YOUR FIRST PAPER IS DUE September, 12 by 11:59 p.m. Email all work for the course to me at

Burt's philosophy of writing papers. Forgive me my typos as I forgive you yours.

I may ask you to do things no professor has ever asked you to do, like read a poem closely.

This course will not be recorded. Teaching is like theater. When the performance is over, it's gone. Only more or less reliable memories are left. And this website.

You will find Poe's tales and novel on this website (click). This is the first edition (posthumously published) of Poe's works: The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe  (1850)  by Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Poe's one time friend turned arch-nemesis Rufus Wilmot Griswold. A google serch for "Poe" and the titles of any of his tales will turn up many online versions.


2. Re-read.

Vladmir Nabokov held that “A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” When you re-read, which words make you stumble? Look them up in a historical lexicon, like the Oxford English Dictionary (if your library subscribes), the Online Etymology Dictionary (which is public), or Shakespeare’s Words (which is providing free access to students during the crisis)." How to think like a sonnet, or, fourteen ways of looking around a room" May 19, 2020 | By 

500 word count

Hi. I am asking you to do something very challenging but Iwant to make it easy for you to accept the challenge as I offer to you. The general idea for your paper is to write either on how Poe reads "The Raven" in “The Philosophy of Composition” or on how The Simpsons' episode "reads" (abridges and adapts) "The Raven." You'll have to formulate a topic and a thesis. You may have in mind the Poetry Foundation version of "The Raven" or one of the versions I showed you in class last week. In any case, be sure to pay close formal attention to the "The Raven" (Poetry Foundation) as a poem read by Poe or by The Simpsons, to things like the structure, the stanzas, the story, Poe's syntax, the rhyme scheme, internal rhymes, the page layout, punctuation, repetition. That is not a checklist of things you need to write about in your paper. I'm just trying to help you do a close reading.

(You may now skip the part immediately, if you wish, and scroll down now to the three paper topics I've formulated.)

The best advice I can give you is to have the poem and either The Simpsons' episode or the “The Philosophy of Composition” at hand open to reread or rewatch whatever you are writing about. Close reading is really close rereading. As you reread, you'll start noticing things you missed on the first reading or viewing. Phrases or words stand out all of a sudden. For example, you might see that Poe's account of the narrator's emotions is paradoxical: the narrator "experiences a phrenzied pleasure in so modeling his questions as to receive from the expected “Nevermore” the most delicious because the most intolerable of sorrow. . . . this word “Nevermore” should involve the utmost conceivable amount of sorrow and despair." The utmost sorrow somehow creates a phrenzied pleasure. Similarly, Poe says he wants to produce "that species of despair which delights in self-torture." Despair and self-torture are delightful? You notice the paradoxes and maybe you make connections from it to other parts of Poe's essay or the TV episode. Maybe you meet a dead end. Or maybe you come up with an idea! Maybe an idea like this: Even as Poe describes the effect of the repetition of the word "Nevermore" in the poem, he writes his essay on the poem using similarly artful repetitions. You could test out that idea to see if Poe writes the same kind of sentences elsewhere in the essay. Is there a pattern to Poe's use of them? What is going on? You'll have to formulate a question. Your answer to that question is your thesis.

Close reading is slow reading and involves using the text as evidence. By the way, attributing intention to an author may be a fallacy, but there is no way around that fallacy. Readers always attribute intention. A writer may also say more than he or she means.

Poe's use of the following phrases--in the same sentence--is very close to Poe's exact repetitions in "The Raven":

"the most intolerable of sorrow"

"the utmost conceivable amount of sorrow"

The "most" is heard in "utmost." Both phrases use a four syllable word ending in the same sound "able." Both words are preceded by the nearly identical "the most" and the intensified "the utmost." And both phrases use the same two words: "of sorrow."

