Text: Christopher Bundrick, “Obsessive (Poe)tics: Meter and Rhyme in Poe’s Poetry,” Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 2011


­[title page:]

Obsessive Poe(tics): Meter
and Rhyme in the Poetry of
Edgar Allan Poe

Christopher Bundrick

University of Mississippi

­[front matter:]

This pamphlet is based on a lecture delivered at the 85th Commemorative Program of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, October 7, 2007

Copyright © 2011 by the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc.

Rather than creating end notes, all of the page references in the text are given in parentheses, prefixed by the last name of the author, as listed in the bibliography of works cited.

* * * * * * * *

[page 1, unnumbered:]

Less sophisticated Poe criticism tends to focus on biographical approaches that attempt to match up the more outré aspects of Poe’s work with details from his own life. It did not take long, however, before literary critics began to protest that undue concern with Poe’s private life was overshadowing more fruitful avenues of literary examination. In 1930, W. L. Werner complained about a body of work on Poe for which, “Interest centered early on his drunkenness and his love affairs, and these had barely been treated sympathetically before a new set of modern and Freudian biographers emphasized opium and impotence” (Werner, 157). Twenty-one years later, Phillip Young demonstrated a continued interest in this lurid impression of Poe by opening his essay “The Early Psychologists and Poe” with the claim “There never has been much doubt that something was very much the matter with Edgar Allan Poe” (Young, 442). While this assertion may or may not be true, I believe, as Werner did, that such an exaggerated emphasis on Poe’s psychology (abnormal or otherwise) serves chiefly to distract readers from the rational, highly organized, and often times quite advanced ideas that shaped Poe’s approach to poetics.

Notwithstanding questions about Poe’s potential alcoholism — as well as occasionally rumored but unsubstantiated claims of drug addiction, incest or even pedophilia — more recent critics have tended to either ignore his poetry altogether or write it off as jingly (echoing [page 2:] Emerson’s now-famous dismissal of Poe) and overly-affected. The general sense of Poe’s verse today tends to be that financial strain forced him to rush both composition and publication, or that the author’s sensibilities were simply better fitted to the short story (a form for which he continues to receive high levels of attention and praise). I believe, however, that a close look at Poe’s verse reveals work of considerable depth and sophistication.

In his 1965 landmark work Poetic Meter Poetic Form, Paul Fussell attempts to at least partially recuperate Poe’s verse technique when he writes of “Annabel Lee” that “[a]n excessively ‘imposed’ meter, although defective, becomes more interesting the nearer the meter approaches something like appropriateness. Thus the insufficiently varied, ‘external’ meter of Poe’s ‘Annabel Lee’ might be partially justified by the fictive speaker’s rural simplicity” (Fussell, 92). Following the path laid down by Fussell’s argument, reading Poe’s verse in the context of its fidelity to his “Philosophy of Composition” reveals an innovative technical approach to mood and character. In particular, I want to emphasize Poe’s use of meter and rhyme to create a speaker who, as Fussell argues, would naturally perform the scene the poem has set. Poe uses meter and rhyme to highlight the obsessive character of his speakers, and to examine the ways that these obsessions alter their perceptions of the world they inhabit. Combining this strong sense of character with moments of technical brilliance, Poe creates a strikingly mature and intriguing poetic effect that bears far more scrutiny than it is currently receiving.

As a critic, Poe meticulously shaped his ideas about poetic technique. Toward the end of his essay “The Poetic Principle,” written as a lecture near the end of 1848 and [page 3:] first published, posthumously, in the fall of 1850, Poe is very clear in stating his “conception of the Poetic Principle” as “strictly and simply the Human aspiration for supernatural beauty” (Poe, 1452). Herein lies what I believe to be one of the key hints to understanding Poe’s work. Although F. O. Matthiessen opted not to include Poe in his seminal survey of The American Renaissance (1941), it does not take much study to see that Poe was very much a part of what Matthiessen called “one extraordinarily concentrated moment of expression” (Matthiessen, vii) during which American authors worked to reinvent the nature and function of literature in the U. S. The dominant themes of Matthiessen’s book (according to the author himself) were, “the adequacy of the different writers’ conception of the relationship of the individual to society, and of the nature of good and evil — these two themes rising to their fullest development in the treatment of tragedy; the stimulus lay in the transcendental conviction that the word must become one with the thing” (Matthiessen, xv). Matthiessen’s language here seems remarkably similar to parts of “The Philosophy of Composition,” published nearly one hundred years earlier in 1846. In this essay, Poe declares that “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem [...] That pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure is, I believe, the contemplation of the Beautiful” (Poe, 532). He goes on to claim that beauty is “not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect [...] that intense and pure elevation of the soul — not of intellect, or of heart” (Poe, 532). Attentive readers will remember, of course, that later in this same essay appears what has become Poe’s most famous critical pronouncement, namely that “When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world” (Poe, 535). [page 4:]

