Text: Thomas Ollive Mabbott (and E. A. Poe), “The Conqueror Worm,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe — Vol. I: Poems (1969), pp. 323-328 (This material is protected by copyright)


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THE CONQUEROR WORM

This major poem, first published in Graham’s Magazine for January 1843, is unsurpassed in its power and pessimism. Kent has pointed out that the five stanzas symbolize the five acts of a tragedy.(1) In 1845 it was put into the second version of Poe’s tale “Ligeia” as a hint that the heroine of that story would not succeed in permanently returning to life. This nuance had been discussed by Philip Pendleton Cooke and Poe in letters of September 16 and 21, 1839, but the poem was probably not written with this specific purpose.

One inspiration may have come, as Ingram observed, from a little verse romance, The Proud Ladye (1840), by an obscure New York poet, Spencer Wallace Cone, who is not even given a place in Poe’s “Literati” papers or in Griswold’s Poets and Poetry of America. Poe reviewed Cone’s poem in Burton’s for June 1840 and there quoted the pertinent lines from the beginning of Part III, which I find at page 6 of the original volume: ­[page 324:]

Lay him upon no bier

But on his knightly shield;

The warrior’s corpse uprear,

And bear him from the field.

Spread o’er his rigid form

The banner of his pride,

And let him meet the conqueror worm,

With his good sword by his side.

It is more likely that Poe’s impulse to write his poem came from a passage in a review in Graham’s Magazine for February 1841 of Dr. James McHenry’s epic, The Antediluvians (Philadelphia, 1840). Poe did not write that review,(2) but the discussion of McHenry can hardly have escaped his eye. The reviewer quoted a passage from The Antediluvians, page 202:

Such scenes of cruelty and blood,

Exhibited before appalled heaven,

To make the angels weep, to look on earth!

This he calls a feeble imitation of Shakespeare. He gives, slightly abridged and misquoted from Measure for Measure, II, ii, 117-122:

But man, frail man,

Drest in a little brief authority,

Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,

As make the angels weep.

Poe seems to take ideas from both quotations, and especially the frailty of man is significant. In the play, Shakespeare wrote of “proud man” and likened him to “an angry ape.” Neither pride nor anger has a place in Poe’s poem.(3) ­[page 325:]

 

TEXTS

(A) Graham’s Magazine for January 1843 (22:32); (B) Philadelphia Saturday Museum, March 4, 1843; (C) New York New World, February 15, 1845 (10:100), in “Ligeia”; (D) Broadway Journal, May 24, 1845 (1:331); (E) Broadway Journal, September 27, 1845 (2:173), in “Ligeia”; (F) The Raven and Other Poems (1845), pp. 27-28; (G) manuscript sent to Griswold, mentioned by Whitty; (H) R. W. Griswold, The Poets and Poetry of America, 8th edition (1847), pp. 433-434; (J) J. Lorimer Graham copy of The Raven . . . with changes in lines 31 and 37 (about 1849); (K) Works (1850), I, 459, in “Ligeia”; (L) Works (1850), II, 31.

The text is that of the J. Lorimer Graham volume (J). Whitty’s confusing discussion in Complete Poems (1911), page 224, mentions examination of a manuscript copy of the poem originally sent to Griswold, docketed “Last poem sent by Poe.” Whitty gave no collation, and I have never seen the manuscript, hence I assign it a letter (G) but can give no variants.

 


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VARIANTS

Title:  None (C, E, K)

3  An angel / A mystic (A, B, D); bewinged / bewing’d (B, D, H)

4  drowned / drown’d (B, C, D, H)

13  formless / shadowy (A)

19  chased / chas’d (B, C, D)

31  seraphs / the angels (A, B, D, F, H, L); the seraphs (C, E, K)

34  quivering / dying (A)

37  And the seraphs, all haggard and wan (A); And the angels, all pallid and wan (B, C, D, E, F, H, K, L)

40  And its / Its (A, B, D, H)

 


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NOTES

Title:  See also Poe’s tale “The Premature Burial,” for the phrase “conqueror worm” in 1844.

