When Edgar Allan Poe taught how to write “The Raven”

When Edgar Allan Poe taught how to write “The Raven”

“I 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?” - Edgar Allan Poe

When Jorge Luís Borges says that his life would be over if his accident left him incapable of writing literature, there's a feeling of devotion to art that finds ressonance in other great artists. His vision can be romantic to others, among those is the writer Edgar Allan Poe. In 1946 the essay “Philosophy of composition” was published in the Graham's Magazine, on it he not only questions this “inspiration” but also explain how his creative method can work in such a calculated manner.

“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...”

He goes right to the point when talking about his writing: “the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem”. It may be frigid and rough but he uses his famous poem – The Raven – to explain these uncommon positions. Along the essay he lists the steps taken to compose. One of them relates to the length of the poem:

“...the extent of a poem may be made to bear mathematical relation to its merit (…) 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 proviso — that a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all. “

He wanted a poem to be aprecciated by everyone, that's why he believedthat the intensity of the poem should be in the reach of the popular reader but not too low to be dismissed by the critics. This decision influenced also the extension of the poem that had 100 verses as objective. The final version have 108. However, he defends that the way to convey this intensity passes invariably through the Beauty:

“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 causes — that objects should be attained through means best adapted for their attainment — no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the peculiar elevation alluded to, is most readily attained in the poem.”

The Beauty presents itself in the poem through the dead lover and form this come the extreme melancholic tone. Poe sees the melancholy as “the most legitimate of all the poetical tones”. And why a raven? When he chose the word “nevermore” as a conductor of the poem he needed to create a way to insert it's repetition. It could be a parrot, but the raven was more adequate to the melacholic tone and fit his desire for repetition because he knew it had to be an animal able to speak in some manner, since a person wouldn't work in the poem if she was to say the same thing over and over again.

"Poe returning to Boston.

In this poetic work, as in his prose there's a element of strangeness that generates the melancholy and the fear. Despite everything laying in the border between fantasy and improbable reality, in this essay he explains that his intention is to never go beyond what is really possible. In the poem he imagines the student dialoguing with the raven that can only say “nevermore”, but the disposition of the student in hearing the answers that he can foresee as all the same and asking questions accordingly come from, according to Poe, a “thirsty for selftorture” and “in part due to superstition”. Yet, he understands that this calculated approach can undermine the artistic quality of the poem:

“But in subjects so handled, however skilfully, 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 required — first, some amount of complexity, or more properly, adaptation; and, secondly, some amount of suggestiveness — some under-current, 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.”

To create this underlying suggestiveness he uses the first metaphoric expression “myheart” proposing a emblematic image of the raven that only reaches it's full meaning in the end of the poem representing the “Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance”.

The Raven illustrated by Gustav Doré.

“Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore!”
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 demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted — nevermore."

Of all the recommendations that he suposes inherent to his creative method, maybe the most important also the one he puts first in his essay:

“I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view — for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest — I 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?”

Old fashioned? Frigid? Maybe, but his importance to literature is undeaniable. With this honest exposure of his writing process, Edgar Allan Poe also make visible the daily effort behind the creative works we appreciate. And is there any problem in writing like this if the result if “The Raven”? So many years passed and there's still people making mistakes that he can teach how to avoid in “Philosophy of composition”.

Another interesting tip is to read interviews as a easier way to study and gather information. If you want to forget some of this cold-hearted calculation of the poem I recommend readingsome of what Lygia Fagundes Telles has to say about the mission of the writer.