Returning to Poe’s contention that poetry is the “Human aspiration for supernatural beauty” (Poe, 1452), I believe that we can interpret his belief that the death of a beautiful woman is the topic most likely to achieve poetic effect less as the rumination of a tragic and doomed figure, and more as Poe’s attempt to examine the same thing that the other American Romantics were doing — looking closely at the relationship between the real and the imaginary, exploring the possibility of transcending the real, but doing so through the filter of his particular literary sensibility as he lays out in such essays as “The Philosophy of Composition,” “The Poetic Principle,” and “The Rationale of Verse.” Like many American writers in the early 1800s, Poe was deeply interested in the confluence of the rational and irrational aspects of human consciousness. We can see this interest by examining one of Poe’s early poems, “Sonnet — To Science” (first published, without a title, in 1829).

As the title suggests, “To Science” is a sonnet, although it seems to be a reluctant one. Rhetorically, this piece appears to follow the Italian (or Petrarchan) model in that the shift from exposition to resolution comes between lines eight and nine. This observation suggests a formal organization of two quatrains and then a closing sestet will develop the conclusion that resolves the problem introduced in the initial eight lines. In addition, Poe seems to be using the sonnet form in order to introduce the courtly love tradition in which a lover pleads his case to an often distant or aloof woman, often focusing on the personal misery invoked by his unrecognized or unreturned ardor. Taking our cue from Poe’s evocation of courtly love, then, the natural reading of this sonnet is as a sort of lover’s lament that his beloved is not acting in a way that recognizes his love. If we read “Sonnet — To Science” as a Petrarchan sonnet, the final six lines suggest a robust conclusion in [page 5:] which the speaker consoles himself that Science is not a proper lover because she has indeed robbed him, the poet, of his fancies and left him dreamless — something that would run counter to most traditional visions of a romantic relationship. The question of form, however, must complicate our reading in that while the poem might rhetorically suggest an Italian model, the rhyme scheme (particularly the couplet in lines thirteen and fourteen) suggests an Elizabethan (or perhaps even Spencerian) format. In this model, the speaker develops the problem over the course of three quatrains and then a turn between lines twelve and thirteen sets up a resolution in the final rhyming couplet.

This ambiguity is significant for several reasons, chief of which is the dramatic difference in the ratio between problem and resolution between Italian and English sonnet forms. Read as an Italian sonnet, this poem offers the speaker six full lines with which to develop his position on the proper relationship between science and art as well as detail the way that the behavior of the personified Science has exceeded the bounds of that proper relationship. Her sins make up quite a list, including having “dragged Diana from her car,” “driven the Hamadryad from the wood,” “torn the Naiad from her flood,” and worst of all, having awaken the poet from his “summer dream beneath the tamarind tree.” As an English sonnet, however, the deferred turn transforms the complaints we see in lines nine through twelve into a final quartet within the portion of the poem tasked with describing the problem, leaving the speaker only the final couplet with which to develop his resolution. The difference between these two readings is surprizingly profound. In the Italian sonnet we get a resolution built around a confident, fully-fleshed challenge to science, which outlines the exactly nature of her insults and their [page 6:] ultimate affect on the speaker. On the other hand, following the cues the rhyme scheme offers and reading “To Science” as an English sonnet, what we find in the resolving couplet is a fragmented and tentative assertion lacking both the support and the sophistication of the Italian sestet. The rhetorical reversal of the parallelism in line thirteen, especially when considered through the less developed, two-line resolution of the English sonnet, might even reveal a kind of egotism on the part of the speaker — something suggesting that his complaint is really much more about personal loss instead of the lofty concerns that surround the question of how science and art should relate to each other.

