Background

Edgar Allan Poe is remembered as “the inventor of the detective story, a celebrated poet, a professional writer and editor, and the author of unforgettable tales of horror, the uncanny, and the supernatural.”1 He liked to make “lofty pronouncements; he declared that a long poem “is simply a flat contradiction in terms,” which did not prevent him from writing and publishing a lengthy prose treatise entitled Eureka and subtitled “A Prose Poem.”” 2

POEMS

“The City in the Sea” (1831, 1845)

 Lo! Death has reared himself a throne     
In a strange city lying alone
     Far down within the dim West,
     Wherethe 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.

     No rays from the holy heaven come down
     On the long night-time of that town;
     But light from out the lurid sea
     Streams up the turrets silently—
     Gleams up the pinnacles far and free—
     Up domes—up spires—up kingly halls—
     Up fanes—up Babylon-like walls—
     Up shadowy long-forgotten bowers
     Of scultured ivy and stone flowers—
     Up many and many a marvellous shrine
     Whose wreathed friezes intertwine
     The viol, the violet, and the vine.

     Resignedly beneath the sky
     The melancholy waters lie.
     So blend the turrets and shadows there
     That all seem pendulous in air,
     While from a proud tower in the town
     Death looks gigantically down.

     There open fanes and gaping graves
     Yawn level with the luminous waves;
     But not the riches there that lie
     In each idol’s diamond eye—
     Not the gaily-jewelled dead
     Tempt the waters from their bed;
     For no ripples curl, alas!
     Along that wilderness of glass—
     No swellings tell that winds may be
     Upon some far-off happier sea—
     No heavings hint that winds have been
     On seas less hideously serene.

     But lo, a stir is in the air!
     The wave—there is a movement there!
     As if the towers had thrown aside,
     In slightly sinking, the dull tide—
     As if their tops had feebly given
     A void within the filmy Heaven.
     The waves have now a redder glow—
     The hours are breathing faint and low—
     And when, amid no earthly moans,
     Down, down that town shall settle hence,
     Hell, rising from a thousand thrones,
     Shall do it reverence.

The poem above is the final version of Poe's "The City in the Sea" which was originally published in 1845; however, there was an earlier version published as "The Doomed City" in 1831. In this poem, Death is personified as the ruler of a city. Poe was most likely inspired by Sodom and Gomorrah, the biblical sunken cities of the Dead Sea in writing this poem. Here, Death rules the city in the West (perhaps because the sun sets in the west, thereby linking it to death, darkness, and finitude). The city is motionless, with "gaping graves" and the "gaily-jeweled dead" until the end of the poem when the city suddenly sinks into Hell ("But lo, a stir is in the air!"). The waves turn red and Hell rises to take over or invade Death's city. Despite this invasion of Hell, Poe still notes that Hell "shall do it reverence," perhaps suggesting that Death is more evil and terrifying than Hell. The way the poem moves from lonely stillness into sinful sinking reminds me of the porous bodies of Poe's short stories. Is the city a human corpse or soul infected by sin, which ultimately drags it into Hell? 


“The Sleeper” (1831)

