Essays and Criticism
Poe's Inspiration for "Annabel Lee"
"Annabel Lee" was the last of Edgar Allan Poe's poems to be published, appearing October 9, 1849, in the New York Tribune, two days after the author's death. Since the poem first appeared in print—and continuing to the present day—there have been competing claims as to the source of Poe's inspiration for this work. His wife Virginia had died in 1847 after suffering a prolonged illness, and many readers have believed that the poem was written in her memory. Frances ("Fanny") Osgood, a poet and a friend of both Poe and his wife, stated unequivocally that the poem was written to celebrate his love for Virginia (A. H. Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography). Fanny, with whom Poe carried on a long and intimate (though largely literary) correspondence is herself thought by some to be a candidate for the muse of "Annabel Lee." In addition, there are two other women who might have inspired Poe in the writing of this poem: Nancy ("Annie") Richmond and the poet Sarah Helen Whitman, both of whom Poe met and fostered relationships with in 1848. According to the literary critic J. Gerald Kennedy, Poe "seems to have regarded [Annie Richmond] as a virtual reincarnation of the dead Virginia Poe" (Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing), and Kennedy has no doubt that it is with Richmond in mind that Poe writes. Other readers have imagined that a more likely muse was Sarah Whitman, to whom Poe was briefly engaged in late 1848.
Of all the...
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Verbal Excesses of "Annabel Lee"
A sur-sign of weak poetry—and if Edgar Allan Poe had any weakness as a writer, it was his poetry—is that it is padded with extra words that serve no purpose but to fill out its metrical scheme. The word "extra" is key here. We all think that we can recognize which words can be considered useless to a poem, but that concept is open and is constantly interpreted in different ways. The interpretation of what is necessary and what can be dismissed as filler seems to be at the root of the controversy about whether Poe was a good poet or a bad one. A poem like "Annabel Lee" provides the author with a good forum for clever word trickery. Some people praise such cleverness, while others immediately become suspicious of a poet who might be more enamoured with the sounds of words than with what ideas they represent—in other words, there is a good chance, if his poems are too musical, that Poe may be willing to settle for weakness in his poem's thoughts if he feels audiences are kept amused enough with the excellence of his music.
Poe's supporters, who have grown in number through the generations, encourage readers to be skeptical, but to keep open, unprejudiced minds about the fact that such suspicions could turn out to be unfounded. Serious content is possible even when the style is as conspicuous as it is in "Annabel Lee." Just because it is is possible, though, is no evidence of whether...
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Mrs. Osgood's "The Life-Voyage" and "Annabel Lee"
Professors Buford Jones and Kent Ljungquist exercise more ingenuity than care in arguing that there are enough "internal parallels alone" to make Frances Sargent Osgood's "The Life-Voyage. A Ballad" a "probable model" for "Annabel Lee" [see "Poe, Mrs. Osgood, and 'Annabel Lee,'" Studies in the American Renaissance (1983)]. Noting that Poe must have been familiar with "The Life-Voyage" when he wrote "Annabel Lee," Jones and Ljungquist cite what they believe are five "parallels" between the two poems: 1) both contain the phrase "sounding sea"; 2) both "are ballads"; 3) both "begin in fairy tale fashion beside the sea"; 4) both present a fair maiden "who is envied by the angels in heaven"; and 5) both share the "theme of angelic-demonic ambivalence." But Jones and Ljungquist fail to make their case: two of these alleged "parallels" do not exist, and though the remaining three are genuine, none can be adduced as convincing evidence that Mrs. Osgood's poem served as a "probable model."
Of the three genuine parallels, the phrase "sounding sea" does occur in the first and second stanzas of Mrs. Osgood's poem and in the closing stanza of the earliest version of "Annabel Lee." But why should Mrs. Osgood's use of the phrase be considered a "probable" source for Poe when, as Jones and Ljungquist admit in a footnote, Poe must for years have been familiar with Milton's use of "sounding sea" in "Lycidas?"...
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Poe, Mrs. Osgood, and "Annabel Lee"
In Poe's contacts with literary ladies of his time, no relationship stimulated more controversy than that with the poet, Frances Sargent Osgood. For the literary biographer, suspicions of adultery and charges of moral impropriety had to be balanced against Virginia Poe's apparent fondness for Mrs. Osgood. Citing the many innocuous but fashionable literary flirtations of the era, Arthur Hobson Quinn delicately dubbed the relationship "a literary courtship" in which Poe found a convenient outlet for his amatory poems. Expressing doubt that Poe was ever seriously infatuated, Sidney P. Moss has claimed that Mrs. Osgood clearly took the initiative in the flirtation. Adopting a more speculative stance, John Evangelist Walsh has put forth the theory that Poe was the father of Mrs. Osgood's child, Fanny Fay. It is more likely that Poe's relationship to Mrs. Osgood was an injudicious but innocent involvement, but as Edward Wagenkneckt has noted, the Poe-Osgood relationship does not lend itself to clear distinctions between fact and fiction: "Nowhere in Poe's story is it more difficult to disentangle truth from falsehood than there." In spite of Thomas Ollive Mabbott's careful annotations of Poe's poems dedicated to Mrs. Osgood, biographical speculation has exceeded the study of literary indebtedness that may have existed. Of particular interest are Mrs. Osgood's comments on "Annabel Lee," in which she stridently claimed that Virginia Poe, "the only woman Poe ever loved," was...
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A Note on "Annabel Lee"
The child's vision of reality is, in relation to the larger proportions and understanding of the adult mind, a vision of the grotesque. Time, for example, exists for the child as a present in which, somehow, past and future are simply amalgamated rather than sequential, separate entities. The narrator in "Annabel Lee" says he was a child when he knew and loved his child-bride. From the subsequent workings of his mind, the narrator's perspective seems to have changed little since that time. He has remained a child, because of inability or unwillingness to change, and this frozen perspective is lent a peculiar strength by the characteristic and simple cadences of the ballad form. The narrator tells his story until stanza three, when, in an attempt to account for the disproportion of his feelings of loss, he creates a child's explanation for these feelings: the vision of the angel-murderers. As simple as it appears among the lulling rhythms of the poem, the vision is grotesque. To justify the loss, to find some cause proportionate to the effect he has experienced, the narrator must temper his idea of the seraphic with the demonic. He confirms his rationalization of angel-murder by re-asserting it and lending it the weight of common knowledge in stanza four. The final stanzas represent the conflation of time into the ever-present faithfulness and the nightly ceremonial act whereby the narrator tries to overcome the fact of separation he has earlier tried to explain. And...
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