Text: Patrick J. White, “The Thing Needed: Hope and Despair in ‘Ulalume’,” Masques, Mysteries and Mastodons: A Poe Miscellany (2006), pp. 1-16 (This material is protected by copyright)


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Patrick J. White

To explicate “Ulalume” correctly, it is necessary to understand Poe’s view of human psychology. In “Ulalume,” images of hope and despair play against one another as the narrator, accompanied by Psyche, follows a mysterious star to the tomb of his dead love.(1) Though the imagery alternates between that of hope and despair, Poe’s vision is resolute — suggesting, finally, that hope deludes and destroys. Hope is psychologically unsettling; despair — the recognition of a horrible reality — is ultimately comforting. In the final stanza, first deleted from the poem but restored by Poe, the narrator confronts his despair as he has previously confronted Ulalume’s death. He sees despair as a correct response to the hopelessness of human life and is ironically comforted. Hope has been driven away once and for all. I will discuss characters and setting as a framework for a reading of “Ulalume.” Hopefully the reading will be more closely attuned to Poe’s view of the operative function of despair, a crucial ingredient in Poe’s interpretation of external reality and the individual’s place within it.

Poe believed that the proper function of the artist was to use the imagination to produce the beautiful, and, for him, the beautiful was inextricable from melancholy and despair. In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe asserts that the ideal topic for poetic composition is the death of a beautiful young woman.(2) The artist’s duty is not to exorcise despair, but rather to posit it as the primary psychological response to reality and to render it as faithfully and beautifully as possible. The morbid aspects of such a dwelling upon death and its psychological consequences for the survivor are not aberrations; rather, as in “The Raven,” they constitute a facing of the facts as Poe understood them. The attempt to render such ultimate and terrible reality in art is a healthier artistic activity than the pursuit of ethereal, deluding ideals. Transforming mere morbidity as an emotional fixation into beautiful poetry is certainly one of Poe’s most important achievements, profoundly influencing Baudelaire, among others.(3) “Ulalume” is one of Poe’s finest attempts to wrestle with the hope-despair theme, and the artistry lies in the images and the ways in which he manipulates them.

Turning first to the characters and their development within the poem, I treat the narrator himself, about whom much has been written. [page 2:] Mabbott sees him as a personification of reason, the brother of soul or intuition, but others find him a profoundly troubled, fragmented character: Allen Tate calls him a “survival of soul in a dead body”; Daniel Hoffman thinks he represents “the unwitting Self”; and David Robinson sees him as a fragmented person pursuing an ideal while fleeing his real self.(4) All of these present useful considerations, but other critics find more complexity in the character. J. E. Miller asserts that the narrator occupies three distinct emotional states in three places at three times: a self wandering through a death-landscape, a self before a familiar setting (the tomb), and the self as narrator, whose imagination has created the experiences of the poem. Therefore, the narrator is the only reality in the poem, and, Miller continues, the experiences created by the narrator reveal a deep-seated sexual frustration (p. 208). Eric Carlson accepts Miller’s reading of the three states of the narrator while rejecting the emphasis upon sexual frustration. He chooses to explain the poem as an exploration of the relation between sensual and spiritual love, with Psyche and Astarte as contending forces, and with the narrator finally achieving an integrated, though tragic, self-knowledge (pp. 28-29).(5) I would contend that love of any kind is not, finally, the most important point.

Miller and Carlson are correct in making the narrator the primary focus and reading the poem as a kind of abreactive exercise; Poe as composer would certainly have approved of such a reading strategy. In the poem, the dramatic action is not logical, but rather emotional-intuitive. Still, the text does not seem to justify either sexual or spiritual love as the ultimate thematic focus. For whatever reason, the narrator does not acknowledge the existence of Ulalume until late in the poem, nor, for that matter, does Psyche, a point I will discuss later. I contend that this poem is only obliquely concerned with love but absolutely concerned with how the emotional self contends with external reality. The narrator begins his psychological journal in a restless confusion, rendered by Poe through volcanic imagery; he next focuses his attention, but does so wrongly, following the seductive star which is first an illusion but which ironically leads him to reality; finally, he focuses rightly, integrating himself with reality itself, comforting himself with the hopelessness of that reality. In a sense, therefore, critics who narrow the scope of the narrator narrow the scope of the poem. There is more to this narrator than a confused andbereaved [page 3:] lover: the narrator is the human mind itself as Poe sees it, the mind which can either obfuscate or illuminate.

