A large portion of Poe's fiction includes musings on the nature of death and on questions about the afterlife. In poems such as "Eldorado," the protagonist is only able to reach his life's goal in death, having spent his life in endless seeking, and in other works, such as "The City in the Sea," "The Bells," and "The Conqueror Worm," death is a foregone conclusion as the end of a decaying process that started long before. Poe does not necessarily come to the same conclusion about death in each poem, particularly in the cases of "Lenore" and "The Raven," two poems that share a deceased female's name but that take a very different approach to the subject of the afterlife. Whereas Guy de Vere of "Lenore" is defiant and hopeful in his mourning because he believes that he will again see Lenore in Heaven, the unnamed narrator of "The Raven" becomes increasingly agitated and despairing as he begins to believe the raven in that he will "nevermore" see Lenore.
A common motif within Poe's oeuvre is that of a woman who has died at the height of her youth and beauty, leaving a bereft lover behind to mourn. In many cases, parallels can be drawn between the female in question and Poe's sickly and prematurely deceased wife Virginia Clemm, as Poe often depicts the female as child-like or naive, details that recall Virginia's young age at the time of marriage. For Poe, the strongest and most lasting love generally belonged to the young and innocent heroines of "Tamerlane" and "Annabel Lee," an attitude in line with that of many other contemporary writers of the Romantic era, who regarded childhood as the purest state of man. "To Helen" also emphasizes the nurturing role of a loving woman. After the death of the woman, however, the reaction of many of Poe's protagonists is to remain emotionally dependent upon the dead women to the point of obsession. For example, the narrator of "Ulalume" wanders absentmindedly through the woods but is drawn irresistibly to her tomb, and the narrator of "Annabel Lee" sleeps every night next to her grave by the sea, lending macabre undertones to what appears at first to be faithful love.
Impermanence and uncertainty
"A Dream Within a Dream" deals most specifically with the troubling idea that reality is impermanent and nothing more than a dream, as the narrator first parts from his lover and then struggles with his inability to grasp the nature of an evanescent truth. However, a number of other poems touch upon the inevitability of the end, as in "The Conqueror Worm," one of Poe's least optimistic poems, which asserts that all men are influenced by invisible forces until their unavoidable and tragically gruesome deaths. In many cases, the protagonists of Poe's works worry because they see the impermanence of their state of being but are unable to make predictions about the unknown. In particular, "The Raven" emphasizes the quandary of the unknowable by juxtaposing the questioning narrator and the apparently all-knowing but also non-sentient raven's denial of a possible future.
The subconscious self
In his short works, Poe often plays upon the idea of a double, where the narrator has a doppelganger that represents his subconscious or his primal instincts. In some cases, as in "Ulalume," the double acts as the manifestation of instinctive wisdom, and here the narrator's Psyche tries unsuccessfully to guide him away from the path to Ulalume's tomb because she knows that he will encounter grief and seeks to protect him. In other situations, as in "The Raven," the narrator encounters a double that embodies his deepest fears, which in turn eventually overpower his conscious, rational self. Although the narrator of "The Raven" initially ignores the message of the intruding bird, he concludes the poem by interpreting its word "nevermore" as the denial of all his hopes; he has projected his soul into the body of the bird. In both cases, the poetic separation of the two halves creates a dramatic dialogue that highlights the narrator's inner struggle.
As a writer, Poe was part of the American Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century, when authors sought to return to nature in order to achieve a purer, less sinful state, away from the negative influences of society. As a result, Poe often associates nature with good, as in the case of "Tamerlane," where Tamerlane and his childhood friend find love and happiness in nature until he leaves for the company of other men and falls prey to pride and ambition. The poet of "Sonnet - To Science" also laments the encroaching of man into nature as he "drive[s] the Hamadryad from the wood" and consequently loses something of his soul. Many of Poe's protagonists wander in nature and as a result discover something about their innermost thoughts -- as is the case with the narrator of "Ulalume," who wanders through a wood and unconsciously directs himself to the location of his dead beloved's tomb. What is more, Poe often views cities negatively: "The City in the Sea" eventually sinks into hell after wasting away under the influence of a personified Death.
The human imagination
Poe addresses the capabilities of the human mind most directly in "Sonnet - To Science," where the narrator poet laments that the dulling influence of modern science has restricted the power of the imagination. Nevertheless, he holds to the aesthetic ideals of human creativity and refers to a number of mythological characters in his claim that the ability to imagine lies at the center of humanity's identity. On the other hand, other poems deal with the imagination in a somewhat different manner, showing the dangers of the imagination when not tempered by a sense of reality. The narrator of "The Raven" exemplifies this behavior. Although he at first tries to explain the potentially unearthly phenomenon of the raven through rational measures, he eventually forgets his rational mind in his sorrow and despair and comes to treat the raven as a sentient and therefore supernatural messenger.
Hope and despair
By placing his characters in situations of regret and loss, Poe explores the spectrum of human emotion between hope and despair throughout his writing. On the one hand, poems such as "The Conqueror Worm" and "The Raven" primarily promote despair. In the latter work, the narrator's words become increasingly agitated, and he shrieks futilely at the raven. This state of being contrasts heavily with the more hopeful ending of "Eldorado," where the "pilgrim shadow" tells the aging knight that he must venture boldly into the Valley of the Shadow to achieve his goal and thus offers the knight a potential end to his life-long quest. Nevertheless, even this hint of hope has dark undertones since it suggests that the knight will be doomed to search for the remainder of his life and must willingly ride into death to fulfill his quest.
Poe’s Poetry Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Poe’s Poetry is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.