Poe's Inspiration for "Annabel Lee"

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2054

"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...

(This entire section contains 2054 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

"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 overlaps with "Annabel Lee" both in the time period in which it was written and in subject matter. In "The Poetic Principle," Poe declares that though beauty is the goal of poetry, its proper topic is love: "Love … love—the true, the divine Eros—the Uranian, as distinguished from the Dionaean Venus—is unquestionably the purest and truest of all poetic themes" (Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry, Tales, and Selected Essays). "Uranian Venus" refers to love that is spiritual, pure, and eternal. It is a rare love that transcends the physical world, as opposed to a "Dionaean," or earthly, common, and finite, type of love.

In "Annabel Lee," the poet celebrates this true Uranian love: "we loved with a love that was more than love." Poe repeats the word "love" three times, as if to demonstrate the inadequacy of that human word for a condition that is divine. Even though Annabel and her lover were young, the speaker contends that their feelings surpassed those of all others: "our love it was stronger by far than the love / Of those who were older than we— / Of many far wiser than we…." The poet argues that wisdom and age do not determine one's power to love deeply and honestly, and he then goes on to proclaim that "neither the angels in Heaven above / Nor the demons down under the sea / Can ever dissever my soul from the soul / Of the beautiful Annabel Lee."

Even though the speaker claims to possess an everlasting love that transcends all physical boundaries, he feels compelled to visit Annabel's grave again and again. The poet tells us that not only does he visit the gravesite, but he enters her tomb in order to lie down next to her corpse. What is more, it is clear from the present verb tense that this is a repeated action: "all the night-tide, I lie down by the side / Of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride / In her sepulchre there by the sea— / In her tomb by the side of the sea." The poem ends by emphasizing the material location of their union: the final two lines are nearly identical as they point us to the "sepulchre" or "tomb" in which the lovers lie. Given these circumstances, J. Gerald Kennedy asks, "why does he try to achieve physical proximity to the corpse if his love is indeed spiritual and lasting? His action seems an unconscious betrayal of anxiety, a reflexive acknowledgment of the very separation which the poem itself seeks to deny" (Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing). In other words, the poet has boasted of the strength and significance of his spiritual bond with Annabel Lee. Yet, in his need to be near the body of his beloved, he seems to contradict his own assertions and indicate that a physical connection is just as important as a non-physical one.

We may better understand this apparent contradiction if we recall that the poet's tale is poignant because he loses not only love but beauty. Poe revised the poem a few times, making some minor alterations which nevertheless affect the overall meaning of the poem. In an earlier version of the poem, Poe writes in the third stanza, "A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling / My beautiful Annabel Lee." In the final version of the poem, Poe changes the lines to read: "A wind blew out of a cloud by night / Chilling my Annabel Lee." With the revision, Poe infuses the event with the mysterious and potentially sinister characteristics of night-time. Furthermore, the addition of two syllables ("by night") to the third line requires Poe to shift "Chilling" to the fourth line, and it allows him to delay using the word "beautiful" to describe Annabel. He does not include this word until the fifth stanza, at which point we know that she has died. This is significant because one of Poe's main projects in this poem is to explore the link between beauty and death.

Through the first two-and-a-half stanzas, the speaker never explicitly reveals that his beloved has died. In the first four lines of the third stanza, he refers to a time at which Annabel was still alive: when she experienced a fatal chill. The action of death is so abrupt that the poet appears not to have the time to name it: "A wind blew out of a cloud by night / Chilling my Annabel Lee; / So that her high-born kinsmen came / And bore her away from me, / To shut her up in a sepulchre / In this kingdom by the sea." One moment Annabel Lee is hypothermic, and the next moment she is being buried by her relatives. Only a semi-colon signals the change from life to death, and the sentence recreates the swift and sorrowful transformation that occurs in the lovers' history.

In the fourth stanza, the poet is able to slow his recollections somewhat, and there he speaks directly of that moment which is so painful to him: "the wind came out of the cloud, chilling / And killing my Annabel Lee." The poet has explicitly acknowledged her death, and in the final stanzas he can now refer to her beauty. Between the fifth and sixth stanzas, the speaker repeats the phrase "Of the beautiful Annabel Lee" three times. The poem is full of repetition—this is a favorite technique of Poe's—but this triple refrain is unique because it occurs in such rapid succession, and the poet thus calls attention to this line.