At midnight, in the month of June,
I stand beneath the mystic moon.
An opiate vapor, dewy, dim,
Exhales from out her golden rim,
And softly dripping, drop by drop,
Upon the quiet mountain top,
Steals drowsily and musically
Into the universal valley.
The rosemary nods upon the grave;
The lily lolls upon the wave;
Wrapping the fog about its breast,
The ruin moulders into rest;
Looking like Lethe, see! the lake
A conscious slumber seems to take,
And would not, for the world, awake.
All Beauty sleeps!—and lo! where lies
Irene, with her Destinies!
Oh, lady bright! can it be right—
This window open to the night?
The wanton airs, from the tree-top,
Laughingly through the lattice drop—
The bodiless airs, a wizard rout,
Flit through thy chamber in and out,
And wave the curtain canopy
So fitfully—so fearfully—
Above the closed and fringéd lid
’Neath which thy slumb’ring soul lies hid,
That, o’er the floor and down the wall,
Like ghosts the shadows rise and fall!
Oh, lady dear, hast thou no fear?
Why and what art thou dreaming here?
Sure thou art come o’er far-off seas,
A wonder to these garden trees!
Strange is thy pallor! strange thy dress!
Strange, above all, thy length of tress,
And this all solemn silentness!
The lady sleeps! Oh, may her sleep,
Which is enduring, so be deep!
Heaven have her in its sacred keep!
This chamber changed for one more holy,
This bed for one more melancholy,
I pray to God that she may lie
Forever with unopened eye,
While the pale sheeted ghosts go by!
My love, she sleeps! Oh, may her sleep,
As it is lasting, so be deep!
Soft may the worms about her creep!
Far in the forest, dim and old,
For her may some tall vault unfold—
Some vault that oft hath flung its black
And wingéd pannels fluttering back,
Triumphant, o’er the crested palls
Of her grand family funerals—
Some sepulchre, remote, alone,
Against whose portals she hath thrown,
In childhood, many an idle stone—
Some tomb from out whose sounding door
She ne’er shall force an echo more,
Thrilling to think, poor child of sin!
It was the dead who groaned within.
In this poem, Poe’s subject is a dead, young, beautiful woman. This makes sense, since he claims that this is the most poetic subject in “The Philosophy of Composition”:
…I asked myself- “Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death- was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious- “When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world…”” (548)
This poem contains three different movements. In the first, the narrator describes a graveyard “at midnight, in the month of June” under a full moon. Once again, his poem begins with a profound feeling of stillness. He repeats the sense that everything is slumbering. The narrator also comments on the beauty of everything that is sleeping. There are some things that are moving, however, including the “opiate vapour, dewy, dim” which comes “softly dripping” from the personified female moon and moves across the graveyard. He also notes the rosemary that is nodding on a grave and the lily rolling “upon the wave.” This vapour that comes from the moon and encompasses the narrator’s immediately environment adds to Poe’s repeated description of exteriors and interiors co-mingling (see my notes on “The Fall of the House of Usher” for an example of this).
The next movement slips into an examination of a dead young lady (who the narrator describes as sleeping) and the tomb in which she lies. He worries about the open window that is a part of the tomb’s structure because it causes the wind to move through the tomb and create noise and shadows from within. Once again, Poe’s interest in and fear of porous boundaries is made clear. This tomb is not sealed properly, and therefore allows movement in and out, between two atmospheres, one of death, the other of life.
In the final movement, Poe’s narrator focuses on death as symbolized by sleep. He hopes that the lady has a “deep” sleep, but that she also “…may lie/Forever with unclosed eye!”… an interesting and macabre wish, to say the least. Perhaps this plays into the idea of monstrousness as category-jamming. With her eyes open, she takes on the appearance of life, but is in actuality dead… she becomes a sort of living dead. This may also help her to remain beautiful, and become a version of the beautiful female corpse that Poe idealizes.

 “To Helen” (1831, 1845)

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. 
On desperate seas long wont to roam, 
   Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face, 
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home 
   To the glory that was Greece,       
   And the grandeur that was Rome. 
Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche 
   How statue-like I see thee stand, 
The agate lamp within thy hand! 
   Ah, Psyche, from the regions which 
   Are Holy-Land! 
This poem was famously inspired by Jane Stith Standard, the mother of one of Poe’s boyhood friends from Richmond. He uses Helen of Troy and other classical allusions (“Nicéan barks” perhaps alluding to ships dedicated to the goddess Nike or ships originating from Nicea; Psyche is the lover of the Greek god Eros as well as a personification for the soul; Naiad is a water nymph) in order to highlight her classical and unmatched beauty. 

“The Raven” (1845)

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.”
    Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
    Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
    From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
            Nameless here for evermore.
    And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
    So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
    “’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
            This it is and nothing more.”
    Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
    But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
    And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—
            Darkness there and nothing more.
    Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
    But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
    And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—
            Merely this and nothing more.
    Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
    “Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
      Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
            ’Tis the wind and nothing more!”
    Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
    Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
    But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
            Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
    Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
    For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
    Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
            With such name as “Nevermore.”
    But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
    Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
    Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
            Then the bird said “Nevermore.”
    Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store
    Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
    Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
            Of ‘Never—nevermore’.”
    But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
    Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
    Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
            Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”
    This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
    This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
    On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
            She shall press, ah, nevermore!
    Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
    “Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
    Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
    “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
    Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
    On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
    “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
    Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
    It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
    “Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
    Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
    Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
    And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
    And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
    And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
            Shall be lifted—nevermore!
Perhaps the most famous and referenced of Poe’s poetry, “The Raven” contains the narrative story of a young man (in “Philosophy of Composition” Poe tells us his narrator is meant to be a young scholar) dealing with the death of his beautiful lover. He at once both wants to forget and remember her. The poem is made up of 18 stanzas of six lines with a trochaic octameter. “The Raven” feels very haunting and melodic when read aloud, which is in part due to its mechanical features as well as its repetitive nature. In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe claims that he wrote “The Raven” in a very mechanical way- “no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition- that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem” (545). He claims that he first decided on an effect to create within the reader as a result of reading the poem, “Beauty,” or, “that intense and pure elevation of soul- not of intellect, or of heart” (546). Next, he decided that the tone of the poem would be one of sadness in order to make the poem’s essence of beauty more apparent. Next, Poe decided that the poem should have a refrain as the “pivot upon which the whole structure might turn” (547). This refrain was going to be a single word that was both “sonorous” and “susceptible of protracted emphasis,” leading him to choose a word that had a “long o…in connection with r” (548). This is how he decided on “Nevermore.” His next problem was to determine a reason for the repeated “Nevermore.” He then determines that a “non-reasoning creature capable of speech” would best serve this problem, ultimately choosing a raven to deliver this repeated phrase because of its capability of speech and its connection to the poem’s melancholic tone (ibid.). He next moves to choosing a topic and lands on the topic of death because it is the most universal and the most melancholy. He then specifies this to “the death… of a beautiful woman” because that is “the most poetical topic in the world” (ibid.). Finally, Poe works to combine the two ideas- the raven repeating the word “nevermore” with the bereaved lover of a dead beautiful woman- into a poem, allowing him to create “the effect of the variation of application” of the repeated word (549). Thus, Poe claims that, in writing “The Raven,” he began at the end by starting with considering the effect it would produce.

