Annabel Lee- Amor Vincit Omnia




A beautiful and atmospheric representation of Annabel Lee! Image from

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered over many a quaint and curious volume of Halloween lore, I thought about the beautiful Annabel Lee buried by the shore. I don’t know why but tragedies of young love pull at my heartstrings. They appeal to so many of my romantic sensibilities- the innocence and purity of first love, the forbidden element, the cruel and hostile world, the all consuming and obsessive passion and finding happiness only through death in another realm. Perhaps the tale of youngsters in the throes of love taps into something deep and primal within us and has a universal appeal as it delineates the conflict between an individual’s interior desires and the exterior familial and societal constraints. Or maybe the tales of the star-crossed Tristan and Iseult, Pyramus and Thisbe or Romeo and Juliet exalt a rare and lofty kind of love that many people wish they could only experience!

Another tale of ill-fated love that has stood the test of time is Poe’s haunting Annabel Lee, published in 1849. The speaker laments the death of his young beloved, Annabel Lee:

Annabel Lee

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love-
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me-
Yes!- that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we-
Of many far wiser than we-
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.

For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling- my darling- my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea. 

Poe’s wife Virginia is assumed to be the inspiration behind Annabel Lee but does it really matter whom it was intended for? This romantic elegy of an obsessive and all-encompassing love is timeless and universal. It gives me the goosebumps every time I read it and never fails to awaken in me a mood of yearning and melancholy.

Stanza 1- The poem starts out as a fairytale with the words ‘many and many a year ago’, ‘a kingdom by the sea’, ‘maiden’ and the name of the eponymous princess like character, Annabel Lee. The words ‘whom you may know by’ establish an intimacy between the speaker and the reader and convey the legendary status of the tale. The speaker speaks of Annabel’s love and devotion to him. Everything seems idyllic. He is in a perfect setting during a beautiful time of his life enjoying reciprocal love.

Stanza 2- They were childhood sweethearts. The repetition of the words ‘child’ and ‘love’ and the refrain ‘kingdom by the sea’ create a harmonious and pleasing effect. The word ‘love’ is too trite and lackluster to describe the deep feelings they have for each other. The poem that started out as a fairytale suddenly takes a dark and morbid turn when he says the ‘winged seraphs’ or angels were jealous of him and of his love. Is it because simple mortals could experience such profound love? He has a different perspective on angels who are normally thought of as gentle beings who guard over you.

Stanza 3- We realize that we have been lulled into a false sense of security and that this is turning out to be a terrifying and eerie story. What is the ‘wind’ that takes Annabel’s life? Did she catch a cold and contract pneumonia or a similar illness? Or is the wind a metaphor for something more sinister? Was she betrothed to another, kidnapped, raped or murdered? Lines 17 through 20 describe her funeral and the reference to her highborn kinsmen indicate that she was perhaps of aristocratic birth and enjoyed a better social status than the speaker and that could very well have been the reason that their relationship was doomed.

Stanza 4- The horror of her death is emphasized again. He repeats what the angels had done in a conversational and intimate tone with the readers. The phrase ‘as all men know’ reiterates that their love was legendary and possibly has a universal element to it. The internal rhymes ‘chilling and killing’ add to the hypnotic effect.

Stanza 5- Their love was more mature and true than those of older and wiser people. Lines 30 through 33 have been compared to St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans by the poet and literary translator, Richard Wilbur. St. Paul’s eighth chapter reads: “I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God.” The use of alliterations in this stanza (‘demons, down, dissever..’ ) and the repetitions of the words ‘love’ and ‘soul’ create a euphony or pleasing musicality.

Stanza 6-  The last stanza is my favorite of the poem and makes my hair stand on end every time I read it. Lines 34 through 37 immortalize Annabel Lee with her association with celestial bodies. He dreams of her every night and he feels her bright eyes when he sees the stars. Even if her body has perished, their souls are in love. Their love is eternal. Lines 38 through 41 describe how he lies beside her tomb every night. He calls her his bride making us wonder if their union was consummated. Whether she was actually his bride or not can be left for the readers to imagine. I am inclined to believe that it was wishful thinking on his part. The love they experienced was pure and virginal linking their stories to their predecessors in history and literature. Even death is powerless in the face of true love. Love is immortal and defies death. Or is the speaker in denial and going insane? The line between love and madness gets blurry. Isn’t being in love a form of insanity too?