Why does the poet want to underscore at this point in the piece that Annabel Lee was beautiful? Surely we are led to believe that she was attractive in life, but there is a particular kind of beauty that comes with her death. In the fifth and sixth stanzas the poem shifts from narrative to memorial. That is to say, in the first part of the poem, the speaker has told the story of his relationship with his beloved and of her death. In the latter part, he tells us what his life is like now and the way that he tries to honor her memory. As the poem turns from story to commemoration, the vocabulary also changes. There is in the sixth stanza a notable emphasis on visual imagery that is not present in the rest of the poem. For instance, the poet mentions the moon and the stars in which he observes "the bright eyes" of his dear Annabel. His love becomes not just something to feel or imagine but to touch and to see. In fact, the beauty that he conjures comes to replace the "love" about which the poet has spoken earlier in the poem: he uses "love" eight times in the first five stanzas, but this word disappears in the sixth. The theoretical idea of "love" gives way to a more concrete notion of loveliness, and the absence of the former term in this last stanza suggests that, though we may want to value the ethereal qualities of true love, its tangible elements are what we ultimately cherish most.

Source: Jeannine Johnson, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2000. Johnson received her Ph.D. from Yale University and is currently visiting assistant professor of English at Wake Forest University.

Verbal Excesses of "Annabel Lee"

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1556

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 older and wiser all expressed their objections to the young lovers' affair, and the maturity that they represented proved useless in stopping passion. Readers get the sense that it is their opposition that, at least in part, has given the speaker the tenacity to hold on to his memories. Youth rises to its best when it has to oppose the challenge to grow up, act mature, and to keep its unruly emotions in check. One gets the feeling that Poe would accept the accusation that his mournful poetry was juvenile, that his only objection would be in calling this label an accusation.

There is a long and ongoing aesthetic argument to be made about whether an artist can be considered successful simply because she or he is able to provoke the response they intended. This question frequently is raised in modern art, with artists who use offensive materials or abuse cherished symbols to create works that are meant to shock: if audiences are in fact shocked, does that necessarily make the work art? What if a work is agreeable, and that is all that it aspired to be: are we to consider Liberace an artist in the medium of schmaltz?

It seems that, at least in certain cases, the objection to juvenile writing should be lifted from works that intend to be accessible to a wide age range. Accepting Poe's juvenile subject matter as artistry because he intended it to be juvenile would mean that some of his detractors would have to, however grudgingly, keep their objections to themselves, providing he had a good reason for intending to write that way. One good case to be made in favor of juvenilia is that it is so familiar to everyone, being a part of the human experience. Not everyone lost someone close to them in youth, but almost everyone who has gone through adolescence knows what it is like to suffer and feel that the world does not understand suffering of such depth. Even the most mature reader—even James or Eliot—must be able to find within themselves some echo of this poem's emotional overkill.

The style with which Poe presents his ideas really ought to be juvenile, in order to give the idea of unstoppable love and inconsolable grief their right presentation. This is the time to consider whether or not the extra words, which seem added for purely cosmetic reasons, might actually prove their worth. Throughout the poem, there are plenty of cases where Poe uses more words than should be needed if he were only trying to make his point cerebrally. The most glaring example of verbal excess seems to be the constant reiteration that all of this happened in "a kingdom by the sea." Mentioned once or even twice, and this phrase gives the poem a fairy-tale aura. When the sea is repeated seven times, though, and always at the ends of lines, readers cannot help feeling that the author was dragging around a handy little chock of a phrase that he could rhyme with "Annabel Lee" whenever he felt the need. The same suspicion of padding holds for the second "many" in line one, all of line ten, and the inclusion of both "chilling" and "killing"—they could be left out without any loss to the meaning of the poem, and exist only to serve a rather gaudy form.

But poetry isn't only about meaning—the aspect of sounds is involved as well. If it didn't care about the work's musicality, a poem might as well be a work of prose. The objection that is raised to "Annabel Lee," as well as to Poe's other poems, is that sound has not only been acknowledged but has been given the main role. Most students of literature agree that the intellectual aspect should dominate, that the sound does its work well when it supplements the meaning, not when it rules it.

In poetry that aims to stand up straight and look squarely at life's mysteries, Poe's method of melodiousness at the expense of quiet thoughtfulness would be inexcusable. This poem is told through the speaker's eyes, though, and it is therefore not free to address reality straight-on: it is filtered through his mind and his vocabulary. It is the character of the young man who lost his lover that is talking to us in this sing-song way, and is adding phrases to make the song come out right. This rhythm and repetition may not describe grief at its rawest, but they do describe grief as this character sees it. In the end, it turns out to be unfair to accuse Poe of weakness if his verse sounds like the work of someone who is immaturely obsessed. The voice seems right to the mind of the character, and, juvenile or not, the character deserves to be examined. Whether Poe wrote this way because of his own limitations is a debate for biographers, but it is not the issue here. However he came up with it, "Annabel Lee" provides an excellent, whole psychological snapshot of a particular personality.

Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2000. Kelly is an instructor of literature and writing at several community colleges in Illinois, as well as a fiction writer and playwright.

Mrs. Osgood's "The Life-Voyage" and "Annabel Lee"

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1177

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?" The fact that the phrase occurs in Blake's The Four Zoas and in Tennyson's "The Lover's Tale" (works not published before Poe's death which cannot, of course, have influenced "Annabel Lee") suggests that it was not sufficiently uncommon to identify any single work as its "probable" source in Poe's poem. Moreover, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "sounding" appears as an adjective "frequently in 18th century poetry." One such appearance especially noteworthy here, though not cited by the Dictionary, occurs in the story of Lysander and Aspasia at the close of "Night V" of Edward Young's Night Thoughts, a work with which Poe was familiar. As in "Annabel Lee" the love of Lysander and Aspasia was "envied" by "all who knew" and their sorrowful tale related in Night Thoughts is played out upon "the sounding beach."

The second genuine parallel cited by Jones and Ljungquist is that both "Annabel Lee" and "The Life-Voyage" are ballads. But the fact that the two poems can be considered ballads is meaningless because the ballad as a genre is an omnium-gatherum of such generous proportions that it includes works having little in common. Poe's poem is a personal story of lost love which achieves its unique effects largely through its narrative voice and its haunting repetitions. It is not written in stanzas of traditional ballad quatrains. Osgood's poem is a didactic tale addressed to a young child, a moral allegory tracing the journey of personified "Innocence" as she bears the "divine gem" of "Truth" across the perilous seas of life to her "home" in "yonder skies." Though Mrs. Osgood's poem is written in ballad quatrains, the kind of repetition we associate with the traditional ballad plays almost no role in her poem. Jones and Ljungquist's third point—that both "Annabel Lee" and "The Life-Voyage" begin in fairy tale fashion beside the sea—is also valid. In Poe's poem, however, "a kingdom by the sea" is the locus of all the action, whereas in Mrs. Osgood's, "beside the sounding sea" is only a point of departure: by line twenty her heroine has "bravely put to sea" on a voyage which occupies the remaining one hundred and eight lines, a voyage which is the subject of the poem.

The fourth parallel alleged by Jones and Ljungquist—that the heroine of each poem "is envied by the angels in heaven"—does not, in fact, exist. Nowhere does Mrs. Osgood's poem suggest that the "fair maiden" (that is, "Innocence") is envied by anyone, least of all by the angels in heaven. Quite the contrary, the "angels" are instrumental and faithful in assisting "Innocence" in her effort to reach the safety of heaven. Even the "evil spirits" who beset her are not motivated by envy: they simply play their role in a conventional contest in which "Innocence" traditionally finds herself the prize. The last parallel, what Jones and Ljungquist call the "theme of angelic-demonic ambivalence," is also non-existent. This theme, which alleges that angels are transformed into devils and vice versa, is one of the longstanding interpretations of that controversial passage in Poe's ballad where Annabel Lee appears to have been the victim of both angels and demons or of angels as demons. Jones and Ljungquist hold that the angels in "The Life-Voyage" are similarly transformed into "demons" and back into angels as they alternately assault and assist the maiden on her voyage. But Mrs. Osgood's scenario is quite otherwise. "The Life-Voyage" is an old-fashioned Christian allegory laced with a distinct element of Manichaeism, furnished here by a cast made up of good characters who assist the maiden and of evil characters who tempt and threaten her. The good characters, the angels, put in their first appearance in lines 23-24, where they "whisper'd her from Heaven, / To loose … or to reef the sail of her "shallop"; thus, they function as a kind of mission control advising the maiden on the trim of her craft as it makes its "way" to its "home" in "yonder skies," a "way" or course illuminated by the pearl of "Truth." But the maiden is beset by two distinct bands of hostile beings. The first, the "false, evil spirits" of lines 37-72, represent a moral threat to the maiden by tempting her first with "costly lure" and then with "rank," "power," and "pleasures free" in their effort to bribe her into surrendering her "white pearl" of "Truth." But they fail. The second hostile band is the "dark-wind demons" … representing a physical threat to the maiden by trying her courage through a violent storm. But she prevails again.… In the midst of this "blinding storm," an "angel" finally leaves heaven to join the maiden on her frail vessel … (note that the angels of lines 23-24 had only whispered advice from heaven). Guided through the dark storm by the light of the pearl on the maiden's shallop, this angel "Flew down the fairy helm to take, / And steer the boat aright," piloting the vessel to its "designated port." Here … the maiden passes from storm and temptation to heavenly peace with her "Innocence" intact. But nowhere in her allegory does Mrs. Osgood burden her reader (identified as "my pure and simple child") with those disturbing ambiguities of devilish angels that people the paranoid world of "Annabel Lee." As Jones and Ljungquist point out, there can be no doubt of Poe's "exposure" to Mrs. Osgood's "The Life-Voyage," but this fact, even when coupled with the parallel occurrence of the phrase "sounding sea," does not justify swelling still further the ranks of "probable" sources of Poe's poem.

