Emily Dickinson’s poem “My Life Closed Twice before Its Close” expresses the feeling that death is worse on those who are left living than those who have passed from this life. Like Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe’s best works often deal with expressing the same feelings. Poe’s favorite subject was death, and he deals with the sentiment of death and loss through his poetry. In Edgar Allan Poe, Vincent Buranelli states, “Poe’s theory of poetry makes the death of a beautiful woman the most poetic of themes” (99). He wrote that poetry should be beautiful and sad at the same time (Nextext 22). He expressed this beauty and sadness through a unique form of poetry. His poems, “Annabel Lee,” “Ulalume,” “To One in Paradise,” and “The Raven” all deal with the death of a beautiful woman using different yet similarly effective methods. Through his use of symbolism, imagery and verse, Poe captures and expresses indefinite beauty in his poetry.
Robert Colin McLean writes that Poe was greatly influenced by George Tucker, his teacher at the University of Virginia (798). In his article “From Poetic Theory,” McLean outlines Tucker’s theory, which becomes apparent in Poe’s poetry. His theory claimed that poetry differs from prose in having greater melody of diction, greater brevity or greater amplification, greater dignity of language, more varied and more abundant imagery, and a more elevated tone of feeling and wilder enthusiasm (McLean 798). All of these characteristics are abundant in Poe’s poetry.
Tucker’s theory also suggests that “the strength and beauty of all metaphysical experience have their foundation in our pleasures and pains–those having the greatest effect which refer to our liveliest emotions” (qtd. in McLean 800). Although death and the loss of a loved one do not seem like things in which one could find pleasure, Poe’s poetry evokes emotion while dealing with these subjects. This emotion is found through Poe’s ability to express the feelings caused by his pain so well.
Buranelli shares Poe’s own feelings about poetry from his famous “Letter to B–,” written in 1801. In this excerpt, he offers hints about the attributes that make poetry recognizable:
A poem, in my opinion is opposed to a work of science by having, for its immediate object, pleasure, not truth; to romance, by having for its object an indefinite instead of a definite pleasure, being a poem only so far as this object is attained: romance presenting perceptible images with definite, poetry with indefinite sensations, to which end music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a pleasure idea, is poetry; music without the idea is simply music; the idea without the music is prose from its very definitiveness. (88)
Here, Poe hints at his idea that poetry expresses indefinite pleasure, and by this he means a pleasure that is difficult to define. He also addresses his idea that poetry must be musical. His poetry is definitely rhythmical, and this rhythm is what makes the poem different from prose.
First of all, “Annabel Lee,” one of Poe’s most famous poem, is full of the characteristics that sets Poe’s poetry apart from others. The poem’s imagery sets the stage for the meaning behind it. The narrator expresses the love that he feels for Annabel Lee with the image of the child. He writes, “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” (7-10). The love of a child is pure and innocent, untainted by worldly troubles. So, Poe uses this image to demonstrate the love shared between the narrator and Annabel Lee, which is infinite and pure.
The other strong image throughout the poem is the symbol of the sea. The sea represents eternity, and the narrator claims that no one, not angels nor demons could separate the souls of him and Annabel Lee. He writes,
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 the sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea. (34-41)
The images of the moon and stars are all related to the tide and the pull of the moon on the sea, which are being compared to the love that the narrator shares with Annabel Lee. He says that he is always connected to her and that they cannot be separated even when she is dead. He still dreams of her, and when he is near her tomb, he lies next to her. Poe uses very strong symbolism throughout “Annabel Lee” to demonstrate the indefinite love that the narrator feels for Annabel Lee.
Buranelli argues that “Indefiniteness implies music” (91). In order for Poe’s poetry to achieve indefiniteness or to express indefinite beauty, it had to have qualities of music. Poe uses a specific technique in “Annabel Lee” to make a musical verse. Shmoop.com breaks this down:
In the first lines, he mixes what’s called an anapest (which is two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable) with what’s called an iamb (which is the meter you hear most commonly in poetry, an unstressed syllable followed by a stress: It was ma/ny and ma/ny a year/ ago/, The first three groups have three syllables each, and each one ends with a stressed beat. Those are the anapests. The last group (or foot) only has two syllables–that’s your iamb.
This creates a rhythm: da da DUM, da da DUM, da da DUM. So, Poe combines the imagery and symbolism with the rhythm to create an indefinite beauty through this poem.
Another poem that shares similar qualities is “Ulalume.” In this poem, the strong imagery that Poe uses is in reference to the setting. He describes the “woodland of Weir” (9) as “ghoul-haunted” (9). The lake is described as “dim” (26). He uses this dark and gloomy imagery to set the setting as one that is bleak and somber.
Perhaps more strong than the imagery is the symbolism used in “Ulalume.” He personifies Psyche, which according to G. R. Thompson, editor of The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, is a symbol for the soul and butterfly (62). Thompson also references the Greek story of Cupid and Psyche, “a soul/body fable” (62). Taking this journey with his soul shows how the narrator is bearing his soul when he comes to realize that he has ventured out on the same night a year later that he lost his love.
