An Analysis of Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe

This is a post resurrected from andrewwinkel.com before it was hacked. It was one of the most popular posts with 1,000-2,000 page views per month. It also generated a number of indignant comments from readers horrified that I could so malign the purity of this love poem as well as comments from readers intrigued by an alternate take on a classic poem. To all of you who commented before, I apologize for losing your contributions.

As of this reposting, the students who were seventh graders when I originally wrote this are now juniors or seniors in college.

Edgar Allan Poe from the Library of Congress collection

I discussed the poem Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe with my seventh grade classes, and we had lively discussions about it. The conventional—and typical—interpretation of this poem is that it is a love poem inspired by Poe’s dead wife. My interpretation is different, however. I’ve tried to find another interpretation like mine, and failing, have decided to explain what I think.

Firstly, I want to point out that I am not going to write this as a research paper. I will have no sources other than the poem itself and my own thoughts. Additionally, I begin with the knowledge that Poe composed the poem after his wife’s death. Any specifics about his or her age, cause of death, etcetera, will not come into this explanation because I do not believe them relevant.

One of the most challenging features of Annabel Lee is something that I’ve intuited but never felt the need to articulate, namely:

A fiction writer is understood to take up the role of a narrator, which may differ from his or her own perspective. A poet, on the other hand, is presumed to simply be revealing his or her own biographical feelings in the poem. In short, a poem like Annabel Lee is doubly challenging because it contains both a fictional narrative and a fictional narrator.

Since Annabel Lee is in the public domain, I can begin with the text of the poem itself. Note that Poe actually indents the even lines of his poem, but WordPress enjoys stripping any spaces from the code, and I’m not willing to try to spend hours trying to figure out how to force it to add three extra spaces to every other line of this poem.

Annabel Lee
By Edgar Allan Poe

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 wingéd 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 her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

I want to take an alternate viewpoint of this poem and examine it from the premise that Poe was using an unreliable narrator. From this point on, when I refer to the poet, I will be referring to the fictional character who is recounting the events of the poem, not Edgar Allan Poe. I will refer to Poe by name when I mean Poe the craftsman who created this poem.

If the poet is unreliable, deciphering which pieces of the poem are factual, and which pieces are interpretations based on the poet’s flawed perspective is a balancing act. The unreliable narrator has a distorted perception of reality, and through that distortion, the reader must interpret what is real and what the poet believes.

The poem Annabel Lee gradually reveals stanza by stanza that the poet is not sane. Within each stanza the poet explains more of his distorted reality, allowing the reader to decipher that the madness was present all along. At the poem’s conclusion, the reader can look back over the poem to see that all of the unreliable hints left by the mad poet.

Stanza One

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,

The poet begins the poem with “It was many and many a year ago,” which is a close approximation of “Once upon a time,” or even, “A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…” This prepares the reader for Never Never Land, a comparable fairy tale landscape, or the green, green grass of the past.

That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;

He describes Annabel Lee as a “maiden,” which is, by definition, a young girl, especially unmarried, or a virgin. That he does call her a maiden indicates that their relationship had not progressed to marriage, or he would likely have introduced her as his “wife.”

And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

The poet also explains that the maiden, “lived with no other thought than to love and be loved by me.” Since it is the poet who makes this declaration (and not the maiden; we don’t discover until Stanza Three why the maiden can’t speak for herself), there are two conclusions we can draw from his statement:

  • The maiden really did live “with no other thought that to love and be loved by” the poet;
  • The maiden did not have these thoughts, but the poet believed that she did.

Stanza One is the beginning of the poem, and the reader has not had enough exposure to the poet to evaluate his reliability. Readers who assume that the poet is recounting his own true feelings or experiences in the poem will not doubt that the poet is honestly portraying the state of affairs. In contrast, readers who begin to question the reliability of the poet after reading the remainder of the poem must question the accuracy of his assertions.

Stanza Two

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 wingéd seraphs of Heaven
Coveted her and me.

The couplets introduce these concepts:

  1. The poet and Annabel Lee were children in this once upon a time place;
  2. the poet and Annabel Lee “‘loved with a love that was more than love'”;
  3. this love was so amazingly great that the angels in heaven were jealous of the lovers.

Most people read that the poet and Annabel Lee “loved with a love that was more than love” and assume simply that this line is hyperbole, or an exaggeration of the love the two shared. They do not even question the poet’s assertion, seemingly taking it for granted that a thing (or concept) can be greater than the thing (or concept) itself. But something by definition cannot be greater than itself. The formula 1 > 1 results in a logical error.

