Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849) was an American writer, editor and literary critic. He is known for his poetry and short stories, particularly his tales of mystery and the macabre. He is widely regarded as a central figure of Romanticism in the United States and American Literature and he was one of the country’s earliest practitioners of the short story. Poe is generally considered the inventor of the Detective Fiction and Science Fiction genre. He was also the first well-known American writer who tried to earn a living through writing alone, resulting in a financially difficult life and career.
Poe was born in Boston and he was the second child of two actors. His father abandoned the family and his mother died the following year. Being an orphan, the child was taken in by John and Frances Allan of Richmond, Virginia. They never formally adopted him but Poe was with them well into young adulthood.
Tension developed later, as John Allan and Edgar clashed over debts, including those incurred by gambling and the cost of secondary education for Poe. He attended the University of Virginia for one semester but left due to lack of money.
It was at this time that his publishing career began, albeit humbly, with the anonymous collection “Tamerlane and Other Poems” (1827). With the death of Frances, in 1829, Poe and Allan reached a temporary rapprochement. However, Poe later failed as an officer cadet at West Point, declaring a firm wish to be a poet and writer and he ultimately parted ways with John Allan.
Poe switched his focus to prose and spent the next several years working for literary journals and periodicals, becoming known for his own style of literary criticism. His work forced him to move among several cities, including Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City. In Richmond, in 1836, he married Virginia Clemm, his 13-year-old cousin. In January 1845, Poe published his poem “The Raven” to instant success. His wife died of tuberculosis two years after its publication.
For years, he had been planning to produce his own journal “The Penn” (later renamed “The Stylus”), though he died before it could be produced. Poe died in Baltimore in 1849, at age 40. The cause of his death is unknown and has been variously attributed to alcohol, brain congestion, cholera, drugs, heart disease, rabies, suicide, tuberculosis, etc.
Poe’s works influenced literature in the United States and around the world, as well as in specialized fields such as Cosmology and Cryptography. He and his work appear throughout popular culture in literature, music, films and television. A number of his homes are dedicated museums today. The Mystery Writers of America present an annual award known as the Edgar Award for distinguished work in the Mystery Fiction genre.
In “The Philosophy of Composition” Poe explains, step by step, the elements that make up a good literary work. This is where the writer gives us his theory on what literature is and what it does when it achieves what he calls the “unity of effect”. To show us what he means, he leads us through his poem “The Raven” (taking for granted that all his readers have read it), where it follows a summarized version of his recommendations for writing a good story or narrative poem. 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” and he doesn’t consider it as a “breach of decorum” to pull aside the curtain and reveal his tricks.
So, I found this list, in a condensed form, that includes the major points of Poe’s essay, covering the elements he considers most necessary to an effective literary composition. For anyone who admire his writing style and wants to learn more about the writing rules of the universal Master of short stories, here are some of his most famous advice for aspiring authors:
1. Choose a setting that works for the story!
Poe first decides what he wants to say in the poem (or rather what his characters want to say) and he decide where to set the poem. He says he needed to bring the lover and the Raven together in a specific way, and the first branch of this consideration was the locale. «For this, the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fields – but 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!»
2. The tone should reflect the theme!
He says the choice to allow the raven, a bird of ill omen to repeat one word: “Nevermore” in a monotonous, melancholy tone at the end of each stanza, allowed him to ask: «Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy? Death was the obvious reply!» So, the melancholy tone echoes the theme of death. 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” and he obviously chooses these particulars to represent his theme. Contrary to the methods of many a writer, Poe moves from the abstract to the concrete, choosing characters as mouthpieces of ideas.
3. 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 doesn’t universally inspire an appreciation of Beauty that “excites the sensitive soul to tears” – Poe’s desired effect for the poem.
4. Keep it short (the “One-Sitting” rule)!
«If any literary work is too long to be read in one sitting, we must dispense the content 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 just one sitting” allows for exceptions, of course (otherwise the novel would be disqualified from literature). But the “One-Sitting” rule», he says, «applies to any poem!» Obviously, novels do not necessarily fit this rule, but he believed this was essential for effect. Perhaps our modern novels with shorter chapters have the same effect on the reader. «The ideal length for a poem», he says «is one hundred lines!»
5. Know the ending before you begin!
Poe believes you need to know this to be able to plot effectively. He says «Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement 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. He says «It is only with the denouement constantly in view that we can give an indispensable air of consequence or causation to a plot, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention!»
6. Establish the climax!
«In “The Raven”», Poe says «I had to combine two ideas: a lover that laments his deceased mistress and a Raven that continuously repeats 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”.
7. Try to understand the true horror!
Sensations are great things after all. They are the driving force that leads us to rise or fall. You may never have drowned or hung up but, somehow, you have to learn to take notes of these kind of sensations. You can do research or listen to people who attempted suicide. What led them to this decision? What were their feelings? Perhaps you have your own experience to describe. So, if you want to write forcibly, do it! Just pay attention to the sensations!
8. Determine the setting!
“Place the lover in his chamber… richly furnished”. In his writing plans, Poe decided on a setting last. Once he knew his characters, their thematic purpose, the tone of the story, the desired effect in the reader and how the story ends, he could finally decide what place would best compliment the mood. Poe keeps “originality always in view”. But originality, for Poe, is not “a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition”. Instead, it “demands in its attainment less of invention than negation”.