Essentially, Poe’s ingenious intermingling of these different sonnet traditions allows him to create a kind of ambiguity that really complicates the way we see the speaker. We are torn between at least two different versions of this persona. The Italian sonnet, with its robust, six-line resolution offers us a persuasive and rhetorically mature figure whose arguments are so precise and logical, however, that it is difficult to fully imagine his as a representation of the imaginative or fanciful poet. On the other pole we have the anemic, two-line resolution of the English sonnet that presents us with a more readily believable poet as speaker, but one who is shallow and self-involved to such an extent that he somehow seems more interested in sculpting the striking final image of himself dreaming under a tamarind tree than he is in actually making a convincing point. Offering us such unappealing choices at either end, Poe, I believe, intentionally presents this ambiguous character as a way of forcing readers to confront the real complexity of the relationship between science (rationality and logic) and art (imagination and desire). Ultimately, I believe that we are supposed to see the speaker’s vision of the relationship between art and science as the result of a sort of obsession [page 7:] or compulsion that forces him to reconcile the two within the larger conceit of a stormy romantic relationship — a metaphor that at least distantly invokes Poe’s “most poetical topic in the world,” the death of a beautiful woman.

In a similar vein, “Annabel Lee” (which was actually first published as part of his obituary on Oct. 9, 1849 — almost exactly 158 years ago today) shows us an Edgar Allan Poe who is (if you can believe it) an even more confident poet. One of the more anthologized of Poe’s poems, “Annabel Lee,” is part love poem and part dirge. In it, a bereaved lover tells us about the powerful love he shared with the titular Annabel Lee and the way death attempted, but ultimately failed, to separate them. There are certain obvious similarities between this work and “Sonnet — To Science.” In both, the unnamed male speaker is narrating a problematic love affair (the first is trying to cope with a cruel or indifferent lover, while the second faces the somewhat larger problem of wooing a lover who is dead). In terms of technique, however, these two poems are very different. Although clearly designed, “Annabel Lee” does not rely on any traditional form and thus offers no convention through which to read it. Instead — and this is perhaps the mark of Poe’s best poetry — “Annabel Lee,” another love poem of sorts, indicates how it should be read purely through sound and rhythm. Probably the most immediately apparent technical features that Poe employs in “Annabel Lee” are the chiming rhyme that so many critics have complained about, and the distinctive — some might say overly artificial — rhythm (which is a sort of loose anapest trimester [[trimeter]] and tetrameter). As I pointed out earlier, more than a few readers have understood these features to be flaws in the work for the way they seem to emphasize the artificiality of the speaker’s expression, thus subsuming the speaker’s internally motivated “natural” voice into the [page 8:] externally imposed expression of meter and rhyme. However, if we consider that these faults might not be the poet’s but actually the speaker’s, then, I believe we might read “Annabel Lee” in a much more interesting manner.

As I’ve already mentioned, Poe is essentially a Romantic, with concerns not that different from those of Emerson or Melville. Throughout his entire cannon of work, including the Dupin mysteries, The Narrative of Author Gordon Pym (his only novel), and all his poetry, Poe was attempting to get at what we now call the problem of consciousness — the unavoidable and perhaps insurmountable difficulty of understanding the nature of human thoughts, perceptions, and experiences. Poe’s efforts to examine the ultimately unstable relationship between sign and signified often manifest themselves as gothic, or grotesque, but at the core his work is obsessed with the relationship between reality and the brain’s perception of reality. With this notion in mind, it is no surprise that so many of the figures we encounter in Poe’s writings, both poetry and prose, suffer from various forms of obsession. This is certainly true of the speaker in “Annabel Lee,” although his obsession is unusually complex.

