The Raven’s Philosophy of Composition

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Since I am not going to say very much in favor of Poe in this article, I want to give him credit for his genius at the very beginning.  He was the American Swinburne, though not nearly as great a poet.  Like Swinburne, he was an innovator who expanded the range of poetic effects.  At least one of his short-stories, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” is a minor masterpiece, and I believe that anyone who writes even one important work can be called an important writer.  Moreover, he is credited with inventing the detective story.  This is an admirable record for someone who died young, and actually didn’t write that much.


When “The Raven” was printed by the American Review it was prefaced by a note supposedly written by the editor, though scholars believe that Poe wrote all or most of it himself (that is typical Poe).  This note puffs the poem as being “one of the most felicitous specimens of unique rhyming which has for some time met our eye.”  It goes on to say:  “much of the melody of ‘The Raven’ arises from alliteration, and the studious use of similar sounds in unusual places.”  In his essay, “Philosophy of Composition,” Poe says that it is written in trochaic octameter acatalectic alternating with heptameter catalectic . . . and terminating with tetrameter catalectic.”  He further says that the combination of these lines into stanzas is where the originality of the poem lies.  Let’s look at a few stanzas to see what this means.



Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

“Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—

Only this, and nothing more.”


Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,

And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.

Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had tried to borrow

From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—

For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—

Nameless here for evermore.


Alliteration is similarity of consonant sounds, usually at the beginnings of words.  I have italicized the alliterating words in the first two stanzas:  upon/pondered, weak/weary, quaint/curious, etc.  As for trochaic octameter, both catalectic and acatalectic, let’s look at the first two lines of the first stanza.  (Pull up your shirtsleeves—this is laborious, not to say tedious.)  Trochees are poetic feet made up of a strongly stressed syllable followed by a weakly stressed one [DAHdih].  I have put them in square brackets.


[ONCE uh][-PON a][MID-night][DREAR-y]//[WHILE i][POND-ered][WEAK and][WEAR-y]

[OV-er][MAN-ya][QUAINT and][CUR-ious][VOL-ume][OF for][-GOT-en][LORE]


The first line is octameter [octa-eight, meter-measure] which means that there are eight feet in the line.  “Acatalectic” means that the last foot is complete (that it doesn’t lack the final unstressed syllable).  The second line is, he says, heptameter catalectic [hepta-seven, meter-measure].  I take exception with Poe on this.  “Catalectic” generally means that the last foot is missing the final unstressed syllable so these lines would actually be catalectic octameter—either that or heptameter with an added syllable, which is said to be hypercatalectic.  With this much background you should be able to guess what tetrameter catalectic is:  [ON-ly][THIS and][NOTH-ing][MORE].  As you can see, it is catalectic or shortened tetrameter [tetra-four, meter-measure], so he got this one right.  (Actually, this sort of analysis is just a framework for a reading, and no writer (or reader) should ever observe it exactly.  In fact, I don’t believe that the poem is trochaic at all, even though that is the usual way of talking about it.  My reasons for doubting that any extended poem can be trochaic are given in the essay, “Dactyls and Trochees.”) 


It is worth noting that Poe isn’t entirely honest when he claims that the poem is “unique” in the combination of the lines into stanzas.  He dedicated “The Raven” to Elizabeth Barrett (Browning) because, he says, he admired the passion of her poem, “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship,” a poem he had reviewed in 1845.  As it happens, it is written in almost the same poetic form.  Let’s look at its last stanza:


Softened, quickened to adore her, on his knee he fell before her,

And she whispered in low triumph “It shall be as I have sworn.

Very rich he is in virtues, very noble—noble certes;

And I shall not blush in knowing that men call him lowly born.”


All we need to do is to add is one more line and a refrain, and we will have the same stanza that Poe uses.


The American Review note finds nothing strange about the octameter lines, but most lines of English verse are made up of four or five feet.  Long lines present a problem for readers, and what makes them work in this poem is the marked pause or caesura in the exact middle of the lines, together with the internal rhyme.  One old English poetic line was the “fourteener,” an iambic heptameter line.  A fourteener couplet (stanza of two rhyming lines) was broken up to form the “ballad stanza,” a four line stanza which has alternating four-foot and three-foot lines with the three-foot lines rhyming.  Let’s do the same sort of thing to “The Raven,” breaking it into three sections to see what its basic structure really is:


Once upon a midnight dreary,                                 A

while I pondered weak and weary,                         A

Over many a quaint and curious                              X

volume of forgotten lore,                                          B


While I nodded, nearly napping,                              C

suddenly there came a tapping,                               C

As of some one gently rapping,                                C

rapping at my chamber door.                                  B


“Tis some visitor,” I muttered,                                 X

“tapping at my chamber door—                              B

Only this, and nothing more.”                                  B


The letters to the right of the poem identify the rhymes, the letter A representing [-eary] which is used twice in succession; the X not rhyming; the B being a new rhyme [-ore] which occurs at the end of all three sections; the C being a new rhyme [-apping], which occurs three times in succession; and the second X being unrhymed, just as the first one was.  If you break down the other stanzas you will see that they all fit into this plan with only the slightest of deviations.  We could describe the poem as it appears here as trochaic tetrameter with the last line in each section being catalectic, as is the refrain.  It has a “rhyme scheme” of AAXB CCCB XBB.


