, and so onuntil at length the lover, startled from his original nonchalance by the melancholy character of the word itselfby its frequent repetitionand by a consideration of the ominous reputation of the fowl that uttered itis at length excited to superstition, and wildly propounds queries of a far different characterpounds them half in superstition and half in that species of despair which delights in self-torturepropounds them not altogether because he believes in the prophetic or demoniac character of the bird (which, reason assures him, is merely repeating a lesson learned by rote) but because he experiences a frenzied pleasure in so modeling his questions as to receive from the expected Nevermore the most delicious because the most intolerable of sorrow. Perceiving the opportunity thus afforded meor, more strictly, thus forced upon me in the progress of the constructionI first established in mind the climax, or concluding querythat to which Nevermore should be in the last place an answerthat in reply to which this word Nevermore should involve the utmost conceivable amount of sorrow and despair.
Here then the poem may be said to have its beginningat the end, where all works of art should beginfor it was here, at this point of my preconsiderations, that I first put pen to paper in the composition of the stanza:
Prophet, said I, thing of evil! prophet still if bird or devil!
By that heaven that bends above usby that God we both adore,
Tell this soul sorrow laden, if within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.
I composed this stanza, at this point, first that, by establishing the climax, I might the better vary and graduate, as regards seriousness and importance, the preceding queries of the loverand, secondly, that I might definitely settle the rhythm, the meter, and the length and general arrangement of the stanzaas well as graduate the stanzas which were to precede, so that none of them might surpass this in rhythmical effect. Had I been able, in the subsequent composition, to construct more vigorous stanzas, I should, without scruple, have purposely enfeebled them, so as not to interfere with the climacteric effect.
And here I may as well say a few words of the versification. My first object (as usual) was originality. The extent to which this has been neglected, in versification, is one of the most unaccountable things in the world. Admitting that there is little possibility of variety in mere rhythm, it is still clear that the possible varieties of meter and stanza are absolutely infiniteand yet, for centuries, no man, in verse, has ever done, or ever seemed to think of doing, an original thing.The fact is, originality (unless in minds of very unusual force) is by no means a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition. In general, to be found, it must be elaborately sought, and although a positive merit of the highest class, demands in its attainment less of invention than negation.
Of course, I pretend to no originality in either the rhythm or meter of the Raven. The former is trochaicthe latter is octameter acatalectic, alternating with heptameter catalectic repeated in the refrain of the fifth verse, and terminating with tetrameter catalectic. Less pedanticallythe feet employed throughout (trochees) consist of a long syllable followed by a short: the first line of the stanza consists of eight of these feetthe second of seven and a half (in effect two-thirds)the third of eightthe fourth of seven and a halfthe fifth the samethe sixth three and a half. Now, each of these lines, taken individually, has been employed before, and what originality the Raven has, is in their combination into stanza; nothing even remotely approaching this combination has ever been attempted. The effect of this originality of combination is aided by other unusual, and some altogether novel effects, arising from an extension of the application of the principles of rhyme and alliteration.
The next point to be considered was the mode of bringing together the lover and the Ravenand the first branch of this consideration was the locale. For this the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fieldsbut it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident:it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place.
I determined, then, to place the lover in his chamberin a chamber rendered sacred to him by memories of her who had frequented it. The room is represented as richly furnishedthis in mere pursuance of the ideas I have already explained on the subject of Beauty, as the sole true poetical thesis.
The locale being thus determined, I had now to introduce the birdand the thought of introducing him through the window, was inevitable. The idea of making the lover suppose, in the first instance, that the flapping of the wings of the bird against the shutter, is a tapping at the door, originated in a wish to increase, by prolonging, the readers curiosity, and in a desire to admit the incidental effect arising from the lovers throwing open the door, finding all dark, and thence adopting the half-fancy that it was the spirit of his mistress that knocked.
I made the bird alight on the bust of Pallas, also for the effect of contrast between the marble and the plumageit being understood that the bust was absolutely suggested by the birdthe bust of Pallas being chosen, first, as most in keeping with the scholarship of the lover, and, secondly, for the sonorousness of the word, Pallas, itself.
About the middle of the poem, also, I have availed myself of the force of contrast, with a view of deepening the ultimate impression. For example, an air of the fantasticapproaching as nearly to the ludicrous as was admissibleis given to the Ravens entrance. He comes in with many a flirt and flutter.
Not the lease obeisance made henot a moment stopped or stayed he,
But with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door.
The effect of the dénouement being thus provided for, I immediately drop the fantastic for a tone of the most profound seriousness:this tone commencing in the stanza directly following the one last quoted, with the line,
But the Raven, sitting lonely on that placid bust, spoke only, etc.
From this epoch the lover no longer jestsno longer sees anything even of the fantastic in the Ravens demeanor. He speaks of him as a grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore, and feels the fiery eyes burning into his bosoms core. This revolution of thought, or fancy, on the lovers part, is intended to induce a similar one on the part of the readerto bring the mind into a proper frame for the dénouementwhich is now brought about as rapidly and as directly as possible.
With the dénouement properwith the Ravens reply, Nevermore, to the lovers final demand if he shall meet his mistress in another worldthe poem, in its obvious phase, that of a simple narrative, may be said to have its completion. So far, everything is within the limits of the accountableof the real. A raven, having learned by rote the single word Nevermore, and having escaped from the custody of its owner, is driven at midnight, through the violence of a storm, to seek admission at a window from which a light still gleamsthe chamber-window of a student, occupied half in poring over a volume, half in dreaming of a beloved mistress deceased. The casement being thrown open at the fluttering of the birds wings, the bird itself perches on the most convenient seat out of the immediate reach of the student, who, amused by the incident and the oddity of the visitors demeanor, demands of it, in jest and without looking for a reply, its name. The raven addressed, answers with its customary word, Nevermorea world which finds immediate echo in the melancholy heart of the student, who, giving utterance aloud to certain thoughts suggested by the occasion, is again startled by the fowls repetition of Nevermore. The student now guesses the state of the case, but is impelled, as I have before explained, by the human thirst for self-torture, and in part by superstition, to propound such queries to the bird as will bring him, the lover, the most of the luxury of sorrow, through the anticipated answer Nevermore. With the indulgence, to the utmost extreme, of this self-torture, the narration, in what I have termed its first or obvious phase, has a natural termination, and so far there has been no overstepping of the limits of the real.
But in subjects so handled, however skillfully, or with however vivid an array of incident, there is always a certain hardness or nakedness, which repels the artistical eye. Two things are invariably requiredfirst, some amount of complexity, or more properly, adaptation; and, secondly, some amount of suggestivenesssome undercurrent, however indefinite, of meaning. It is this latter, in especial, which imparts to a work of art so much of that richness (to borrow from colloquy a forcible term) which we are too fond of confounding with the ideal. It is the excess of the suggested meaningit is the rendering this the upper instead of the under current of the themewhich turns into prose (and that of the very flattest kind) the so-called poetry of the so-called transcendentalists.
Holding these opinions, I added the two concluding stanzas of the poemtheir suggestiveness being thus made to pervade all the narrative which has preceded them. The undercurrent of meaning is rendered first apparent in the lines
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!
It will be observed that the words, from out my heart, involve the first metaphorical expression in the poem. They, with the answer, Nevermore, dispose the mind to seek a moral in all that has been previously narrated. The reader begins now to regard the Raven as emblematicalbut it is not until the very last line of the very last stanza, that the intention of making him emblematical of Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance is permitted distinctly to be seen:
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting,
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demons that is dreaming,
And the lamplight oer him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor