There are some pieces of writing from my previous degrees with which I feel happy enough that I might like to share them. I’ll be replacing my Revisiting posts some months with FtPA (From the Personal Archive) posts instead. Today, I would like to share one of the journals I wrote for a course on the American Gothic with Sandra Tomc at the University of British Columbia. This one concerns some of the strangeness involved in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition.” As you’ll see, I drew a bit from ideas I explored with Michael Snediker in my undergraduate program, shared in a previous FtPA. At the end of the year, we were to gather these journals together into a final paper. I titled mine “How to Haunt: Journals on the American Gothic.” I might share more of these later.
An Accidentally Intended Effect
At the end of “The Philosophy of Composition”, Poe writes, “…but it is not until the very last line of the very last stanza [of ‘The Raven’], that the intention of making him emblematical of Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance is permitted distinctly to be seen […]” (442). Poe’s claim here seems untrue; I, at least, notice this emblematic function appear as early as the fourteenth stanza. Moreover, Poe’s assessment here stands out because Poe, in an otherwise very careful and precise explanation of this composition, does not—perhaps cannot—indicate the moment at which he decided that the raven would be an emblem of “mournful and never-ending remembrance.” He does explain that the “artistical eye” requires “some amount of suggestiveness – some under-current, however indefinite, of meaning” (441), and that this consideration prompted him to add the final stanzas, but the process by which he decided that this would be the thing of which the raven was an emblem evades us. In fact, it seems almost ludicrous that Poe would have composed “The Raven” without having this idea already formed, since, as I said, I notice the under-current he describes appearing well before the last two stanzas. Therefore it seems possible that Poe merely identified a “meaning” that was already there; if this is the case, Poe works more by intuition than he cares in this essay to admit. However, despite Poe’s failure to enact what he prescribes, he does highlight an element of the artistic process well worth highlighting in the context of the American Gothic: that the function of the genre is to produce an effect (or affect), and that poets do not need to be rehearsing their own experiences of it to produce that effect.
Poe justifies the furnishings of the chamber in “The Raven” by claiming it is “a mere pursuance of the ideas I have already explained on the subject of Beauty, as the sole poetical thesis” (438); this idea is much like a naïve taste in photography, in which a beautiful photograph is a photograph of a beautiful thing. Such a naivety is perhaps understandable in photography, which is a visual medium and therefore can be influenced by its visual subject. In poetry, however, this idea is less sensible; as Poe himself indicates, both tone and sound are critically important to the production of beauty in verse. I will not touch on Poe’s assertion that sadness is the most beautiful of tones because beauty produces tears—I avoid it because I don’t know where to start when dismissing it—but I will point out that the strangeness of his resolution that “the death […] of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world – and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such a topic are those of a bereaved lover” (436): this claim universalizes to a degree that Dupin, for instance, would disdain. Even within the confines Poe offers, some people might prefer to read about a beautiful woman who is mourning the death of her lover or her child—and even if we insist on a male speaker, that speaker could be observing such a scene. All of this is to say that Poe, whatever he might think, does not really know his readers.
Poe’s failures here to anticipate his readers does, however, highlight the more philosophical point of the essay. Poetry, particularly published poetry, is not necessarily or primarily a vehicle for self-expression, whatever the presumptions Poe’s contemporaries might have held. Poetry is instead an attempt on the part of the author to produce a particular effect in the reader. In dispensing with the insistence that the effect must be beautiful in some narrow sense, such an observation becomes particularly fruitful in looking at Gothic fiction and its relatives, which rely on effect—or the supposition of it—for its inclusion in the genre. A poet, then, who can accurately anticipate—or perhaps I should say calculate—readers’ experiences should then be well placed to produce Gothic fiction, or poetry as Poe understands it. This produces an interesting question, however, when Poe apparently fails to understand the reception of his own work. I want to bring up the possibility that Poe, in “The Philosophy of Composition,” is toying with his readers—an exercise of which Poe seems more than capable given the gaping plot holes and endless exposition in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket—but even more so I want to pose a question: how is it that a poet so capable of producing a certain effect, in setting out deliberately to produce it, not know how it is that he succeeds at doing it?