Rewriting the poem in this way makes it much easier to see why it works so well, even though the lines are long.  We are reading the more familiar tetrameter lines, not octameter lines, and that is essentially what we do in reading the printed version.  Before discussing the poem’s merits, let’s see what sort of overall shape it has.  About half of the remaining stanzas are given below:



Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.


Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”


Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blest with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”


But the Raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”


This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er
She shall press, ah, nevermore!


Then methought the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer

Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.

“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee

Respite—respite and nepenthe, from thy memories of Lenore!

Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”

Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”


“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.”


“Be that word our sign in parting, bird or fiend,” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
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 lamp-light 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!


Despite its celebrity, this is a terrible poem.  First, we have the melodramatic setting, almost like an etching of Faust in his study (this is probably deliberate):  volumes of forgotten lore (and if they are there to be read, who did the forgetting?), a bust of Pallas (Athena, goddess of wisdom), purple curtains, violet cushions, etc.  Then we have the absurdity of the lines.  In the second stanza, Lenore is said to be “Nameless here for evermore,” but her name is repeated throughout the rest of the poem.  We have a “stately raven” with the “mien of a lord” that is almost immediately referred to as an “ungainly fowl.”  There is the absurdity of the diction.  The lamplight “gloats” over the cushion (could this possibly be some sort of error for “glows”?).  The imagined angels’ footsteps “tinkle” on the floor.  And if footsteps can tinkle at all, could they tinkle on a carpeted (“tufted”) floor?  Then there are the simple inanities.  He addresses the bird as “prophet still, if bird or devil” and goes on to implore it in the name of the “God we both adore.”  Birds adore God?  Devils adore God?  And at the end, the lamplight streams over the bird that is on the bust above the door, and casts a shadow on the floor, defying all laws of projective geometry.


Throughout, there are the highly touted alliterations and rhymes.  The bird is “stately,” but enters with “many a flirt and flutter.”  Isn’t “stateliness” freedom from flirting and fluttering?  What’s more, this raven is immediately recognized as being “of the saintly days of yore,” whatever that can mean.   And there is the invention of something called “Aidenn” when he needs a rhyme for “maiden.”  The poem is a collection of inane details pulled out of a hat to provide the poet with alliteration, rhyme, and the right number of syllables.


Poe tells us that everything up to the last few stanzas is “accountable”–that it is believable. The last line of the last stanza, however, is supposed to tell us plainly what we have only been guessing at:  the raven is “emblematical of Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance.”  It has sometimes been suggested that the lover progresses from sanity to madness in the poem, but there is only one voice telling us this story from beginning to end, a matter of a few moments.  In other words, if he goes mad, the “sane” voice is also the voice of the madman.  Or are we to believe that the insane man is gradually cluing us in to his insanity as he becomes more emotional?  In other words, is it a sort of poetic twist on “The Tell-Tale Heart”?  And, unless one is trying to get an article published, why should she care?


The editors of the Norton Anthology of American Literature get it almost right when they say, “the problem of determining the nature of a given work—imitation?  satire?  spoof?  hoax?—is crucial in Poe criticism.”  (One might add “bombastic rubbish” to the list.)  The only way to redeem the poem is to argue that it is deliberate self-parody, and that, of course, assumes that much of what he writes is a fit target for parody.  Swinburne parodies himself in “Nephelidia,” but it is hard to believe that the self-aggrandizing Poe could bring himself to do such a thing, except ironically.  Nonetheless, this poem was widely parodied after it appeared.  The note prefixing “The Raven” refers to the “curious introduction of some ludicrous touches amidst the serious and impressive,” and that may be a kind of self-defense.  (At least one well-qualified reader, Elizabeth Barrett, said the poem made her laugh.)  We are also entitled to wonder what parts of it are “serious and impressive.”  Poe profits greatly from scholarly questions about the nature of his work for they keep alive many things that are best forgotten—except by scholars.  Unfortunately, the same sort of questions can be asked about “The Philosophy of Composition.”


Let’s look at that essay, which claims to tell us how “The Raven” was composed.  To understand what to make of Poe’s explanation, it is necessary to know something about how he regarded himself (or how he wanted to be regarded by others!).  The hero of several of his stories, including “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” is Auguste Dupin whose interminable but infallible logical processes can penetrate into crimes that would baffle anyone else.  Poe thought of himself as being like that—an unwitting caricature of French rationality—and he sometimes falsified his birth date to make it seem that he was even more precocious than he was.  Thus, although he is technically an American Romantic (and his taste for the supernatural and mysterious bears that out), he can’t for an instant allow anyone to believe that his every thought isn’t directed by the most perspicacious ratiocination (he liked long words, too).  No muses for him—just cold reason.


