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Unformatted text preview: The Philosophy of Composition Edgar Allan Poe (18091849) C HARLES DICKENS, in a note now lying before me, alluding to an examination I once made of the mechanism of Barnaby Rudge, saysBy the way, are you aware that Godwin wrote his Caleb Williams backwards? He first involved his hero in a web of difficulties, forming the second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done. 1 I cannot think this the precise mode of procedure on the part of Godwinand indeed what he himself acknowledges, is not altogether in accordance with Mr. Dickens ideabut the author of Caleb Williams was too good an artist not to perceive the advantage derivable from at least a somewhat similar process. Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dnouement before anything be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dnouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention. 2 There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesisor one is suggested by an incident of the dayor, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrativedesigning, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent. 3 I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in viewfor he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interestI say to myself, in the first place, Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select? Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can be best wrought by incident or tonewhether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and toneafterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect. 4 I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who wouldthat is to say, who coulddetail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to saybut, perhaps, the autorial vanity has had more to do with the omission than any one other cause. Most writerspoets in especialprefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzyan ecstatic intuitionand would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thoughtat the true purposes...
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This note was uploaded on 01/12/2012 for the course ELIT 48A taught by Professor Juliepesano during the Fall '10 term at DeAnza College.
- Fall '10