June 9, 2014
THE PHILOSOPHY OF COMPOSITION by Edgar Allan Poe
This is an interesting essay by Edgar Allan Poe that I had never heard of nor obviously read. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece by Poe.
Poe was an advocate of rational composition rather than romantic effusions, meaning that Poe believed in writing in a rational, logical way as opposed to an unrestrained, heartfelt or emotional way.
In his “Philosophy of Composition” he goes into a sequential, step by step methodology of the construction of the Raven. In so doing he also discusses the writing process in general along the way. He is very purposeful in his craft and goes to the extreme to have a purpose of each and every word and sentence, selected and crafted to provide an element of the story.
His writing method is predetermined and intentional instead of a flowing of ideas. The Raven is carefully and systematically constructed.
He begins by discussing the important of a story’s denouement (“the final revelation showing the outcome, or untying of the plot” from the French “untie”) and coincidentally, as I say this, he actually and literally begins his story with this. He simply knows what he is going to write before he begins to write it, he knows the outcome of the story first and he then writes around that particular outcome.
It is interesting to note that many people did not believe that this is actually the way he wrote The Raven. Along that belief it’s interesting to note the paragraph that Poe dedicates to the author who is questioned by his public as to how he wrote and how many authors would be reluctant to explain their writing process. He explains how the writer might prefer to by omission, have the audience thereby assume that the writer is so gifted that he sat down and just wrote it all out somewhat magically or effortlessly, due to his great talent. He explains though that the reason that authors didn’t want to divulge their writing process was that in truth there was a pile of mistakes , drafts and errors that the writer compiled and were tossed and thrown in the trash to ultimately get the results he wanted.
He explains: “Most writers – poets in especial – prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy – an ecstatic intuition – and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought – at the true purposes seized only at the last moment- at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view- at the fully matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable - at cautious selections and rejections - at the painful erasures and interpolations – in a word, at the wheels and pinions- the tackle for scene shifting- the step ladders and demon traps- the cock’s feather, the red paint and the black patches, which in ninety nine cases out of the hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio (artist)”.
He also gives the disclaimer of the fact that it could be the author simply cannot retrace his steps when memory fails him. I like the way he says “In general, suggestions, having arisen pell-mell, are pursued and forgotten in a similar manner”. I had to look up the word “pell-mell” and had to smile when I saw that it was “in a hurrying and disorderly fashion”, I must admit as a writer myself, this paragraph, summed up with this statement, best described my own writing process. It was nice to hear that I do not suffer alone along those frustrating lines. Not to say that my writing is anything even remotely as good as Poe, for that matter, I wouldn’t even call myself a writer when the same word is used to describe him. Perhaps I am a fledgling writer, or writer want to be, whatever it is, it seems there should be a new word to describe the huge difference. The desire to do something and yet not the ability to do it is