The next character, Psyche, is usually glossed as the human soul, with much justification because of the name itself. In its classical sense, the name Psyche designated a personification of the human soul.(6) Anthon’s Classical Dictionary, with which Poe was familiar, supplies other useful information. The view of Psyche complicates significantly when one refers to her story in Apuleius, in which she is symbolic of Venus’s jealousy. She gazes upon her lover Cupid and is punished, wandering the earth in search of her fled lover. Furthermore, she is sent to Hades by Venus to fetch a casket of beauty from Persephone, but, upon opening it out of curiosity, she finds instead a deadly sleep therein.(7) Psyche evidently functions in the poem not only as a personification of soul but also as a suggestion of the sorrow in earthy love. In addition, Psyche’s identification with the lamp, symbolic of the spirit, is well-known, and Poe used it in “To Helen”:

How statue-like I see thee stand,

The agate lamp within thy hand!

Ah, Psyche, from the regions which

Are Holy-Land!

Poe was well aware of the classical resonances of Psyche and alludes to them in “Ulalume.”

Many critics seem to prefer a considerable gulf between Psyche and the narrator. Mother Mary Eleanor even cites separation as the central thematic focus in her explication of the poem, reading “Ulalume” as another version of the medieval Body and Soul dialogue.(8) Staying true to his sexual-frustration reading of the poem, Miller sees Psyche as a character developing from soul to sex-object (208). It is safe to say, however, that Poe probably did not intend a reading that puts so much distance between Psyche and the narrator. She is best read as a projection by the narrator. Mabbott is probably correct in seeing her as a projective personification of an intuitive faculty (M 1:423), but Poe’s rendering of the faculty of intuition is interesting: if Psyche represents human intuition, it is a markedly insufficient one. She starts the journey with the narrator and reads the tomb inscription upon arrival there, contributing nothing in the meantime but an uneasy suspicion in lines 51-60: [page 4:]

But Psyche, uplifting her finger,

Said — “Sadly this star I mistrust —

Her pallor I strangely mistrust —

Ah, hasten! — ah, let us not linger!

Ah, fly! — let us fly! — for we must.”

In terror she spoke; letting sink her

Wings till they trailed in the dust —

In agony sobbed; letting sink her

Plumes till they trailed in the dust —

Till they sorrowfully trailed in the dust.

In the journey from vain hope to reality-perceiving despair, intuition is of little use. If the narrator as recounter of experience is the central focus of the poem — which I believe to be indeed the case — a structural split between the narrator and Psyche does not solve anything. I do not believe that Poe meant Psyche to be seen as an independent entity functioning apart from the narrator, but rather as a projected aspect of the narrator himself. The poem is indeed a dialogue, but an interior dialogue — the narrator explaining reality to himself. When Psyche’s wings “trailed in the dust,” they did so as an image of that side of the narrator’s own psyche which began to guess at the truth prior to confronting it. The heeding of Psyche’s warning would have prevented the acquisition of the final knowledge (and ironic comfort) that the narrator has attained in lines 95-104:

Said we, then — the two, then — “Ah, can it

Have been that the woodlandish ghouls —

The pitiful, the merciful ghouls,

To bar up our way and to ban it

From the secret that lies in these wolds —

From the thing that lies hidden in these wolds —

Have drawn up the spectre of a planet

From the limbo of lunary souls —

This sinfully scintillant planet

From the Hell of the planetary souls?”

Psyche, then, is indeed a projection of a facet of the human psyche that operates differently from human logical reason, but she has no superiority of vision and can attain no knowledge of which the narrator is unaware. Her misgivings — those of the soul or the intuition — serveto mislead the mind in the same manner as do externally-posited ideals. [page 5:] Her hope to avoid the truth is as deluding as the ideals which give rise to false hopes.

