Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Precursor to "Annabel Lee?"

whistler annabel lee
"Annabel Lee" is arguably Poe's most well-loved poem--certainly, it is one of the most controversial. Like "The Raven," it quickly took on a mythology all its own, spawning endless warring schools of literary guessing-games regarding its creation. Claims for possible sources and inspirations for the poem have ranged from the sublime (the theory that it was a memorial to his wife Virginia) to the ridiculous (to the end of her days, poor Sarah Helen Whitman kept up a dogged campaign to convince the world that that the ballad was a response to her "Stanzas For Music"--some florid lines that resembled "Annabel Lee" about as much as "The Tell-Tale Heart" is reminiscent of Mother Goose. Evidently, she saw this as a way of proving that--contrary to what most of her contemporaries believed--Poe had not gone to his grave disdaining her. Unfortunately for her, this obsession was seen as something of a joke, even among her friends.) Wightman F. Melton, writing in the "South Atlantic Quarterly" in 1912, fancied he saw parallels between "Annabel Lee" and the prose poem "Eleonora" (a work that has also been linked to Virginia Poe,) which were interesting, if completely speculative.

One of the most curious proposed sources for "Annabel Lee" is a brief poem called "The Mourner," which appeared in the "Charleston (SC) Courier." The author, who only went by the initials, "D.M.C," wrote:
"How sweet were the joys of my former estate!
Health and happiness caroll'd with glee;
And contentment ne'er envy'd the pomp of the great
In the cot by the side of the sea.

With my Anna I past the mild summer of love
Till death gave his cruel decree,
And bore the dear angel to regions above
From the cot by the side of the sea!"

As unmemorable as these lines may be, the similarities to Poe's poem in theme, cadence, and the name of the lost beloved are easily apparent, and the phrase "side of the sea," is repeated in what is generally considered to be the final version of "Annabel Lee." Certainly Poe himself, if he had seen "The Mourner" appear in print after he had written "Annabel," would be screaming of plagiarism loud enough to wake the dead. (Not that it ever took much for him to do that.) However, one must also agree with the critic who commented--assuming, for the sake of argument, that this obscure verse was any sort of inspiration to Poe's own work--that he lost nothing of his poetic reputation by this theory, as it would have been a case of Poe transforming a "buried nugget into fine gold." Also, "The Mourner" is merely a typical specimen of the literary conventions of the era, and as a whole is so obviously inferior to "Annabel Lee," that one cannot connect the two poems with any confidence.

There are more objective difficulties with crediting "The Mourner" as any sort of inspiration. The poem appeared in the "Courier" in 1807, two years before Poe was even born, and so far as is known, never appeared in print again. How in the world could this little-noticed and quickly-forgotten old poem ever have come to Poe's attention at all? During his term in the army, Poe was briefly stationed in Charleston in 1827-28. Certain of his biographers speculate--on very thin evidence--that he must have taken a deep interest in the theatrical career of his parents, who had often performed in that city. Putting these threads together, it has been proposed that while in Charleston, Poe took the opportunity to look up back files of local papers, for the purpose of reading old notices of Eliza and David Poe. Might not, it has been proposed, "The Mourner" have come to his attention in this fashion?

While I bow to the imaginative ratiocination of this theory, it is simply too full of "what-ifs" to be relied upon. In any case, it is hard to picture the teenage Poe taking time from his military duties to do a bit of amateur genealogical research in the local archives, stumbling across this limp poem by an unknown author, making an indelible mental file of the verse, then never pulling it out for use until twenty-two years later.

On the whole, it is most likely that the similarities between "The Mourner" and "Annabel Lee" are the result of coincidence, a quirk of fate--"only this and nothing more." A strange quirk of fate, it is true, but then Poe's history is positively overflowing with those.

As an aside, it is hard not to see the obsession with identifying supposed "sources" and "inspirations" of Poe's poems and stories as a subtle way of demeaning him as an artist in the same way the biographers and novelists have more overtly demeaned him as a human being. The implied message sent by all this inventive literary detective work is this: "Poe was incapable of writing anything on his own. Those works the world thinks are so brilliant? Nothing but borrowed goods!" It is nearly as tiresome as the similar mania for interpreting everything he wrote--"Annabel Lee" being one of the most notable examples--as mere autobiography.

In the man's own words: "...under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified--more supremely noble than this very poem--this poem per se--this poem which is a poem and nothing more, this poem written solely for the poem's sake."