Poetic Principle

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Edgar Allan Poe (1809—1849) American short-story writer, poet, and critic

Philosophy of Composition


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Lecture by Poe, delivered in various cities (1848–49) and posthumously published in The Union Magazine (1850). Partly an elocutionary vehicle, it contains short poems by Willis, Longfellow, Bryant, Shelley, Thomas Moore, Hood, Byron, and Tennyson.

Developing the theories already stated in “The Philosophy of Composition” and other places, Poe declares that “a long poem does not exist…. A poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul…. That degree of excitement… cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length.” This is true because of “that vital requisite in all works of Art, Unity,” and the “absolute effect of even the best epic under the sun is a nullity.” He proceeds to “the heresy of the Didactic”: “there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble than [the] poem which is a poem and nothing more—[the] poem written solely for the poem's sake.” The proper mood for teaching a truth is completely opposed to the poetic mood. Poetry arises in the passionate reaching out “to apprehend the supernal Loveliness,” to attain a vision, however brief, of the ideal beauty which is usually beyond our ken. “I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words as The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty. Its sole arbiter is Taste.” Love, “the purest and truest of all poetical themes,” is the highest variety of beauty, and beauty is “the province of the poem…. The incitements of Passion, or the precepts of Duty, or even the lessons of Truth, may… be introduced… but the true artist will always contribute to tone them down in proper subjection to… Beauty.”

Subjects: Literature.

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