The poem opens by setting the scene in such terms that we usually associate with fairy tales. I strongly suspect that the phrases “many and many a year ago” and “kingdom by the sea” are intended to evoke faint memories of other stories we have heard that begin with the familiar pattern “It was a long, long time ago, in a place far, far away.” That this poem is ultimately about a “maiden” (as opposed to a girl, or woman) further brings to mind a sort of fairy tale world. Everything in this opening stanza, in fact, seems to point to a speaker whose vision of the world is naïve in the manner of imaginative childhood. Indeed, by the time we [page 9:] get to lines five and six, in which the speaker tells us “And this maiden she lived with no other thought / Than to love and be loved by me” only the most credulous reader can continue with a straight face. As the poem continues, the depth of the speaker’s simplicity becomes clear. We could read his sense of Annabel Lee’s purpose as a sort of youthful ignorance of his beloved’s full and complete subjectivity or even as a manifestation of his own self-absorption. If this story is, indeed, a kind of fairy tale — an idealized version of reality that reflects certain romantic values — then we must recognize that part of this speaker’s fantasy, conscious or not, is that his love (and thus he, himself) is at the very center of the world.

In the following stanza the speaker seems to confirm our sense of his childishness and self-importance by proclaiming “I was a child and she was a child,” and then goes even further by suggesting that their love was so profound that “the wingéd seraphs of heaven / Coveted her and me.” It is this jealousy, he explains, that leads the “seraphs” to send a mysterious wind that “chills” our lovely heroine. With a tone reminiscent of some of Poe’s more obviously disturbed figures — the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” comes to mind for instance — this speaker uses the entirety of stanzas three and four trying to convince us that jealous angels killed his lover. The repetitiousness of his explanation suggests not only a sort of obsession or compulsion, but perhaps a barely submerged sense of just how implausible this account must really be. Stanza seven seems to be the key to reading this poem in that it so adamantly begins “But our love it was stronger by far than the love / Of those who were older than we.” Still resisting, the speaker seems to be responding to a particular challenge to his sense of the love he imagines having shared with Annabel Lee. When considered with the decidedly sensitive [page 10:] way the speaker describes that her “highborn kinsmen came / And bore her away from me,” I think we see, perhaps, a hint that it was Annabel Lee’s family (and not jealous angels) who actually threatened the speaker’s relationship. Tying everything together in the final stanza, the speaker reconfirms his undying loyalty to his love, proving his commitment by telling us “all the night-time, I lay by the side of my darling [...] / In her tomb by the sounding sea.” The final image of the speaker lying near the side of his lover’s corpse, while apparently meant to substantiate his assertion that nothing can keep them apart, actually serves instead as the final proof that his love for Annabel Lee is, in fact, something that modern readers would more likely recognize as morbid and fanatical. While the rhetorical aspects of this poem serve wonderfully to develop the character of the speaker (that he says the wind “chilled” her, for instance, instead of the more correct “killed” which the rhyme implies in the background), Poe’s real mastery shows through in his use of meter and rhyme to emphasize the speaker’s obsession.

Six stanzas — sestets, septets, and octets of mostly anapest lines alternating between tetrameter and trimester [[trimeter]] — “Annabel Lee” is a nonce form poem and so, while obviously organized, its form does not posses the cultural significance of the sonnet. Absent the pre-established framework of mutually agreed upon significance, “Annabel Lee” uses poetic technique to extend its implications. The anapest meter, for instance, is one that most readers would recognize from much more lighthearted work — most often in limericks. The playfulness of the triple meter seems entirely at odds with the seriousness in this poem, but I do not think we should see this as the fault of the author as much as the fault of the speaker. Illustrating his disconnect from the rational world that most of us at least presume to [page 11:] inhabit, this seemingly upbeat verse goes along with his sense of having triumphed by maintaining his deep spiritual connection to Annabel Lee even after her death. At the same time, the strictness of metrical construction in this poem serves to emphasize the speaker’s unyielding and inflexible focus. While verging on monotonous, the rhythm we find in “Annabel Lee” is the metrical equivalent of a thousand-yard stare. Simple and repetitive, and a little off-key, we hear in the singsong anapest lines of this poem a compulsive narration and re-narration that ultimately feels like the speaker’s attempt to shore up the unlikely account necessary for maintaining his fantasy.

