Hot on the heels of Charles Ardai’s discussion concerning verse as short story and Rob Lopresti’s account of ballads as crime fiction, Edgar Allan Poe, the inventor of the mystery short story, weighs in on the subject. Being Edgar Allan Poe, he has a lot to say, so I’ve divided his column into four parts. This piece was originally published in 1846.
THE PHILOSOPHY OF COMPOSITION
(part 1 of 4)
by Edgar A. Poe
CHARLES DICKENS, in a note now lying before me, alluding to an examination I once made of the mechanism of “Barnaby Rudge,” saysâ€”â€œBy the way, are you aware that Godwin wrote his ‘Caleb Williams’ backwards? He first involved his hero in a web of
difficulties, forming the second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done.”
I cannot think this the precise mode of procedure on the part of Godwin â€” and indeed what he himself acknowledges, is not altogether in accordance with Mr. Dickens’ idea â€” but the author of “Caleb William” was too good an artist not to perceive the advantage derivable from at least a somewhat similar process. Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dÃ©nouement before any thing be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dÃ©nouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.
There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis â€” or one is suggested by an incident of the dayâ€”or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrativeâ€”designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.
I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view â€” for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest â€” 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?” Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can best be wrought by incident or tone â€” whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone â€” afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.
I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would â€” that is to say, who couldâ€”detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to say â€” but, perhaps, the autorial vanity has had more to do with the omission than any one other cause. Most writers â€” poets in especial â€” prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy â€” an ecstatic intuition â€” and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought â€” at the true purposes seized only at the last moment â€” at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view â€” at the fully matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageableâ€”at the cautious selections and rejections â€” at the painful erasures and interpolations â€” in a word, at the wheels and pinions â€” the tackle for scene-shifting â€” the step-ladders, and demon-traps â€” the cock’s feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of the hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.
I am aware, on the other hand, that the case is by no means common, in which an author is at all in condition to retrace the steps by which his conclusions have been attained. In general, suggestions, having arisen pell-mell, are pursued and forgotten in a similar manner.
For my own part, I have neither sympathy with the repugnance alluded to, nor, at any time, the least difficulty in recalling to mind the progressive steps of any of my compositions; and, since the interest of an analysis, or reconstruction, such as I have considered a desideratum, is quite independent of any real or fancied interest in the thing analysed, it will not be regarded as a breach of decorum on my part to show the modus operandi by which some one of my own works was put together. I select “The Raven” as most generally known. It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referrible either to accident or intuition â€” that the work proceeded step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.
Next week, Poe discusses proper length, emotional effect, literary tone, and emphasis by enforced repitition.