The Mathematical Poet: Exploring Edgar Allan Poe’s Logical Imagination

May 24, 2017 | 1 6 min read

What if I told you there almost wasn’t a raven in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”? What if I told you that, instead of having his nameless narrator drive himself mad beneath the shadow of a grim and stately raven of the saintly days of yore, Poe almost went with a parrot?

I agree with your derisive scoff. But the truth is this ridiculous hypothetical isn’t quite as ridiculous or hypothetical as you might think. It’s absolutely true — for a split second, Poe was going to write “The Parrot.”

The reason this seems so instinctually wrong has a great deal to do with our collective idea of Poe. While even people uninterested in literature were probably forced to read a couple of his short stories or poems in school, that alone can’t account for his iconic status in pop culture. To give just one example, his face appears on countless t-shirts, which are usually jet-black and adorned with dead-eyed ravens, chalk-white skulls (sometimes his own, poking through his flesh), and other equally chipper images, along with the occasional quote about insanity or despair. Not that such merchandise needs to add much to get across a macabre vibe — with his sunken eyes, bulging forehead, and perpetual grimace he apparently thought counted as a smile, Poe’s face alone conveys the dark tone of the dark world with which we associate him.

The problem is that this idea of Poe marketed to people through shirts and mugs and so much more is an unfair caricature of a profound and multifaceted artist. I’ll admit that there are more than enough heartbroken men sleeping alongside dead lovers in crypts and mass murders at masque balls — and that’s without going into the weird stories — to justify seeing Poe strictly as a horror writer. But he wrote far more than simply horror. For instance, those who are familiar with more than just his most famous works likely know about his character C. Augustin Dupin, a coldly logical detective so similar to Sherlock Holmes it’s easy to forget that Holmes was influenced by Dupin, not the other way around. As much as he had a permanent impact on horror, Poe was just as important in the development of detective fiction.

But what truly makes Poe so unique among authors is the mathematical philosophy underpinning his work, and there is no better way to appreciate the strange synthesis between art and science Poe achieved than by examining his essay, “The Philosophy of Composition.” This essay offers invaluable insight into how Poe created “The Raven,” and offers hope to any of us who have ever picked up a pen and tried to translate the hurricane of nameless emotions within us into words so that we might better understand ourselves.

Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition” could almost have been titled, “The Anti-Poetic Manifesto.” That’s because before he gets to explaining precisely how “The Raven” came to be, he spends the first few paragraphs launching a savage attack against the idea of poets he believes most people possess. Specifically, he loathes the idea that poets are some kind of elevated species, far more insightful and wise than the rest of the slobbering masses. But he doesn’t blame us for this misleading impression; he blames writers. Early on, Poe claims, “Most writers — poets in especial – prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy — and ecstatic intuition — and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes.” This charge brings to mind a letter John Keats wrote to John Taylor on February 27, 1818, in which he said, “…if Poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” Keats might not have claimed to be inspired by a “fine frenzy” or “ecstatic intuition,” but there is still a sense that great poetry either bursts out of us perfectly polished from the start or…not, with no in-between. Poe, in contrast, not only disagrees, but believes great poetry can only exist by working through that in-between. Put another way, Poe does not treat poetry as a gift someone must be born with to possess at all, but a craft that can be honed through practice. And if it really is a craft, well, then why couldn’t any of us write “The Raven”?

You might be derisively scoffing for the second time, but why not? If nothing else, “The Philosophy of Composition” argues forcefully and repeatedly that good writing is the result of good choices. The key is to know what questions to ask, something Poe teaches us through an examination of every choice he made to produce “The Raven,” going so far as to say that his essay will “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.”

Poe isn’t kidding. He goes into such meticulous detail that it would be impossible to discuss every choice. To give a taste of the essay, however, it’s worth examining how some of the most famous elements of “The Raven” came to be.

To begin with, how did he come up with the subject of the poem? First, Poe considered “Beauty…the sole legitimate province of the poem,” or, more specifically, “the contemplation of the beautiful.”  Poe also believed “Melancholy is…the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.” Put these two ideas together, and Poe concluded that “the death, then, of a beautiful woman is…the most poetical topic in the world — equally is beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such a topic are those of a bereaved lover.”

