Themes and Meanings
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.
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.”