Literature

A Short Analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Annabel Lee’

After ‘The Raven’, which is undoubtedly Poe’s most popular poem, ‘Annabel Lee’ is perhaps his next best-known and admired. ‘Annabel Lee’ has been called ‘the simplest and sweetest of [Edgar Allan Poe’s] ballads’ (by Poe’s biographer, George Edward Woodberry), but how ‘simple’ the poem is remains to be seen. Is it a ballad, or narrative poem, or is it a lyric? Before we grapple with some of these questions and offer some words of analysis, here’s a reminder of the text of the poem ‘Annabel Lee’.

Annabel Lee

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

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 wingèd seraphs of Heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
Went envying her and me—
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
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;

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

In summary, the narrator of the poem tells of his love for Annabel Lee, who lived in a kingdom by the sea. The two of them were childhood sweethearts, but Annabel Lee caught a chill one day and died. The narrator believes that the angels in heaven took Annabel Lee from him because they were jealous of the love he and Annabel Lee shared. Her relatives buried her in a sepulchre, which the narrator of the poem continues to visit, so that he can be ‘together’ with his dead beloved, Annabel Lee.

‘Annabel Lee’ was the last poem Edgar Allan Poe 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, Virginia, 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; however, the urge to offer a narrowly biographical analysis of ‘Annabel Lee’ should probably be resisted. Poe was an extraordinarily imaginative writer (almost single-handedly perfecting the short-story form, and inventing detective fiction along the way); not everything he wrote stemmed from his own personal circumstances.

Poe’s poems are predominantly cast in the Romantic mode, meaning that he follows poets like John Keats in setting many of his narrative poems in enchanted or fairy-tale lands. ‘Annabel Lee’ is a prime example: the fact that Annabel Lee lives in ‘a kingdom by the sea’, and that the events the narrator outlines happened ‘many and many a year ago’ (the poet’s version of ‘once upon a time’). He is looking back, nostalgically, at the young love he and Annabel Lee shared; but putting such distance between ‘now’ and ‘then’ also reinforces the strength of his love for her, since he continues to visit her grave years after her death.

Although ‘Annabel Lee’ is often described as a ballad, this is only half-true. The poem has the ring of a ballad that has been passed down through oral tradition (and that was designed to be sung and danced to, accompanied by music), but it doesn’t follow the strict ballad metre (quatrains of alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter, rhymed abcb). Instead, the form of ‘Annabel Lee’ is actually a little more irregular: the poem begins with a stanza of alternating tetrameter and trimeter, true, but there are six lines rather than four, and the metre is more jaunty and lively than regular iambic metre: many of the feet are anapests (i.e. two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed) as opposed to iambs (i.e. one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed). This keeps the metre of the poem on its toes (we might say it keeps the poem’s ‘feet’ on its toes), and reflects the sudden death of Annabel Lee as well as the ballad-like feel Poe is seeking to create, harking back to medieval ballads about true love and kingdoms by the sea.

Poe never lived to see ‘Annabel Lee’ published: it appeared posthumously in the Southern Literary Messenger in November 1849. Poe had died a month before, having been found delirious, and wearing somebody else’s clothes, on the streets of Baltimore.

3 Comments

  1. Brian Burden

    Thank God nobody to my knowledge has tried to set this to music. Attempts by composers to set poems by Wilfred Owen and A.E.Housman to music have been dire. Only Parry’s (?) treatment of Blake’s “And did those feet…” enhances the original. Nabokov recreates Annabel Lee as Humbert Humbert’s first love, a girl with whom, as a young adolescent, he shared an idyllic, unconsummated, but far from innocent flirtation, a precursor to Lolita. The poem very much captures the beauty and idealism of young love.

    • errhernandez

      There is that I know at least one group, a Spanish rock band, who set this poem to music, albeit in Spanish. Their name was Radio Futura (Future Radio), and personally I think they did a good job; their lyrics, though in Spanish, capture the eery atmosphere of the original, and though I have always been suspicious of poetry translation, I believe they did something quite decent of it. You can follow the link below if you care to see a video of it.

  2. The line “I was a child and she was a child” has always reminded me of anonymous poem I read as a child which began with the line “He was a rat and she was a rat” and I still wonder if Poe had come across it as well…

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