Moving onto more mechanical elements, how did Poe come up with the haunting, “Nevermore”? Well, first he decided using a refrain at all would be a good idea because so many great artists have used it before, and, “The universality of its employment sufficed to assure me of its intrinsic value, and spared me the necessity of submitting it to analysis.” Then, he decided the refrain should be brief and determined on the “character” of the word by noting that “o” is “the most sonorous vowel, with r as the most producible consonant.”

But how to naturally insert the refrain? This question puzzles Poe at first. After all, if he was going to have a dialogue with two characters, it would be hard to imagine how one could always appropriately respond with the same word to the other’s, presumably varied, questions. Unless, that is, one person in this dialogue was not a person, but an animal. This leads to my favorite line in the essay, where Poe explains “very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone.” So while Poe only considered using a parrot for a moment, the fact he considered it at all once again demonstrates the open, dispassionate, and logical approach he used (plus it makes for a fun story).

cover“The Philosophy of Composition” is worth reflecting on for three reasons, regardless of whether you are a Poe expert or neophyte. First, it thoroughly traces the writing process. There have been plenty of critical essays on the writing process at least as far back as Aristotle’s Poetics, where he argues for the three unities (time, place, and action), contrasts the strengths and weaknesses of epics versus tragedies, etc. But Aristotle was critiquing the works of others, primarily Homer and Sophocles. Here, Poe is critiquing Poe with the objectivity of a scientist studying a specimen under a microscope.

The essay also shatters the facsimile of Poe peddled by popular culture. As soon as you step outside his most famous stories and poems, you will see Poe’s intimidatingly vast knowledge all sorts of subjects, including Greek, Latin, mythology, philosophy, and science, with references to Apollo, Charles Babbage, Seneca, and Francis Bacon, to name only a few. You will also see how frequently mathematics are evoked, whether in stories as disparate as “The Purloined Letter” or “Ligea” or in his other technical works, such as “The Rationale of Verse,” where he declares that, “[Verse] is exceedingly simple; one tenth of it, possibly, may be called ethical; nine tenths, however, appertain to mathematics.”

But the third, and most important, reason this essay should be read more is the way it democratizes writing. It’s easy to fall into the misconception Poe tries so hard to dispel in his essay about poetry being the result of a “fine frenzy.” I certainly find it hard to believe that the eeriness of the line, “And its eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming” or the mysterious beauty of the opening lines of “Annabel Lee” – “It was many and many a year ago, in a kingdom by the sea” – are the result of logic. Yet for Poe they were precisely that, the results of deciding on the right answers after asking the right questions.

“The Philosophy of Composition” proves you don’t need to wait for, let alone be born possessing, poetic inspiration to write well. And that is an inspiring idea.

Image Credit: Flickr/Kevin Dooley.

is a musician and writer who lives in Rochester, NY. His political essays and book reviews have been published by Current Affairs and AlterNet. He also reviews fiction and nonfiction on his blog, Working Title Bookshop. Seidel can be found on Twitter at @MatthewJSeidel.

One comment:

  1. Thanks for this piece. I’ve always been fascinated with this little essay from Poe.

    I have to say, though, that I’m put off by your comment in the final section about how “The Philosophy” essay “shatters the facsimile of Poe peddled by popular culture.” I suppose this is true to the extent that “The Philosophy” (like the other lesser known works you mention) shows that there’s more to Poe than just a few creepy stories that we spool out round about the end of October. But it’s also fair to say that “The Philosophy” was itself actually meant to “peddle” a certain “facsimile” to popular culture. That’s to say, many have argued that the essay is a satiric exaggeration if not outright joke. Even though he died destitute, Poe was a shrewd self-promoter and a cannily self-aware celebrity. However serious we take this image of Poe as the anti-Romantic democratizer of art (as you set him up here), he’s also surely the trickster who is packaging this image to continue to capitalize on his most successful work, “The Raven.” You write about “The Philosophy” like it’s supposed to rescue Poe from pop culture–to put him with the polymathic Greats who wouldn’t deign to be packaged and marketed. But Poe himself had pop appeal in mind when writing both “The Philosophy” and, perhaps more importantly, “The Raven.”

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