“Ulalume” also has a very distinct rhythm. Gradesaver.com explains:
The rhythm of “Ulalume” consists mainly of dactyls, which consists of one accented followed by two unaccented syllables, and of anapests, which reverse the pattern with two unaccented syllables followed by an accented one. However, the most notable element of the poem’s form comes in its useful of variations of rhyme and of repetition. The rhyme scheme makes frequent use not only of end rhyme but also of repetition of words. For example, the first stanza’s rhyme scheme is A1 B1 B1 A2 B2 A3 B3 A3 B3, where B1 is the repetition of the word “sere,” A3 is the repetition of “Auber,” and B3 is the repetition of “Weir.” All nine stanzas begin with A1 B1 B1 A2 as the scheme of the first four lines, and the rest of the verses’ schemes are all very similar. Poe also repeats much of the description of setting in the first stanza in the third and last verses, giving the poem a circular form that parallels his metaphorical voyage of a year and return to Ulalume’s grave.
Poe uses these very distinct patterns to create a sing-song rhythm in the poem. This rhythm makes the poem more enjoyable for the audience, and it draws the audience into the poem.
In “Ulalume,” the narrator’s realization of where he is expresses strong emotion. It is this expression that creates the sense of indefinite beauty that Poe captures in his poetry. The reader can feel the loss that the narrator expresses through the words like, “Then my heart it grew ashen and sober / As the leaves that were crisped and sere– / As the leaves that were withering and sere” (82-83). This expresses the indefinite feelings that the narrator feels, and the reader can experience these feelings as well, which evokes the beauty of the poem. Therefore, the combination of imagery, symbolism and verse create the effect of indefinite beauty.
“To One in Paradise” is another of Poe’s poems that deals with the death of a beautiful woman. In this poem, Poe compares the narrator’s love to “A fountain and a shrine, / All wreathed with fairy fruits and flowers / And all the flowers were mine” (4-6). The shrine indicates that she was something to be worshiped, and the images of the fruits and flowers suggest that she was fertile. “And all the flowers were mine” (6) suggests that she returned his love just as strongly. These images set up the strength of the love that is felt between the narrator and his lover.
The symbols emerge when the love is lost to death. The narrator compares the past to a dim gulf, which is like the sea. Then he says, “‘No more–no more–no more–’ / (Such language holds the solemn sea / To the sands upon the shore)” (16-18). These lines show that what is lost is unrecoverable. The symbol of the sea in this poem is one that shows the indefinite loss of his love. Here, Poe expresses how the loss of a loved one is worse on the one left living. He writes:
And all my days are trances,
And all my nightly dreams
Are where thy dark eye glances,
And where thy footstep gleams–
In what ethereal dances,
By what eternal streams. (21-26)
He shows that the narrator lives with the loss of his love during the day and all night. During the day he is in a trance, and at night he sees his love in his dreams. However, like Poe’s other narrators, he sees this as a way of holding on to his love even after her death rather than letting her go. These symbols of perpetuation, like the sea, show how Poe believed in love after death.
Poe’s verse in “To One in Paradise” builds up the feeling in the poem. Joanna, a contributor to Ampoetistas, writes that the four repeating “And’s” in the last stanza “emphasize the speaker’s life of drudgery without his lover. The repetition gives the reader a sense of no way out, and that the pattern (of life without love) will continue endlessly” (1). She writes, “The feelings evoked by the words and the way the words are placed help give the poem life” (1). Poe also uses a traditional rhyme scheme of ABABAB, which adds to the song of the poem. Like Joanna says, the way that Poe places his words are what give the poem its life.
Finally, “The Raven” is one of Poe’s most well-known poems, and it shows the connection between Poe’s dark side and his romantic side. It is apparent from the beginning that the narrator is in a bad mental condition. It is difficult to tell whether he is imagining these things that are happening or if they really are occurring. He says, “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing, / Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;” (25-26), which shows that his mind has been affected by something that makes him see or fear things unlike others. In Edgar Allan Poe: His Writings and Influence, Charles Haines writes, “Poe believed that poetry should deal with, and aim at, what lies ‘beyond beyond’” (76). Having his characters portray madness was one way that Poe dealt with the beyond: what is beyond the consciousness of man? He presents his narrator as someone who has been driven mad by his loss and his loneliness in order to evoke feelings in the reader of wonderment.
Poe sets up the darkness of the poem through imagery. In the second stanza, he writes, “Ah distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December; / And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor” (7-8). The image of a bleak, cold December makes the setting dark and dreary. Then he sets forth the image of a coal burning out and making shadows on the floor that he describes as a “ghost”. All of these images, and the rest that he uses throughout the poem set the stage for the darkness of the poem.
The strongest symbol in the poem is obviously the symbol of the raven that appears to the narrator. According to Thompson,
Several ancient traditions regarding ravens exist. The Greeks considered them prophetic, and they were sacred to Apollo. They were regarded as prognostic of death because of their omnipresence after a war, scavenging the battlefields for carrion. In Roman myth, the raven was originally white; as punishment for an offense against the gods, its plumage was changed to black. (59)
In any association, the bird seems to bring a message. Thompson claims that the source with most validity for Poe’s usage of the raven is the raven Grip in Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge (59). Nevertheless, the raven appears to the narrator and brings only more pain to the man who has lost his love, Lenore. To the questions that the narrator asks in regards to Lenore, the raven only replies, “Nevermore.” This suggests the doom of the lover to never see his love again, and the repetition implies that he will continue to suffer because of his loss. The symbol of the raven, a dark bird who shows up croaking after death shows the extreme melancholy of the narrator.
