EP&M Online Essay

On “The Poetic Principle”

essay by

Edward Zuk

One of the most influential – and therefore one of the most dangerous – essays in American literature is Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Poetic Principle.”  I have chosen the word “dangerous” carefully.  In literature there are shifts in taste that are too successful, ideas that triumph too completely, arguments that become so widely accepted among poets and critics that they are no longer argued for, but instead appear to be common sense.  These ideas spread throughout the literary culture, shaping poems without their authors being fully aware of why their works take a certain form or why some ways of writing seem to be modern or natural while others seem artificial or outdated.  The ultimate effect of these received ideas may be benign or malignant, leading to the writing of good or bad poems, but they always limit poetry by forcing it into certain directions to the exclusion of others.  Due to their influence promising projects are laid aside or left undeveloped, and worthy poems that fail to conform to the prevailing biases are ignored or ridiculed until a later generation comes along to resurrect them.

“The Poetic Principle” is an essay that has permeated our poetic unconscious so completely that we are no longer aware of its influence.  When it first appeared, it must have seemed like an original, though curious and contrarian, work.  In the years after the major Romantic poets had staked their reputations on long poems like Wordsworth’s The Excursion or Keats’s Hyperion fragments, Poe argued that “a long poem does not exist.”  In the decade before Tennyson published his summary of his age’s philosophical doubts and Christian faith in In Memoriam, Poe maintained that “with the Intellect or with the Conscience, [poetry] has only collateral relations.”  And, long before such ideas became commonplace, Poe believed that poems should be built on intensity, unity of effect, and the immediacy of the poet’s impressions.

But if “The Poetic Principle” failed to shape the poetry of the nineteenth century, it did define the taste for the type of poem that would fill the pages of literary journals in the twentieth:  the short lyric that culminates in a single emotional effect, whose subject matter is either an idealized nature or the author’s reflections and impressions.  It may seem strange to attribute the typical modern poem to Poe, whose own poetry does not resemble the short, confessional lyric in the least.  Yet today “The Poetic Principle” reads like a rationale for modern taste.  Other revolutions would establish free verse, colloquial language, and confessional subject matter as the basis for the majority of American verse.  But it was Poe who first argued for the superiority of the short poem, denied the worth of any long poem not constructed as a series of linked fragments, and tilted the subject matter of poetry toward the impressionistic lyric. 

To review the major arguments of “The Poetic Principle” is to see the extent of its effects on contemporary poetry.  The following is a summary of Poe’s major positions that have influenced recent poets (I have omitted other arguments whose influence has long passed, like the call for a “pure poetry” that resembles music):

1.  A suspicion of the long poem.  In his opening paragraph, Poe states that “I hold that a long poem does not exist,” that “the phrase, ‘a long poem,’ is simply a flat contradiction in terms.”  The demand that a poem be short (but not so short as to “degenerate into mere epigrammatism”) is Poe’s first criterion for poetic excellence; at one point of his essay he asserts that poem should be able to be read at one sitting, or roughly half an hour.  “The ultimate, aggregate, or absolute effect of even the best epic under the sun, is a nullity” he writes, so that epics become “artistic anomalies.”  Poe is so certain of the triumph of the shorter poem that he states that “it is at least clear that no very long poem will ever be popular again.”

2.  Intensity as the sole effect of a poem.  Poe regards intensity as the key to aesthetic judgement.  “A poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul,” he argues, adding that “the value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement.”  A “cool, calm, unimpassioned” mood, Poe writes, is “the exact converse of the poetical”; a poem is “a wild effort”; music is the “most entrancing of the Poetic moods” when “we find ourselves melted into tears”; in poetry “we are often made to feel, with a shivering delight”; poems struggle to relay “that pleasure which is at once the most pure, the most elevating, and the most intense.”  Long poems fail because “that degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length.  After a lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags – fails – a revulsion ensues – and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such.”

3.  Unity of effect.  To help create a poem’s intensity, Poe calls for a unity of effect, or a “totality of effect or impression,” in which the merits or atmosphere of one section will not be at odds with that of another, lesser section.  For Poe this principle is “that vital requisite in all works of art.”  Since any reading of Paradise Lost involves “a constant alteration of excitement and depression,” Milton’s poem leads to a “nullity” in terms of its “absolute effect.”  Poe argues that reading the books of an epic in a different order would lead to a different reaction from the reader, again revealing the failure of the long poem, this time in its inability to produce a single impression.  The appreciation of an epic, Poe argues, is possible only when “we view it merely as a series of minor poems,” each capable of producing one impression on the reader.

