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Justyna Magdziarz, IMA

Philosophy of Composition by Edgar Allan Poe and Preface to Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth - comparison and analysis.

The Romantic period all over the world saw a full bloom of emotional and lyric poetry that sprang from a strong revolutionary reaction towards the scientifically oriented and highly rationalized Age of Reason. As Carter and McRae assert in their History of Literature in English (1997: 220), poetry, being the most significant and influential literary form at that time, "sought to overturn the existing regime and establish a new, more 'democratic' order." Still, not only was poetry in its prime during the 19th century. Numerous works of literary criticism that tried to boil down poetry to its bare essence also became popular. Among the most often cited ones, and ones that exerted a huge impact on the literature, are Poe's Philosophy of Composition and Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads. Notwithstanding, despite the fact that they were both hailed as poetic manifestos, being very much in the spirit of Romanticism, upon a thorough analysis, their postulations are surprisingly different if not even contradictory in nature.

Poe's Philosophy of Composition was published in 1846 and since then, it has become one of the most vividly discussed essays on literature all over the world. Today, it continues to be a subject of a heated debate of the critics who ponder on a burning question of whether it is an authentic description of Poe's method of writing or rather one of his numerous literary hoaxes. Be that as it may, a theory elucidated by Poe in his essay gives some valuable insights into the process of making the poetry of one of the greatest and perhaps most mysterious literary figures of the American Romanticism.

Already in the beginning of his essay, Poe elaborates on a chief element of great poetry which, according to him, is an "effect". It is actually a keyword that, as Polonsky notices (2004: 51), recurs "with insistent regularity throughout [the essay], sometimes more than once within a single sentence." Poe states that a good poem needs an internal organization and therefore, a skillful poet ought to start his process of writing from knowing the end and having the climax already in his mind: "[i]t is only with the dnouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation"1. By the dnouement, he means a final resolution of the intricacies of a plot that produces a desired effect on the readers. This effect, however, is not a by-product of a poem, as Poe emphasizes, but its sole essence, an outcome that is carefully calculated by a poet beforehand. The unity of this effect is a central idea of the philosophy of Poe's composition, but it does not amount only to unity of design or plot. As Wilson notices (1926: 677), "[i]t is the mind of the reader upon which he is working, not the texture and fabric of the thought expression." Hence, the readers and their reactions to a literary work become the main object of Poe's interest when creating his poetry, while words, as well as all the literary devices like alliterations, rhymes, and metaphors, are there in a poem only to trigger off these reactions. Furthermore, near the end of his introduction, Poe dismisses the notion of an artistic intuition as a fundamental force in the creation of poetry. He suggests that poets simply prefer to pretend that their works are born on the spur of the moment, as a result of this "ecstatic intuition" (EP, 101), as it makes them feel God-like. In reality, however, writing, Poe argues, is a long, arduous process of "selections and rejections" that is made to produce a specific effect, not to "satisfy some transcendent inner compulsion of (...) enraptured soul" (Polonsky 2004: 51). To prove the cogency of his argument and show that he has no qualms about depicting the inner workings of his poetry, contrary to his fellow-writers, Poe chooses his own poem, The Raven, as a perfect example of a composition that is neither accidental

1 All citations of Poe's Philosophy of Composition are taken from the following edition of the essay Poe, Edgar Allan. [1846] 1999. "Philosophy of Composition", in: Leonard Cassuto (ed.), Edgar Allan Poe. Literary Theory and Criticism. New York: Dover Publications, 100-110 - and abbreviated henceforth as EP followed by a page number.

