Long ago, “in a kingdom by the sea,” lived Annabel Lee, who loved the narrator. Both she and the narrator were children but knew love more powerful than that of the angels, who envied them. A wind chilled and killed Annabel, but their love was too strong to be defeated by angels or demons. The narrator is reminded of Annabel Lee by everything, including the moon and the stars, and at night, he lies by her tomb by the sea.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote “Annabel Lee” in May 1849, a few months before his death, and it first appeared in The Southern Literary Messenger posthumously in November 1849. Although the poem may refer to a number of women in Poe’s life, most acknowledge it to be in memory of Virginia Clemm, Poe’s wife who married him at the age of thirteen and who died in 1847 before she turned twenty-five. The work returns to Poe’s frequent fixation with the Romantic image of a beautiful woman who has died too suddenly in the flush of youth. As indicated more thoroughly in his short story “The Oval Portrait,” Poe often associated death with the freezing and capturing of beauty, and many of his heroines reach the pinnacle of loveliness on their deathbed, as with Ligeia of the eponymous story.
The poem specifically mentions the youth of the unnamed narrator and especially of Annabel Lee, and it celebrates child-like emotions in a way consistent with the ideals of the Romantic era. Many Romantics from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries viewed adulthood as a corruption of the purer instincts of childhood, and they preferred nature to society because they considered it to be a better and more instinctive state. Accordingly, Poe treats the narrator’s childhood love for Annabel Lee as fuller and more eternal than the love of adults. Annabel Lee is gentle and persistent in her love, and she has no complex emotions that may darken or complicate her love.
The poem’s setting has several Gothic elements, as the kingdom by the sea is lonely and in an undefined but mysterious location. Poe does not describe the setting with any specificity, and he weaves a hazy, romantic atmosphere around the kingdom until he ends by offering the stark and horrific image of a “sepulchre there by the sea.” The location by the sea recalls the city of “The City in the Sea,” which is also located by the sea and which is conceptually connected to death and decay. At the same time, the nostalgic tone and the Gothic background serve to inculcate the image of a love that outlasts all opposition, from the spiritual jealousy of the angels to the physical barrier of death. Although Annabel Lee has died, the narrator can still see her “bright eyes,” an image of her soul and of the spark of life that gives a promise of a future meeting between the two lovers.
As in the case of a number of Poe’s male protagonists who mourn the premature death of beloved women, the love of narrator of “Annabel Lee” goes beyond simple adoration to a more bizarre attachment. Whereas Annabel Lee seems to have loved him in a straightforward, if nonsexual, manner, the protagonist has mentally deified her. He blames everyone but himself for her death, pointing at the conspiracy of angels with nature and at the show of paternalism inherent in her “highborn kinsmen” who “came and bore her away,” and he remains dependent upon her memory. While the narrator of the poem “Ulalume” suffers from an unconscious need to grieve and to return to Ulalume’s grave, the narrator of “Annabel Lee” chooses ironically to lie down and sleep next to a woman who is herself lying down by the sea.
The name “Annabel Lee” continues the pattern of a number of Poe’s names for his dead women in that it contains the lulling but melancholy “L” sound. Furthermore, “Annabel Lee” has a peaceful, musical rhythm which reflects the overall musicality of the poem, which makes heavy use of the refrain phrases “in this kingdom by the sea” and “of the beautiful Annabel Lee,” as well as of the repetition of other words. In particular, although the poem’s stanzas have a somewhat irregular length and structure, the rhyme scheme continually emphasizes the three words “me,” “Lee,” and “sea,” enforcing the linked nature of these concepts within the poem while giving the poem a song-like sound.