I just finished reading "The Philosophy of Composition," by Edgar Allan Poe, which is an essay published in 1846 in response to nasty critiques and parodies of his poem "The Raven." Keep in mind, Poe was himself a rather feisty critic, so he probably needed to take a little of what he'd been dishing out. The purpose of the essay was to show the modus operandi by which he assembled his poem.
It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable 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 .
If I hadn't been forewarned by G. R. Thompson that this essay may have been half tongue-in-cheek , I might have been quite confused. In his essay, Poe provides a step-by-step description of the birth and growth of "The Raven."
- Consider length: "there is a distinct limit, as regards to length, to all works of literary art--the limit of a single sitting...can never properly be overpassed in a poem"  (Here, he inserts an aside suggesting that Paradise Lost, by John Milton, is half-poetry/half-prose, since it is too long for one sitting.) However, "a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all." Thus, approximately 100 lines was chosen for his new poem.
- Consider effect to be conveyed: Poem should be universally appreciable. "Beauty is the sole legitimate province of a poem."
- Consider tone: "Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all poetical tones."
- Artistic piquancy: here, he realized that refrains as an artistic effect were vastly underused.
- Refrain choice: Limited to lyric verse. Depends on the force of repetition for its effect. Decides to diversify by changing the context, but leaving the answer the same. Refrain must be brief. Must form the end of each stanza. Must be "sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis." The long "o" is the most sonorous vowel, and "r" is the most producible consonant. Hmmm, what word has a long "o" and an "r" in it, but keeps the tone of the poem? Oh, of course! "Nevermore!"
- Pretext for refrain: A human being wouldn't say "nevermore" over and over again, but an unthinking being might. Like a talking parrot, or better, a raven (for they talk too, and ravens are fitting for the tone).
- Subject: "I asked myself--'Of all the melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?' Death--was the obvious reply. 'And when,' I said, 'is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?'" This was also obvious: "death...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."
- He then wrote the denouement because "nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before any thing be attempted with the pen.
And the poem continued to be written through the same process. Without Thompson's forewarning, I would have been shocked and skeptical that Poe actually wrote his poems in this way. This mechanical process might pump out a poem-esque work, but would it have any soul? The whole process seems rather art-defying. According to enotes, critics have suggested that "The Philosophy of Composition" was anything from a deliberate hoax to "possibly half tongue-in-cheek ." However, I have also noticed quite a few people on the internet who find it inspirational and say that it really helps them to compose their own works. I'm sure these people really DO find the structure helpful. It is very sensible. But I imagine, if anything, that Poe came up with the idea of "The Raven" and THEN went through a rigorous process of refining it.
That said, I think the essay is a fantastic look into the mind of Poe. It explains why the majority of his poems are about dead women--because he felt that melancholy is the most legitimate of poetic tones, and that the most melancholy of all themes is the death of a beautiful woman. My dad disagrees with Poe here and says that the death of a child is the most melancholy topic. Personally, I think that doubt in God's existence or in his love for me would be the most melancholy. But I agree that the death of a child is more melancholy than the death of a beautiful woman.
Out of curiosity, what do other people think the most melancholy theme is?
Find all of Gustave Dore's illustrations for The Raven here: http://www.artsycraftsy.com/dore_raven.html
 The Philosophy of Composition, by Edgar Allan Poe. Reprinted in: The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (Norton Critical Edition). Ed. G.R. Thompson. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. pp675-684.
 The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (Norton Critical Edition). Ed. G.R. Thompson. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. pp57.