Dénouement: the final outcome of the main dramatic complication in a literary work; the outcome of a complex sequence of events; the end result
Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before any thing be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement 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.
In 1846, a year after “The Raven” was published, Edgar Allan Poe wrote “The Philosophy of Composition”, a prose essay explaining his famous poem. A friend and former employer of Poe’s, George Rex Graham (who had declined to be the first to print “The Raven” — a poem he didn’t like — the previous year), would publish the essay in his April issue of Graham’s American Monthly Magazine of Literature and Art.
There are some critics who contend that Poe’s essay is purely fictitious, meant to be nothing more than a piece of imaginative writing instead of a serious examination of his haunting poem. In my opinion, this idea is absolutely ludicrous. “The Philosophy of Composition” is a remarkable piece of literature revealing Poe’s carefully thought-out process of writing. It is an invaluable tool to writers, both professional and amateur alike. Why this essay isn’t a mandatory study in every high school English class in the world is beyond me.
Poe is quick to point out that many writers, poets in particular, are only too happy to have the reader believe “that they compose by a species of fine frenzy — an ecstatic intuition —” when in reality, as Poe will continue to describe in exquisite detail, that could not be further from the truth.
… it will not be regarded as a breach of decorum on my part to show the modus operandi by which one of my own works was put together… It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its 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.
What I found most enlightening about Poe’s essay was seeing how his writing process was remarkably similar to the process I use when creating a painting. The birth of any work of art, be it a painting or a fine piece of literature, comes with much thought, consideration and careful planning.
The first step Poe takes in the writing of “The Raven” is determining the length of the poem. According to Poe, a poem should fall within “the limit of a single sitting”. Any literary work too long to be read in one sitting compromises the “unity of impression”. If it requires a second sitting to complete, then you risk losing the effectiveness of what you’ve written. As Poe puts it, “…the whole being deprived, through the extremeness of its length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity, of effect.”
Considering a number of factors, Poe determines that an appropriate length for his poem will be around 100 lines (“The Raven” has 108) – long enough to tell a compelling story and maintain reader interest, but short enough that none of the author’s artistic nuances are lost, and you retain the effective flow of the piece.
For example, if you build up to an exciting climax but then the reader is delayed in reading it, all the work you did to build up to it was for nothing. You’ve lost the effectiveness of the moment. To get the biggest bang for your buck you need to read the piece as a whole, from start to finish, at one time, so that everything is fresh in your mind, and you’re in the moment when the moment comes.
Next Poe decides on the province of the poem, that is, the impression or effect to be conveyed and the tone it will take: “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem. Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.”
Even Poe’s choice of the word for the poem’s refrain — “Nevermore” spoken by a raven — is extremely well thought-out and complex. He chooses to vary the application of the refrain instead of varying the refrain itself. Instead of the refrain being different each time it’s used, when and where the refrain is spoken will vary; he must decide the nature of the refrain, its length and character; where to use it and how it will sound; THEN select a word embodying this sound in keeping with the tone of the poem. Finally, he settles on a pretext for the continuous use of the one word – why is the same word being used over and over again. Poe’s solution: have it spoken by a raven, “the bird of ill omen”.
At last we come to the most important part of the planning process… what is the poem’s topic?
Of all the melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy? Death — was the obvious reply. And when is this most melancholy of topics most poetical? When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world — and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.
“I had now to combine the two ideas, of a lover lamenting his deceased mistress and a Raven continuously repeating the word “Nevermore”…” Here Poe concludes that the Raven will speak the refrain in answer to the queries of the lover. And now the building begins. The queries will begin as commonplace, the first of course is simply the man asking the bird its name. But each query will gradually become more serious until eventually the lover, expecting to hear the Raven’s answer of Nevermore, becomes delirious and half-crazed, asking the final question whose climax involves “the utmost conceivable amount of sorrow and despair.” For me, this is the magic moment.
Here then the poem may be said to have its beginning — at the end, where all works of art should begin — for it was here, at this point of my preconsiderations, that I first put pen to paper in the composition of the stanza:
“Prophet,” said I, “thing of evil! prophet still if bird or devil!
By that heaven that bends above us — by that God we both adore,
Tell this soul with sorrow laden, if within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore —
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.
Quoth the raven, “Nevermore”.”
The very first thing that Poe writes is the climax or conclusion of the story. With the climax established, Poe explains how he could now better vary and graduate the seriousness and importance of the preceding queries of the lover, and in turn make certain that none of the previous stanzas would surpass the climactic one.
Poe continues on in his essay to describe every detail of the poem and how he came about making the choices he did. It is a fascinating journey into the mind of this incredible writer. Poe leaves nothing to chance. He even chooses a bust of Pallas for the Raven to perch upon for the effect of contrast between the light-coloured marble of the bust and the dark plumage of the bird.
When reading the poem, we can see the gradual change which comes over the lover. At first he is amused by the Raven, then his thoughts turn to the slightly fantastical, and finally he turns very serious. “This revolution of thought, or fancy, on the lover’s part, is intended to induce a similar one on the part of the reader — to bring the mind into a proper frame for the dénouement.”
The dénouement or final outcome of the narrative is the Raven’s reply of “Nevermore” to the lover’s final demand if he shall meet his mistress in another world.
Poe’s process is so wonderfully refreshing because he really has thought of everything. The entire series of events is entirely plausible – a raven seeking shelter from the stormy night flies into a man’s house. The bird constantly repeats the only word that it has been taught, but that word “finds immediate echo in the melancholy heart” of the lover who is already wallowing in grief over the death of his beloved Lenore.
And he is impelled by “the human thirst for self-torture.” He keeps asking questions, knowing already what the Raven’s answer will be. Everything is plausible, Poe has kept both feet in reality. There is nothing supernatural about the occurrences in “The Raven”, and perhaps that is what makes the story so striking — the realness of the situation resonates with the reader, giving the poem soul.
Having stayed within the confines of reality, Poe ensures that the poem doesn’t lose its richness and artistic appeal.
“I added the two concluding stanzas of the poem — their suggestiveness being thus made to pervade all the narrative which has preceded them. The under-current of meaning is rendered first apparent in the lines —
“Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore!”
It will be observed that the words, “from out my heart,” involve the first metaphorical expression in the poem. They, with the answer, “Nevermore,” dispose the mind to seek a moral in all that has been previously narrated. The reader begins now to regard the Raven as emblematical — but it is not until the very last line of the very last stanza, that the intention of making him emblematical of Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance is permitted distinctly to be seen:
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting,
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted — nevermore.
I strongly urge you to ready Poe’s essay, The Philosophy of Composition, for yourself. It is a veritable fountain of information, and it discusses even more than what I have highlighted here. It is a rare and exciting privilege to take a peek into the mind of a genius, to see how he thinks, to discover the method behind his madness. That is what Poe has given us with this extraordinary piece of literature — a chance to glimpse the master at work.
In all of his writings, from the first line to the last, Edgar Allan Poe truly captivates the imagination. His unmatched literary prowess spanned all topics. The same man that gave us the most beautiful of verses from “Annabel Lee“, “But we loved with a love that was more than love”, also gave us a taste of the torments of the Spanish Inquisition in “The Pit and the Pendulum”. We must stand idly by as a Prince loses the battle to protect himself from the Plague in “Masque of the Red Death”.
But it is in his most brilliant of works, “The Raven”, that Poe reaches his artistic peak. He lays bare a man’s soul, strips his sorrow naked, and illustrates the sad fact that we’re sometimes our own worst enemy.