Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Ulalume” is about a poet’s divided self wanting to escape from sorrowful devotion to dead beauty, but finding psychic integration in fidelity to the dead beauty that lies at the heart of his melancholy artistic identity.

This theme can be interpreted on several interrelated levels. On a biographical level, the theme reflects a crisis point in Poe’s life, a time when he was troubled by illness and alcoholism, poverty, literary quarrels, and the death of his child bride, Virginia Clemm, a first cousin who had married him in 1835 at the age of thirteen and died at the beginning of 1847, shortly before the composition of “Ulalume.” The poem no doubt reflects Poe’s depression and yearning for his dead wife.

On a deeper psychological level, the theme reflects Poe’s characteristic probing of the psychic dynamics of his own artistic creation. Like a psychiatrist, Poe explores a dream state, a nightmare, with all its fantastic symbols of the divided self seeking escape from the melancholy preoccupations of his peculiar artistic identity, and finally accepting this identity through fidelity to the vision of dead beauty and lost love. In resisting escape from the core of his artistic sensibility, the poet-speaker and his Psyche (the Romantic anima, or soul, of the artist) achieve the oneness of being, or psychic integration, necessary for artistic creation. Such psychological probing of the artist’s creating mind recurs throughout Poe’s canon, including certain...

(The entire section is 612 words.)