Edgar Allan Poe — “The Rationale of Verse”



This essay, chiefly in its later form, has been much criticized. Arthur Hobson Quinn, for example, noted: “This essay is a revelation of the manner in which one of the most skilful artists in verse could go astray when he discussed the nature and laws of English versification. He was uanware of the history of English versification, made clear fifty years later by Eduard Sievers, and his discourse upon ‘long’ and ‘short’ syllables, which do not occur in English, and fails to recognize the accentual basis of English verse” (A. H. Quinn and Eward H. O‘Neill, eds., The Complete Poems and Stories of Edgar Allan Poe, With Selections from His Critical Writings, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946, p. 1087). Floyd Stovall stated, “The one great weakness in Poe's theory — a weakness that is almost incomprehensible in the light of his practise — is that it tries to force poetry into a Procrustean frame of time limitations borrowed from music. The only significant contribution he makes in this essay to the understanding of poetry, including his own early verse, is his new interpretation of the caesura as a monosyllabic foot, but even that is impaired by the overemphasis on time” (Floyd Stovall, “Mood, Meaning, and Form in Poe's Poetry” in Edgar Poe the Poet: Essays New and Old on the Man and His Work, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1969, p. 194). Sherwin Cody introduces the essay with, “It is fortunate that a ‘science of verse’ is not required by a poet to write poetry, any more than a 'science of grammar’ is required by you and me to speak our language correctly, for both prosody and grammar have long been in the utmost confusion, every writer contradicting every other, and claiming to be the first and only one to offer a logical system. . . . Poe's essay on the Rationale of Verse has been sneered at by nearly every writer upon this subject; and it must be confessed that it is by no means a complete exposition of the subject. However, we may look on it as the first effective attempt toward developing a real 'science of English Verse.’ . . . The two important points that Poe makes are, 1. that verse is based on (musical) time, not accent (intensity), accented syllables being, for the purposes of verse, merely those on which the voice dwells a long time; 2. that a natural reading of verse should correspond to the scanning, or rather the scanning to a natural rhythmical pronunciation. He neglected two points of great importance — or rather, he did not carry his analysis far enough to incude them. They are — 1. he took insufficient account of pauses, or rests, in calculating time in scanning; 2. he took no account of accent (intensity) in marking the culmination of the rhytmical wave-movement in each foot” (Sherwin Cody, PoeMan, Poet, and Creative Thinker, New York: Boni and Liveright, 1924,  pp. 324-327). More recently, Christopher Aruffo has been a strong advocate for the essay, calling it “ill-treated” and “an important compoent of his [Poe's] critical theory” (Aruffo, p. 69). Although Aruffo accepts some of the claims that there are genuine problems in Poe's presentation, he defends the substance of Poe's theory, and cites modern studies in lingistics that vindicate many of the same assertions for which Poe has previously been ridiculed.



Reading and Reference Texts:

Reading copy:

  • “The Rationale of Verse” — reading copy


Historical Texts:

Manuscripts and Authorized Printings:

