Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 612

“Ulalume” is about a poet’s divided self wanting to escape from sorrowful devotion to dead beauty, but finding psychic integration in fidelity to the dead beauty that lies at the heart of his melancholy artistic identity.

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This theme can be interpreted on several interrelated levels. On a biographical level, the theme reflects a crisis point in Poe’s life, a time when he was troubled by illness and alcoholism, poverty, literary quarrels, and the death of his child bride, Virginia Clemm, a first cousin who had married him in 1835 at the age of thirteen and died at the beginning of 1847, shortly before the composition of “Ulalume.” The poem no doubt reflects Poe’s depression and yearning for his dead wife.

On a deeper psychological level, the theme reflects Poe’s characteristic probing of the psychic dynamics of his own artistic creation. Like a psychiatrist, Poe explores a dream state, a nightmare, with all its fantastic symbols of the divided self seeking escape from the melancholy preoccupations of his peculiar artistic identity, and finally accepting this identity through fidelity to the vision of dead beauty and lost love. In resisting escape from the core of his artistic sensibility, the poet-speaker and his Psyche (the Romantic anima, or soul, of the artist) achieve the oneness of being, or psychic integration, necessary for artistic creation. Such psychological probing of the artist’s creating mind recurs throughout Poe’s canon, including certain short stories, such as “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Often, Poe is ultimately writing about himself; he is, after all, a Romantic egotist in his writing.

On a purely literary level, the theme reflects preoccupations of the European Romantic movement, such as a wandering Byronic hero unlucky in love, and an interest in the Gothic supernatural. “Ulalume,” in fact, illustrates a Romantic theory of poetry that Poe summarized (in self-defense) in his well-known essay on “The Raven,” entitled “The Philosophy of Composition.”

In this essay, Poe sets forth the following criteria for effective poetry: It should be original but carefully contrived for maximum effect on the reader’s mind. It should be no longer than one hundred lines, readable in one sitting, to produce the maximum effect. It should capture beauty, to elevate the reader’s soul, and not aim at truth for the reader’s intellect, or morality for the reader’s conscience, or mere passion for the reader’s heart. As European practitioners of “art for art’s sake” would agree later, poetry is the servant of beauty, which to Poe implied a special, melancholy subject:Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all poetical tones.Of all melancholy topics, whatis the most melancholy? Death.When it most closely allies itself to Beauty, the death, then, of a beautiful woman, is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world—and equally it is beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.

“Ulalume” adheres to all these poetic strictures, which Poe had applied to a very similar poem, “The Raven.” “Ulalume” is so original as to be bizarre, yet is so fully conceived in its musicality and dreary description as to work its spell on the reader’s mind. Its length is approximately one hundred lines, concentrating its haunting effect. Finally, it is not primarily didactic, moralizing, or straightforwardly an emotional love poem. Instead, it is an evocative celebration of melancholy beauty, honoring elegiacally the death of a beautiful woman and attempting to draw the reader into the supernal dream realm of the poet and his poetic soul. “Ulalume” does not mean; it is a mood and an intense state of being.

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