4.  The elevation of Beauty over Truth.  Poe argues that a poem should express a “Poetic Sentiment” rather than morality or truth.  Truth has only a minor role in poetry because it demands a “cool, calm, unimpassioned” mood that is alien to any poem, which should be passionate and intense.  This conflict leads to a “radical and chasmal differences between the truthful and the poetical modes of inculcation.”  In addition, the belief that a poem should have a moral point is “a heresy too palpably false to be long tolerated.”  In place of truth or morality, Poe writes, poetry deals with the beautiful and the sublime, with emotional categories rather than with rational or ethical ones.  “Its sole arbiter is taste,” and “with the Intellect or with the Conscience, it has only collateral relations.”  Truth or calls to duty may have a role in a poem, but only if “the true artist will always contrive to tone them down in proper subjection to that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the real essence of the poem.”

5.  The dominance of the lyric.  At the end of “The Poetic Principle,” Poe provides a list of “simple elements” that invoke “the true poetical effect.”  To be understood, this list needs to be read in full.  The poet:

 recognises the ambrosia which nourishes his soul in the bright orbs that shine in Heaven, in the volutes of the flower, in the clustering of low shrubberies, in the waving of the grain-fields, in the slanting of tall eastern trees, in the blue distance of mountains, in the grouping of clouds, in the twinkling of half-hidden brooks, in the gleaming of silver rivers, in the repose of sequestered lakes, in the star- mirroring depths of lonely wells.  He perceives it in the songs of birds, in the harp of Æolus, in the sighing of the night-wind, in the repining voice of the forest, in  the surf that complains to the shore, in the fresh breath of the woods, in the scent  of the violet, in the voluptuous perfume of the hyacinth, in the suggestive odour  that comes to him at eventide from far-distant undiscovered islands, over dim  oceans, illimitable and unexplored.  He owns it in all noble thoughts, in all unworldly motives, in all holy impulses, in all chivalrous, generous, and self- sacrificing deeds.  He feels it in the beauty of woman, in the grace of her step, in  the lustre of her eye, in the melody of her voice, in her soft laughter, in her sigh,  in the harmony and rustling of her robes.  He deeply feels it in her winning endearments, in her burning enthusiasms, in her gentle charities, in her meek and  devotional endurances; but above all, ah, far above all, he kneels to it, he worships  it in faith, in the purity, in the strength, in the altogether divine majesty of her love.

Setting aside the Poe’s romanticism, we see that this list reveals three main subjects for poetry:  nature, noble human motives and actions, and love.  The subjects of nature and love push poetry toward the lyric.  While narrative poetry is allowed for in the “deeds” that Poe mentions, the emphasis on the poet’s reactions (“he recognizes,” “he perceives,” “he owns,” “he feels”) suggests that he had lyric meditations on noble deeds, rather than a narrative description of them, in mind.

Over time, these ideas have become accepted as the proper way to write a poem, in effect determining the poetic landscape.  Dana Gioia, in “The Dilemma of the Long Poem,” imagined an observer surveying modern American poetry and finding only these types:

 The panoply of available genres would seem reduced to a few hardy perennials  that poets worked over and over again with dreary regularity – the short lyric,   the ode, the familiar verse epistle, perhaps the epigram, and one new-fangled  form called the “sequence,” which often seemed to be either just a group of  short lyrics stuck together or an ode in the process of falling apart.  Amid this  myriad of shorter work he would see only a few poems longer than six or seven pages – most of them massive and complex undertakings running many  times the length of the average thin volume . . . they were mostly difficult,  allusive works not governed by a narrative or expository structure.
In other words, poetry has been reduced to a variety of shorter lyrical forms and longer poems conceived as a series of connected lyrics, precisely those forms championed by Poe.  The defining feature of this poetry, and of Poe’s poetic taste, lies in its rather severe limitations.  “The Poetic Principle” foresees and justifies that narrowing of poetic range which took hold of the twentieth century, that conception of poetry which encouraged poets to limit themselves to a few well-used lyric types striving for intense, emotional effects.

For Expansive poets, the restriction of sensibility that Poe pioneered has been a disaster.  The five principles that I have summarized above helped banish the satire, epic, folk ballad, light verse, and witty epigram from the poetic canon.  The narrative long poem, in spite of its distinguished history of both popular and critical success, also disappeared with the rise of the shorter lyric.  The revival of these genres, of course, lies at the heart of the Expansive movement’s project.  As a result, Expansive poets will read “The Poetic Principle” with skepticism, even with cynicism.  In reply to Poe’s arguments, an Expansive poet might point out the following:

1.  By sacrificing the very short and long poem, Poe has restricted the possible range of poetry.  Contrary to Poe’s prejudice, there would seem to be nothing objectionable about the epigram that would make “mere epigrammatism” into an insult.  And, when it comes to the long poem, Poe’s prediction that “no very long poem will ever be popular again” has proven to be spectacularly wrong.  Long narratives such as Longfellow’s Evangeline and The Song of Hiawatha were wildly popular late in the 19th century, as were E. A. Robinson’s Arthurian poems early in the twentieth.  When Poe’s taste triumphed at last and extended works were written as a series of lyrics, the long poem did indeed wane in popularity, but the Expansive movement managed to resurrect it by reviving the book-length narrative.  Vikram Seth’s novel in verse, The Golden Gate, was one of the most widely-read poems of the 1980’s.
2.  While some poems do produce a feeling of intensity, many do not.  Light verse, for example, cannot be described as intense, and the pastoral and verse epistle strive for other effects.  Juvenalian satire may be intense, but Horatian satire aims for urbanity and wit.  Verse comedies are, for the most part, alien to feelings of intensity since laughter tends to dissipate tension rather than to increase it.  Meditations, whose mood tends to be one of thoughtfulness, also lie outside of Poe’s taste.  In fact, only a few of the recognizable modes of poetry have intensity as their proper aim.  A more catholic taste, which most readers share, effectively refutes Poe’s argument about the central importance of intensity to poetry.
3.  Poe’s demand for a unity of effect is an artificial one.  Few critics besides Poe have maintained that a long poem should be “devoutly admired throughout” equally in all its parts.  Nor is it clear that a unity of impression is desirable.  Audiences welcome the chance to experience a wide variety of moods, some of greater or lesser intensity, as the continued popularity of Shakespeare’s plays reveal (Shakespeare’s art, one can say with little exaggeration, is based on contrasts).  Feeling “a constant alternation of excitement and depression” is not a fault, but a pleasure in itself.  In fact, denying the ability of an author to vary the mood and intensity within a work would destroy some of the greatest scenes in literature.  The quiet ending of Paradise Lost rises to the sublime because of the contrast with the grand actions that precede it, and the porter scene in Macbeth would be average comedy if it did not follow Duncan’s murder.  Few readers would want to view these scenes as shorter, independent poems to maintain their unity of impression.  The contrast, they intuit, is the secret of their power. 
4.  Few would deny that aesthetic pleasure is one of the goals of poetry, or that beauty and the sublime have an important role to play in aesthetics.  But it is not clear that truth and morality play a secondary role in poetry, since it is nearly impossible in practice to separate the beautiful from the true or the good.  An appreciation of a satirical poem, for example, relies on the reader’s ability to recognize and acknowledge the truth of its attack.  If a person believed that all citizens are paragons of virtue, Pope’s witticism that during court cases “wretches hang, that jurymen may dine” would seem like mere perverseness.  In philosophical or meditative poetry, it is difficult to judge how much of a line’s effect is due to its meaning, and how much is due to art.  Dante’s inscription over the gates of Hell, FECIMA LA DIVINA PODESTATE, LA SOMMA SAPЇENZA E  ’L PRIMO AMORE (“My Maker was Divine Authority, The Highest Wisdom, and the Primal Love” in Allen Mandelbaum’s translation) is a sublime moment in poetry.  But are these lines powerful because of Dante’s verbal art, or because the thought itself is sublime? 
5.  Excluded from Poe’s list of poetical subjects are verbal wit, criticisms of society, an exploration of the darker parts of the human psyche, laughter at human folly, religious doubt, evil, most of the events from history, ethical questions, science, politics, and so on.  These omissions are enough in themselves to show the limitations of Poe’s ideals.

In crafting these replies to Poe’s arguments, I have tried to reveal the extent that the ideals of plurality and exploration are realized in Expansive poetry.  By advancing a taste for a single type of poetry to the exclusion of many others, and by arguing for the poetical principle rather than a poetic principle, Poe helped to create a taste for intense lyric poetry while denigrating other types of verse.  It is to the credit of the Expansive movement that its poets quickly recognized this problem and worked towards reviving those genres that had been set aside.  In doing so, they have started the process of over-turning the current prejudice in favour of shorter poetry or the long poem written as a series of fragments.  As their movement has grown, Poe’s ideas have slowly loosened their hold on contemporary poets, allowing for the exploration of other modes and genres.  What has emerged is a belief in the desirability of a variety of forms and a plurality of aims, a conviction of the necessity of utilizing the full range of poetic techniques and genres.  I for one hope this sea-change in our poetry will prove to be permanent.

                                                                                Edward Zuk

Edward Zuk of Surrey, British Columbia is a widely-published critic whose last appearance on Expansive Poetry & Music Online was in "Easy Poetry."