The discussion must now proceed to Astarte, the misleading star perceived by the narrator. In most critical interpretations, she is the catalyst of the dramatic action. In Robinson’s interpretation, she jolts the narrator from a reverie of wandering into definite pursuit and represents transcendence of earthly cares (p. 27). In Halliburton, she is the “mediator” who must be interpreted, and, it is implied, is interpreted incorrectly by the narrator and correctly by Psyche (144-148). In mythological terms, she is certainly suggestive of physical love; Mabbott immediately identifies her with Venus (M 1:422). Being the Phoenician goddess of love and fertility, she is identified by Tate as another manifestation of Poe’s “strange fire,” this time leading “toward Eros” (p. 136). Presenting a physical love symbol as a “nebulous” star in the sky is a strange notion, however, so Robinson’s “transcendence” may be closer to the mark. If Astarte is to be interpreted as a sexual symbol, then one is compelled to read the poem as having essentially a sex/love thematic scheme. It is more satisfactory to see Astarte as representative of the ideal of love as an example of the typical deluding idea with which one obscures reality. Returning to Poe’s idea of the death of the beautiful young woman as the poetic subject par excellence, we see Poe positing love as an ideal in order to illustrate for us that love is the ultimate delusion that first obscures and then veritably proves the hopelessness of human life, the treacheries of the human mind and human emotions. Psyche, functioning as the intuitive dread of human love and its inevitable consequences, recoils from the ideal of love, with good reason.

Carlson asserts that the narrator is lured by “a false hope, a demon of some kind” p. 33). If the poem is to be read in such a way as to conclude that the narrator has learned the valuable truth and consequently ended his deluded wanderings, then the star Astarte is neither deluding nor malevolent. In the central paradox of the poem, ideals such as these, when discovered to be illusory, lead us to the truth from which intuition would naturally recoil. If Astarte represents physical love, that final knowledge that love is indeed physical (or bodily) and therefore subject to the fact of death, then it is Psyche who is the deluding projection who repents her ignorance, just as the narrator does. After all, the narrator has been led to Ulalume’s tomb byAstarte, not by Psyche. Moreover, as an additional interesting point, Astarte is contrasted with Diana, who, as moon-goddess, represents [page 6:] chastity, which in turn suggests the ideal, the non-physical, and an ultimately deluding type of love. In every respect, it would appear that the narrator has been led by Astarte to a perception of love as it is, not as an ideal permitting the self to escape the facts, but as an emblem in itself of the bare fact of death — both love and death being physical and nothing else. Having attained this knowledge, regardless of the temporary emotional consequences, the narrator can accept the fact of despair as the emotional and intellectual reaction to the facts of human life, and Poe can then present this attainment in the rendition of both artistic beauty and artistic truth.

We will next consider the function of the ghouls whose existence is implied in the opening stanza (“ghoul-haunted woodland,” l. 9) and confirmed in the final one. They have been interpreted both positively and negatively. Mabbott dismisses them as “friendly” (M 1:423), but this hypothesis does not necessarily assist the interpreter. Miller contends that the ghouls would have led the narrator to sexual fulfillment, but death renders such a resolution impossible (p. 205). Edward Strickland contributes another interesting but somewhat outlandish interpretation, asserting that the ghouls, in leading the narrator to the tomb, have prevented him from confronting the actual risen Ulalume, who is no longer dead and presumably walking around somewhere in the same surrealistic locality. This interpretation fits the landscape, but not, in my opinion, the poem. Robinson, in contrast, interprets the ghouls as symbols of “a false, futile quest for an ideal that is self-defeating” (p. 28). To accept this premise, however, one must agree that the narrator’s experience has been a self-defeating one.

