Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 424

The central question to be faced in interpreting “Annabel Lee” is what the reader is to think of the speaker’s enduring love for Annabel Lee. Is he the model of a devoted lover, or is he mentally unbalanced? Based only on the words on the page, it is possible to make a good case for either view, but within the context of Poe’s entire body of work, it would seem likely that the reader is dealing with the chilling story of a madman.

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As already noted, the poem begins in the traditional form of a ballad. The speaker is calm, his language is straightforward, and his poetic form is tightly controlled. As the first stanza moves into its fifth line, however, the control begins to slip.

Instead of adhering to his ballad stanza form, the poet tacks on two more lines. The content of those lines is surprising, especially on a second reading of the poem. One might expect the speaker to announce his love for the maiden early in the poem as he sets the scene and introduces characters; instead, this speaker tells the reader—rather insistently—that “this maiden she lived with no other thought/ Than to love and be loved by me.”

The exaggeration of “no other thought” could be taken merely as conventional rhetoric if the speaker were talking about his own feelings, but to declare that another person adored oneself so fiercely sounds wishful, even desperately so. The paranoia in the second through fifth stanzas is clear. The speaker feels that angels, demons, and kinsmen are all deliberately attempting to keep him from his love. The angels kill her out of malice, and “all men” know it. When Annabel Lee’s “highborn kinsmen” come to entomb her dead body—a natural thing to do—all he can see is that they are taking her “away from me.”

All this could perhaps be attributed to normal grief at the death of a loved one, were the death a recent one, the wounds fresh. Annabel Lee, however, died “many and many a year ago.” One might wonder whether the speaker should be getting over the loss. Again, this instability on the part of the speaker is noticeable only on a second reading. Nothing he says in the first five stanzas is wrong enough to prepare the reader for the gruesome revelation in the sixth: that he in fact spends his nights lying beside Annabel Lee’s dead body. Years after her death, she is still his “darling,” his “life.”

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 872

Memory and Reminiscing
Readers are urged by the tone and setting of this poem to question how well the speaker actually remembers his relationship with his dead lover. From the very first line, the speaker admits that he is talking about things that happened "many and many years ago." Repeating the word "many" emphasizes the amount of time that has passed since Annabel Lee's death. This encourages readers' suspicions, since memories, especially extremely pleasant memories, are often idealized versions of reality. In the third stanza, the poem makes a point of mentioning once more that there is a considerable distance of time between the events being described and the speaker as he is recalling them. It becomes even more difficult to believe that his brief, youthful love affair could have been as pure and beautiful as he describes it. If his claim was that a recent love had died because of angels' jealousy, or that he thought every day about a lover who died the year before, then his obsession could be attributed to strong but normal grief. With the distance of time indicated here, though, there has to be a strong possibility that he is not actually responding to the love affair that he lived, but instead to a false, inflated memory of Annabel Lee.

The sea is used here as a poetic device to represent memory. It is linked to the life the speaker had with Annabel Lee because they lived together in a kingdom next to it. It is linked to her death, as he makes a point of mentioning twice in the last two lines that her body is put to rest beside the sea. As a vast, mysterious force, a traditional place of enigma and danger, the sea is a fitting symbol to represent the past, which is as attractive to the speaker as the sea is to those who sail it. In line 31 he speculates that the demons who might come to disrupt his memory of Annabel Lee—who might "dissever" his soul from hers—lurk under the sea.

Death
Like many of Edgar Allan Poe's short stories and poems, "Annabel Lee" concerns itself with the human problem of having to carry on and make sense of the world after the permanent disruption that death causes. In this particular case, the speaker of the poem is so distraught over his loss that he bends reality to find a cause for her death that his mind can accept. Readers are not given a physical, medical explanation for her death, other than that a "chill" came down upon her, because in his mind mere physics would be too simple to destroy a grand love like the one he remembers. The explanation that is offered instead is that the angels envied the young couple's happiness and, most uncharacteristically for angels, killed her out of jealousy. For the narrator, this explanation makes sense of the randomness of disease and death by providing a culprit; he needs this in order to accept the idea that his love might not have been great enough to stop death. In fact, he cannot accept death as a separation from the girl he loved, but believes that they are still linked, which may be true for him in a psychological sense, although there is no way of knowing if the deceased, wherever she may be, might also feel this way. The situation related in this poem is real more in a psychological sense than in any other sense, and this makes death (which is an absolute, unchangeable limit in the real world) serve as an appropriate tool for Poe's type of writing.

Class Conflict
The speaker of this poem presents himself as an underdog, struggling throughout his entire love affair against those who attempt to use their superior social positions against him. At first, the speaker implies that the world looked down on his relationship with Annabel Lee because they were both children, making a point of emphasizing she and I to show their common bond against the opposition, presumably from adults. If, as most critics agree, this poem is based upon Poe's relationship with his cousin Virginia Clemm, then he has altered the facts here to fit this theory of opposition: even if Virginia was only thirteen when they married, Poe himself was twenty-seven. By presenting himself as a child, he puts himself and Annabel Lee on one side and the adult world on the other. Later in the poem, there is opposition from the angels, who are jealous because the young couple has more happiness than they themselves have in heaven. The angels, obviously from a higher and more privileged class than a couple of children on Earth, have killed Annabel Lee, the narrator says. After Annabel Lee's death, her body was taken away by "her high-born kinsmen." Although it is not directly stated, the implication here is that the speaker is prohibited from visiting his deceased love or from participating in her funeral because of class distinctions. The love affair in this poem is opposed by forces more powerful—adults, angels, and the upper social class. The endurance of the youngsters' love against all of these is a testament to its strength.

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