Analysis of Poem "Annabel Lee" by Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe and Annabel Lee
Annabel Lee is a rhyming poem with a lilting rhythm Poe penned in May 1849, the year he died. It tells of the love between two people, one Annabel Lee and the speaker, who is a male persona possibly based on the poet himself.
Since its publication in October 1849 the poem has grown in popularity and is now one of the best loved of Poe's gothic romantic work. It has been set to music several times, one of the most recent versions being that of alternative indie group Sweet Sister Pain.
Edgar Allan Poe's unorthodox upbringing, disjointed family life and love of alcohol have been well documented since his death. Controversy and intrigue seemed to follow him throughout his short and agitated life.
Much mystery and folklore blurs the solid fact of his work and romances but there are constants to be found.
Perhaps his one source of consolation was the love he shared with his younger cousin Virginia Eliza Clemm, who he married when she was only 13. He was 27. They lived together for 11 years, a relationship that is said to have been more like brother and sister than husband and wife.
Always fragile, tragedy struck when the young Virginia eventually succumbed to tuberculosis and died in 1847, leaving Poe distraught and without an emotional anchor. Despite his close female friends and admirers, and the popularity of his creative work, he quickly sank into depression and despondency and passed away in October 1849.
The poet wrote to a friend:
Each time I felt all the agonies of her death — and at each accession of the disorder I loved her more dearly & clung to her life with more desperate pertinacity. But I am constitutionally sensitive — nervous in a very unusual degree. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.
Annabel Lee remains as one of his attempts to preserve his ideal love. Poe himself always thought:
... 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.” (Poe “The Philosophy of Composition” 165)
A true romantic, like Dante with his guide Beatrice, Poe is side by side with Annabel Lee, keeping the spiritual ties alive, transforming his childhood love into something universal, something everyone might know. But is it wise to suppose that the speaker and the actual poet are one and the same?
In addition to the fairytale like rhyme and rhythm, there is a sense of the supernatural set up in this poem, with mention of an angelic and demonic order attempting to separate the two lovers.
But the real power lies in the haunting romance, the thought of these two souls still together after all they've had to endure.
Different Versions Of Annabel Lee
Edgar Allan Poe sent out several written versions of his poem in the summer of 1849, a few months before his death. Below is a copy of one of these which is now in Columbia University Manuscript Library, New York. There are several changes to the printed text, in the 2nd stanza (line 7), 4th stanza (line 25) and last stanza(line 41). The analysis is of the printed 'Griswold' text version.
Annabel Lee Manuscript
Analysis Of Annabel Lee
Annabel Lee is a haunting ballad of a poem, with a wealth of hypnotic rhythm and song-like rhyme. It has a fairytale air and can also resonate with all who have been in love or felt tragedy and loss.
- The rhythms and rhyme reflect the speaker's obsession with his childhood love; they are often repeated which helps to reinforce the spiritual connection (whilst echoing the waves and motion of the sea) which is deep and profound. There is an intensity about this poem that builds up as the stanzas progress, then subsides, before rebuilding.
The basic theme is that of true love being able to transcend death; nothing can keep these two souls apart, not even supernatural forces. The two lived for love, for one another. As they lived, so shall they die, next to each other forever.
The speaker's suggestion is that the reader may know of his Annabel Lee, perhaps a reference to the universality of her appeal, for she is every woman, because beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
And so exceptional was this love between the two that the heavenly winged beings, the seraphs (strongly associated with Christianity) wanted to possess her; she was part of their family, a celestial, so they would never be satisfied until she was back in the fold.
Supernatural forces were summoned up. Annabel Lee died in unreal circumstances and was laid in a stone tomb by the sea.
But, despite their child-like relationship, or because of, their love proved stronger than those who were older and wiser. Their love was beyond religion, beyond good and evil; only they knew - they were true soul-mates.
The final stanza is rather haunting and conjures up images of a macabre coming together - the grieving speaker and his Annabel Lee, now a corpse. This is such a vivid picture, the speaker's dream scenario.
Love conquers all, omnia vincit amor - by repeating rhyme in sustained rhythm Poe creates this underlying hypnotic atmosphere. By varying that rhythm from time to time there is the idea of stumbling, of shock. Timing is all important in this regard. Momentum has to build and the infectious lines manage this masterfully.
Perhaps more than anything, emotional energy emerges as the poem progresses, emerging like static, as sense rubs against rhythm and feelings grow out of simple rhyme. This poem has song-like qualities and it is this hidden musicality rising and falling that results in a truly powerful poem.