And how does he say that he went about writing “The Raven”?  “It is my design” he says, “to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referrible [sic] to accident or intuition—that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.”  These are the steps he said he followed:


1)  Decide how long it should be.  It must be short enough to be read at one sitting since that ensures that it will have a powerful effect.  Remembering that “the brevity must be in direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect” he decides that about 100 lines is the best length.  (Notice the pseudo-scientific jargon.)


2)  Decide what effect is wanted.  This is easy since “beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem. . . . that intense and pure elevation of the soulnot of intellect, or of heart . . . .”  And he means all poems, not merely this one, but where does that leave Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 173,” Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” or Hopkins’ “Thou art indeed just, Lord”?  And ultimately, where does it really leave “The Raven”?


3)  Decide what tone should be achieved.  This is easy, too, since “beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears.”  Thus we must have “melancholy.”  (“Invariably”?  Where does he get these sweeping generalizations?)


4)  Decide what “key-note” can be used as a “pivot upon which the whole structure might turn.”  (Ah ha!  We need a refrain.)


5)  Decide what sort of refrain might be used.  A single word is best since its application is to be varied, and “in proportion to the brevity of the sentence, would, of course, be the facility of the variation.”  (His essay frequently borders on the unintelligible.)


You will notice that he hasn’t yet decided what he wants to write about.


6)  Decide what the word (the refrain) should be like.  Since the refrain will be coming at the end of the stanzas (for Poe, the stanzas are just a “corollary” of the idea of using a refrain), we need something sonorous, like the “long o,” which is “the most sonorous vowel,” to be used “in connection with r as the most producible consonant.”  (This is linguistic nonsense—what about m as a producible consonant, or n?  Many languages don’t have our r.)


7)  Now to pick the word (drumroll) . . . “nevermore.”


Are you beginning to think that this is just pretentious nonsense?  You should be, but there is more to come.


8)  Decide what can be done to prevent the use of this word from becoming monotonous.  He tells us “I did not fail to perceive, in short, that the difficulty lay in the reconciliation of this monotony with the exercise of reason on the part of the creature repeating the word.”  We need a speaking animal that isn’t very bright, and a raven is far more lugubrious than a parrot.


9)  Decide what the most melancholy topic is.  That would be death.  And what makes death most poetical (which means involving beauty)?   That would be the death of a beautiful woman, and this tells us that a “bereaved lover’ is the best human voice to put in the poem.


10) Decide how to connect the raven’s utterances with the lover’s.  We need to make the bird’s utterances be a series of answers to yet more fevered questions until the reply “should involve the utmost conceivable amount of sorrow and despair.”


11) Now he writes a climactic 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.”

Quoth the raven “Nevermore.”


He does this now so that he can “graduate the stanzas which were to precede, so that none of them might surpass this in rhythmical effect.  Had I been able, in the subsequent composition, to construct more vigorous stanzas, I should, without scruple, have purposely enfeebled them . . . .”  (Of course, he could just have rewritten this one to make it more “vigorous,” but that is apparently unscientific.)


12) Decide how to bring the lover and the raven together.  “A close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident.”  That being true—whatever it means—he puts the lover in his chamber.


13 etc.) We need to introduce the bird; we need to make it stormy to explain the bird’s wanting to come in; we need to have it alight on the bust of Pallas to contrast its color with the bust’s; (we apparently like the sonorousness of “Pallas,” even though it doesn’t have long o’s); we need to work our way from jesting inquiries to more serious questions; we need to contrive “such queries to the bird as will bring him, the lover, the most of the luxury of sorrow, through the anticipated answer, ‘Nevermore.'”  (Poe thinks masochism is a universal motive.  Hmmmm!)


So that’s that, and I am certain that no-one has ever written a poem following such an asinine procedure, though Poe referred to this essay as his “best specimen of analysis.”  Ordinarily, people have something in mind that is the germ of a poem—an image, a phrase, a situation.   But if Poe did write “The Raven” in the way he claims to have done, that might explain why it is such an awful poem.  And this only leaves us with one question:  why should the “Philosophy of Composition” ever be reprinted except in collections of Poe’s complete works?  It is tiresome, turgid, sesquipedalian, overweening balderdash and the worst possible advice for aspiring writers.


I really think that both of these works should be regarded as either tedious drivel or satirical hoaxes.  The only problem with the latter alternative is that it’s not quite clear what they could be satirizing.  Poe actually wrote a rather heavy-handed satire “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” which gives better advice than “The Philosophy of Composition,” at least insofar as it declares that one should have a subject in mind at the beginning of the writing process!

You may think you’re educated, but the story you related

In your reverie, “The Raven,” is mistaken, Mr. Poe.

Gothic readers were delighted, but the “birders” all felt slighted

At the ignorance, benighted, you displayed for you should know

That all black birds are not ravens, that’s a fact that you should know—

                                 Very truly yours, The Crow