  • Text-01 — “Notes Upon English Verse” — Spring-Summer 1842 — “Carter” Manuscript (of which considerable fragments survive) — The manuscript was first sold to George R. Graham for $32 for Graham's Magazine, but retrieved by Poe about January of 1843 (see Poe's letter to Graham, September-October 1843). In his book The Last Leaf (1886), Oliver Wendell Holmes comments that the manuscript of this essay was given to him by Robert Carter. (The pages in Holmes’ book are unnumbered, but his note, which is dated July 9, 1884, appears at the end.) He describes it as a “roll of manuscript nearly five feet long.” it was apparently already incomplete as he states that it “closes with this poem [[‘The Last Leaf’]], so that the promised comment is missing.” The manuscript as preserved at Harvard does indeed end at this point. (Carter may have kept the other portions for himself, or given them away as one or more autographs, which have not been traced.) Holmes's subsequent assertion that Poe's comment had never been published is an error. He was understandably unaware of the printing in the Pioneer, and the essay itself has not generally been reprinted in this form, with preference being given to the later revision as “The Rationale of Verse,” which does not include the comments. The manuscript is made up of a series of segmented pages (measuring as tall as 13 inches, but generally smaller), cut to a uniform width of about 7 1/2 inches and pasted together to form a roll, which was typical of Poe during this period. The paper is standard wove paper, originally white or off-white, but now somewhat yellowed and age toned, with some white specks or areas possibly caused by poor sizing during manufacturing. The Holmes manusript passed down through his family to his son, Edward Jackson Holmes (1846-1884) and grandson, Edward Jackson “Ned” Holmes, Jr. (1873-1950). It was given to Harvard by the wife of the grandson, Mary Stacy Beaman Holmes (1875-1964), in 1951. At some point, it was framed, possibly for exhibit. The Harvard catalog currently lists the manuscript as MS 1228 with some erroneous information, presuming it to be a manuscript of “The Rationale of Verse” rather than the earlier form. Thus, it is not true that it “differs slightly from the published version” because it differs only from the later version. Also, it was not composed in Fordham because Poe was still living in Philadelphia in 1842-1843. (Several attempts to have the entry corrected have not been fruitful.)
  • Text-02 — “Notes Upon English Verse” — March 1843 — The Pioneer
  • Text-03 — “The Rationale of Verse” — November-December 1846 — Manuscript (of which considerable fragments survive) — This manuscript was not in the form of a roll, as are many of Poe's other literary works, but on separate numbered sheets of blue paper. Although it is casually acknowledged in a footnote that “some few passages” had already appeared in the Pioneer, Poe presumably did not want to draw attention to the idea that the essay was essentially a modified reprint, with most of the material in common appearing near the beginning. The revisions are substantial, making a fully new manuscript necessary, and reveal that Poe had continued to ruminate over the subject since the first article was printed. The sequence of the argument roughly follows the earlier “Notes Upon English Verse,” but even where Poe covers similar material, and relies on the same examples, he considerably expands the discussion. He also trades a number of examples from the earlier essay for others that he presumbbly felt better illustrated his points. The new form of the essay is first mentioned in Poe's December 15, 1846 letter to G. W. Eveleth, where he notes that he has sold it to George Hooker Colton of the American Review, hoping that it “will be out in the March or April no: of Colton's Am. Magazine, or Review.” As Poe wrote to G. W. Eveleth on January 4, 1848, however, Colton was apparently not as eager to print the essay as Poe would have liked, and so Poe bought it back by giving him “Ulalume” in exchange. This must have occured in late 1847 as the poem appears in the December 1847 issue of the magazine. Poe then sold the manuscript to Graham's Magazine, telling Eveleth that it “will appear in Graham after all” (Poe to Eveleth, January 11, 1848), but Graham was also apparently reluctant and Poe reclaimed it from him. By 1848, Poe had rekindled his plans to create his own magazine, now called the Stylus, and may have hoped to use the essay there. That plan failed, and he ended up selling the essay to John R. Thompson, who printed it in two installments in the Southern Literary Messenger, even though Thompson told P. P. Cooke on October 17, 1848: “ ‘The Rationale of Verse’ I took, more as an act of charity than anything else, for though exhibiting great acquaintance with the subject, it is altogether too bizarre, and too technical for the general reader” (see Whitty, Poems, 1911, pp. lxvi-lxvii). Thompson retained the manuscript, and distributed portions of it to those seeking Poe autographic material.
  • Text-04 — “The Rationale of Verse” — October and November 1848 — Southern Literary Messenger
  • Text-05 — “The Rationale of Verse” — late 1848 - early 1849 (probable modified version of Text-04, now lost, but presumably used by Griswold for Text-06)
  • Text-06 — “The Rationale of Verse” — 1850 — Works — (Griswold's text includes several verbal changes that seem unlikely to be merely editorial. It may be presumed, therefore, that he acquired from Mrs. Clemm a version of Text-04, with modifications made by Poe.)