Add to this the very abstract and ultimately unknowable statement uttered in lines 11-12, when the poet declares that the angels of heaven are jealous of the love shared between Annabel Lee and the narrator. Such an assertion can be interpreted as either fact or opinion, as in:

  • The poet has knowledge of the heavens that gives him access to the motivations of divine beings, or
  • The poet’s opinion is that the angels of heaven were jealous of the love shared by the lovers.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and point out that my experience in life has left me slightly ignorant of the sublime. Indeed, most people I know (and even the most religious among them) are equally ignorant of the sublime. Therefore, the first point can be discounted.
This leaves us with the interpretation that the poet was expressing an opinion when he declared that the angels were jealous. Since people vary in the way they deal with grief, it is not unlikely to assume that the poet has decided to pin the blame for his love’s loss on the divine instruments, God’s angels. What has driven the poet to angels is unclear, especially since he may as well go all the way to the big guy. After all, God is the one who directs the angels much like a toddler with his toy cars. Indeed, by focusing his attention on the angels, he’s giving God a pass, and this purposeful omission appears to be the poet’s way to blame God without blaming God.

Stanza Three

Within this stanza the poet adds two pieces of information to his tale. First, he reinforces the angels’ culpability by saying, “This is the reason” though he doesn’t yet acknowledge the angels as divine hitmen:

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;

Second, the “highborn kinsmen” of Annabel Lee take her away and shut her up in a sepulchre by the sea:

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.

Probably the most telling element of this stanza is that the poet reveals through his explanation that he is not in any way responsible for Annabel Lee’s body. Her kinsmen are. This supports his earlier statement of Annabel Lee as a maiden. She is a minor, then, a dependent whose elders take care of her after her death. Keep in mind that his reliability is questionable, so the behavior of others in this case supports the statement that she was a maiden, and we can accept it now more readily.

Stanza Four

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.

The poet’s accusation that the angels are divine hitman incapable of accepting such pure love on earth is a restatement of his assertion from Stanza Three; however, in Stanza Four he goes further by attempting to legitimize this accusation when he explains that since everyone knows it, it must be so. I’ve already explained my doubts about the poet’s access to sublime knowledge; I’m equally suspicious about his access to the knowledge of his fellow men, which means his “as all men know” argument is equally faulty. I interpret this as self-deception: he has convinced himself that angels killed Annabel Lee and tells himself that “all men know” this to be the case. We don’t have “all men” to substantiate the poet’s declaration; instead, we have the poet who is increasingly unreliable.

The cause of Annabel Lee’s death, according to the poet, is that “the wind came out of the cloud by night, Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.” What makes this line interesting is that it could be the most truthful line in the entire poem. Annabel Lee could have died from exposure to cold air; she could have developed pneumonia; there are probably many possible methods of dying from exposure. What is telling about the poet is that he then takes this cold air killer and connects it with the divine, identifying it as the will of angels who seek to end Annabel’s life.

Stanza Five

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;

The poet reveals his strong love, far stronger than the love experienced by others, which is why it can’t be split by either angels or demons.

It is a misapprehension of either innocence or madness to assume that what you yourself experience differs from every other person who has ever existed. It’s the perennial teenage argument, “You just don’t understand,” when the reality is that it is the teenager who just doesn’t understand, who speaks from ignorance and assumes everyone else is not equally ignorant, but more ignorant.

One part of aging is to get past the egocentric assumption that the rest of the world cannot connect to your experiences. The poet has never passed to true maturity, since the loss of Annabel Lee has left him emotionally crippled at the same level of emotional maturity as he was when he lost her. After all, the poet introduces the poem with the line, “It was many and many a year ago.” Meanwhile, he remains (all these years later) as certain as ever that no one can appreciate his lost love, that no one can understand, because no one has ever experienced such a loss.

Stanza Six

The final stanza of Annabel Lee is a knock-out punch. But Poe doesn’t just put it in one solid jab; he throws a rapid right-left combo before the main thrust. Observe:

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

We accept this as believable. Certainly a lost love will visit her lover’s dreams as he mourns her death.

And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

The creep factor should have set in with the words, “I feel the bright eyes.” I recognize only two possible interpretations for this line:

  • The poet is reaching out with his own fingertips to “feel the bright eyes / Of the beautiful Annabel Lee”; or
  • The poet can “feel” the admittedly dead Annabel Lee looking at him. This is the more likely of the two, since it indicates that the poet feels a connection to the dead Annabel Lee as she observes him despite the gulf between the two.

Here’s the final punch:

And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

The poet reveals that he spends his nights within his dead love’s tomb at the side of her body. Poe waits, has the poet hold off on this admission until the conclusion of the poem because he wants his reader to look back over the rest of the poem and see it anew, see it in the light of a narrator willing to lay inside a sepulchre beside a dead body near the ocean. All previous stanzas are skewed after the poet admits he sleeps beside Annabel Lee even after her death.

In Conclusion

I believe Poe was really trying to create a disturbing poem that reveals gradually that the poet was unreliable and obsessed with a woman who may not have returned his love. The basic unreliability of the poet revealed in hints throughout the poem means that even as the poet claims Annabel Lee is his “bride,” a reader may not be able to believe that she was anything more than an obsession. We’ve all heard stories of Hollywood starlets beset by obsessive stalkers who need restraining orders; these maniacal lovers fill notebooks with fantasies, and live with the belief that the two are meant to be together for all time. I think Poe wanted to capture this monomania when he wrote Annabel Lee, portraying a creepy stalker willing to sneak into his dead love’s crypt because of his certainty that she wants to be with him even in death.

Originally posted April 25, 2012

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