Death and Beauty and Edgar Allan Poe
by Edie Montgomery-Pool
Edgar Allan Poe wrote many superb poems about various subjects, but one of his favorite subjects seemed to be death. Poe was no stranger to death. His parents died before he was three years old, and he was raised by foster parents (the Allans), separate from his two siblings. His brother, wife, and foster mother all died of tuberculosis, a common and fatal illness during Poe’s time. Poe himself, sadly, only lived to be forty years old. The cause of his demise is unknown, but officially it was given as “congestion of the brain,” although it is unclear what that means (The Edgar Allan Poe Society). Fortunately, his work lives on and has been passed down through the ages for all to enjoy. Two poems that show his poetic fascination with death are “For Annie” and “The Sleeper.” “For Annie” is a poem about a man who apparently dies after dosing himself with poison. “The Sleeper” is about a beautiful woman who is dead. It is interesting that in these poems, Poe treats death not as a horrible, ugly thing, but as something of beauty. The subject of the beautiful maiden who would never awaken was, in fact, a common romantic theme of many stories and poems of Poe’s era. Although the two poems mentioned above are clearly from the same author, each has a distinct style all its own. While Edgar Allan Poe’s poems, “For Annie” and “The Sleeper,” mostly differ in form, they share the common themes of death and beauty, and in particular, the beauty of death.
As far as form goes, both pieces are lyrical, rhyming, and beautifully written; however, beyond that, their styles are vastly different. Both “For Annie” and “The Sleeper” emphasize mood and feeling. The rhyme scheme of “For Annie” is not consistent for even lines, but the odd lines of each stanza all rhyme or near rhyme. The rhyme scheme of “The Sleeper” is also somewhat loose, but consists of sets of mostly rhyming couplets with some rhyming tercets interspersed throughout and mostly occurring at or near the ends of stanzas, as in: “Strange is thy pallor! strange thy dress!/Strange, above all, thy length of tress,/And this all solemn silentness!” (lines 34-36). The meter is different in each poem, as well. “For Annie” consists of dactylic dimeter, whereas “The Sleeper” is written in iambic tetrameter. The point of view differs, too. While “For Annie” is told from the point of view of the person who appears to be dead, “The Sleeper” is told from the perspective of an observer. The diction for each poem is probably the most dissimilar. “For Annie” consists of short lines of commonly used words and is the simpler of the two styles. “The Sleeper” employs more complex sentence structures. Thus, these two poems have some distinct differences as far as format goes.
This difference in formats is evident in the tone of each of the poems; the tone differs from one poem to the other. “For Annie” has a lighter tone than “The Sleeper.” While “For Annie” is overall a serious poem, it does, at times, become somewhat comedic. For example, in the first stanza, Poe speaks of life as a fever, which makes sense as one is very warm when alive and cools off when dead. The paradox is that one must die in order to conquer the fever. He also uses a play on words when he writes of at last being rid of that “horrible throbbing,” which is actually the beating of the narrator’s heart (22). “The Sleeper,” on the other hand, has a heavier tone, and the wording within this poem sometimes alludes to classic mythology. The poem refers to Lethë (a river in Hades associated with oblivion) and “her Destinies,” which have the connotation of the Greek Fates, the deities who spun, measured, and ended life (13, 17). Poe does enlist a play on words in this poem, as well, when he writes of “pale sheeted ghosts” that are actually the shadows made by curtains fluttering in the wind, but the overall feeling of this section of the poem is not light and comical but dark and heavy, as if the narrator really does not want the dead woman to awaken and be frightened by the ghost-like shadows (44). Other techniques Poe employs in “For Annie” which add to the lighter tone of the piece are internal rhyme and alliteration. An example of internal rhyme can be found in the lines “Forgetting, or never/Regretting its roses” (forgetting/regretting) (55-56). Examples of alliteration are “And no muscle I move” (muscle/move) and “And, to sleep, you must slumber” (sleep/slumber) (9, 51). Another technique Poe employs in “The Sleeper” is apostrophe when the narrator of the piece addresses the dead woman directly as if he is having a conversation and she can hear him. Poe is very adept at using poetic techniques to his advantage in order to provoke the feeling he wants the reader to experience, and this is evident in the differing tones within these two poems.
