A Peep Behind the Scenes
Any creative effort can seem magical. As writers we are sometimes awed by the moments of inspiration that lead to our creations. Three and a half years before his death Edgar Allan Poe wrote an article illuminating his writing process titled The Philosophy of Composition for Graham's Magazine in 1846. He pulled back the curtain and showed us
“...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 the 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 feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.”
He thought it would be interesting to see an author's step-by-step process and he didn't have
“the least difficulty in recalling to mind the progressive steps of any of my compositions,”
and so we have a wonderful explanation of how he composed his most famous poem, The Raven.
Writing The Raven
He spent much effort in deciding the length, effect, tone, and construction before writing a single word.
“Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before anything be attempted with the pen.”
Only after this preliminary work did he start writing. And he began with the end:
“Here then the poem may be said to have had its beginning—at the end where all works of art should begin—for 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 us— by that God we both adore,
Tell this soul with 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."
Quoth the Raven— "Nevermore."
"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 lover, and secondly, 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.”
The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty
After his death a number of his lectures were published in 1850 as an essay under the title The Poetic Principle. Poe was an early proponent of the idea "art for art's sake." He had particularly strong words against trying to use poetry to be all preachy:
“a heresy too palpably false to be long tolerated, but one which, in the brief period it has already endured, may be said to have accomplished more in the corruption of our Poetical Literature than all its other enemies combined. I allude to the heresy of The Didactic.”
Poe went on at great lengths to define what should and should not be allowed to be called poetry. It bears reading this section of The Poetic Principle a couple times to follow what he's saying. Here's a little chart to sum it up:
Here are some of the points he emphasized in The Poetic Principle:
- -A poem can only be called such if it elevates the soul. It's hard to sustain that feeling for much longer than 30 minutes.
- -Poetry touches beauty the strongest when it has nothing to do with Truth and Duty.
“I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words as The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty. Its sole arbiter is Taste. With the Intellect or with the Conscience it has only collateral relations. Unless incidentally, it has no concern whatever either with Duty or with Truth.”
“An immortal instinct deep within the spirit of man is thus plainly a sense of the Beautiful. This it is which administers to his delight in the manifold forms, and sounds, and odors and sentiments amid which he exists.”
“And thus when by Poetry, or when by Music, the most entrancing of the poetic moods, we find ourselves melted into tears, we weep then, ... through a certain petulant, impatient sorrow at our inability to grasp now, wholly, here on earth, at once and for ever, those divine and rapturous joys of which through' the poem, or through the music, we attain to but brief and indeterminate glimpses.”
- In short, a poem
“is a poem and nothing more, this poem written solely for the poem's sake.”
In the final authorized printing of The Raven, the poem is prefaced by these remarks:
"These people... are possessed with a false theory. — They hold that every poem and poet should have some moral notion or other, which it is his “mission” to expound. That theory is all false. To build theories, principles, religions, &c., is the business of the argumentative, not of the poetic faculty. The business of poetry is to minister to the sense of the beautiful in human minds. — That sense is a simple element in our nature — simple, not compound; and therefore the art which ministers to it may safely be said to have an ultimate end in so ministering. This the “Raven” does in an eminent degree. It has no allegory in it, no purpose — or a very slight one — but it is a “thing of beauty,” and will be a “joy forever,” for that and no further reason. ... The worth of the Raven [[sic]] is not in any “moral,” nor is its charm in the construction of its story. Its great and wonderful merits consist in the strange, beautiful and fantastic imagery and colors with which the simple subject is clothed — the grave and supernatural tone with which it rolls on the ear — the extraordinary vividness of the word painting, — and the powerful but altogether indefinable appeal which is made throughout to the organs of ideality and marvellousness."
Richmond Weekly Examiner, September 25, 1849, col. 4-5
And here is a poster of Edgar Allan Poe with a thought-provoking quote on writing.