The Source for the Ending- The grief-stricken man lying by the tomb of his beloved is not an uncommon motif in literature. It is believed that Poe could have been inspired by a local legend of a sailor who kept vigil at the cemetery of a certain Annabel Lee who died of yellow fever in Charleston, South Carolina. In Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris ( The Hunchback of Notre Dame), the skeleton of Quasimodo is found embracing the skeleton in Esmeralda’s tomb. But I would like to go back even farther in time. Poe found inspiration in literature from Middle Eastern texts as can be evidenced from his poems Al- Aaraaf, Israfel and his short story, The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade among others. He drew heavily from translations of the Quran, the Arabian Nights and Sa’di’s Gulistan. I would like to put forth the idea that the poem’s ending can be traced to the legend of Layla and Majnu, a story that found its origins in Bedouin oral tradition and was put down in writing in the 12th century by the Persian poet, Nizami Ganjavi.

Layla and Qays are in love with each other since childhood but not allowed to unite due to tribal rivalries. Layla is married off to another man and the hapless and helpless Qais has become so crazy in love that he is known by the epithet ‘Majnu’ or the one ‘possessed by djinns’. He seeks Layla’s gravesite when he learns of her death, lying there for months and eventually dies there. Their love story can be interpreted as a Sufi allegorical narrative where the crazy Majnu is in love with the idealized image of the beloved. It is a spiritual love that transcends human experience.

I am also enthralled by the lyrical beauty of Annabel Lee. It has a beautiful cadence to it lulling us like the waves of the shore where it is set. Moreover the repetitions ( ‘my darling- my darling’), the refrains ( ‘in this kingdom by the sea’) and the rhymes ( ‘side’ and ‘bride’) and internal rhymes ( ‘beams’ and ‘dreams’) create a hallucinatory effect. I have read this poem so many times I can recite it by heart even without having tried to memorize it. It is timeless and immortal just like the story of the beautiful Annabel Lee.

ⓒ Literary Gitane- All words and ideas expressed are the author’s and cannot be reproduced without permission.



The Mad Woman In The Attic


One of the most fascinating characters in literature is the mysterious mad woman confined to an attic in Jane Eyre. I have read and re-read Jane Eyre many times and I’m embarrassed to admit that I had never paid much attention to this spectre of a woman lurking in the shadows until much later in life. To my young mind, she was nothing more than a plot device; a nuisance and an impediment to this beautiful love story between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester. Still I was aware that she wielded a lot of power as her existence threatened the happiness of two people in love.

A strange woman evoking fear, Mr. Rochester’s long-suffering first wife is depicted as a savage creature with a preternatural appearance and a diabolical laugh:

In the deep shade, at the farther end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.

Throughout the book she is described in a degrading and dehumanizing way as a ‘clothed hyeana’, a ‘goblin’, a ‘vampire’, someone of ‘pygmy intellect’ and is referred to as an animal or by the neutral pronoun ‘it’. She is considered a raving lunatic as she sets fire to Mr. Rochester’s bed, attacks Mr. Mason and tears Jane’s veil on the eve of her wedding. On re-reading the book now I realize that years of confinement without fresh air or sunshine would be enough to drive anyone mad. We don’t have her account of the story. She is referred to by her maiden name Bertha Mason although she is Mr. Rochester’s legal first wife. Hidden, stifled, negated, she is denied of her conjugal rights. Her ethnicity is not clear; she is described as dark but was probably a white Creole woman, but even as a white woman she is viewed as the foreign ‘other’ compared to the ‘civilized’ English.

Two feminist critics, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in a 1979 book entitled The Madwoman in the Attic posited that she represents the subverted rage of Charlotte Brontë herself, the female voice stifled in literature who had to write the story under a male pseudonym or that she could be the evil doppelgänger of Jane herself. Read the book if interested in a thorough analysis. Although a little dated, it’s a seminal work which sowed the seeds for future literary criticism.

While recently re-reading Jane Eyre, I focused on the dichotomy between the two women; the kind and good-hearted Jane and the wild and intimidating Bertha. In Victorian novels women are often depicted as one of two binary opposites- angel or monster.

It is interesting that both women possess qualities attributed to the other. As a child Jane displayed bouts of aggression when confined to the red room by her aunt. Years later, Mrs. Reed on her death bed, reveals: ” I could not forget my own sensations when you thus started up and poured out the venom of your mind: I felt fear as if an animal that I had struck or pushed had looked up at me with human eyes and cursed me in a man’s voice.” Jane’s aggressive and unladylike behavior, similar to Bertha’s is also likened to that of an animal and a man. It was social conditioning at her boarding school that curbed her impetuousness. She became docile and learned to control her feelings. Yet Jane is a passionate, independent and courageous woman who has a rebellious streak and shows spunk when needed. She does try to assert her individuality when she refuses to be Mr. Rochester’s mistress on finding out that he is already married or when she refuses to be dolled up in silks to please him.

