Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 546

One of the first critics to comment on a connection between Poe and the speaker in "Annabel Lee" is John Cowper Powys, in his 1915 work Visions and Revisions: A Book of Literary Devotions. He writes that in poems such as this, Poe expresses "a certain dark, wilful melancholy," a cold mood that Poe "must surely himself have known." Powys's suggestion may spring from Poe's experience with loss, and in particular the death of his child bride, Virginia Clemm. Virginia's death occurred in 1847, two years prior to the writing of this poem, and her loss could have created for Poe the atmosphere or mood that he reproduces in his poetry. Even before her death, however, Poe had experienced the death of his actress mother when he was a small child, and then the death from brain cancer of Jane Stanard, a friend's beautiful mother whom the fourteen-year-old Poe had idolized; and he had already stated in his "Philosophy of Composition" that the most appropriate subject for poetry is the death of a beautiful woman because it carries with it the most emotional power.

Despite the coldness and "artificiality" he observes in Poe's poems, Powys remarks that "to say they are artificial does not derogate from their genius." Early assessments of Poe's verse dismissed it as overly musical and vulgar, but later critics have found more to praise in it. Noting that Poe wrote several kinds and degrees of poetry, George Saintsbury wrote in a 1927 essay, later included in Prefaces and Essays, that "I know nothing that can beat, if I know anything that can equal, 'Annabel Lee.'" He explains: "It begins quite quietly but with a motion of gathering speed and a sort of flicker of light and glow of heat: and these things quicken and brighten and grow till they finish in the last stanza, that incomparable explosion of rapturous regret that towers to the stars and sinks to the sea."

Rather than focus on the subject of the poem, Floyd Stovall in his book Edgar Poe the Poet recognizes the "hypnotic effect of the repetition of harmonized sound and sense through the poem, building up to a climax in the last stanza." He commends this effect as the poem's most "pleasing" quality and contends that "the value of the poem subsists more in its form than its meaning." Not all critics would agree with Stovall, however. The well-known modern poet Richard Wilbur admires the deeper meaning in Poe's poetry. In a 1981 talk delivered to the Poe Studies Association and later published in The University of Mississippi Studies in English, Wilbur connects "Annabel Lee" to the divine love of God. Using references to St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, Wilbur suggests that Poe has been inspired by it to create in the character of Annabel Lee the symbol of a "kind of blessed communion," one in which the speaker experiences a love that is "more than love." Wilbur supplies the excerpt from St. Paul which states that "neither death, nor life, nor angels … shall be able to separate us from the love of God." From this allusion, Wilbur concludes that "Poe asserts that the soul of Annabel's lover shall never be severed from hers, or from the divine love and beauty which her soul communicates."

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Essays and Criticism