POETICAL EXCURSION #5
"Annabel Lee", by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).
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.
She was a child and I 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 winged 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 by night
Chilling my 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, chilling
And killing my Annable 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:--
Fore the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel lee;
And the stars never rise but I see 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 bridge,
In her sepulchre there by the sea--
In her tomb by the sounding sea.
This poem first captivated me when I read it in my eleventh grade English class, and my appreciation of it has only deepened throughout the years (fifteen of them, to be precise). Chiaroscuro -- the alternation of light and dark -- is one of the oldest of tools in visual art, and it is also frequently employed by poets through their imagery. Poe's "Annabel Lee" is no exception.
The "light" of the poem is found, at first, in the construction of its verse. Just reading this poem aloud, with no attention paid at all to the meaning, is pleasurable. Poe uses alliteration and repetition of words to maximum effect, starting in the very first line: It was many and many a year ago. His scansion is masterful, creating a lilting sense of rhythm and beauty. The "light" of Poe's chiaroscuro in "Annabel Lee" is found in the language and its rhythm. Reading this poem seems soothing at first, as if Poe has created a mere tribute to a particular love.
Chiaroscuro, though, also involves darkness, and in this poem the darkness of the content -- Poe's message -- stands in stark contrast to the "light" of the soft and pleasing form the poem takes. Consider the first stanza: in just the first two lines, Poe creates a feeling that is almost mythological -- he could be talking about Helen or Dido or Guenivere, some beauty from long ago. But the name of the beloved, Annabel Lee, somehow undermines that construction. It is not a name that one would associate with "many and many a year ago" in "kingdoms by the sea". The last sentence gives an indication of the narrator's possessive nature: a maiden who lives with no other thought than to love the narrator and provide an object for his affection. We are on treacherous psychological ground already, setting the stage for the darkness that is to come upon us, quite suddenly, at the end of the second stanza when the narrator's idyllic love story is revealed to be something that the angels covet.
We are told in the third stanza that a wind came to chill Annabel Lee, and thus her kinsmen came to take her away and shut her up in a sepulchre / In this kingdom by the sea. Note Poe's construction here: not, "She died and was buried by the sea", but rather that she has been taken away from me by her kinsmen -- specifically, her high-born kinsmen. In one easily overlooked phrase, the narrator suggests that Annabel Lee's love for him is illicit .
Then things become still darker in the fourth stanza. The narrator blames the angels for sending the chill that killed Annabel Lee, but again, Poe's construction suggests something else. Note the narrator's Yes! at the beginning of the third line, as if he has grasped onto a new explanation and already decided that this must be the correct answer. He also employs the parenthetical as all men know.... in an attempt to give his lie the credibility it needs. Only then, at the end of this particular stanza when the narrator has deflected the blame for Annabel Lee's death from himself, does he admit in specific language that she is dead.
The psychology becomes even more urgent in the fifth and sixth stanzas, when the narrator reveals the depth of his obsession with Annabel Lee. He tells us that his and her souls are now intertwined, that neither the angels nor the demons Can ever dissever my soul from the soul / Of the beautiful Annabel Lee. The narrator dreams of her constantly; he sees her face in the sky. Four of the poem's last fifteen lines end in breathless pauses, and the repetitions in the sentence construction mount, impelling us forward to the poem's conclusion, when the narrator tells us that each night he sleeps beside Annabel Lee In her tomb by the sounding sea. Is this meant literally? Is Poe telling us that the narrator actually enters her tomb and sleeps at her side, or is he merely using the ghoulish imagery to further suggest the level of his obsession? It seems to me that the latter is more likely, given the poem's careful psychological construction and its lack of such stark "death" imagery until that point. Of course, Poe was no stranger to writing about the "unquiet coffin", as Stephen King would call it, so the possibility of the former cannot be ignored.
"Annabel Lee" is a masterpiece of Gothic literature and truly representative of Edgar Allan Poe's genius.
(NOTE: In some editions of the poem -- notably, that published by the Library of America in its collection of Poe's poetry and tales -- the last line of "Annabel Lee" reads, In her tomb by the side of the sea. This is actually the final line according to Poe's finished manuscript of the poem, with In her tomb by the sounding sea existing in earlier drafts. Whatever Poe's feelings and reasons for changing this line, I simply prefer the earlier version over the later, "complete" version.)