More Analysis of Annabel Lee
Annabel Lee is a rhyming poem with six stanzas, - two sextets, an octet, a sextet, a septet and a final octet, making 41 lines in total.
There is a complex rhyme scheme which needs to be fully explored.
- Each stanza is different rhyme-wise, but there is a continuous thread linking all of them, the long vowel of e. For example, the word sea is in all the stanzas, as is Annabel Lee. This rhyme turns up 21 times throughout the poem and is the linchpin, sometimes repeated.
The overall rhyme scheme: ababcb dbebfb abgbhbib fbabjb ebbebkb lbmbnnbb.
All of the end rhymes are full, for example: ago/know, side/bride. Note how the opening rhyme ago is repeated in the third stanza and thereafter becomes a kind of echo in the fourth with know. A similar thing happens to love in the second stanza, a repeated echo coming in the fifth with love/above.
These distant connections help create the atmosphere of feelings, first fading then returning, only to finally disappear.
There are also unrhymed end words in each of the stanzas: thought/child/night,came,sepulchre/chilling/soul/dreams,eyes. Why did Edgar Allan Poe leave these lines floating, without a rhyming partner or repeated rhyme? Poetically, they perhaps represent the idea of loss, of being alone in all that familiarity. They are outside of the phonic framework.
And note that the shorter lines in the poem all end in the vowel rhyme e: me/sea/Lee/we.
The Meter in Annabel Lee
Annabel Lee has a mix of rhythm within its lines, which makes it a fascinating read. In some stanzas the steady soft-soft-strong anapest and regular iambs dominate, in others the stumbling, jolting dactyl and amphibrachs come through. Keep an eye out for the odd trochee. Tetrameter and trimeter carry the bulk of the feet.
Let's explore the meter (metre in UK) or scan a few of the lines. The whole of the first stanza:
- It was ma / ny and ma / ny a year / ago,
The first line sets the rhythm for the whole poem. There are three anapests and an iamb, making a total of four feet with a rhythm of da-da-DUM da-da-DUM da-da-DUM da-DUM. The line therefore scans as an anapestic tetrameter.
Poe used the anapest a lot in this poem to give it a trip-off-the-tongue feel.
- In a king / dom by / the sea,
Again, an anapest opens and is followed by two iambic feet. This line scans iambic trimeter.
- That a mai / den there lived / whom you / may know
So, two anapestic feet followed by two iambic, a split line.
- By the name / of Anna / bel Lee;
And an anapest, an amphibrach, with one iamb.
- And this mai / den she lived / with no / other thought
Three anapests, the last one separated by an iamb.
- Than to love / and be loved / by me.
Two anapests and an iamb to finish off the first stanza.
- The an / gels, not half / so happy / in heaven,
An iamb, an anapest and two amphibrachs make this line particularly unusual. This is a real up and down rhythm, reflecting the sense of the line.
- Went en / vying her / and me:
Two iambs sandwich an anapest.
- Yes! that / was the rea / son (as all / men know,
A dactyl (DUM-DUM) opens this line, bringing emphasis and energy. Two anapests restore the rhythm, before an iamb steadies and calms.
- In this king / dom by / the sea)
An anapest starts, but the line is iambic trimeter overall.
- That the wind / came out / of the cloud / by night,
Anapest, iamb, anapest, iamb. Tetrameter.
- Chilling / and kill / ing my An / nabel Lee.
An opening trochee pulls no punches before the iambs and anapests bring familiar stability.
- But our love / it was stron / ger by far / than the love
- Of those / who were old / er than we -
- Of many / far wiser / than we -
Two amphibrachs and an iamb, a slight alteration of the rhythm which continues into:
- And neither / the angels / in Heaven / above
Amphibrachs rule until the iamb rounds the line off.
- Nor the dem / ons down un / der the sea,
It is all anapestic, in trimeter.
- Can ev / er dissev / er my soul / from the soul
An iamb followed by three anapests.
- Of the beau / tiful An / nabel Lee.
Ending with three anapests.
And now the final stanza:
- For the moon / never beams, / without bring / ing me dreams
This is full anapestic tetrameter, creating a floating lilt some have noted is like a buoy on a soft swell, or waves folding and forming. The rest of the stanza is in anapest, tetrameter and trimeter.
The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 1997
© 2017 Andrew Spacey