 “Annabel Lee” (1845)

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.
There are a few major similarities between “Annabel Lee” and “The Raven.” For one, they both feature a dead beautiful woman and are narrated by the bereaved lover. Also, “Annabel Lee” contains repeated phrases (“my Annabel Lee” “Of the beautiful Annabel Lee”) most likely done to better produce his effect of beauty in the reader.
There is debate surrounding who this poem was written about (if it was inspired by a real person in Poe’s life at all), but Poe’s wife Virginia Clemm Poe seems the most likely possibility, as she had died just two years prior to his writing this poem. She was also the person he loved as a child, the only person he ever married, and his only beloved who had died. 
Unlike the narrator of “The Raven” who can be with his beloved “nevermore,” this narrator is able to visit his lover every night because their souls are intertwined. This poem is very spiritual and focused on the soul, while “The Raven” is brutally material and refuses relief for the narrator due to the ever-present death of his lover’s unseen corpse.

“For Annie” (1849)

Thank Heaven! the crisis, 
The danger, is past, 
And the lingering illness 
Is over at last— 
And the fever called “Living” 
Is conquered at last. 
Sadly, I know 
I am shorn of my strength, 
And no muscle I move 
As I lie at full length— 
But no matter!—I feel 
I am better at length. 
And I rest so composedly, 
Now, in my bed, 
That any beholder 
Might fancy me dead— 
Might start at beholding me, 
Thinking me dead. 
The moaning and groaning, 
The sighing and sobbing, 
Are quieted now, 
With that horrible throbbing 
At heart:—ah, that horrible, 
Horrible throbbing! 
The sickness—the nausea— 
The pitiless pain— 
Have ceased, with the fever 
That maddened my brain— 
With the fever called “Living” 
That burned in my brain. 
And oh! of all tortures 
That torture the worst 
Has abated—the terrible 
Torture of thirst 
For the naphthaline river 
Of Passion accurst:— 
I have drank of a water 
That quenches all thirst:— 
Of a water that flows, 
With a lullaby sound, 
From a spring but a very few 
Feet under ground— 
From a cavern not very far 
Down under ground. 
And ah! let it never 
Be foolishly said 
That my room it is gloomy 
And narrow my bed; 
For man never slept 
In a different bed— 
And, to sleep, you must slumber 
In just such a bed. 
My tantalized spirit 
Here blandly reposes, 
Forgetting, or never 
Regretting, its roses— 
Its old agitations 
Of myrtles and roses: 
For now, while so quietly 
Lying, it fancies 
A holier odor 
About it, of pansies— 
A rosemary odor, 
Commingled with pansies— 
With rue and the beautiful 
Puritan pansies. 
And so it lies happily, 
Bathing in many 
A dream of the truth 
And the beauty of Annie— 
Drowned in a bath 
Of the tresses of Annie. 
She tenderly kissed me, 
She fondly caressed, 
And then I fell gently 
To sleep on her breast— 
Deeply to sleep 
From the heaven of her breast. 
When the light was extinguished, 
She covered me warm, 
And she prayed to the angels 
To keep me from harm— 
To the queen of the angels 
To shield me from harm. 
And I lie so composedly, 
Now, in my bed, 
(Knowing her love) 
That you fancy me dead— 
And I rest so contentedly, 
Now in my bed 
(With her love at my breast). 
That you fancy me dead— 
That you shudder to look at me, 
Thinking me dead:— 
But my heart it is brighter 
Than all of the many 
Stars in the sky, 
For it sparkles with Annie— 
It glows with the light 
Of the love of my Annie— 
With the thought of the light 
Of the eyes of my Annie. 
This poem bares one of the most obvious connections to Poe’s real life: In November 1848, Poe swallowed laudanum hoping to bring Nancy L. (Heywood) Richmond, whom he affectionately called “Annie,” to his bedside. Their relationship was complicated yet platonic. Annie was married to Charles B. Richmond and Poe would often stay at their Lowell, Massachusetts farm when traveling for lecture tours in the area. After her husband died in 1873, Nancy officially changed her name to Annie. 
Although the subject of the poem deals with rest, death, and repose, the rhythm of the poem is lively.
  1. David Lehman, The Oxford Book of American Poetry, pp, 61
  2. Ibid.

Select Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.