2  See the phrase “the lonesome latter days” in Poe’s “Addenda” to Eureka. This probably alludes to I Timothy 4:1: “. . . in the latter times some shall depart from the faith.” According to a note by Richard Wilbur (Poe, p. 142), Poe here suggests that the end of the world approaches. ­[page 327:]

3-6  Compare Henry Hart Milman’s “Hymn for Palm Sunday,” beginning “Ride on, ride on in majesty,” stanza 3:

The winged squadrons of the sky

Look down with sad and wondering eyes

To see the approaching sacrifice.

7  The music of the spheres is fitful because of the disharmony of the degenerate world, Wilbur explains (Poe, p. 142).

9  See also “The Black Cat” for “a man, fashioned in the image of the High God.” The reference is to Genesis 1:27 — “So God created man in his own image.”

15  All the known condors are confined to the Americas and inhabit the mountains near the western coasts. There are several species of these birds, the best known being the Andean condor, generally said to be the largest living bird capable of flight, the wing expanse sometimes exceeding twelve feet. Their plumage is almost wholly black, and after flapping their wings to gain altitude, they seem to soar almost without wing movement. Their voracity is proverbial, and although they occasionally attack living prey, they usually subsist on dead animals. In “Romance” Poe speaks of “eternal condor years” that devour the dead past. In the story “The Assignation” he compares a Venetian gondola at night to “some huge and sable-feathered condor.” Poe seems to have had both of the foregoing ideas in mind in “The Conqueror Worm.”

17  Motley is the costume of fools; the allusion is to them, both natural and professional.

19  The phantom is Happiness.

21-22  The division of the word “into” between two lines in a rhymed poem is as unusual as it is effective. An opinion of Croesus, the Lydian king, is recorded in Herodotus, I, 207, that “there is a wheel in human affairs, which continually revolving, does not suffer the same men always to be successful.”

33-36  Compare the fifth and sixth stanzas of Thomas Campbell’s “Last Man”:

Go, let oblivion’s curtain fall

Upon the stage of men,

Nor with thy rising beams recall

Life’s tragedy again . . .

The eclipse of Nature spreads my pall, —

The majesty of darkness shall

Receive my parting ghost.

36  The curtain comes down with the rush of a storm of which the audience is unaware unless there is no applause. Those who have seen John Drinkwater’s Abraham Lincoln, where applause is withheld by request until the final curtain, will recall the effect.

Possibly Poe had in mind a well-known remark of Augustus Caesar, who, “on the last day of his life, received a number of his friends, and said ‘Do you think that I have acted my part on the stage of life well?’ and quoted two ­[page 328:] lines of Greek, meaning ‘If I’ve played well, applaud me.’ ” See the ninety-ninth chapter of his Life by Suetonius.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 323:]

1  Harrison, ed., Complete Works, VII, 204.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 324:]

2  Harrison thought he did, and collected it in Complete Works, X, 105f., but we now know that Poe did not join the staff of Graham’s until March, and the review is inconsistent with his kindly remarks in “Autography,” in Graham’s for January 1842, on McHenry as the victim of a clique.

3  Lest it be supposed overlooked, I mention a “suggested source” of Poe’s poem in a piece called “Death of Time,” which appeared in a volume called Nacoochee . . . With Other Poems by T. H. Chivers, M.D. (1837) — it is “a play, with God as dramatist, and Christ as leading man”(!) and “the setting for the end of the world.” See S. Foster Damon, Thomas Holley Chivers (1930), p, 216, and Charles Henry Watts II, Thomas Holley Chivers (1956), p. 158. I can find no similarities in the two poems, nor did Chivers himself ever think there were any.

 


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Notes:

Errata:

page 324, footnote 2: January 1842 / December 1841 [[Although the “Autography” series does appear in Graham’s Magazine in two installments, in November and December 1841, the item on McHenry appears in the supplemental installment “An Appendix of Autographs,” printed in the issue for January 1842. — JAS]]


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[S:1 - TOM1P, 1969] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (The Conqueror Worm)