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:
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.