Source: John E. Reilly, "Mrs. Osgood's 'The Life-Voyage' and 'Annabel Lee,'" in Poe Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1, June, 1984, p. 23.

Poe, Mrs. Osgood, and "Annabel Lee"

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1604

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 the sole possible subject of the poem. Mabbott, calling her comments "ingenious and poetic," added: "her motives were certainly complicated. She wanted to minimize the importance of all the women in Poe's life save Virginia Poe and herself." Mrs. Osgood clearly showed special knowledge of "Annabel Lee." She explained the problematical reference to "high-born kinsmen" as "kindred angels" of God who took away the speaker's lost love. Her gloss has generally been accepted by early and later commentators on Poe. Mrs. Osgood's insights transcended self-concern as well as defensiveness about Virginia's reputation. Her remarks were further complicated by her authorship of a poem, entitled "The Life-Voyage," which probably served as a model for "Annabel Lee."

The sources of "Annabel Lee" have received fairly rigorous attention. Perhaps more in the realm of legend than fact is a newspaper obituary mentioning an infant named Annabel Lee. A possible literary source, "The Mourner," displays many similarities to "Annabel Lee," but the date of its appearance in the Charleston, South Carolina, Courier (1807) makes Poe's knowledge of it doubtful. Another literary lady, Sarah Helen Whitman, provided a possible model with her "Stanzas for Music," printed in the American Metropolitan Magazine of February 1849. Poe claimed to have written "Annabel Lee" in May 1849; thus the publication date of "Stanzas for Music" and Poe's relationship to Mrs. Whitman make likely his exposure to her poem. Other literary ladies vied for favor in the "Annabel Lee" contest. Elmira Shelton and Annie Richmond have both been mentioned as candidates, but a more notable claimant was Stella Lewis. Mrs. Lewis' claim, reported at third or fourth hand, triggered Mrs. Osgood's outburst, which should be quoted at length:

I believe that she [Virginia] was the only woman he ever loved; and this is evidenced by the exquisite pathos of the little poem, lately written, called Annabel Lee, of which she was the subject, and which is by far the most natural, simple, tender and touchingly beautiful of all his songs. I have heard that it was intended to illustrate a late love affair of the author; but they who believe this, have in their dullness, evidently misunderstood or missed the beautiful meaning latent in the most lovely of all its verses—where he says,

A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling My beautiful Annabel Lee, So that her high-born kinsmen came, And bore her away from me.

There seems a strange and almost profane disregard of the sacred purity and spiritual tenderness of this delicious ballad, in thus overlooking the allusion to the kindred angels of the Heavenly Father of the lost and loved and unforgotton wife.

In large measure because of Mrs. Osgood's comments, Virginia's role as a source of inspiration for "Annabel Lee" has received more serious attention than other rival claims.

But Mrs. Osgood's involvement with "Annabel Lee" goes further than her explicit comments indicate. Poe reviewed at length her Poems (1846), which contains the following ballad, from which we quote the first two stanzas:

"The Life-Voyage"

Once in the olden time there dwelt Beside the sounding sea, A little maid—her garb was coarse, Her spirit pure and free. Her parents were an humble twain, And poor as poor could be; Yet gaily sang the guileless child, Beside the sounding sea.

The most outstanding phrase that this poem shares with "Annabel Lee" is in the second stanza. There Osgood uses the alliterative "sounding sea," an epithet that appeared in the first version of "Annabel Lee." It has generally been agreed that Poe's final phrasing ("In her tomb by the side of the sea") was a mistake to achieve metrical regularity. This change from "In her tomb by the sounding sea," according to one authority, was unfortunate, "since it marred the concluding line, widely regarded as one of the great lines of English verse." In any case, "The Life-Voyage" is the probable source for Poe's phrase "sounding sea."

