Literary Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe

About Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe was an American poet and short story writer. He was born in 1809, in Boston. He popularised the genre of gothic and detective fiction. He is considered a proponent of Dark Romanticism because he generally wrote works full of mystery and horror. Poe did not identify himself as a transcendentalist. The majority of his literary ideas were expressed in two of his essays.

The Philosophy of Composition and The Poetic Principle

The Philosophy of Composition was an 1846 essay in which Poe laid down his literary theory. He cited the example of one of his own poems, titled “The Raven”, to show his theory at work. The Poetic Principle was another essay by Poe published posthumously, in 1850. Most of the opinions expressed in this essay shows Poe’s inclination towards Romanticism, but these also show that his variant of Romanticism was somewhat different from that of the Transcendentalists and the English Romantics. 

Poe’s Romanticism

Much like the English Romantics Mary Shelley and Lord Byron, Poe also popularised the Gothic genre. Many of Poe’s short stories deal with darker realities like death and decay. Horror was a favourite literary genre and dead bodies, dark characters, murders, graves, ravens etc. were his favourite subjects. The death of a beautiful woman, as Poe stated in The Philosophy of Composition, was “unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world”. 

Poe further added that the bereaved lover was the most suitable narrator or speaker to tell his tale of woe and loss. This was because such a pitiful figure would hold the sympathies of the readers and thus make them share his pain of loss. This favourite literary trope shows that Poe believed that by appealing to the sympathies and emotions of the readers, a work of literature could achieve its end, which was, to cause “the single effect”.

Another key concept of Poe’s literary theory was given in the same essay. Poe asserted that how a work of literature is supposed to end is to be determined beforehand by the writer before beginning the writing process. By this, he intended to say that only when a writer knows what feelings, responses or effects he aims to evoke in his readers, can the writer write well. He conceptualised this as the “Unity of effect”. This again shows that the emotions or responses of the readers were a primary concern for Poe, just like they had been for most Romantic poets and writers.

Poe disapproved of didactic literature. This was in keeping with the romantic movement that focussed more on the pleasure derived from art or literature. He disavowed the popular view that literature should teach or instruct. 

Poe’s dislike of didacticism is furthered by his assertion that literature should be primarily read for its aesthetic qualities. This obsession with beauty and pleasure was also central to the English Romantics like Wordsworth. The Poetic Principle clearly voices Poe’s advocation of the idea of art for art’s sake, or in his case, the “poem written solely for the poem’s sake”.

Unlike Wordsworth who believed that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions, Poe stated that good writing requires a logical method. The English Romantic poet ST Coleridge had stated in his Biographia Literaria that a dream had inspired the poem Kubla Khan and that its creation had been spontaneous. Poe held a contrary view in this regard. 

In his essay The Philosophy of Composition, Poe also stressed on the need for a literary work to be brief. He asserted that shorter poems or stories enable the readers to enjoy the works better. A longer work ceases to entertain the reader and this defeats the very purpose of literature, that is, creating the desired effect. A poem longer than about 100 lines leads to the loss of what Poe called “the totality of impression”. Thus, only a poem or story that could be read in one sitting was the ideal one because it would sustain the effect intended by the writer or poet. 

Poe’s Conception of Nature and Beauty

Nature which was central to Romanticism was treated in Poe’s poetry by relating it to mysterious and the macabre. Poe asserted that beauty of nature has the power to elevate the heart. In The Philosophy of Composition, Poe stated that “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem”. His assertion that “the most pure pleasure is found in the contemplation of the beautiful”, voices the very essence of the Romantic movement.

Poe’s Romanticism Summed Up

It is important to remember that though Poe is considered a Romantic, his romanticism was different from the one practised by the American Transcendentalists. In fact, he criticised Transcendentalism for its emphasis on “mysticism for mysticism’s sake”. His literary principles included an emphasis on brevity of poetry, the emotional effect of literature on the reader, a repeated stress on valuing literature for its aesthetics and a disregard for literature that aims to dictate morals.