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E491 EDGAR ALLAN POE QUESTIONS

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Assigned: "The Philosophy of Composition" (739-50).

"The Philosophy of Composition"

1. On 742-43, Poe says he prefers "commencing with the consideration of an effect" (742), and then begins explaining how he conceived and executed "The Raven" -- a process he describes as having "the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem" (743). Why is this rather a scandalous thing for a poet to admit -- what notions about how poetry should be composed is Poe challenging?

2. On 743-45, Poe itemizes several factors he considered in the course of composing "The Raven." Discuss his rationale for each of these factors. On 744, why is he so careful to distinguish between "soul," "intellect," and "heart" while he is explaining that the proper province of a poem is beauty? On 745, what does Poe apparently mean by "tone"?

3. On 746, Poe comments on the "universal" appeal of a poem like "The Raven." What explanation does he provide for the captivating effect this poem has exercised on its readers from its publication onwards? What kind of pleasure does it afford the poem's speaker and the reader?

4. On 747, Poe addresses the romantic demand for originality in composition. In what sense does he think "The Raven" is original? How does he define originality, and how does this definition differ from the common one?

5. On 749-50, Poe offers some thoughts about the kind of "suggestiveness" appropriate to poetry. What kind of suggestiveness is he referring to, and what value does he ascribe to it? Why does it matter that the reader only emblematizes the bird at the very end of "The Raven"? What criticism does he make of the American Transcendentalists' poetry -- why, according to Poe, does it scarcely amount to poetry at all?

6. A general question: French poets such as Baudelaire and Mallarmé have been among Poe's greatest admirers, and Poe continues, as the Norton editors say, to enjoy a higher reputation in French criticism than in American. What is it about Poe's ideas in "The Philosophy of Composition" that a literary theorist dissatisfied with standard "romantic" ideas about language, intentionality, and art might find attractive?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B., ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 1st ed. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN 0-393-97429-4.


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