Critical Essays Poe's Critical Theories


Edgar Allan Poe is considered to be America's first significant literary critic or, at least, the first major writer in America to write seriously about criticism, about the theory of composition, and about the principles of creative art. He was also the first to set down a consistent set of principles about what he thought was acceptable in art and what should be essentially rejected in art.

As an editor of a magazine, Poe's views on literary criticism were influenced by the nature of the short works of art that would appeal to the magazine-reading public. But irrespective of his journalistic position, his critical views on the nature of what was and was not acceptable in a work of art have become famous and have had an enormous influence on subsequent writers.

Poe's major theories can be found (1) in the many reviews he wrote analyzing the writings of other authors; in this genre, his most famous review is entitled "Twice-Told Tales," a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's short stories; (2) in the many letters, epistles, and applications he sent for jobs, or as answers he gave as an editor, among the more famous being the one entitled "Letter to B_____"; (3) in the various editorials he wrote for the magazines he was associated with, "Exordium" being one of the best examples of this type; (4) in the official critical articles he wrote, in which he attempted to present in a logical, coherent manner his critical views; as examples, "The Poetic Principle" and "The Philosophy of Composition" both contain the unified core and basis of Poe's critical theories, and these two essays alone suffice to give one a full understanding of Poe's critical views; (5) and, finally, in the critical principles that can be drawn from Poe's writings themselves, principles which he did not include in his critical dicta (dictums) per se.

Among Poe's greatnesses was his ability as an editor to recognize great literature and to dismiss insignificant works. For example, Poe was the first major, or influential, writer to recognize the genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne. In his review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, Poe says that "Mr. Hawthorne is scarcely recognized by the press or by the public . . . yet . . . he evinces extraordinary genius, having no rival either in America or elsewhere." This critical recognition of Hawthorne, therefore, attests to Poe's keen critical faculties; few critics have made such wholly accurate summations about a writer's talent which subsequent generations of critics have verified.

In Poe's review of Twice-Told Tales and in his two main essays on criticism, "The Poetic Principle" and "The Philosophy of Composition," we have access to Poe's critical statements — stated, restated, emphasized, and applied to his own works ("The Philosophy of Composition," for example, deals in detail with his methodology of composing his most famous poem, "The Raven"), and not only does he apply his own principles to his own works but he applies them to the works of other writers for critical evaluations. From these cited works, we can easily compile certain key principles that Poe consistently believed in and used. These include his emphasis on (1) the unity of effect, (2) his rejection of allegory and didacticism, (3) the epic poem's being a non-poem, (4) the brevity of a work of art, (5) the appeal to the emotions, (6) the ideal subject matter for art, and (7) the importance of emotional responses; in addition, each of these separate ideas is closely associated with the others. For example, because Poe put such importance on creating an effect that would appeal to the emotions, he rejected all works of primitive art or works based on a primitive sense of art. Likewise, he believed that didactic writing was for the pulpit and had no place in the realm of artistic creation. Anything that appealed solely to the intellect could not be considered art because art existed in the world of the beautiful, the refined, and the aesthetic. Consequently, Poe, as a Romantic writer, dismissed most of the literary works of the eighteenth century, a period which concerned itself mainly with satire. For Poe, satire could create no sense of the beautiful within the reader. And also, much of eighteenth-century literature is epigrammatic (something short), and Poe believed that the epigrammatic approach to art could not create a lasting emotional impression within the reader. Writings that were moralistic or allegorical were likewise unacceptable to Poe because they failed to appeal to one's sense of beauty.

More than any other principle, Poe emphasized the unity of effect that one should strive for in any work of art. For example, words and phrases that occur and re-occur in Poe's various critical writings include the following: "to affect," "the totality of impression," "the unity of effect," "the novelty of the effect alone," and "the single effect," and these are only selected examples of his repetition of the value of this principle; Poe's writings contain many more examples of this emphasis. By these statements, Poe meant that the artist should decide what effect he wants to create in the reader's emotional response and then proceed to use all of his creative powers to achieve that particular effect: "Of the in-numerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart or the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?" ("The Philosophy of Composition"). Fear, for example, was often the effect Poe chose for many of his short stories and every word and every image was carefully chosen to create an effect of fear within the mind of the reader. (In regard to this, see the critical discussions of "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Tell-Tale Heart," and "The Pit and the Pendulum.") After choosing the effect that one desires, the artist should then decide on the best manner to achieve that effect, whether by incidents or plot, by narration, or by a peculiar tone, or by a "peculiarity both of incident and tone . . . looking . . . for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid . . . in the construction of the effect" ("Philosophy of Composition").

