While confessing his sins to a priest, the narrator Tamerlane says that he desires but does not expect forgiveness for the effect of his pride, and any hope he has must come from a divine rather than a human source. His glory and success have come at the expense of his heart, and he misses his younger days. Once, his spirit was triumphant, born of his early life on a mountain. He rejoiced in battle and victory, and he delighted in the praise of other men. However, in his youth, he fell in love with a woman whom he can now barely remember.
The woman was pure and worthy, and Tamerlane loved her deeply as they grew up together in the forests, but he left her in his pursuit of power. Unlike the priest to which he confesses, Tamerlane has known ambition. When he walked through nature with his love, he told her about "power and pride," believing that her feelings matched his own while he dreamed about his future. Nevertheless, he now sees that he sacrificed love for power. As he grows old and reaches his deathbed, he misses his boyhood and perhaps regrets how his ambition defeated his love.
Historically, Tamerlane, or Timur, was a fourteenth-century ruler who founded an empire in central Asia, but Poe does not seek factual accuracy in his fanciful retelling of Tamerlane's deathbed confession. Although the real Tamerlane would have been Muslim rather than Roman Catholic, Poe takes advantage of the romantic idea of the famed but flawed conqueror and sets him in a more Western religious setting so that he can confess his youthful sins to a Roman Catholic priest in a lengthy dramatic monologue. The narrative poem then uses an archaic and elevated diction with a deliberate pace to establish that Tamerlane does not speak as an emotional youth but rather as a thoughtful but regretful man in his old age.
Poe originally published "Tamerlane" in his first volume of poetry when he was eighteen, and he revised and shortened it for the popularly accepted 1829 form of the poem. Because of its early placement in Poe's career, the protagonist of "Tamerlane" can be read in many ways as a prototype for the tormented and sorrowful narrators of his later poems and short stories. Like the main characters of "The Raven," "Annabel Lee," and "Ulalume," Tamerlane suffers because of the death of his young and beautiful lover, and he is unable to move away from her memory, instead remaining dependent upon it for the remainder of his life. However, he differs somewhat from these other male characters in that whereas they often lost their beloveds for reasons outside of their control, Tamerlane lost his because of his own errors of judgment.
In his tragic loss of an early lover, Tamerlane combines the melancholy and nostalgic characteristics of Poe's archetypal Gothic characters with the tragic flaw exhibited by the heroes of classic Greek drama. Like Oedipus in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Tamerlane is clever and talented but prideful, which leads in his case not to a downfall but to a lifetime of loneliness. Even as he offers his confession, he shows signs of the egocentricity needed to establish an empire, as he discusses his accomplishments and revels in his might and "kingly mind." He continues throughout the poem to justify his behavior, although he recognizes that ambition is a thin excuse for his crime of neglect.
In order to highlight Tamerlane's trade-off of love for power, the poem juxtaposes Tamerlane's increasingly successful bids for power with the maiden who, unlike Tamerlane, comprehends the meaning of love. Like Annabel Lee in Poe's 1849 poem, her love and beauty derive from her experiences in the wild forest and her child-like understanding of goodness, while Tamerlane gradually loses his innocence in favor of rule over other men. This contrast reflects the Romantic belief that man is at his best during childhood and when in nature. Fittingly, after Tamerlane discovers the wonders of civilization during his travels and his military campaigns, he can no longer access the intuition embodied by his beloved, and she is irretrievable.
Echoes of Poe's later poetic work also appear in his structuring of "Tamerlane." He arranges the poem into stanzas that in turn generally consist of multiple quatrains and couplets with end rhyme, a construction that he uses in the majority of his poetry, and in this case, he uses a mostly iambic meter with approximately four feet of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables. The rhyme and rhythm serve to insert a melodic sound into the poem, which Poe further develops in poems such as "The Bells" and "The Raven." However, the length of "Tamerlane" is uncommon and is rare in Poe's mature writings.