“The Raven” is also a very carefully constructed poem. It’s rhyme scheme and rhythm reiterate the feelings evoked by the words. Shmoop.com explains, “The first and third lines have a rhyming word at the middle and at the end of the line (as in “dreary” and “weary”). This is called internal rhyme” (1). The website continues:
The most noticeable rhyme in the poem comes at the end of the second, fourth, fifth, and sixth lines in each stanza. It’s easy to pick out because it’s always an “or” sound (e.g. lore, door, more, floor, Lenore, and of course, Nevermore). That means that two thirds of the lines in this poem end with the same sound! In English-professor jargon, this rhyme scheme would be called ABCBBB, with each letter standing for the sound that ends a line. (1)
This rhyme scheme gives the poem the sound of music. Poe wrote in his “The Poetic Principle,” “It is music, perhaps, that the soul most nearly attains the great end for which, when inspired by the Poetic Sentiment, it struggles–the creation of supernal Beauty” (qtd. in Buranelli 91). By creating music with his poetry, Poe achieves beauty.
Poe’s subjects are often dark subjects like death and the loss of a loved one; however, he deals with them in poetry, which suggests a deeper meaning than the darkness. Poe finds ways to create beauty out of this darkness. He uses imagery to present dark settings, which often express the feelings of loss. He uses symbolism to express a meaning beyond the setting, such as the eternity of the sea. And, he creates music through his rhyme schemes and construction of the poems, which add to the beauty of his works. The beauty that Poe expresses in his poetry is that he can find the ways to express the feelings of loss through poetry. Throughout the poems that deal with the death of a beautiful young woman, such as “Annabel Lee,” “Ulalume,” “To One in Paradise,” and “The Raven,” Poe uses these similar devices to create beautiful lines that express the feelings of the loss of the young women. These indefinite emotions are difficult to find words to express them, so when Poe puts these into poetry, he is creating indefinite beauty.
“Annabel Lee: Rhyme, Form and Meter.” Shmoop.com. 2013. Web. 15 July 2013. This website offers information about the rhyme, form and meter about Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “Annabel Lee.” I use it to show how the poem has a rhythm that makes it musical.
Buranelli, Vincent. Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Twayne, 1961. Print. Vincent Buranelli discusses Poe and his works. He presents his theories about what Poe does and how he does it. This is useful insight into Poe’s purpose and method.
Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Bantam, 1950. Print. This book gives all of Poe’s works that I use in my paper. It also offers a little background information about Poe.
Haines, Charles. Edgar Allan Poe: His Writings and Influence. New York: Franklin Watts, 1974. Print. Charles Haines examines Poe’s works and his influences. He talks about what Poe wanted to achieve through his writing. He says that Poe wanted to go deeper than the surface and present the beyond in his poetry.
McLean, Robert Colin. “From Poetic Theory.” The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Norton, 2004. Print. 798-807. Robert Colin McLean presents Poe’s teacher’s poetic theory and shows how this influenced Poe. He discusses Poe’s use of music and how he came to write his poetry in verse form.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “Annabel Lee.” Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Bantam, 1950. Print. “Annabel Lee” is one of Poe’s most famous poems about the death of a young woman. It contains all of the elements that makes Poe a distinguished poet.
–”The Raven.” Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Bantam, 1950. Print. “The Raven” is also a very well-known poem by Poe. It is the darkest of my selections, which shows how Poe dealt with the supernatural, the beyond and made it beautiful.
–”To One in Paradise.” Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Bantam, 1950. Print. “To One in Paradise” is not a popular poem, but it also deals with the death of a young woman. It definitely portrays the musical rhythm that Poe desired in poetry.
–”Ulalume.” Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Bantam, 1950. Print.
“Ulalume” is a very unique poem that has a very unique meter and rhyme scheme. It really shows how Poe was able to capture the emotions of death of a loved one.
“Poe’s Poetry Summary and Analysis: ‘Ulalume’.” Gradesaver.com. n.d. Web. 15 July 2013.
This website offers insight and analysis of “Ulalume.” It also discusses the form of the poem, which I use to show how the poem is musical in its rhythm.
“The Raven: Rhyme, Form & Meter.” Shmoop.com. 2013. Web. 15 July 2013.This website discusses the rhyme, form and meter of “The Raven.” It explains the unique rhyme scheme and tells what this is called.
Thompson, G. R., ed. The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Norton, 2004. Print.
As the editor of The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, G.R. Thompson offers insights and details into the specific pieces of writing. He addresses Poe’s symbolism and his technique.
“To One in Paradise” (Joanna). ampoetistas. 12 Oct 2007. Web. 15 July 2013. This blog discusses the poem “To One in Paradise.” It gives information about the form and the rhyme scheme that show the musicality of the work.