Bertha, for all her belligerence, is a subjugated woman forced to give up her wealth and her country. Even Jane can’t help feeling sorry for her and rebukes Mr. Rochester:“ Sir.. you are inexorable for that unfortunate lady: you speak of her with hate—with vindictive antipathy. It is cruel—she cannot help being mad.” Bertha represents the oppression of women in a patriarchal society. She is Jane’s alter ego who acts out her darkest repressed desires. This type of ‘doubling’ is a motif prevalent in many Gothic novels.

Jane Eyre is one of my most favorite literary characters. Even to this day I admire her for her resilience, her tenacity and her ability to forgive. She is a sensible woman who follows her heart but doesn’t compromise her integrity. Most women, I imagine, identify with her irrespective of ethnicity and skin tone. The racial prejudice and xenophobic overtones escaped my attention as I was heavily invested in her romance. But now with age I view Mr. Rochester in a different light. He’s a dark and brooding man who tried to deceive Jane. And then, there’s the troubling issue of mental illness and its depiction! And I have become more enamored with the woman in the attic who eventually jumps to her own death and enables the couple to get married. ” Reader, I married him” declares Jane towards the close of the novel.

Reader, I married him first!

The Sargasso Sea with free- floating sargassum!

There’s always another side to every story. Jean Rhys’ novel Wide Sargasso Sea, written in 1966 is a prequel and a post colonial reading of Jane Eyre, narrating the story from the perspective of Bertha Mason. She literally brings her out of the She gives a voice to the silent woman and reveals how she was a victim of patriarchal and colonial hegemony. Her mental illness made matters worse.

The first Mrs. Rochester who goes by the name Antoinette Cosway in Rhys’ book is a white Creole, born and raised in the West Indies. The novella is divided into three sections narrated alternatively by Antoinette and by Rochester and is set in the Caribbean islands of Dominica and Jamaica. The last section takes us back to Thornfield Hall in England. Antoinette lives with her mother and sick brother in relative poverty until her mother remarries the wealthy Mr. Mason. Black workers burn down their plantation house, her brother dies and her mother slips into madness. She spends the rest of her maiden days in a convent school until her marriage is arranged with Mr. Rochester. He marries her for her dowry and is deceived into the marriage by his own father and brother who wish to disinherit him and hide the history of insanity in his fiancée’s family from him.

The text highlights the political and racial tensions between former slaves and slaveowners after the Emancipation. Antoinette’s parents who were once slaveowners represent a shameful legacy to the locals. Antoinette who grows up in isolation belongs nowhere. A white European girl raised in Jamaica, she is as much of an outsider to the English who visit the island and marry the white girls as she is to the local colored people. She experiences a sense of alienation and rootlessness:

It was a song about a white cockroach. That’s me. That’s what they call all of us who were here before their own people in Africa sold them to the slave traders. And I’ve heard English woman call us white niggers. So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all.”

Mr. Rochester is ill at ease in his own way in this languid and lush country which is frighteningly oppressive in its intensity of sensations and he laments: “Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near.” On the one hand he lusts after his seductively beautiful bride and on the other, he is bewildered by her strange native habits and her familiarity with the servants and especially with her nanny Christophine who practices obeah ( voodoo) and doles out rum and love potions as and when needed. Rumors of madness in her family drive a wedge between the couple. Eventually Antoinette herself starts showing signs of mental illness.

Marriage is another form of slavery.  It is interesting that Antoinette whose name has been changed to Bertha ( just as Mr. Rochester would, on occasion, call Jane by the name of Janet) and who is transported to England and locked in the attic for years, only gets her liberation through death. And Jane, who is free to marry, will be confined in matrimony due to her gender and also as she will have to take care of a crippled and invalid husband.

Although the idea of giving a voice to the marginalized woman is subversive and original, Wild Sargasso Sea, in my opinion, is so dreadfully written that it loses all its credibility. The sentences are disjointed and incomplete and often missing punctuation. Maybe Rhys’ intention was to portray Antoinette’s fragmented self with incoherent dream like visions and a hallucinatory effect but the execution is poor. Moreover Antoinette still remains in the shadows. I did feel an inexpressible sadness for her and her plight but I felt she could have been fleshed out more as a character. This is one of the rare instances when I enjoyed the film more than the book.

The book tackles issues of racism, reverse racism, xenophobia and misogyny in the sensual setting of the West Indies. The Sargasso Sea, defined by ocean currents instead of land boundaries and masses of free floating seaweed which, according to mythical lore, trapped ships, serves as an apt analogy for the struggles of racial identity. What a pity then that the writing ruins what could have been a brilliant book of intertextuality!

All I can say in defense of the book is that we’ll never see or read Jane Eyre the same way again.