I believe that the ghouls as images function ironically in keeping with the ironic presentation of the themes of hope and despair in the entire poem. They perform a function that, although negative on the surface, is ultimately positive in its effect on the narrator at the end of the poem. Ghouls, after all, are defilers of graves; thematically and vicariously, so was Poe, and for a definite reason. This “defiling” (the symbolic baring of the secrets of the grave; i.e., of death itself) is a “pitiful” and “merciful” function in the context of the poem. To arrive at the truth of physical death, however, and at the truth of despair as ultimate understanding, one must “defile graves.” The ghouls, who, presumably, have “drawn up the spectre of a planet” (l. 101) (which, is necessary to note, comes from both the dreamlike, illusory world or “limbo” and the authentic, physical world or “Hell”) have done so in order to lure the narrator to the tomb of Ulalume, and by such means [page 7:] they dispel both the narrator’s intellectual ideal misreading of the sign and the posited soul-intuition’s willfully deluding urges to escape the dreadful facts. The ghouls, therefore, lead one through the realm of illusion by the use of a final illusion to the threshold of truth — to the tomb.

In terms of character, the final factor to be discussed is Ulalume herself. The name has been glossed in many ways: Mabbott cites Latin ULULARE, “to wail,” among other possibilities (M 1:419); Hoffman prefers Turkish ULE, “dead” (p. 72). LUME, of course, means “light.” Miller sees Ulalume as “Death itself” (p. 204). Taking the entire name in context, however, one ends with “dead light” or “light of death,” suggesting interesting points, because, as mentioned above, Ulalume is hardly a character at all in the poem; in structural terms, she is entirely symbolic. The moment of truth, in which all false hopes are dashed, is the confrontation of the narrator with her tomb. If Ulalume is indeed a “light of death,” then all the previous “lights” are indeed false ones. Psyche, for all her classical associations with illuminations, has illuminated nothing for the narrator in the action of the poem, and she is presumably as much awakened by the confrontation as the narrator, whatever her previous vague misgivings. The Astarte star is another example of false light, false in an ironic sense because the narrator first entirely misinterprets it as a hopefully “Sibyllic” sign prophetic of hope, but it is actually the narrator’s own self-deluding projection. The false light leads him, finally, to the true light: Ulalume, the light of death, whose name is actually intoned by Psyche as they stand before the tomb. If one is given to associating light with truth, then Ulalume is indeed the truth, and the only possible acceptance of the truth she represents is that of despair, a curiously comforting finality after the unbearable fluctuations fueled by vain hope.

The bizarre setting in which these characters move possesses the same qualities, enhancing the sense of a dramatic movement from illusory hope to final despair:

The skies they were ashen and sober;

The leaves they were crispéd and sere —

The leaves they were withering and sere:

It was night, in the lonesome October

Of my most immemorial year:

It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,

In the misty mid region of Weir: —

It was down by the dark tarn of Auber, [page 8:]

In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

Here once, through an alley Titanic,

Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul —

Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul.

These were days when my heart was volcanic

As the scoriac rivers that roll —

As the lavas that restlessly roll

Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek,

In the ultimate climes of the Pole —

That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek,

In the realms of the Boreal Pole.

Our talk had been serious and sober,

But our thoughts they were palsied and sere —

Our memories were treacherous and sere;

For we knew not the month was October,

And we marked not the night of the year —

(Ah, night of all nights in the year!)

We noted not the dim lake of Auber,

(Though once we had journeyed down here)

We remembered not the dank tarn of Auber,

Nor the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

In these lines, the images with which Poe frames the setting contain aspects of both hope and despair; moreover, the narrator’s psychological condition reflects a similar tension between the two, that condition being imaged by Poe in “landscape” terms. In lines 1-9 we are introduced to vagaries of time and place that influence the dramatic action of the poem.

It is October, in the “ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir” (l. 9). Mabbott points out that, astrologically speaking, October is a “time of hope” (M 1:420). October is also traditionally harvest time, suggesting culminative fruitfulness. The narrator, however, calls it “the lonesome October” (l. 4), and specific details about the landscape create an impression of lifelessness, reminding the reader that October also portends the coming of winter: “ashen and sober” (l. 1) skies,withering leaves. In this time of hope, the landscape appears first dead, and soon menacing as well. The specific night is All Souls’ Eve (Halloween), a haunted night; in lines 20-29 we are told that the narrator and psyche are unaware of this significance. Just as the surface landscape is dead, the narrator is, in the matter of perception, lifeless as well. However, he [page 9:] is evidently in emotional turmoil; his heart is “volcanic,” (l. 13) as Poe uses the image of a volcano in the Antarctic to present a double image of potentially both creative and destructive fire in a frozen, lifeless region: the “Boreal Pole” (l. 19). Iinterestingly an observation by Jung supports the image of ice and fire: “At the pole lies the heart of Mercury, which is true fire” — a reference to alchemy (p. 261).(9) Poe, then, presents a narrator who is perceptively lifeless but full of unfocused passion, wandering in an alien landscape.