nor spontaneous. Indeed, he demonstrates that his poetry is governed by the unity of effect achieved by several solutions proposed by him in the essay. Firstly, he discusses the proper length of a work of art which for him is of utmost importance to arrive at the desired unity of effect. Poe claims that a literary work should be read at one sitting because otherwise, the aforementioned unity will be broken. Thus, before he started writing The Raven, he decided first that it should be about one hundred lines long in order to produce an intended effect. Furthermore, he focuses on the choice of an appropriate effect of a poem and opts for the sense of beauty as the most elevating and intense impression a poem can have on its readers and their souls. On the contrary, the provinces he chooses for prose, an inferior, in his opinion, literary form, are Truth, "the satisfaction of the intellect", and Passion, "the excitement of the heart" ( EP, 103). Beyond the shadow of a doubt, they both stand in a stark opposition to "the elevation of the soul" (EP, 102) which is Beauty. Having established the most desired effect of a poem, Poe moves on to discuss the tone that will express this effect most forcibly. He affirms that "Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears" (EP, 104). Thus, the lyrical I should speak in a rather melancholic voice and the poem itself should be embedded in a gloomy atmosphere. What is also vital for Poe, when it comes to achieving the unity of effect, is "some artistic piquancy which might serve (...) as a key-note in the construction of the poem" ( EP, 104). This central and integrating part of a literary work can be created, Poe says, by means of a refrain that should consist of a single word only. Though it may look at first like a mere repetition that remains unvaried in its form throughout the whole literary work, if skillfully applied, it actually acquires new meanings as a poem unfolds. What is more, since Poe always emphasized that the ideal form of art is music, it is hardly a surprise for anyone that a refrain, according to him, in order to produce an intended effect, should possess some musical properties. Thus, what seems at first an innocuous choice of words is actually a well-thought-out conjunction of sounds. In The Raven, for instance, the famous epistrophe "[n]evermore", with sonorous vowel 'o' and producible consonant 'r', not only preserves

the melancholic tone of a poem, but also embodies the very musical harmony. Harmony in a poem was also achieved by Poe by using different literary devices such as alliterations. Kopley and Hayes assert in their work (2004: 191) that Poe's use of alliteration is "effectively contributing to the lulling, incantatory quality of the language" which only strengthens the totality of effect throughout the whole work. Perhaps the most popular, as well as most widely examined, is Poe's postulation regarding his ideal topic of a poem, namely the death of a beautiful woman which is both melancholic and poetical in nature. As Pruette notices (1920: 380), women depicted by Poe are not real human beings: "they are not warm flesh and blood, loving, hating or coming late to appointments they are simply beautiful lay figures around which to hang wreaths of poetical sentiments." Instead of playing the role of a protagonist, they are inanimated and treated on a par with literary devices that are only meant to enhance the unity of effect, especially that of Beauty, in a given poem. Another vital phase for Poe in the creation of poetry is versification which should be marked by originality and novelty. In other words, a poet, according to Poe, through painstaking work, rather than artistic intuition, ought to take well-worn words and phrases and combine them into verses and stanzas in such a way that our perception of them is changed and in a way refreshed. This can be achieved through the usage of such literary devices as rhyme and alliteration, to name but a few. Drawing to a close, Poe describes the ideal locale of the poem, the space within which its action takes place. He comes to a conclusion that the best setting is one that is closed and limited because it emphasizes thus the isolation and suffering of an entity depicted in a poem: "a close circumscription of space (...) has the force of a frame to a picture" ( EP, 107). In The Raven, Poe decided to place his protagonist in a chamber which haunts him with memories of his late beautiful lover a locale that further reinforces the final effect of a poem. Finally, Poe suggests that certain contrasting ideas presented in a poem enhance the effect it has on its readers. By setting The Raven, for example, in a tempestuous night, he clashes the chaos and disorder of the outside world with the stillness and melancholy of the chamber. Also the fantastic overtone that surrounds the bird in the

poem is mixed with "the most profound seriousness" (EP, 108) of the grief-stricken lover. Yet, everything that is happening in the poem remains within the bounds of possibility and there is no hidden agenda in the verses until the very end of the poem where the raven eventually becomes a symbol of "mournful and never-ending remembrance" (EP, 110). This simplicity and straightforwardness is what, according to Poe, distinguishes a great poem from its mere imitation: "[i]t is the excess of the suggested meaning (...) which turns into prose (...) the so-called poetry of the so-called transcendentalists" (EP, 110).

To recapitulate, Poe's Philosophy of Composition dismisses the notion of the post-Kantian aesthetic philosophy that sees poetry as a spontaneous, intuitive creation of the verses. Quite the contrary, it unmasks all the intricacies underlying a poetic work of art which support Poe's view of poetry being akin to a mathematical or scientific analysis (Polonsky 2004: 49). The major objective of each poet in the process of this analysis, through the application of a proper tone, theme, versification, setting, and inner incongruities, should be the production of an effect that will stimulate the readers. All these revelations, although took in stride at first, exerted an immense influence on the literary scene all over the world and Poe himself, through his essay, "marked out boundaries for American Romanticism and its succeeding movements that few writers have been able, or even perhaps dared, to cross" (Gray 2004: 124).