  • The Rationale of Verse” — 1875 — The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. J. H. Ingram, Edinburgh, Adam and Charles Black (3:219-265)
  • “Notes on English Verse” — 1902 — The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons (1:267-286)


Scholarly and Noteworthy Reprints:

  • The Rationale of Verse” — 1895 — The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, vol. 6: Literary Criticism, eds. E. C. Stedman and G. E. Woodberry, Chicago: Stone and Kimball (6:47-104, and 6:323-324)
  • The Rationale of Verse” — 1902 — The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. J. A. Harrison, New York: T. Y. Crowell (14:209-265) (Although Harrison implies that he has used the SLM text, it is clear that he has instead followed Griswold, perhaps through Stedman and Woodberry.)
  • “The Rationale of Verse” — 1909 — Selections from the Critical Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Frederick C. Prescott, New York: Henry Holt (pp. 167-227 and 337-340)
  • “Notes upon English Verse” — 1968 — Edgar Allan Poe: The Rationale of Verse — A Preliminary Edition, ed. J. Arthur Greenwood, Princeton, NJ: Wolfhart Book Co. (pp. 45-83)
  • “The Rationale of Verse” — 1968 — Edgar Allan Poe: The Rationale of Verse — A Preliminary Edition, ed. J. Arthur Greenwood, Princeton, NJ: Wolfhart Book Co. (pp. 93-210)
  • “The Rationale of Verse” — 1984 — Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews, ed. G. R. Thompson, New York: Library of America (pp. 26-70)
  • Notes upon English Verse” — 2009 — Edgar Allan Poe: Critical Theory, Stuart and Susan F. Levine, eds., Chicago: University of Illinois Press (pp. 145-174)
  • The Rationale of Verse” — 2009 — Edgar Allan Poe: Critical Theory, Stuart and Susan F. Levine, eds., Chicago: University of Illinois Press (pp. 77-143)


Comparative and Study Texts:

Instream Comparative and Study Texts:

  • Notes Upon English Verse” — Comparative Text (MS fragments and the Pioneer)
  • Notes Upon English Verse/The Rationale of Verse” — Comparative Text (Pioneer and SLM) (experminental due to the significance of changes)
  • The Rationale of Verse” — Comparative Text (MS Fragments and SLM)
  • The Rationale of Verse” — Comparative Text (SLM and WORKS)


Associated Material and Special Versions:

Miscellaneous Texts and Related Items:

  • “L‘Essence du vers” — 1926 — Trois Manifestes, Paris: Simon Kra (French translation by René Lalou)
  • “The Rationale of Verse” — 2007 — Audio book (unabridged), read by Chris Aruffo (part of a 5-CD set)



  • Aruffo, Christopher, “Reconsidering Poe's ‘Rationale of Verse’,” Poe Studies: History, Theory, Interpretation, vol. 44, 2011, pp. 69-86 (a modern defense of Poe's theory, further applied by Christopher Aruffo in A Rational Guide to Verse: Scansion made Simple, Gainsville, FL: Acoustic Learning, Inc., 2012, second edition, revised, 2013).
  • Greenwood, J. Arthur, “Introduction” (and notes), Edgar Allan Poe: The Rationale of Verse, A Preliminary Edition, Princeton, NJ: Wolfhart Book, Co., 1968
  • Heartman, Charles F. and James R. Canny, A Bibliography of First Printings of the Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Hattiesburg, MS: The Book Farm, 1943.
  • Levine, Stuart and Susan F., eds., Edgar Allan Poe: Critical Theory, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009
  • Mabbott, Thomas Ollive, ed., The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (Vol 1 Poems), Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1969 (1:392-393)
  • Mabbott, Thomas Ollive, ed., The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (Vols 2-3 Tales and Sketches), Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1978.


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