Poe’s selection of place-names for his dichotomous landscape also yields interesting possibilities of interpretation. The name “Weir,” as Mabbott points out, belonged to a Hudson River School landscape painter with whom Poe was no doubt familiar (M 1: 420). Other possible glosses are that of “trap,” as Miller observes (p. 203), and the suggestions of a relationship either to Old English “wyrd” (destiny) or “waer” (to be watchful). Auber is similarly problematical, being the name of a composer known to Poe (M 1:420), but also potentially derivable from “alb”, “the pale white light of dawn,” suggesting a temporary state of time that is neither night or day, similar to the chaotic state of both the landscape and the narrator’s own psyche.

Commenting upon the images of setting, Halliburton sees the landscape as lifeless and the narrator as passionately alive,(10) while Miller sees a death landscape contrasting with a volcanic life with sexual overtones (p. 203). Hoffman, conversely, sees the landscape as an ideal one, a perfect setting for “artists and bereaved lovers,” calling Poe’s comments in “The Philosophy of Composition” once again to mind (p. 71). This interpretation I find to be too romantic to apply to Poe. Taken in its entirety with its many contrasts, the landscape seems to suggest, above all, chaos.

One must argue that the contrasts are intentionally critical to the thematic framing of the poem. The narrator, like the landscape, is both alive and “dead,” existing in a region of undefined time and unfamiliar space. Poe manipulates these images of setting to create for the reader a dilemma to be solved: with the narrator, he must discover precisely where he is. The narrator in lines 1-29, the setting stanzas, is emblematic of the human mind without its bearings, surrounded by what is unfamiliar and potentially menacing. In addition, the internal chaos of the mind’s interior landscape mirrors the external chaos. Allan Tate asserts that Poe tends toward “spiritual annihilation,” in his art (pp. 141-142), but, at least in the case of “Ulalume,” the opposite seems to [page 10:] be the case: we begin in a state of perceptual annihilation or lifelessness, and proceed with Poe’s narrator to enlightenment, albeit a dreadful one. At the end of the poem the narrator has acquired, not lost, spiritual life:

And now, as the night was senescent,

And star-dials pointed to morn —

As the star-dials hinted of morn —

At the end of our path a liquescent

And nebulous lustre was born,

Out of which a miraculous crescent

Arose with a duplicate horn —

Astarte’s bediamonded crescent,

Distinct with its duplicate horn.

And I said — “She is warmer than Dian;

She rolls through an ether of sighs —

She revels in a region of sighs.

She has seen that the tears are not dry on

These cheeks where the worm never dies,

And has come past the stars of the Lion,

To point us the path to the skies —

To the Lethean peace of the skies —

Come up, in despite of the Lion,

To shine on us with her bright eyes —

Come up, through the lair of the Lion,

With love in her luminous eyes.”

But Psyche, uplifting her finger,

Said — “Sadly this star I mistrust —

Her pallor I strangely mistrust —

Ah, hasten! — ah, let us not linger!

Ah, fly! — let us fly! — for we must.”

In terror she spoke; letting sink her

Wings till they trailed in the dust —

In agony sobbed; letting sink her

Plumes till they trailed in the dust —

Till they sorrowfully trailed in the dust.

I replied — “This is nothing but dreaming.

Let us on, by this tremulous light!

Let us bathe in this crystalline light!

Its Sibyllic splendor is beaming

With Hope and in Beauty to-night — [page 11:]

See! — it flickers up the sky through the night!

Ah, we safely may trust to its gleaming

And be sure it will lead us aright —

We surely may trust to a gleaming

That cannot but guide us aright

Since it flickers up to Heaven through the night.”

