“Ulalume” is a striking example of what Aldous Huxley characterized as the “vulgarity” of Poe’s poetry when he was trying too hard to make his work poetical. It is also an example of what made critic Yvor Winters, in the most severe attack ever launched against Poe, call him an “explicit obscurantist.” Winters’s distaste for the poem begins with its use of unidentified places such as Weir, Auber, and ghoul-haunted woodlands, which he says are introduced merely to evoke emotion at small cost. He also claims that the violent emotion suggested by the references to Mount Yaanek and the Boreal Pole in the second stanza are not adequately accounted for or motivated. Finally, Winters argues that the subject of grief in the poem is used as a general excuse for obscure and only vaguely related emotion.
Such criticism, however, ignores Poe’s critical theory that a poem should be the “rhythmical creation of Beauty” derived from those techniques that communicate the melancholy feeling of the loss of a loved one. “Ulalume” shares many characteristics with “The Raven,” for the basic situation is the same. Instead of a repetition of a refrain as in “The Raven,” however, the important repetition here is a dramatic one: the speaker’s return to the place where he buried Ulalume exactly one year before—a return he seems to make in a dreamlike and hallucinatory trance.
The subtitle of the poem, “A ballad,” justifies the rhythmic repetition of references to “crispéd and sere” leaves; the leaves serve as an objectification of the treacherous and sere memories that haunt the speaker and bring him unwittingly down by the dim lake of Auber, in the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir. The narrator roams here with Psyche, his Soul, with whom he carries on an interior dialogue. When the narrator and his Soul see the planet Venus, the goddess of love, the narrator is enthusiastic about her, but the Soul says she distrusts the star and wishes to flee. The narrator pacifies Psyche and soothes her, however, and they travel on until stopped by the door of a tomb. When the narrator asks his Soul what is written on the tomb, Psyche replies, “’Tis the vault of thy lost Ulalume!” At this point the narrator remembers that it was last October at this same time that he brought the body of Ulalume to the tomb. In the last stanzas of the poem, the narrator asks whether the spirits of the dead have thrown up the “sinfully scintillant planet” in front of them to hide the secret that lies in the wood.
Although “Ulalume” is indeed lush in rhythm, rhyme, and sonorous words, its actual subject—the thematic motivation for the repetitions and rhythms that hold the poem together—is Poe’s notion that the ideal of love (as objectified by the goddess of love, Venus) can only momentarily obscure the fact that the physical beauty that arouses love ultimately leads to the dark secret of the ghoul-haunted woodlands—the ultimate secret of death itself. Thus, although what is most obvious about the poem is its dark music, its theme of the transitory nature of physical beauty is what makes it a typical Poe poem.
A ballad comprised of nine stanzas that vary in length from nine to thirteen lines, "Ulalume" was written and published by Poe in 1847, the year that his young wife, Virginia Clemm Poe, died. The poem is related by a first-person narrator as he wanders with his Soul through a semi-real, semi-imagined land—or dreamscape, filled with gloom and images of volcanic destruction.
The initial setting is a lonely October night of the narrator's "most immemorial year" as he moves beside a dark lake of "Auber" (the last name of a contemporary composer of sad music) and through the haunted woodlands of "Weir" (a reference to the early nineteenth-century painter Robert Weir). His own Soul or Psyche accompanies the narrator on this sad journey without a fixed destination, as they move by rivers and mountains lying at the extremities of the earth. The narrator and his Soul are oblivious to their surroundings, for their dialogue is fixated with sad memories.
As the night advances, two brilliant lights appear in the sky. The first is that of the crescent-shaped moon, associated with the cold goddess Diana. The second is called Astarte by the narrator, an alternative name for the warm goddess Venus, and the planet with which she is associated. The narrator believes that Venus has seen tears from his recent loss and that she has arisen to lead him to a "Lethean peace of the skies." In direct dialogue, the narrator's Soul says that she "mistrusts" Venus, and urges them to flee. The narrator replies to Psyche that Venus's appearance is only a dream. The light emitted by Venus is beaming with hope and beauty pointed toward heaven.
His Soul's fears calmed, they are guided by Venus "to the end of the vista" and find the door of a tomb there. He asks his Soul what is written above the tomb; Psyche replies that it is the name of the narrator's lost love, Ulalume. The speaker now remembers that it was on this very night of the previous fall that he journeyed here—not with his Soul, but with the body of his beloved Ulalume, and wonders aloud, "Ah, what demon has tempted me here?" No answer is given, but the narrator ends by saying that he now well "knows" this "misty mid region" of his melancholy mind.