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 possibilities, the case for Virginia seems strongest, if only because the narrator of "Annabel Lee" emphasizes that "She was a child and I was a child." When Poe married Virginia, she was indeed a child: his wife was just 13 years old at the time of their wedding, while Poe was a less youthful 27. Of course, in composing the poem Poe chooses his words in large part for their figurative value. The quality of their youth—especially the speaker's—seems more metaphorical than literal: Poe uses the word "child" to emphasize the innocence and purity of their bond. Because of his beloved's youth and their untainted love for each other, he is a child in spirit, if not in chronological age.
Given the importance of figurative meaning, we cannot depend solely upon literal interpretations of poetry, nor read them as simple statements of autobiographical fact. Thus perhaps we need not choose from among the several candidates for a specific source of inspiration for "Annabel Lee," or even enter this debate at all. Poe indirectly offers some insight into his purpose for the poem in the essay "The Philosophy of Composition" (1846). In it, Poe dissects his earlier work "The Raven" (1845), reconstructing the deliberate process by which he chose the style, form, tone, and subject of his most famous poem. It is not clear whether Poe intends for us to take seriously every detail of his sometimes outrageous "philosophy." Nevertheless, he is sincere on at least one point: that "the death … of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetic topic in the world—and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover" (Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry Tales, and Selected Essays).
Poe developed this theory of the "most poetic topic in the world" several years before he composed "Annabel Lee," which suggests that the general theme was a greater influence on its composition than was a particular person. He used the death of a beautiful woman as his topic not only in "Annabel Lee" and "The Raven" but in many of his other poems, most notably "Lenore" (1831) and "Ulalume" (1847). Poe also visited this grim subject several times in his fiction, and the narrator mourns the loss of his fair beloved in the tales "Ligeia" (1838) and "Eleonora" (1841).
Not only is the theme of "Annabel Lee" one that is common to multiple works by Poe, but several of its phrases echo earlier compositions. For instance, many critics have noted the similarities between "Annabel Lee" and Poe's first published poem, "Tamerlane" (1827). In "Tamerlane" the love of which the poet speaks "was such as angel minds above might envy," while in "Annabel Lee" "The angels, not half so happy in Heaven, / Went envying her and me." "Thus," comments Poe's biographer, Arthur Hobson Quinn, "in his first and in his last poem he thought in terms of a spiritual passion that transcended human limits" (Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography). This is an idealized view of love which Poe held throughout his life, from the time before he met Virginia to the time after her death. And it is largely his interest in examining a "spiritual passion that transcended human limits" which inspired Poe to write this poem.
Though Poe argues in "The Philosophy of Composition" that the death of a beautiful woman is the most poetic topic, he makes a slightly different claim in the article "The Poetic Principle." The essay is based on the text of a lecture frequently presented by Poe during 1848 and 1849, and it...
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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 he has achieved it or not, just as the music of the poem is no true sign that it is only light verse, popular but lacking content.
Some of the brightest lights in the English-speaking literary establishment, including Henry James and T. S. Eliot dismissed Edgar Allan Poe's poetry as juvenile, as the kind of stuff that could only appeal to underdeveloped tastes. It is certainly easier for a person in their teens to appreciate Poe than to even follow what is said by James or Eliot, but we have to be careful to not identify universality as a weakness, or obtuseness as a strength. The charge against Poe has to be examined, though, if only because there have been many weak poets who write like Poe. Our first piece of evidence would be the strong, unavoidable rhythm of his poems, evident in "Annabel Lee": it is exactly the sort of thing that a poetaster with nothing to say would use to simulate profundity.
It does not help Poe's case to note that the speaker of the poem actually is juvenile in his attitude. This is not to say that it is immature to grieve, but there has to be a question, when one holds onto grief for "many and many a year," of whether the emotion really is not fading or whether the person finds that he likes striking the pose of a griever. Grief is not forgotten, but there is more to it than latching onto the first flush of emotion and staying frozen in that state for years. An immature point of view only knows the initial feeling, having, of course, never matured beyond it. It is small wonder that young people are able to relate so well to this poem, given that its speaker looks at life from a young person's perspective.
To counter the charge of juvenility, one only needs to focus on the fact that emotions are the business of poetry, and that if learning to get past them were the standard for maturity then all poems would just have to be juvenile. That the speaker of "Annabel Lee" cannot grow out of his grief, which some people might consider an embarrassing personality weakness, can actually be a source of pride in the experience-obsessed world of a Poe poem. To him, "maturity" in the sense of being able to put a lost love out of one's mind would be a wasteful, soul-deadening thing. The "high-brow kinsmen," the angels and demons, and those who are...
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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";...
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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...
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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,...
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