Edgar Allan Poe: An Innovator of Poetic Style

The name Edgar Allan Poe is associated with a wide range of literary genres, from gothic  horror stories to science fiction to even the first budding detectives stories. As such, Poe is renowned for being a “master of variety”.

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William Abbott Pratt, portrait of Edgar Allan Poe. Quarter-plate daguerreotype copy, circa 1854, of an 1849 daguerreotype.  /  From the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection

One of his greatest contributions as a literary figure, which is sometimes overlooked however, is his innovation with respect to the poetic line, specifically in terms of poetic form and style. As a poet, Poe paid great attention to form and prosody, going so far as to craft his own poetic and literary sensibilities. The style and structure of his poetry, particularly the ways in which he experimented with, and eventually perfected, his own understanding of the poetic line, had a reverberating impact on English language poetry in years to follow.

The musicality of his prosody and the precision with which he crafted his poetic lines impacted the ability of his works to survive throughout the years, maintain and grow in popularity, eventually going on to become eminent works of popular culture. The items gathered here specifically highlight Poe’s role as an innovator of poetic style in these ways.

As a writer, Poe himself clearly paid great attention to poetic form and style. There are numerous accounts of his writing about such poetic principles. His “Letter to B” (1831) and “The Rationale of Verse” (1848) manuscript shown below both draw out his emphasis on the particularities of how he believed poetry should be written and function, formally and stylistically.

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Edgar Allan Poe, "Letter to B." Poems. New York: Elam Bliss, 1831.  /  From the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection

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Edgar Allan Poe, manuscript page from "The Rationale of Verse," circa 1848.  /  From the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection

In his “Letter to B,” Poe explains:

“A poem, in my opinion, is opposed to a work of science by having, for its immediate object, pleasure, not truth; to romance, by having for its object an indefinite instead of a definite pleasure, being a poem only so far as this object is attained; romance presenting perceptible images with definite, poetry with in definite sensations, to which end music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry; music without the idea is simply music; the idea without the music is prose from its very definitiveness.”

In this passage, he not only delineates the function that poetry must take on, but also specifically highlights the role of sound in poetry.

A similar element of musicality in his poetry comes across in one of his most famous poems, “The Raven”. He first published “The Raven” in the February 1845 issue of The American Review: A Whig Journal of Politics, Literature, Art & Science, under the pseudonym Quarles.

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Quarles [Edgar Allan Poe], "The Raven." The American Review: A Whig Journal of Politics, Literature, Art & Science, February 1845.  /  From the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection

Accompanying “The Raven” (1845) Poe also published his essay, “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846) shown below, in which he provided a detailed outline of his process writing the poem, as well as his theory of poetic composition.

 

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Edgar Allan Poe, "The Philosophy of Composition." Graham's Magazine, April 1846.  /  From the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection

The poem’s popularity even landed its inclusion in the textbook, A Plain System of Elocution (1845), as a prime example of poetic diction.

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Edgar Allan Poe, "The Raven." George Vandenhoff, A Plain System of Elocution. New York: C. Shepard, 1845. / From the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection

Expanding on the notion of Poe as a major innovator of the poetic line, it worth noting the impact of his preoccupation with poetic innovation, prosody, and sound on his other works of poetry, as well as the poetic adaptations such works have lent themselves to. In his poem “Eulalie” (1845), shown below, there is clear experimentation with the stanzaic form and varying line lengths. The final lines of the stanza go on to be as long as 16-syllables, in trochaic octameter. This is an echo of the long lines in “The Raven” as well, which is also written in lines of trochaic octameter.

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Edgar Allan Poe, "Eulalie," The American Review, July 1845. / From the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection

Other poems, such as “The Bells” in the book The Bells (1881), shown below, have lent themselves to adaptation with vivid accompanying illustrations, and show the musical rhymes and diction that add to the poetic experience.

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Edgar Allan Poe, The Bells. Porter and Coates, 1881. / From the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection

Others such as “Annabel Lee” have even been composed alongside music with the poetic lines substituted for lyrics, as shown in the song composed by John Philip Sousa below. Another popular version of the song was sung by Joan Baez.

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John Philip Sousa, "Annabel Lee: Song," lyrics by Edgar Allan Poe. Philadelphia: Thomas Presser Co., 1931. / From the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection

Elements of rhyme, meter, alliteration, and internal rhyme, among others, have augmented the poetic characteristics of the works’ enduring musicality and ability to survive in both the literary and popular imagination of generations to follow.

 

References

“The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore.” Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore – The Life and Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Feb. 2017. <http://www.eapoe.org/index.htm&gt;.

“The Enigmatic Edgar A. Poe in Baltimore & Beyond: Selections from the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection.” The Enigmatic Edgar A. Poe in Baltimore & Beyond: Selections from the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Feb. 2017. <http://exhibits.library.jhu.edu/exhibits/show/enigmatic-edgar&gt;.

“Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849).” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2017. <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/edgar-allan-poe&gt;.

 

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