While expressed in different ways, both of these poems are very much about death. In “For Annie,” the narrator says that “the fever is past” and states that “the fever called ‘living’” has been conquered (2, 5-6). In the next two stanzas, he speaks of not being able to move and of resting composedly (9, 13). Life is portrayed as unbearable; throughout the first part of poem, the narrator speaks of moaning, groaning, sobbing, sickness, nausea, pain, and torture. Shortly after that, napthaline is mentioned. Napthaline (or naphthalene as it is more commonly spelled today) is a substance that is and was used in the making of dyes, explosives, and mothballs, and would be poisonous if swallowed. Thus, it seems that the narrator of the poem has perhaps poisoned himself with napthaline and died. Death is seen as a good thing—a relief. In “The Sleeper,” the lines “Above the closed and fringéd lid/’Neath which thy slumb’ring soul lies hid” show that the speaker is talking about a coffin or tomb (26-27). There is more evidence that this poem is about a dead woman in the line “Heaven have her in its sacred keep!” (39). Unlike “For Annie,” the reader does not know much about the woman’s past in “The Sleeper” other than that she is from a foreign land since she has strange clothing and a strange hairstyle. So, the reader does not know if death was a welcome thing, like in the other poem, but it appears that death, once it has come, is experienced as a pleasant thing in both poems.
Both “For Annie” and “The Sleeper” portray death as something beautiful. In “For Annie,” the lines “For the napthaline river/Of Passion accurst: —/I have drank of a water/That quenches all thirst” imply that the speaker has a passion that cannot be quenched (an unattainable woman) and the only way to satisfy that thirst or that passion is by drinking the napthaline poison (35-38). The poem takes a turn in the middle of the piece. It goes from using many negative words to describe life, to using positive and beautiful words to describe the state of the narrator after death, words like “roses,” “quietly,” “holier,” “happily,” and “beauty.” Additionally, Annie is not mentioned until after the napthaline. The poem has a romantic feel and theme, at least in part. The narrator addresses either the reader or some unknown third party when he says, “That you shudder to look at me,/Thinking me dead,” but then goes on to say that his heart is brighter than the stars in the sky and glows with the love of his Annie (93-100). The implication is that he is much happier after death and that somehow, in death, he has attained the love in some deep, spiritual way of the previously unattainable woman, Annie. “The Sleeper” also portrays death as beautiful. When the speaker first comes upon the grave or tomb, he describes it as such: “The rosemary nods upon the grave;/The lily lolls upon the wave;/Wrapping the fog about its breast,/The ruin moulders into rest” (9-12). This is a lovely depiction of the setting. Additionally, death is shown as being beautiful from the perspective of the deceased even though it might not seem that way to the living. This is evident in the lines “Far in the forest, dim and old,/For her may some tall vault unfold —/Some vault that oft hath flung its black/And wingéd pannels fluttering back,/Triumphant, o’er the crested palls,/Of her grand family funerals” (49-53). The setting is beautiful and almost fairytale-like (dim, old forest); also, the family has a sad funeral, but the spirit, on the other hand, is triumphant. In both poems, death is a welcome and lovely thing.
In conclusion, both “For Annie” and “The Sleeper” portray death as a beautiful event. “For Annie,” in particular, juxtaposes the agony of life with the ecstasy of death. The Sleeper’s history and life events are unknown, but the setting where her body lies has a picturesque quality. Additionally, her experience after death is pondered by the speaker. This description has a lovely and positive feel, implying that though her body is dead, her soul lives on. While the poems do have differences in format, Poe used the tools of his craft skillfully in both poems to evoke the desired emotions in the reader. These skills include, among other things, the use of meter, rhythm, rhyme, diction, paradox, connotation, and alliteration. Not only does Poe give a brief but forceful glimpse into a moment in time in both stories, but the words themselves flow together in such a way as to reinforce the worlds Poe has created with each of these poems. The quick, sing-song lines of “For Annie” make the reader feel one way while the longer, heavier, mellifluous verses of “The Sleeper” evoke a different response, even as they relay a similar message. One final similarity that should be pointed out: Edgar Allan Poe’s genius shows through in both of these skillfully written poems about beauty and death.
How do these poems make you feel? What do you think is happening in them? Do you have a different interpretation than I do? Comments welcome.
For more information about Poe, his life, and his work, visit The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “For Annie.” The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Quinn, Arthur Hobson, Edward H. O’Neill. New York: Dorset Press, 1989. Print.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Sleeper.” The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Quinn, Arthur Hobson, Edward H. O’Neill. New York: Dorset Press, 1989. Print.
The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 1997. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.
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