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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