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Essay on poetics by Edgar Allan Poe, first published in Sartain's Union Magazine, October 1850 (apparently posthumously, since Poe lived 1809-1849).

Summary: According to Poe, the “Poetic Principle” is the human desire for supreme beauty, which is in practice rendered as an “elevating excitement of the soul.” Its only truck with passion, reason, or moral duty as such are incidental; the pursuit of supreme beauty is primary in the poem.

In “The Poetic Principle,” Poe proposes that the aim of poetry is to engender a necessarily transitory "elevating excitement" in the soul. He further proposes that a necessary element of any art is unity. (It should be noted that the elevation of the soul is not the same as passion for Poe; passion is associated with the heart rather than the soul and “alas! has a tendency to degrade.”

These two axioms imply, for Poe, that a long work cannot be a perfect work. Either one attempts to read it all at once, losing the elevating excitement that necessarily passes after one has been at it for a while, or one breaks the work into pieces, sacrificing unity. For this reason, Poe critiques the quarterly reviews of his day, which laud “sustained effort” in a writer. Poe finds this an absurd criterion for praise. “The fact is,” says Poe, “that perseverance is one thing, and genius quite another.”

On the other hand, there is such a thing as “undue brevity” for Poe. Too slight a physical presence obviates the possibility of making any real impression (this was before imagism and the discovery of haiku…).

Interestingly, for Poe, the true test of a poem’s worth seems to be its popularity. His argument that a Shelley poem suffers from “undue brevity” is that, despite its “warm, yet delicate and ethereal imagination,” it is little known. Similarly, when observing that length is not in itself a merit, Poe snarks that “If, at any time, any long poem were popular in reality, which I doubt, it is clear at least that no very long poem will ever be popular again.”

Poe also excoriates the notion that “the ultimate object of all Poetry is Truth. … We Americans, especially, have patronized this happy idea.” Poe argues that a “poem which is a poem and nothing more,” a “poem written solely for the poem’s sake,” is the highest form of poetry; poetry should not be didactic, and, conversely, the discourse of truth should not be poetic.

In enforcing a truth, we need severity rather than efflorescence of language. We must be simple, precise, terse. We must be cool, calm, unimpassioned. In a word, we must be in that mood which is, as nearly as possible, the exact converse of the poetical.

Poe outlines a tripartite model of cognition that supports his division between poetry and truth. Poe divides the cognitive realm into “Pure Intellect,” “Taste,” and “Moral Sense,” which respectively pursue Truth, Beauty, and Duty relatively independently. It would not make sense, for Poe, to try to pursue truth using the faculties of taste, any more than the pursuit of beauty would be a matter of conscience or moral sense. He allows that truth or learning can be elements of poetry to good effect, but when they become the work’s primary object, the work ceases to be poetry.

Poe characterizes the experience of beauty as essentially nostalgic and longing; when, through art, a person perceives a fleeting glimpse of what ideal beauty might be possible, he or she is overwhelmed by a desire to attain that ideal beauty, together with a sense of despair that such beauty is unattainable in this lifetime. “It is the desire of the moth for the star,” he writes.

Poe then moves on to discuss several individual (mostly dreadful) poems in fairly general terms, quoting at length. One peculiar move, however, is that a few times he makes as if to analyze a poem in depth, only to end his discussion by offering some reason he cannot quote the poem. For instance, he offers “I would I were by that dim lake” as evidence that Thomas Moore has quite as much imagination as fancy, but cuts his own argument off by writing, in lieu of quoting the poem, “I regret that I am unable to remember the poem.” Similarly, he lauds Thomas Hood’s “The Haunted House” as “one of the truest -- one of the most unexceptionable – one of the most thoroughly artistic” poems. But instead of telling us why he thinks so, Poe writes, “I regret that its length renders it unsuitable for the purposes of this Lecture. In place of it, permit me to offer the universally appreciated ‘Bridge of Sighs.’” Thus while enthusiastically praising certain poetic elements, Poe keeps the reader guessing as to just what those elements are.

It should perhaps be noted that there's a certain ironic tone to this essay; he praises a Longfellow poem when it's clear that, generally speaking, he hated Longfellow's poetry; he also makes a snarky comment about a mediocre Southern poet who, he is sure, would be famous if only he were a New Englander. (This is a bitterness that the New Critics would take up.) I'm not entirely sure that the essay isn't entirely tongue-in-cheek. But his stories do certainly tend to resist the moralizing impulse.

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