The best poems by Poe, selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) was a pioneer of the short story form, but he was also an accomplished poet. Below, we’ve selected ten of Poe’s very best poems and offered a short introduction to each of them.
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 some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
‘’Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.’
This poem had to head the list of a selection of Edgar Allan Poe’s best poems, really. It is the only literary work to inspire the name of a sporting team (the American Football team the Baltimore Ravens). According to Poe himself, in a later work of literary analysis, if he hadn’t had a change of heart we might well be reading a poem called, not ‘The Raven’, but ‘The Parrot’ (although he may have been pulling his readers’ legs there). The unnamed narrator sits up late one dreary winter night, mourning the loss of his beloved, Lenore, when a raven appears at the window and speaks the repeated single word, ‘Nevermore’. The narrator starts to view the raven as some sort of prophet. Click on the link above to read the poem in full and learn more about it.
Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicéan barks of yore,
That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.
This early poem was first published in 1831 in Poems of Edgar A. Poe, which appeared when Poe was still in his early twenties, although Poe made a few tweaks to the poem in 1845. Poe addresses Helen of Troy, reputed to be the most beautiful woman in the classical world. But as well as such universal resonances, ‘To Helen’ also has more personal links to Edgar Allan Poe’s own life, and indeed the poem has been analysed in terms of its biographical associations. Jane Stanard, the mother of one of Poe’s childhood friends, had been the first person to encourage Poe in his writing ambitions, at a time when Poe’s foster-father thought he should be doing other things. ‘To Helen’ was one of the first poems Poe wrote, and he wrote it for her. Poe was most likely only a teenager when he wrote ‘To Helen’. If only we could all be so deft with a pen at such a young age! Click on the link above to read the poem in full and learn more about it.
Subtitled ‘A Ballad’, this longer poem shares, with ‘The Raven’, a narrator who has lost his loved one. The brooding narrator wanders the moors one October night, unaware that he is meandering in the direction of the tomb of his lost beloved. Although criticised for privileging stylish sound-effects over richness of content (by Aldous Huxley among others, who called it, in something of a mixed review, ‘a carapace of jewelled sound’), the poem is a great one for reading aloud during the Halloween season and makes our pick of the best Halloween poems.
Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow —
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
How can we separate reality from illusion? What if, to quote from Poe’s poem, ‘All that we see or seem / Is but a dream within a dream’? One of Poe’s more famous poems, ‘A Dream within a Dream’ muses on the fragility and fleetingness of everything, and asks whether anything we do has any lasting or real effect: ‘All that we see or seem / Is but a dream within a dream.’ Click on the link above to read this dreamy poem in full.
Hear the sledges with the bells –
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells –
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.
This poem earns its place on this list not least because it gave us the delightful word ‘tintinnabulation’, to describe the ringing of bells. If ‘Ulalume’ was a carapace of jewelled sound, ‘The Bells’ is another such sonic carapace, a masterpiece of onomatopoeia…
Poe was greatly interested in science, and among his literary achievements is a long prose-poem-cum-essay, Eureka, which is subtitled in some edition of Poe’s work ‘An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe’. In this shorter poem, a sonnet following the Shakespearean or English rhyme scheme, Poe calls science ‘true daughter of Old Time’ which ‘alterest all things with thy peering eyes’.
A knight goes in search of Eldorado, that golden paradise, in this short poem. But the knight grows old without ever finding that fabled city. And then he meets a shade which tells him where he can find Eldorado. Click on the link above to read the full poem.
The palace of this poem is a palace of the mind, found in ‘the monarch Thought’s dominion’. This is a haunted palace because, whilst it is beautiful, it is also inhabited by ‘evil things, in robes of sorrow’ which ‘assailed the monarch’s high estate’. This poem may well have had its origins in Poe’s own troubled life, his battle with alcoholism, and his bouts of depression.
Lo! Death has reared himself a throne
In a strange city lying alone
Far down within the dim West,
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.
There shrines and palaces and towers
(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)
Resemble nothing that is ours.
Around, by lifting winds forgot,
Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie…
This is another Poe poem which was originally written when he was still in his early twenties, in 1831, but was rewritten for publication in 1845. Part Gothic poem and part fantasy, this poem tells of an underwater city ruled by Death himself: ‘Death has reared himself a throne / In a strange city lying alone / Far down within the dim West, / Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best / Have gone to their eternal rest…’
This seems like a fitting poem to conclude this list of Poe’s greatest poems, since it was the last poem he completed before his untimely death in 1849. Precisely who the inspiration for the character of ‘Annabel Lee’ was remains a mystery, although Poe’s cousin, whom he fell in love with when she was thirteen, is the leading candidate. The narrator fell in love with Annabel Lee when they were both young and his love for her continues even after her death. Click on the link above to read the whole sorry tale.
Continue to explore the life and work of Edgar Allan Poe with our celebration of his contribution to literature, our pick of his best short stories, and our exploration of his use of the short story form.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.