The following four stanzas, (11. 30-71), completely alter the dramatic situation in the poem as the narrator spies the Astarte star; one of the techniques Poe uses to achieve the effect is that of altering the field of vision. The first three stanzas are characterized by earthbound vision. After the initial line, in which the skies are mentioned, vision seems to tend downward, into tarns, woodlands, an “alley” of cypress trees, and to the dead leaves on the ground. Lost in unfamiliar forest, it is vision essentially without practical reference: the narrator is veritably wandering. In addition, there is vision inward, into the psyche of the narrator himself, but it too is chaotic and unreferential — solipsistic unrecognition of self. However, in lines 30-71, vision turns upward into the sky itself, which is now partially lit by Astarte. With the narrator’s radical misinterpretation of the “bediamonded crescent,” (l. 37) the theme of false hope in the poem immediately takes over and dominates. The narrator’s vision upward is mocked by the dreamlike, idealized qualities he ascribes to the star, which, he believes, will “point us the path to the skies” where “Lethean peace,” (ll. 45-46) can be attained. Ironically, Lethe is the river of forgetfulness, which, we know, is already part of the unfortunate psychological state in which the narrator is trapped, since he has, presumably, forgotten the previous year’s incident. The Lethean peace he yearns for, then, is a hollow, mistakenly-projected ideal — non-existent and unattainable. In lines 61-71 there is more irony as the narrator couples Hope and Beauty in the same, the two having little to do with each other in Poe’s scheme of harsh reality. A veritable catalogue of deceptively positive-sounding images dominates these four“delusion” stanzas: “star-dials,” (l. 31) “the stars of the Lion” (l. 49), (the constellation Leo, which, as Mabbott points out, is negatively portentous at this particular time of year; (M 1:422); “crystalline light” (l. 63), and, of course, the deluding star that “flickers up to Heaven” (l. 71). The narrator’s upward vision, imaged by Poe as a guiding illumination of this heretofore chaotic and threatening setting, is momentarily contrasted by Psyche’s intuitive uneasy reaction in lines 51-60; vision is again turned briefly downward [page 12:] as her “wings” droop to the ground — more specifically and suggestively, “in the dust,” (l. 57). The narrator returns to his upward vision, surrendering completely to the delusion of hope. The chaos and unreality of the setting as presented in stanzas one-three is replaced in stanzas four-ten by an illusory pattern that mocks the trusting attitude of the narrator, who implicitly accepts as genuine a false reality projected into an otherwise figuratively empty sky by the wishful thinking generated by his initial mental confusion. By the end of stanza seven, false hope is leading the narrator to the revelation of a terrible truth. Poe’s carefully-drawn images in these stanzas establish a hopeful tone that actually taunts the reader, who has already seen foreshadowings of the despair to come:

Thus I pacified Psyche and kissed her,

And tempted her out of her gloom —

And conquered her scruples and gloom;

And we passed to the end of the vista —

But were stopped by the door of a tomb —

By the door of a legended tomb: —

And I said — “What is written, sweet sister,

On the door of this legended tomb?”

She replied — “Ulalume — Ulalume! —

‘T is the valult of thy lost Ulalume!”

Lines 72-81 function dramatically as a crisis point, in which hope turns abruptly into despair. The false light of Astarte is extinguished by the revelation of the “light of death” (Ulalume) as the narrator is confronted with the tomb of the dead Ulalume. In a sense, Poe structures this stanza in a manner reflective of much of the thematic progression of the poem as a whole. In its first three lines, the narrator is sufficiently confident in his deluded state of mind to dispel all doubt, even the vague doubt represented in lines 51-60 by Psyche’s intuitive distrust of the star. He kisses Psyche in order to “pacify” her (l. 72),achieving a momentary self-integration that will quickly become an ironic self-mockery. He “tempts” her “out of her gloom,” (l. 73) mirroring what he has already unwittingly done by projecting his own vain hopes onto a dead landscape. In the third line he “conquers” her gloom; this is a stronger word choice by Poe than that of the preceding line, and even more greatly suffused with hollow irony. The succeeding two lines turn the entire poem: “And we passed to the end of the vista/ But were stopped by the door of a tomb (ll. 75-76).” [page 13:]