Lyrical Ballads, a groundbreaking collection of poems published in 1798, was a collaborative work of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge two most outstanding figures of the English Romanticism. Still, the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, printed first in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads in 1800, was the sole work of Wordsworth that contributed to his worldwide recognition both by literary critics and the readers. It has become a seminal poetic manifesto that was "the first theoretical argument in the history of English poetry for a radical

review of the language of poetry" (Carter and McRae 1997: 232). Though written more or less in the same period as Poe's Philosophy of Composition, Wordsworth's essay, when compared to its American successor, shows numerous substantial differences.

In the introduction to his essay, Wordsworth claims that he does not want to lay down a theory upon which his poems were created but, urged by his friends and responsibilities towards the public, he felt committed to write a few words about his unique, for that time, poetry. Already in the beginning, he asserts that the poems he creates stand in an opposition to the literary heritage of the 18th century that was characterized by an ornamental language, abundance of literary devices, and incomprehensible ideas: "[t]hey who have been accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to its conclusion, will, no doubt, frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness"2. Indeed, the central idea of his essay is the simplicity of the poetic language which should describe events from everyday life in a manner as close to people's everyday speech as possible. Still, according to Wordsworth, a poet ought to "throw over [words] a certain colouring of imagination" (WW, 271) in order to grant them some kind of novelty. This idea relates to that presented by Poe in his Philosophy of Composition were ordinary words are combined in verses in such a way that it is possible to elicit new meanings from them. Nonetheless, Poe achieves this "estrangement" through the usage of numerous literary devices while Wordsworth, at least in theory, prefers to avoid them as, according to him, they move the language away from the reality. "Capricious habits of expression", that are unduly employed in poetry, separate poets from ordinary people creating thus, as Wordsworth calls it, "food for fickle tastes" (WW, 271). When it comes to the topic his poetry, though, instead of the death of a beautiful woman, Wordsworth, who was much closer to transcendental ideas of an all-encompassing, divine

2 All citations of Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads are taken from the following edition of the essay Wordsworth, William. [1800] 1909. "Preface to Lyrical Ballads", in: Charles William Eliot (ed.), The Harvard Classics Vol. 39. New York: P.F.Collier & Son, 269-291 and abbreviated henceforth as WW followed by a page number.

nature rather than to Poe's dark romanticism, opts for the humble and rustic life as the greatest subject of poetry: "in that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated" (WW, 271). What is more important, however, is that he claims that each poem must have a worthy purpose for which it was written. This idea correlates in some way with Poe's notion of effect that every good poem must produce on its readers. Nevertheless, much as Poe argues that a poet should always start his writing from knowing the effect, Wordsworth admits that he often finds himself with no definite purpose formed in his mind beforehand. Indeed, as Wynn points out in his essay (1951: 5), in Wordsworth, "it is the proper feeling to begin with, and this is going to dignify action that is often deliberately left lame and inconsequential." Actually, the feeling, along with the simple language, is a core element of Wordsworth's theory of poetry. The most popular phrase taken from his essay, namely that "all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" (WW, 272), expresses an idea that is counter to Poe's view of poetry as an analytical process of "painful erasures and interpolations" (EP, 101). When it comes to discussing the style of his poetry, Wordsworth maintains that a poem in its language and construction should not differ from that of the prose, except for the meter. He even takes it as far as to demonstrate that poetry and prose are actually the same: "[t]hey both speak by and to the same organs; the bodies in which both of them are clothed may be said to be of the same substance, their affections are kindred, and almost identical, not necessarily differing even in degree" (WW, 276). For Poe, poetry and prose are two completely different literary forms with the previous one having Beauty as its province and the latter one, and simultaneously an inferior one, representing Truth and Passion. Near the end, Wordsworth reflects on the role a Poet performs in the society. Poe, who was preoccupied with evoking in his readers a certain psychological state through his poetry, can indeed be seen as "a priest or a shaman, using his arts to entice us into a rejection of the here and now even a kind of magician who is attempting in effect to enchant us, or simply trick us, into forgetting

