Like much of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry, “Annabel Lee” tells the story of a man’s painful longing for a deceased love. The strength of the poem comes from the seamless nature by which Poe utilizes repetition to instill the darkly impassioned imagery into the reader’s mind, forcing him to feel the heartbreaking despair of the narrator’s loss.
The poem’s emotional impact, I believe, comes through largely due to our knowledge of Poe’s personal history, particularly having to watch his wife, Virginia, die of tuberculosis just two years prior to the publication of the work (the poem itself was published just days after Poe’s own death in 1849). Hints of Virginia’s sickness can be found throughout several notable lines, “A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling My beautiful Annabel Lee,” and similarly reiterated later, “That the wind came out of the cloud by night, Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.” Chills are a common symptom of the (then) little understood disease, thus Poe’s metaphorically attributing the illness as being brought by the wind is a strong allusion to its sudden and mysterious nature.
By far, the strongest aspects of “Annabel Lee” is the way by which Poe conveys his anguish over his lost love. In the first stanza, he introduces the title character by stating, “this maiden she lived with no other thought Than to love and be loved by me,” shortly thereafter reaffirming the same sentiment, “But we loved with a love that was more than love–I and my Annabel Lee.” However, the man is not just filled with hopeless sorrow, he is also filled with raging anger. Throughout, he curses the heavens for taking his love:
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 blew out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.
It is the last refuge of someone who has exhausted all the limits to his pain, and lashes out at unseen forces for having taking the source of his happiness. This is the accumulation of the misery Poe must have felt watching his wife suffer for five long years, leaving him with nothing but the desire to keep the last glimpses of his wife’s image with him, declaring, “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.”
Besides the heavy emotion of pain and misery, there also resides a great deal of fortitude in “Annabel Lee.” This is especially clear in the final stanza of the poem:
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 by bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea.
Yes, there is resolve in these closing words, but it is a sunken sort of resolve; more of a refute, needed to combat the utter despair of the tragedy. It is the hope to carry forward, but inability to let go of someone that meant more to you than life itself; someone that for so long encompassed all of life itself. For Poe, the pain of watching his wife Virginia suffer and die inspired this simple and great poem. For the rest of us, his pain gives us a source to lose our own sorrows in; or to just reflect, appreciate, and empathize with the lose of an other. And teaching readers to feel, is the only lesson any poet could ask and strive for.