The Recurring Theme Of Death English Literature Essay

Berkhan ÇINAR


ENGL 102.03

The Recurring Theme of Death in the Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe

It is debatable that no other writer in history has produced works as discomforting, thrilling and macabre as Edgar Allan Poe. His works contain haunting imagery, their dark themes and their dreadful portrayals of the "dark side" of human nature. However, Poe’s poetry is also surprisingly animated with dark images, particularly the plain imagery of death. Indeed, a case can certainly be made that some of his best poetry is more covered with images of the "world beyond" than is the best of his short stories. With this in mind, the following paper will briefly explore death as it emerges time and again in Poe’s poetry. Edgar Allan Poe uses the rhythmic beat and repetition of poetry to suggest the inevitability of death; it may also be said that the allegoric quality of poetry allows him to hint at "dark things" without his work becoming incoherent. Finally, given the despair and persecution of his own life, his own poor health and the frequent ill-health of his wife, it seems as though poetry became an instrument through which Poe explored a topic that must have been a permanent apprehension.

The following paper will look at the theme of death in the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe and argue that his poetry was a means of exploring his own explicit fatalism (determinism). Besides, the next pages will discuss the use of poetic devices like rhyme scheme, apostrophe and graphic metaphors to express his own moral thoughts on death and his own desire for an exit (escape) and supremacy. To open up more fully, it may be said that death is perceived as being a frightening thing that continuously closes in on all human beings in at least some of Poe’s poetry. While one might think that Poe’s earthly troubles would have made him almost eager for death, as a means of achieving supremacy and escape, the reality appears to be that he was largely terrified of it. At any rate, the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe was the one means by which he could examine the dark core of his soul and utter his dark and gruesome sorrow.

"The Conqueror Worm" is a frightening poem that captures Poe’s own fatalism and his own obsession with the end destination of all earthly travelers. The tone of the poem is quite frightening and dark: "amid the mimic rout/A crawling shape intrude...with mortal pangs/The mimes become its food....In human gore imbued" (Poe, "The Conqueror Worm", lines 25-32) and leaves no doubt as to the writer’s own graphic understanding of death. More than that, it may be said that poems such as the above mentioned capture Poe’s own overly emotional exaggeration as it relates to the final act in every life and his own fear of death. At the same time, Poe uses poetic devices to emphasize the inevitability of death. For instance, the ordinary ABABCDCD rhyme scheme is used to give his work a particular rhythmic predictability and his use of stanzas with an even number of lines skillfully captures the symmetry of life returning to death.

Another memorable Poe composition is "Annabel Lee" where, again, death is the dominating subject over the poem. In this case, however, he focuses upon what death has taken from him; that is to say, Poe’s poem is a note to a dead maiden the narrator once loved deeply ("Annabel Lee", lines 1-41). In this example, however, the rhyme scheme appears much more uneven; for instance, the first two sestets of the poem follow an ABABCB and an ABCBDB pattern, respectively (Poe, "Annabel Lee", lines 1-12). Additionally, while "The Conqueror Worm" used octave stanzas entirely, this poem uses sestet and octave stanzas as well as a seven-line stanza that is definitely not a "rhyme royal" stanza because it does not use the traditional rhyme scheme associated with this type of stanza ("Rhyme Royal" para.2). The most significant of all is probably Poe’s highlight of the unexpectedness with which death descends upon the unsuspecting and his work portrays this allegory marvelously. It may also be said that Poe uses other poetic devices as well. For instance, the occasional use of internal rhyme and repetition, "chilling and killing" and "my soul from the soul", (Poe, "Annabel Lee", lines 25-26 and 31) is to express the inevitability of death and the struggle the narrator faces over and over again as he attempts to put Annabel Lee’s passing behind him. The fact Poe uses rhyming couplets to bring to a close the final four lines of the poem ("Annabel Lee" lines 38-41) suggests the circle of life and death and their complementary relationship.

The complete stubbornness with which Poe addresses death in his work has been a permanent subject of attraction for scholars (Sims 159-165). Besides the fact that Poe’s ill health made him aware of the closeness of the living to death, it is possible that Poe’s own well-known mental instability, his melancholy, made him think over death in a way that other writers did not. In that sense, Poe’s poems are awkwardly thoughtful and illustrative as exploring the works he has left behind may have a bigger impact than reading about his unhappy life in terms of his soul.

The final poem to be discussed is Poe’s "The Haunted Palace". Once more, the rhyme scheme can be said to be illustrative. As with "Annabel Lee", it is uneven, following a curious ABCDEFEF pattern in the first octave of the poem and contradictorily using the more familiar ABABCDCD pattern subsequently (Poe, "The Haunted Palace" lines 1-48). Here again, one is left with the impression that the physical appearance and construction of the poem are meant to convey the unexpected and arbitrary nature of death. Lastly, Poe uses personification in this poem. Particularly, he treats death as if it has foot soldiers, dark slaves who act as "evil things, in robes of sorrow" (Poe, "The Haunted Palace", line 29) – terrifying phantoms who can climb even the most powerful wall and bring to ruin all inside. In that regard, it appears Poe tie in with the view that human happiness is a temporary thing and that even the happiest of houses, must ultimately fall into desolation and death.

In conclusion, even a superficial look at Poe’s work reveals a writer obsessed with death and unable to escape the belief that it is an appalling thing. In many respects, there is something confusing about all of this apart as Poe’s own life would seem to leave him desperate for release from all his troubles; instead, the recurring theme of death is treated in his poetic works like a specter (phantom) that arrives randomly and in a gruesome outfit. His understanding of death may have been filled with darkness, apprehension, intuition and disappointment. In the final analysis, it seems evident that one of America’s greatest writers was terrified by one of the things over which he most obsessed.