The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Annabel Lee” is in some ways a simple ballad—that is, a narrative poem intended to be recited or sung. The first four lines of the six-line first stanza are written in the traditional ballad stanza form. The rhyme scheme is abab, the first and third lines have four metrical feet, and the second and fourth lines have three feet. The language, too, is conventional for a ballad. The poem begins: “It was many and many a year ago,/ In a kingdom by the sea.” This is the language of fairy tales, of beautiful princesses and their admirers, of great deeds and tragic consequences.

The poem is written in the first person, spoken by a man who was once the lover of “the beautiful Annabel Lee.” The story, as it unfolds through six stanzas of six to eight lines each, is a simple one.

When the speaker and Annabel Lee were young (“I was a child and she was a child”), they loved each other passionately “in a kingdom by the sea.” There is some evidence that the couple were actually married; at one point the speaker refers to Annabel Lee as his “bride.” So great was their love that even the angels, who were “not half so happy in heaven,” were envious of it. In their jealousy, the angels sent a chilling wind and killed Annabel Lee.

There are hints that it was not only the angels who disapproved of this courtship. The narrator reveals resentment of Annabel Lee’s “highborn kinsmen” who take her away after death. He also takes pains to point out that those who were “older” and “far wiser” than the young couple did not understand the strength of their love. The clear implication is that the speaker was not the social equal of Annabel Lee and that the families did not bless their union.

It seems that the speaker’s primary reason for telling his story is not to reminisce and enjoy again for a moment the pleasures of that great love. Instead, his purpose is to accuse those who tried to separate him from his Annabel Lee and to tell them defiantly that their machinations did not work. Although her death occurred “many and many a year ago,” their love has not ended. The narrator is still devoted to her, still dreams of her, still feels that their souls are united. He has remained true to her; in fact, he has literally never left her side. He says in the poem’s last lines that he spends every night lying next to her in her sepulchre by the sea.

The entire story is told in the words of Annabel Lee’s lover, with no omniscient narrator to offer guidance. The reader must decide, then, how to interpret that story. Edgar Allan Poe may have intended this as a romantic tale of young lovers who could not be parted even in death. Perhaps, however, “Annabel Lee” is the demented reflection of a madman.