You could do a close reading of how Poe reads "The Raven" by focusing on just these two sentences in Poe's essay: "I saw that I could make the first query propounded by the lover — the first query to which the Raven should reply “Nevermore” — that I could make this first query a commonplace one — the second less so — the third still less, and so on — until at length the lover, startled from his original nonchalance by the melancholy character of the word itself — by its frequent repetition — and by a consideration of the ominous reputation of the fowl that uttered it — is at length excited to superstition, and wildly propounds queries of a far different character — queries whose solution he has passionately at heart — propounds them half in superstition and half in that species of despair which delights in self-torture — propounds them not altogether because he believes in the prophetic or demoniac character of the bird (which, reason assures him, is merely repeating a lesson learned by rote) but because he experiences a phrenzied pleasure in so modeling his questions as to receive from the expected “Nevermore” the most delicious because the most intolerable of sorrow. Perceiving the opportunity thus afforded me — or, more strictly, thus forced upon me in the progress of the construction — I first established in mind the climax, or concluding query — — that to which “Nevermore” should be in the last place an answer — that in reply to which this word “Nevermore” should involve the utmost conceivable amount of sorrow and despair."

Notice how closely Poe reads "The Raven" in "The Philosophy of Composition." He focuses on just one word, namely, "nevermore." established in mind the climax, or concluding query — that to which “Nevermore” should be in the last place an answer." Maybe you're noticing something that is crucial to Poe's division of the poem into two parts. One could reasonably argue that the poem could end after the second stanza. Poe wrote several short poems about dead women. But in "The Raven," Poe says he needs 100 lines because "frequent repetition" is crucial to the poem. The passage I quoted above from Poe's essay certainly involves lots of delays and elongations. Notice the syntactic parallelism of the last two clauses: "that to which" and "that in reply to which." Or consider the way Poe draws out the first sentence by starting three successive, related phrases with the same preposition "by": by the melancholy character of the word itself — by its frequent repetition — and by (italics mine). Or consider this repetition in the very first sentence: "I saw that I could make the first query" and "that I could make this first query." Even though the first sentence I quoted above is arguably ungrammatical (those dashes do a lot of work), Poe masterfully succeeds in writing a highly artificial sentence that--through careful repetitions and parallels--seems immediate, so immediate that it seems as if Poe is just now remembering what he did as he writes, as if were talking to us. Of course, the reader is supposed to ignore pretty much everything I have noticed. That is why Poe is such a great writer. That is also why one can as easily argue that Poe is "ultra-rational," writing in the light, as it were, or completely manic, writing under the shadow. As Poe knew, madness is next to genius.

Let me say it again: By closely reading one small part of the essay or episode, you can show how the entire esay or episode t works. You move from the particular to the general. Your thesis would be either a question that you say can't be answered, because in this case, Poe frustrates our desire for an answer or your thesis would be an answer to a question, an answer like "Poe is doing x."

In any case, do focus on a small part of the essay or episode as you think about the essay or TV episode. Less truly is more when you read closely. You won't really know what you'll end up writing until you get to the end of what may seem like your final draft. That is the great think about the arts. You often only figure out what you want to say at the end of your draft. Your conclusion is usually your thesis. Just move it up to the first paragraph. You start writing with a saved word document open on our omputer, and then you keep referring back to it as you keep writing on your computer. You're looking for confirmation of your idea. Once you have your thesis, you can stop rereading and begin revising your draft. Often you find evidence that contradicts your idea. In that case you can revise your thesis by rethinking it.

I just wrote that now. I am not going to write "Nevermore." I have a general topic about the relation between the essay or the TV episode, but I don't have a thesis yet.

Here are three possible topics on which you can write your paper. You'll need to develop them and narrow your topic. You have to choose which parts of the poem or episode have importance, even if they are not obvious.

1. Do the Simpson's changes to "The Raven" (Poetry Foundation) constitute a careful reading of the poem? In addition to cuts the writers make Poe's poem, you may consider the frame narrative (Lisa reading the title of the poem and part of the first line in the tree house), the redistribution of the poems among Homer, Lisa, Bart, and James Earl Jones to voice different parts of the poem, and Bart and Lisa's comments on it in the treehouse or off-screen. Poe did write comic stories, sometimes even parodies. In making "The Raven" funny, are they on to something about the poem? What do they do or not to make the episode funny?