The one metrical substitution in the poem also serves to reveal something about the speaker. In the third and fourth lines of stanza three, our hero tells us that “A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling / My beautiful Annabel Lee.” Each line starts with iambs that gradually stretch into anapest feet, which is precisely the pattern that the rest of the poem follows. Just after the caesura between “cloud’ and “chilling” in line three, however, we see that the rhythm has reversed, transforming from the unstressed-stressed form of an anapest to the stressed-unstressed form of a trochee. The rhythm seems to stumble here, not only because the reader must pause and thus disrupt the light, tripping rhythm anapest lines usually confer, but more importantly because the feminine ending breaks the pattern of end-line stress. Reversing the pattern at the moment the speaker is narrating Annabel Lee’s death, of course, represents the staggering emotional weight of the loss, but a quick return to the mostly anapest pattern in the next line demonstrates the speaker’s unwillingness or inability to actually face reality. Highlighting the way the refrain structure reemerges throughout the poem, repeating hard “e” rhymes (sea, Lee, me, etc.) and the rhyme scheme work to reinforce a similar [page 12:] sense of obsessive circling. Constantly bringing the reader back to the beginning, illustrating the way certain realities try to force their way slowly into the speaker’s fantasy, these rhymes also work to reduce the world in the poem to the most fundamental elements of the speaker’s obsession — “I and my Annabel Lee.”

What I hope to have demonstrated in my argument is that the over-emphasis on biographical reading has too often haunted Poe scholarship. If we can, instead, acknowledge the very real technical merit of Poe’s work, we will see his impulse toward what he called “the rhythmical creation of beauty.” Doing so will compel us to recognize his use of form, meter, and rhyme not as the hurried and predicable disappointments that many critics have claimed, but as a subtle means of generating that unity and intensity that he actively and repeatedly promoted as the keys to good verse and the very essence of poetry.

[page 13:]

Works Cited

Fussell, Paul. Poetic Meter & Poetic Form. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979.

Matthiessen, Francis Otto. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. London: Oxford University Press, 1941

Poe. Edgar Allan. Selections from the Critical Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. ed. F.C. Prescott. New York: Gordian Press, 1981.

Werner, William L “Poe’s Theories and Practice in Poetic Technique” American Literature, Vol. 2, No. 2 (May, 1930), pp. 157-165

Young, Philip. “The Earlier Psychologists and Poe” American Literature, Vol. 22, No. 4 (January, 1951), pp. 442-454

[page 15:]


[page 17:]

Sonnet — To Science

Science! meet daughter of old Time thou art

Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes!

Why prey’st thou thus upon the poet’s heart,

Vulture! whose wings are dull realities!

How should he love thee — or how deem thee wise

Who woulds’t not leave him, in his wandering,

To seek for treasure in the jewell’d skies

Albeit, he soar with an undaunted wing?

Hast thou not dragg’d Diana from her car,

And driv’n the Hamadryad from the wood

To seek a shelter in some happier star?

The gentle Naiad from her fountain-flood?

The elfin from the green grass? and from me

The summer dream beneath the shrubbery

(Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems, 1829)

Note: in the original, this poem appears without a title, serving as a kind of introduction to “Al Aaraaf.”

[page 18:]

Annabel Lee.

It was many and many a year ago,

In a kingdom by the sea,

That a maiden there lived whom you may know

By the name of Annabel Lee; —

And this maiden she lived with no other thought

Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,

In this kingdom by the sea;

But we loved with a love that was more than love —

I and my Annabel Lee —

With a love that the wingéd seraphs in Heaven

Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,

In this kingdom by the sea,

A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling

My beautiful Annabel Lee;

So that her high-born kinsmen came

And bore her away from me,

To shut her up in a sepulchre,

In this kingdom by the sea.

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 came out of the cloud by night,

Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love

Of those who were older than we —

Of many far wiser than we — [page 19:]

And 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: —

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 my bride,

In her sepulchre there by the sea —

In her tomb by the sounding sea.

(manuscript, about May 1849)



This lecture was delivered at the Eighty-fifth Annual Commemoration Program of the Poe Society, October 7, 2007. The lecture was presented in the Edgar Allan Poe Room of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

© 2011, by The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc.


[S:1 - OPMRPP, 2007] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Obsessive (Poe)tics: Meter and Rhyme in Poe’s Poetry (C. Bundrick, 2007)