In much of his poetry, the effect he most aimed for was one of beauty and melancholy. "The most elevating and the most pure pleasure is found in the contemplation of the beautiful," he said in the same essay, and "if beauty is the province of the poem, then the tone should be one of sadness. . . . Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones." As a result of these views, Poe felt that the most effective subject for a work of art was the death of a beautiful young lady; this is perhaps Poe's most famous and most often repeated dictum, and, furthermore, to achieve the greatest amount of emotional melancholy, the death of the beautiful young lady should be expressed by the lips of the bereaved lover. As examples, we have "Annabel Lee," "Lenore," "Ligeia," "To Helen" and numerous other works on this subject. And even though Poe did recognize other subjects as legitimate topics for art (he did praise Hawthorne, who very rarely concerned himself with a beautiful, dying woman), the death of a beautiful woman remained Poe's favorite subject. In his own words, he writes: "The death, then, 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" ("Philosophy of Composition").

In conjunction with the unity of effect, we have Poe's dictum on the appropriate length of a work of art. Poe holds that "a long poem does not exist . . . that the phrase 'a long poem' is a flat contradiction in terms." Therefore, a work of art should be able to achieve its effect in one sitting. For this reason, Poe believed that the greatest art was contained in a poem of about 100 lines (his most famous poem, "The Raven," is 108 lines long), and Poe, in a similar vein, believed that the short story should be of a length that one could read it in one sitting. The totality of effect, he said, was destroyed if two sittings were required for a work of art.

Such long poems as Paradise Lost were, for Poe, a series of poems. If the purpose of art — a poem, or a short story — is to excite and elevate the soul, then "after the lapse of half an hour," the mind cannot sustain such pure emotion. Consequently, Poe's theory about the length of the work of art — "to be read in one sitting" and no more than "half an hour" — has influenced many subsequent writers.

In terms of Poe's actual practice of writing literature, the reader or critic can deduce certain principles that Poe himself never set down, but that he practiced again and again as an author. For example, Poe is considered to be the father of the modern detective story. Concerning this, certain critical principles associated with the writing of the detective story are presented in the introduction to and discussions of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter," yet Poe himself never wrote down a unified critical principle which should govern the writing of a detective story. One can see, however, that the literary principles that Poe employed in writing his own detective stories, in large part, are universal principles that apply to a major portion of all detective fiction being written today.

Poe also wrote about the unity of effect, but he never wrote about the use of a closed environment, per se, to achieve that unity of effect. However, as we look at the totality of his creative work, we see that a large portion of his works takes place in a very closed environment. The following selected examples do not exhaust Poe's use of this principle, but they do give us a good idea of the importance he placed on this device: "The Cask of Amontillado" occurs in an underground, closed vault; "The Pit and the Pendulum" takes place within the closed confines above a pit; "The Fall of the House of Usher" is set in the closed confines of a decaying castle; and the action in the poem "The Raven" takes place within a closed room or possibly, as some say, within the narrator's mind; similarly, the people in "The Masque of the Red Death" are locked behind closed iron gates and confined within a closed castle, "William Wilson" is told within the frenzied mind of a schizophrenic, and the action of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is confined within a closed room. The application of this principle can also apply to the major portion of Poe's works; it is clearly one of Poe's prime precepts for an ingredient of the short story.

In conclusion, although many people do not agree with Poe's theories, they have nevertheless been the subject of continual discussion. One could also point out that Aristotle, the world's most famous critic, lived about 380 B.C., yet his theories are still valid and provocative and are still discussed, even though few artists and writers today adhere strictly to his critical principles. Some of Poe's theories may seem, at times, to be out of style when one compares them with the current theories of no form at all, or nonobjective writing, but as long as Romantic literature is read, Poe's critical theories and principles will continue to be important.