On a lonely, gloomy October night, near Auber Lake and Weir Forest, the narrator wanders through the woods. His heart is volcanic, full of heat, and restless as the lava currents, which roll down Mount Yaanek. He talks seriously to himself, but he does not pay attention to the date or to the location, although both are highly significant to him.
Finally, as the dawn approaches, he thinks about a bright star that apparently points out a path, but his terrified soul warns him to mistrust the star. He ignores his psyche and decides to follow the hope and beauty of the star. However, his path leads him to a tomb, and his soul tells him that the tomb belongs to his beloved Ulalume. His heart grows as dry as the season, and realizing that he buried Ulalume in this tomb exactly one year ago, he wonders why he came.
"Ulalume" begins with the setting of a melancholy autumn night in order to establish an imagery of withering and decay in the leaves and the sky before introducing the narrator's presence. In the first two stanzas, he references the verticality of the sky and the leaves and the horizontal alignment of the alley of cypress, thus physically enclosing him in two dimensions while creating the appropriate atmosphere for the wanderings of his thoughts and soul. After doing so, Poe continues to promote a dream-like connection between the physical and the mental environments, as the narrator wanders simultaneously through his mind and through the forest. The poem also takes place in October, which recalls Halloween and consequently the permeation of death and spirits into reality.
Poe wrote "Ulalume" in the same year of his wife Virginia Clemm's death, which may have influenced the somber mood of his writing. The poem fits neatly into his canon of works that emphasize the aesthetics of the death of a female, where love and beauty reach a culmination at the point of death. Ulalume does not have a physical existence in the poem but stands at the work's center, outweighing even the half-real, half-dream existence of the narrator and his soul. As in Poe's short story "Ligeia," the narrator is dependent on the dead woman's memory and has an unconscious need to mourn her, despite the emotional detriment caused by these thoughts. The name "Ulalume" echoes "Ligeia" and the names of other dead females such as "Annabel Lee" by emphasizing a lulling, melancholy "L" sound.
Throughout the poem, the narrator refers to his psyche as a distinct entity, which understands more than his conscious mind but which has lost its intuitive connection to him. He mistakes the moon for Astarte, in allusion to the Phoenician form of Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of fertility, which is associated with Venus, the Roman god of beauty. His subconscious recognizes the danger of this confusion of the night for love and beauty but is unable to convince him of its suspicions, indicating the presence of an inner conflict and obsession in his soul with the loss of his beloved Ulalume.
The duality of the narrator's soul recalls another of Poe's works, "William Wilson." In both cases, the main character has a destructive tendency which is contrasted with the more constructive and self-aware elements of his second soul, which resides outside of his main body. Interestingly, the narrator refers to his psyche as a woman, which suggests that his empathetic female half has been torn away from his main body. At the same time, Psyche's gender may indicate a connection to the soul of Ulalume, who would perhaps have wanted the narrator to end his brooding over her death and to escape his anguish.
The rhythm of "Ulalume" consists mainly of dactyls, which consists of one accented followed by two unaccented syllables, and of anapests, which reverse the pattern with two unaccented syllables followed by an accented one. However, the most notable element of the poem's form comes in its useful of variations of rhyme and of repetition. The rhyme scheme makes frequent use not only of end rhyme but also of repetition of words. For example, the first stanza's rhyme scheme is A1 B1 B1 A2 B2 A3 B3 A3 B3, where B1 is the repetition of the word "sere," A3 is the repetition of "Auber," and B3 is the repetition of "Weir." All nine stanzas begin with A1 B1 B1 A2 as the scheme of the first four lines, and the rest of the verses' schemes are all very similar. Poe also repeats much of the description of setting in the first stanza in the third and last verses, giving the poem a circular form that parallels his metaphorical voyage of a year and return to Ulalume's grave.