Other parallels exist between the two poems. Both "The Life-Voyage" and "Annabel Lee" are ballads that begin in fairytale fashion beside the sea. Osgood's "Once in the olden time" is far more conventional than Poe's roughly anapestic "many and many a year ago." Both poems present a fair maiden of "bright eyes" who is envied by the angels in heaven. In "The Life-Voyage," the angels come down from heaven to win her prized pearl. Roughly conforming to Osgood's published remarks on "Annabel Lee," these angels eventually usher her safely to heaven; they act almost as kinsmen of God or the Heavenly Father. In "Annabel Lee," "the angels, not half so happy in Heaven, / Went envying her and me." It is noteworthy, that, in both poems, these angels are later transformed into demons that threaten the figure of female beauty. The transformation from angels to demons is occasioned by the announcement of death. In Osgood's poem, "A stillness of death" is attended by "dark wind-demons," which attack the pearl maiden. In "Annabel Lee," after wind brings death to his beloved, the speaker is locked in a never-ending conflict between "the angels in Heaven above" and "the demons down under the sea." This theme of angelic-demonic ambivalence appealed to Poe, not only in "Annabel Lee," but also in "The Raven" where the student initially believes that the raven is sent by the angels of the lost Lenore. While Poe is infinitely more successful in approximating the sound of the ocean's ebb and flow, both poets attempt onomatopoetic effects associated with oceanic rhythms. While the theme of adolescent love is absent from "The Life-Voyage," it contains a theme that appealed to Poe as well as other American Romantics. This is the "Voyage of Life" theme, which attempted to "telescope" the human cycle from infancy to death in a single work of literature. The Hudson River painter Thomas Cole employed this theme in his pictorial series "The Voyage of Life." And Poe, in "The Domain of Arnheim," projected the theme of life-voyage in his narrator's trip down a winding stream. Thus, because of Poe's predilection for this theme, Osgood' s treatment in her poem would have been congenial to him.

Poe's review of Osgood's 1846 volume makes his exposure to "The Life-Voyage" clear. Subsequent reviews and printings of the poem suggest that his memory may have been refreshed at a time close to his claimed date of composition for "Annabel Lee." Furthermore, the possibility of mutual or reciprocal influence between "Annabel Lee" and "The Life-Voyage" should not be discounted. Mrs. Osgood's comments on "Annabel Lee" reflect a knowledge of the poem that exceeded any of her contemporaries. Rather uncharacteristically of Poe, he circulated a manuscript of "Annabel Lee" more widely than any of his other poems, sending a copy to Rufus Griswold, Mrs. Osgood's literary executor, in June 1849. By the same token, Poe may have seen a draft of "The Life-Voyage" independently of its publication. Such interchange is not unlikely in view of the Poe-esque titles among Osgood's poems: "Ermengarde's Awakening," "Lenore," and "Leonor." Another poem on a theme similar to that of "The Life-Voyage" is "The Spirit's Voyage," an elegy on the death of a child which echoes Poe's most famous refrain:

No more!—ah! never, never more! Her precious feet will tead, Like light, our dwelling's coral floor, By young affection led.

As if in reciprocation for these poetic efforts that bring to mind his characters, themes, and vocabulary, Poe wrote a series of poems to Mrs. Osgood. He also lauded her poetry in his reviews, showing particular fondness for a dramatic poem Elfrida in which the hero is a king named Edgar. The literary relationship reached its conclusion with her elegiac tribute to Poe, "The Hand That Swept the Sounding Lyre." In all this give-and-take, the connection between "The Life-Voyage" and "Annabel Lee" may have had the most fruitful and significant literary consequences.

In any case, examination of internal parallels alone would seem to make "The Life-Voyage" a probable model for Poe's final poem. In view of Mrs. Osgood's personal and literary relationship extending from 1845 to 1849, "The Life-Voyage" merits inclusion in any survey of the provenance of "Annabel Lee."

Source: Buford Jones and Kent Ljungquist, "Poe, Mrs. Osgood, and 'Annabel Lee,'" in Studies in the American Renaissance, edited by Joel Myerson, University Press of Virginia, 1983, pp. 275-80.

A Note on "Annabel Lee"

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 319

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 the conventionally macabre "sepulchre" and "tomb," given rhythmic emphasis in stanza six, transform, in context, into the blessed place of union for the lovers, among the soothing, familiar elements of nature. It is toward this unconscious wholeness in nature, in sleep, in death, that the distraught consciousness of the child mind strives through the simple narrative poem.

Source: Julienne H. Empric, "A Note on 'Annabel Lee,'" in Poe Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1, June, 1973, p. 26.


Critical Overview