Poetic Engineering

I stumbled upon this by an extremely oblique reference1: an essay by Edgar Allan Poe, on “The Philosophy of Composition”. Now if you were laboring under the impression that poetry is composed exclusively out of some sort of “divine madness” and springs forth spontaneously from the poet’s soul — well, Mr. Poe will gladly correct you.

Here he presents a sort of “behind the scenes”, and uses not some academic third party textbook example, but his own famous poem, “The Raven” — so instead of hearing some critic tell you what he thinks the author thought at such-and-such time, hear it from the author itself.

The deconstruction of the poem is quite total, and knowing how a magician performs a trick usually leads to a superbly anti-climactic ‘meh’ moment, so you’ve been warned.

Here’s an abstract that conveys the general idea (emphasis mine):

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 referable either to accident or intuition- that the work proceeded step by step, to its completion, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.


  1. If you must know, a very brief mention (a couple of seconds), in this lecture by Gerald Sussman on the 60th birthday of Dan Friedman. 
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