“Annabel Lee”: The Childlike Narrator

Poe, who worked almost exclusively in the Gothic genre, had a good reason to render the majority of his works with gloomy, foreboding tones: he lost his mother, foster-mother, and wife to consumption. If the loss of his mother in early childhood and the loss of his foster-mother later on were not enough to traumatize his psyche, then certainly the loss of his beloved young wife, Virginia–who died when she was 25 and Poe was 38–did the trick. Not surprisingly, Poe wrote “Annabel Lee”, a poem about the loss of a beautiful young love, about a year or two after Virginia died. In this way, Virginia haunts the text, just as she most assuredly was haunting Poe while he wrote it.

Posthumous watercolor portrait of Virginia (Clemm) Poe, circa 1847

The speaker of the poem, a love-struck young man, displays his naiveté a number of times throughout the text. First and foremost, his exaggerated claim that his deceased love, Annabel Lee, was killed by envious “winged seraphs of Heaven” (11) smacks of a juvenile disconnect with reality; perhaps a more mature narrator would level his anger against the cold weather itself and not against unseen angels, who are anyway generally good-natured creatures and not malicious spirits. Indeed, so obsessed is he with the idea that these winged seraphs cruelly killed his beloved Annabel Lee that he repeats this sordid tale in the fourth stanza immediately after he finishes telling it in the second and third. The narrator’s childlike egocentrism reveals itself fully in the fifth stanza, where he claims arrogantly that his and Annabel Lee’s love was purer and stronger than any love that could be had between “older” and “wiser” adults:

But our love it was stronger by far than the love

Of those who were older than we–

Of many far wiser than we– (27-29)

He concludes by vowing that nothing can ever tear his soul away from Annabel Lee, and that he will lie down and sleep each night by the corpse of his dead love in her tomb, as though he were a Romeo who visits his Juliet in the tomb and, rather than killing himself, contentedly falls asleep. Annabel Lee’s premature death has traumatized the young narrator, and thus he is stuck in his childlike state, using his fracture, juvenile mind to make sense of her death and find meaning in his life.

Like all of Poe’s neurotic and seemingly-insane narrators, the young narrator of “Annabel Lee” is ruined when first we see him. He is haunted by the memory of his love, though he is specifically not haunted by her ghost (that would, we can believe, make him somewhat happy). Poe must have been similarly haunted by the memory of his recently deceased wife when he wrote the poem. Indeed, as we read the text of “Annabel Lee,” we cannot help but see the obvious similarities between the narrative and Poe’s own life; perhaps the poem was Poe’s attempt to exorcise her memory. In any event, it was apparently a failed attempt, for Poe died mysteriously–supposedly related to drunkenness–the same year the poem was published.

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