There may be no more a macabrely misogynistic sentence in English literature than Edgar Allan Poe’s contention that “the death… of a beautiful woman” is “unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” (His perhaps ironic observation prompted Sylvia Plath to write, over a hundred years later, “The woman is perfected / Her dead / Body wears the smile of accomplishment.”) The sentence comes from Poe’s 1846 essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” and if this work were only known for its literary fetishization of what Elisabeth Bronfen calls “an aesthetically pleasing corpse”—marking deep anxieties about both “female sexuality and decay”—then it would indeed still be of interest to feminists and academics, though not perhaps to the average reader.
But Poe has much more to say that does not involve a romance with dead women. The essay delivers on its title’s promise. It is here that we find Poe’s famous theory of what good literature is and does, achieving what he calls “unity of effect.” This literary “totality” results from a collection of essential elements that the author deems indispensable in “constructing a story,” whether in poetry or prose, that produces a “vivid effect.”
To illustrate what he means, Poe walks us through an analysis of his own work, “The Raven.” We are to take for granted as readers that “The Raven” achieves its desired effect. Poe has no misgivings about that. But how does it do so? Against commonplace ideas that writers “compose by a species of fine frenzy—an ecstatic intuition,” Poe has not “the least difficulty in recalling to mind the progressive steps of any of my compositions”—steps he considers almost “mathematical.” Nor does he consider it a “breach of decorum” to pull aside the curtain and reveal his tricks. Below, in condensed form, we have listed the major points of Poe’s essay, covering the elements he considers most necessary to “effective” literary composition.
- Know the ending in advance, before you begin writing.
“Nothing is more clear,” writes Poe, “than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before any thing be attempted with the pen.” Once writing commences, the author must keep the ending “constantly in view” in order to “give a plot its indispensable air of consequence” and inevitability.
- Keep it short—the “single sitting” rule.
Poe contends that “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 impression.” Force the reader to take a break, and “the affairs of the world interfere” and break the spell. This “limit of a single sitting” admits of exceptions, of course. It must—or the novel would be disqualified as literature. Poe cites Robinson Crusoe as one example of a work of art “demanding of no unity.” But the single sitting rule applies to all poems, and for this reason, he writes, Milton’s Paradise Lost fails to achieve a sustained effect.
- Decide on the desired effect.
The author must decide in advance “the choice of impression” he or she wishes to leave on the reader. Poe assumes here a tremendous amount about the ability of authors to manipulate readers’ emotions. He even has the audacity to claim that the design of the “The Raven” rendered the work “universally appreciable.” It may be so, but perhaps it does not universally inspire an appreciation of Beauty that “excites the sensitive soul to tears”—Poe’s desired effect for the poem.
- Choose the tone of the work.
Poe claims the highest ground for his work, though it is debatable whether he was entirely serious. As “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem” in general, and “The Raven” in particular, “Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all poetical tones.” Whatever tone one chooses, however, the technique Poe employs, and recommends, likely applies. It is that of the “refrain”—a repeated “key-note” in word, phrase, or image that sustains the mood. In “The Raven,” the word “Nevermore” performs this function, a word Poe chose for its phonetic as much as for its conceptual qualities.
Poe claims that his choice of the Raven to deliver this refrain arose from a desire to reconcile the unthinking “monotony of the exercise” with the reasoning capabilities of a human character. He at first considered putting the word in the beak of a parrot, then settled on a Raven—“the bird of ill omen”—in keeping with the melancholy tone.
- Determine the theme and characterization of the work.
Here Poe makes his claim about “the death of a beautiful woman,” and adds, “the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.” He chooses these particulars to represent his theme—“the most melancholy,” Death. Contrary to the methods of many a writer, Poe moves from the abstract to the concrete, choosing characters as mouthpieces of ideas.
- Establish the climax.
In “The Raven,” Poe says, he “had now to combine the two ideas, of a lover lamenting his deceased mistress and a Raven continuously repeating the word ‘Nevermore.’” In bringing them together, he composed the third-to-last stanza first, allowing it to determine the “rhythm, the metre, and the length and general arrangement” of the remainder of the poem. As in the planning stage, Poe recommends that the writing “have its beginning—at the end.”
- Determine the setting.
Though this aspect of any work seems the obvious place to start, Poe holds it to the end, after he has already decided why he wants to place certain characters in place, saying certain things. Only when he has clarified his purpose and broadly sketched in advance how he intends to acheive it does he decide “to place the lover in his chamber… richly furnished.” Arriving at these details last does not mean, however, that they are afterthoughts, but that they are suggested—or inevitably follow from—the work that comes before. In the case of “The Raven,” Poe tells us that in order to carry out his literary scheme, “a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident.”
Throughout his analysis, Poe continues to stress—with the high degree of repetition he favors in all of his writing—that he keeps “originality always in view.” But originality, for Poe, is not “a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition.” Instead, he writes, it “demands in its attainment less of invention than negation.” In other words, Poe recommends that the writer make full use of familiar conventions and forms, but varying, combining, and adapting them to suit the purpose of the work and make them his or her own.
Though some of Poe’s discussion of technique relates specifically to poetry, as his own prose fiction testifies, these steps can equally apply to the art of the short story. And though he insists that depictions of Beauty and Death—or the melancholy beauty of death—mark the highest of literary aims, one could certainly adapt his formula to less obsessively morbid themes as well.