the laws of the ordinary world" (Gray 2004: 120). Wordsworth's image of a Poet complies to some extent with that of Poe, but there is one major difference. On one hand, he writes that a Poet is "a man endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind" (WW, 278). He is someone who is extremely passionate and sensitive and whose powers of imagination are infinite for he has an ability to see absent things as if they were present. On the other hand, Wordsworth, referring to the platonic allegory of the cave, says that a Poet only recreates the spoken words and thus, he imitates through his verses people's actual passions. As a consequence, he can produce only "certain shadows" (WW, 278) of these passions and not fully fledged emotions. Still, a Poet should not resort to elevated language to compensate for this evident shortcoming of his poetry. In such a case, he would be more like a translator trying to "surpass his original, in order to make amends for the general inferiority to which he feels that he must submit" (WW, 279). A good Poet should know that the object of poetry, as Aristotle once said, is truth and therefore, all efforts aimed at distorting this truth (for example by using an ornamental style) ought to be condemned. In one aspect, however, both Poe and Wordsworth are compliant. Poe manifests throughout his whole essay that a Poet must convey to his readers a sense of beauty, an aesthetic pleasure. Wordsworth affirms that indeed, "[t]he Poet writes under one restriction only, namely, the necessity of giving immediate pleasure to a human Being" (WW, 280). He compares him to a Man of Science, as they both deal with nature and truth, and at the same time grants him superiority saying that Poetry is "the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge, (...) the countenance of all Science" (WW, 281).

All in all, Wordsworth's postulations developed in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads changed the literary scene of 19th century England as more and more writers became influenced by the values he so compellingly disseminated in his essay. The use of simple, authentic language and

rustic, everyday events mixed with a certain mode of originality definitely separated English Romanticism from the loquacious concepts and poetic diction of Augustan Classicism and made it an autonomous literary period that enjoyed a great popularity. One could say, following McEathron (1999: 4), that what Wordsworth did was simply verbalizing, by means of rhetorical expressions, concepts that were long advocated by many plebeian poets in the history of literature. Nevertheless, never before had anyone postulated them with such a power of persuasion and authenticity as Wordsworth did in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads.

The two essays, analyzed here in detail, prove that a great discrepancy may appear between the beliefs of authors who live and create during the same literary period. Poe's Philosophy of Composition and Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads, although they share some common ideas such as the importance of the aestheticism in art or the notion of a Poet as an exceptional entity, in fact contradict each other in their postulations regarding poetry. The most obvious differences include the method of writing, themes, and language. While Poe sees poetic creation as a hard, mental labor, Wordsworth affirms that poetry is born spontaneously out of deep-seated feelings and emotions. For Poe, the best topic is the death of a beautiful woman whereas for Wordsworth, it is the affirmation of nature and rural life. Finally, where Poe uses alliterations and symbols to enhance the overall effect of a poem, Wordsworth relies on actual, everyday speech of ordinary people. Notwithstanding, both essays, in spite of presenting different attitudes towards writing, were acclaimed by the critics all over the world and till this day continue to inspire and instruct many poets on how to create great poetry.


Carter, Ronald and John McRae. 1997. "The Romantic Period: 1789-1832", in: Routledge History of Literature in English. London: Routledge, 217-268. Gray, Richard. 2004. "The Making of American Myth", in: History of American Literature. Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 105-129. Kopley, Richard and Kevin J. Hayes. 2004. "Two verse masterworks: The Raven and Ulalume", in: Kevin J. Hayes (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. London: Cambridge University Press, 191-204. McEathron, Scott. 1999. "Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads, and the Problem of Peasant Poetry", Nineteenth-Century Literature 54, 1: 1-26. Poe, Edgar Allan. [1846] 1999. Philosophy of Composition, in: Leonard Cassuto (ed.), Edgar Allan Poe. Literary Theory and Criticism. New York: Dover Publications, 100-110. Polonsky, Rachel. 2004. "Poe's aesthetic theory", in: Kevin J. Hayes (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. London: Cambridge University Press, 42-56. Pruette, Lorine. 1920. "A Psycho-Analytical Study of Edgar Allan Poe", The American Journal of Psychology 31, 4: 370-402. Wilson, James Southall. 1926. "Poe's Philosophy of Composition", The North American Review 223, 833: 675-684. Wordsworth, William. [1800] 1909. Preface to Lyrical Ballads, in: Charles William Eliot (ed.), The Harvard Classics Vol. 39. New York: P.F.Collier & Son, 269-291. Wynn, Dudley. 1951. "William Wordsworth and the Virtues of Contemplation", The News Bulletin of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association 4, 1: 4-6.