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November 23, 2009

Edgar Allan Poe describes, in an essay titled The Philosophy of Composition, the process he followed in composing The Raven, and how the actual writing of the poem began upon the penning of a certain stanza near the end of the poem:

Here then the poem may be said to have its beginning–at the end, where all works of art should begin . . .

Earlier in the essay Poe details how the denouement must first be fully elaborated in mind before the pen ever touches paper.

It is only with the denouement 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.

Poe then proceeds to enumerate eight steps of invention before penning the first lines of The Raven followed by two additional steps of composition.  He makes it very clear “that no one point in its [Raven] composition is referrible 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.”

A composition, according to Poe, must unfold with the end firmly fixed in view.  Everything in the composition must consistently and rightly conform to the point of destination.

I have been asked by students why they must work on their conclusion before the introduction during the process of writing an outline.  At first, this does not make sense to a student–especially if the student is of the mindset to accomplish a task in a linear, progressive, and mechanistic fashion.  That is, is it not, how the assembly line model works?

Yet the nature of rhetoric requires a determined amount of patience and humility to first see and understand a thing before faithfully attributing to it the words that will (must) rightly express it.  Haste is no bedfellow to good writing or speech.  Beginning with the end firmly in view grants the writer clarity of purpose, unity of thought, and order to expression.


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