In the space of two lines, the poem has, again, dramatically altered. The tomb is now the entire field of the narrator’s vision; both the panoramic chaos of stanzas one-three and the upward vision of stanzas four-seven are narrowed and focused by a harsh, inexorable reality. For the first time in the poem, the narrator is viewing something close at hand, rather than a “vista.” Moreover, the tomb is “legended” (l. 79) — inscribed with the name of Ulalume, the “light of death.” Psyche intones the name for the narrator, who innocently inquires about the tomb. To the last instant, his vision is insufficient. Interestingly the name is read off by Psyche, the intuition-projection, rather than by the narrator proper. It is at least implied, therein, that this buried truth has been just beneath the psychological surface all along. At any rate, the narrator has now rediscovered his lost Ulalume — the lost light of death:

Then my heart it grew ashen and sober

As the leaves that were crisped and sere —

As the leaves that were withering and sere —

And I cried — “It was surely October,,

On this very night of last year,

That I journeyed — I journeyed down here! —

That I brought a dread burden down here —

On this night, of all nights in the year,

Ah, what demon hath tempted me here,

Well I know, now, this dim lake of Auber —

This misty mid region of Weir: —

Well I know, now, this dark tarn of Auber —

This ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.”

Lines 82-94 dramatize the abreactive moment of despair. The narrator figuratively accepts the fact of death as he identifies his now “ashen and sober” heart with the dead leaves in lines 1-9. The volcanicchaos that had existed early in the poem has now been extinguished. Having attained this terrible focus upon reality, the other confusions are put to rest as well. The narrator now knows precisely what night of the year it is, and he recognizes the place in which he has been wandering. The setting is no longer unfamiliar or threatening; after all, there is nothing more to be threatened with. The line of perhaps greatest thematic interest in this stanza is, however, line 90: “Ah, what demon hath tempted me here?” Since his own deluding hopes tempted him to Ulalume’s tomb, he is his own demon. Having discovered again the fact of the finality of death and dispelled all confusions that had [page 14:] plagued him up to this point, the narrator still has one thing more to learn:

Said we, then — the two, then — “Ah, can it

Have been that the woodlandish ghouls —

The pitiful, the merciful ghouls,

To bar up our way and to ban it

From the secret that lies in these wolds —

From the thing that lies hidden in these wolds —

Have drawn up the spectre of a planet

From the limbo of lunary souls —

This sinfully scintillant planet

From the Hell of the planetary souls?”

The tone of lines 82-94 is one of pure anguish, and, were the poem to end there, we would have a very different poem, one which might have confirmed Tate’s “spiritual annihilation” reading of Poe. Mabbott has explained how Poe originally deleted stanza ten at the suggestion of Mrs. Whitman, but subsequently reinstated it (M 1:423). This was a fortunate decision. In lines 95-104 the complicated irony of Poe’s psychological theme adds a final turn in the poem. For one thing, it significantly deepens the characterization of the narrator, who, after all, is recounting a dreadful past experience for the reader. The unmitigated despair evident in lines 82-94 does not suggest the psychological equilibrium to make the narrator appear capable of recounting the awful events dramatized in the poem; the abreactive effect of the poem would be compromised by the deletion of the interesting peace that the narrator seems to be making with his newly-perceived, terrible reality in lines 95-104. The narrator, in telling his tale, fulfills the function of the artist as delineated by Poe in “ThePhilosophy of Composition,” turning the despair inherent in human reality into beautiful art. Poe uses this narrator to unfold the drama of human psychological experience, not merely to relate a ghost story.

In lines 95-104, the delusion is at least recognized for what it is — merciful in intent, but nonetheless deluding. The “ghouls” that haunt the landscape perceived by the narrator (as presented by Poe) create illusory ideals that, when finally tested against reality, finally give way to an accurate apprehension of that reality: the ironic comfort of despair, or, to put it another way, the exorcism of mocking hopes. The “secret” that “lies hidden in these wolds” (l. 99) — the truth of the finality of death — is ultimately known, and, intuitively speaking, is [page 15:] never a secret at all; delusions make it so. As previously mentioned, one must, ultimately, defile graves. We are our own ghouls, and we of necessity haunt ourselves.