2. "The Raven's" narrator. Does Poe really solve the question of the narrator's identity in “The Philosophy of Composition” / facsimile by saying he is a student. What difference does it make to have two characters read most of the poem based on the presence or absence of quotation marks in the poem in The Simpsons? Why does Poe force us to wonder who the narrator is? Is the narrator really even the narrator? Or do the various and frequent kinds of repetition suggest that the narrator is in the grip of a compulsion, as if he were compelled by something obscure as he recites the poem?

3. Repetition, memory, and mourning in “The Philosophy of Composition” / facsimile. Many readers of Poe's account of how he wrote the Raven in “The Philosophy of Composition” / facsimile have noted a tension between the ultra-rationality of the essay and the sadness of "The Raven" and Poe's personal relation to the topic of a male lover mourning the death of a woman. Rephrased, we could say that readers of the poem tend to read the use of the first person in "The Raven" as Poe's barely veiled autobiography while readers of “The Philosophy of Composition” / facsimile find an impersonal account of how Poe composed the poem, an account that reveals Poe's technical virtuosity. Fair enough. But what kinds of continuities and similarities are there between the essay and the poem? How may Poe's detachment in the essay be read as Poe's failure, as Faith suggested in class, to gain enough critical distance from the poem to explain its composition more calmly? Or even to end the poem? To beyond the Raven's "nevermore." The narrator's use of quotation marks is partly a way of putting the events of the poem into the past. But repetition of words in the poem and even the internal quotation of the same first line in two successive stanzas about the death of Lenore cannot entirely be put into the past: The narrator can't stop remembering the "lost Lenore." He is haunted. Consider Poe's statement that he is "retracing" his steps. I don't want to put too much critical pressure on the metaphor of "retracing" since Poe uses it in passing. But the metaphor does suggest that Poe is compulsively repeating himself in the essay in a way that is somewhat like the narrator repeating himself in "The Raven." As I said in class, I think Poe deliberately does not give us the last stanza of "The Raven" when he says he began writing the poem at the end. That is not a criticism of Poe. I don't think he couldn't remember his own poem accurately, a poem he could recite from memory. The question is more a question of how much control Poe has over the poem and the essay. Poe corrects himself when he writes "Perceiving the opportunity thus afforded me — or, more strictly, thus forced upon me in the progress of the construction." From "opportunity thus afforded me" to "thus forced upon me" is quite a revision. Does he become the narrator of the poem, blocking out the despairing last stanza? That is difficult to say because sometimes what looks intentional in Poe writings may also look like a Freudian slip (a repressed memory or a failed attempt to forget the dead).

Literature is not all there is in life, but it is the best there is.




You may safely ignore everything below.

"The Raven" (Poetry Foundation)

General questions about literature and the arts: "WHY" did the writer do it this way? "HOW" did the person do it? And "WHAT" did the person do? This last question is the most important of the three.

For later in the semester: The Raven without quotation marks:

"The Raven" (Poetry Foundation) read by James Earl Jones without music and with music and rainstorm.

"The Raven" (Poetry Foundation) read by Christopher Lee without music or sound effects and with music

“The Raven,” read by Christopher Walken with sound effects and music gradually introduced.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” read by Christopher Walken, Vincent Price, and Christopher Lee

Watch 10 Celebrities Read Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Raven"

In breaking up the poem with images and notes, Kevin Haye's edition of The Raven might be considered an adaptation somewhat like the edition below.

This is an early illustrated edition of "The Raven" (1884) which identifies the narrator with Poe and relineates the poem at points for dramatic emphasis. We may consider it to be an early adaptation of the poem, a proto-graphic novel with the complete text. The identification of the narrator with Poe anticipates the film The Raven (dir. James McTeigue, 2011) .

 From Edgar Allan Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846)