I first read Edgar Allan Poe’s Annabel Lee as an adolescent when tales of love and love lost made a special impression. Poe remains one of my favorite poets today. Volumes have been written about his haunted, prolific and incredibly sad life, and we are still fascinated by him 150 years after his mysterious death.
Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston in 1806 to traveling actors who died within days of each other five years later. He was taken in by the well-to-do John and Frances Allan of Richmond, Virginia. Poe was away at his studies at the University of Virginia when his childhood sweetheart left him for another. John Allan did not fully fund Poe’s tuition, and the Poe resorted to gambling and even burned his furniture for heat to survive. Eventually he left school and briefly attended West Point.
It was then that Edgar Allan Poe went to live with an aunt, Maria Clemm, and her daughter Virginia. One of the best known facts about Poe is that at the age of 27 he married his cousin Virginia, who was then only 13. She died of illness at the age of 24. At that point Poe had lost his foster parents, his brother, both of his parents, and now his wife. The miserly John Allan left him nothing in his will, and Poe lectured and wrote stories and poetry to cover his expenses. Poe struggled with alcoholism, which some say finally killed him in 1849.
Edgar Allan Poe, known as the father of the modern psychological thriller, is also lauded as a poet. In Walt Witman’s words, “There is an indescribable magnetism about the poet’s life and reminiscences, as well as the poems.” In 1845 The Raven brought fame to the struggling writer. Not surprisingly, Poe used his poetry as a vehicle to express his feelings about death, love and loss, emotions and even madness. The Raven begins with a man sitting alone with his books late on a December night as he tries to forget about his dead love, Lenore. Suddenly a raven appears.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door –
Only this, and nothing more.”
The relentless rhythm of the poem drives the story to its conclusion. The narrator asks the bird if he will ever find relief from his misery, but the bird has only one response to his questions – “Nevermore.”
On this home by horror haunted- tell me truly, I implore –
Is there – is there balm in Gilead? – tell me – tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
The scene shifts to the present, and we find that the raven is still there. The narrator has descended into madness, imagining that his soul is floating in the shadows on the floor.
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!
In Annabel Lee, published after Poe’s death in 1849, the narrator believes that his soul is entwined with his lost love, who, like Lenore in The Raven and Poe’s own Virginia, succumbed to illness. Childhood lovers, the narrator and Annabel Lee lived near the sea when jealous angels take her from him.
I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea.
But we loved with a love that was more than love –
I and my Annabel Lee –
With a love that the wingëd seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.
But the narrator declares
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.