In January 1848 Poe wrote the following in a letter to George Eveleth (O 356):

. . .it was the horrible never-ending oscillation between hope and despair which I could NOT longer have endured without total loss of reason. In the death of what was my life, then, I received a new but — oh God! how melancholy an existence.

Perhaps “Ulalume” is Poe’s attempt to dramatize this psychological journey. In November 1844 he had written, perhaps prophetically, “Is it not a law that need has a tendency to engender the thing needed?” (Essays and Reviews 1319). We should avoid putting too much emphasis on these biological observations; however, they are useful glosses toward an understanding of Poe’s artistic intentions. Both in regard to those intentions and to Poe’s actual poetic achievement, I believe that “Ulalume” is Poe’s culminative poem.

Ironically, as tendered in “Ulalume,” the “thing needed” is the perception of human life as it is, a perception that will lead inevitably to despair. In the midst of the “delusion,” lines 39-50, the narrator, paraphrasing Isaiah 66:24 mentions “These cheeks where the worm never dies.”(11) The scriptural text reads: “. . .for their worm shall not die, THEIR FIRE SHALL NOT BE QUENCHED.” No doubt Poe has in mind the true fire (or ice) of despair, rather than the deluding fire of hope, and himself engendered “the thing needed” to render the truth of this despair — the poem “Ulalume.”



1.  “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews, ed. G. R. Thompson (New York, 1984) p. 19. All references to “Ulalume” are from the companion volume, Edgar Allan Poe, Poetry and Tales, ed. Patrick F. Quinn (New York, 1984).

2.  The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews, ed. G. R. Thompson (New York, 1984) p. 19. For discussion of Poe’s aesthetic and its psychological implications, see first Marie Bonaparte, The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: a Psychoanalytic Study (London, 1949), with which everyone must agree and disagree. Other useful studies are Marvin Laser, “The Growth and Structure of Poe’s Concept of beauty,” ELH 15 (1948) 69-84; George Kelly, “Poe’s Theory of Beauty,” AL 27 (1956) 521-536. In discussing the enormity of the fact of death in Poe’s thought and art, one cannot ignore J. Gerald Kennedy’s Poe, Death and the Life of Writing (New Haven, 1987).

3.  See, for instance, “Remords Posthume;” l. 10: “car le tombeau toujours comprendra le poete.” Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil, ed. Marthiel and Jackson Mathews (New York, 1963) p. 269. F. P. Sturm translates the line as “For the deep grave is ever the poet’s friend,” p.44.

4.  M 1:423; Tate, “Our Cousin, Mr. Poe,” The Man of Letters in the Modern World (New York, 1953), pp. 132-145; Hoffman, Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (New York, 1972), pp. 72-74; and David Robinson, “The Dramatic Quest in Poe and Emerson: ‘Ulalume’ and ‘’The Sphinx’.” ATQ 26 (1975, Supplement) 30.

5.  Miller, “‘Ulalume’ Resurrected,” PQ, 34 (1955) 197-205; Carlson, “Symbol and Sense in Poe’s ‘Ulalume,’” AL 35 (1963) 22-37.

6.  See Oskar Seiffert, Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (New York, 1968) p. 526.

7.  Charles Anthon. Classical Dictionary (New York, 1852) pp. 1136-37.

8.  “The Debate of the Body and Soul,” Renascence 12 (1960) 192-197.

9.  Quoted in Juan Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols (New York, 1971) p. 261. The original source is C. G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, Collected Works v. 12 (London, 1953).

10.  David Halliburton, Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View (Princeton, 1973) p. 143.

11.  William Mentzel Forrest, Biblical Allusions in Poe (New York, 1928) p. 172.






[S:0 - MMM, 2006] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Masques, Mysteries and Mastodons: A Poe Miscellany (The Thing Needed: Hope and Despair in Ulalume)