The Poem

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“Ulalume” is a dreamlike ballad of 104 lines. It presents a psychologically divided poet in conflict with his soul over a temptation to escape the memory of his dead lover, Ulalume, by pursuing new love and new hope under the influence of Astarte, the moon goddess. The soul, however, forcibly calling the poet’s attention to lost Ulalume, reunites with the poet in rejecting the temptation to abandon sorrow by remaining faithful to the melancholy memory of the dead beauty.

“Ulalume” first appeared in the American Review in 1847, two years after the same magazine published Edgar Allan Poe’s more famous “The Raven.” The two poems together helped to secure Poe’s reputation as a poet in his own time and, along with the rest of his poetic canon, had an immense impact on European poets who believed in “art for art’s sake,” especially his champion, Charles Baudelaire, and fellow French aesthetes. These two poems became standard declamation pieces in American schools in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and thereby served to introduce generations of Americans to their first sampling of poetry. As W. H. Auden remarked in his introduction to Edgar Allan Poe: Selected Prose and Poetry (1966), “Ulalume” is worth reading because it “could have been written by none but Poe,” who pours into the verses his typical Gothic subject matter, phantasmagoric setting, and psychological themes.

The poem opens with a male speaker in a state of dreaming akin to sleepwalking. He passes through an autumnal nightmare, the “ghoul-haunted” region of “Weir,” by a Lake Auber, just before the dawn, on a very special (“immemorial”) October day of his life. Walking beside his female Psyche, or soul, the speaker recalls that his heart was as passionately divided as the lava-flowing (“scoriac”) hot volcano on “Mount Yaanek” at the freezing North Pole. Of one mind in their melancholy weariness, they are both too emotionally preoccupied to notice what will turn out to be tragically familiar surroundings.

Suddenly, the new moon of Astarte, a Phoenician fertility goddess, rises splendidly before their sight as it crosses the constellation Leo in its circuit through the melancholy heavens. The teary-eyed speaker prefers this warm moon goddess to Diana, the cold Roman goddess of the moon, who perhaps represents the cold and dead Ulalume subliminally in his grief-stricken mind. Astarte is seductive, because she offers Love and lights a path to the oblivion-giving waters of the River Lethe, which can end his preoccupation with Death by obliterating his obsessive memory of the lost Ulalume.

Psyche, his soul, in an agony of terror that causes her wings to droop, warns the speaker to beware of pallid Astarte (lines 51 through 60). This warning is at first ignored by the speaker, who considers Astarte a welcome escape to Hope and Beauty and a beacon to Heaven, far from the morbid melancholy engulfing his lovelorn life. Just as he thinks himself successful in winning over a doubtful Psyche with his kiss, he and Psyche arrive at Ulalume’s tomb: They have returned to the very place where they formerly buried his beloved. As a consequence of this realization, the powers of dream cannot tempt him to forsake his sorrowful fidelity to his lost beloved, and he unites with his soul in resisting the Hell-inspired invitation of Astarte to escape his melancholy devotion to the dead Ulalume.

Forms and Devices

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“Ulalume” is a ballad consisting of ten stanzas of varying length, averaging ten lines. The rhyme scheme is not always uniform, but each stanza does concentrate on two rhyming sounds to a hypnotic, incantatory degree. There is also regular use of feminine...

(This entire section contains 472 words.)

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rhyme, which repeats the weaker sound in a polysyllabic final word of a line (“sober,” “October,” “Auber”).

The prevailing meter of the poem is anapestic trimeter with variations, a sound system that lends rapidity and musicality to a poem heavily dependent on incantatory effects of tone and mood for its success. The lines are filled with alliteration, the repetition of consonant sounds in a line (“The skies they were ashen and sober”), and assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds. Poe was fond of alliterating liquid sounds (l and r) as well as m and long o for a trilling and organlike musicality. He also notably repeated words, phrases, and almost whole lines within and between stanzas for the sake of imparting an obsessively incantatory effect. The very name “Ulalume,” in itself alliterative, echoes the evocative Latin word ululare, meaning “to moan or lament.” Such devices seduce the reader’s ear into entering the phantasmagoric nightmare region of Poe’s hallucinatory poetry.

Poe’s vague, fantastic scene-painting cooperates with the poem’s musicality to create a dreamy nightmare setting for the speaker’s melancholy journey of escape and return to the memory of Ulalume. The place names “Auber,” “Weir,” and “Mount Yaanek” existed nowhere but in Poe’s highly developed imagination, but they effectively suggest a no-man’s-land of night and nightmare in which the speaker and his Psyche can play out their melancholy debate and eventual integration.

The speaker and his Psyche are on an archetypal journey of separation and then unification, as the divided self of the poet-speaker searches and finds oneness of artistic being in the melancholy celebration of lost love.

Noting that the only reality for Poe was supernal in character, C. M. Bowra, in The Romantic Imagination (1961), singled out Poe’s vagueness as the distinctive feature of his artistry: “Poe’s belief that vagueness is essential to poetry gave to his work its most characteristic quality. No doubt through it he hoped to hypnotize his readers into a trance, and for this reason he uses words as an incantation.”

Pope’s love of hypnotic, incantatory effects helps to explain his choice of a ballad form for “Ulalume.” A folk ballad is a popular, short narrative poem of a legendary or traditional event in simple stanzas having a repeated melody. Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Poe’s “Ulalume” transforms the folk ballad into a preternatural poem describing dreamlike states of mind, but retains the repetitious melodic refrains of the genre to assist in transporting readers to a realm of phantasmagoric beauty.


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Critical Essays