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Edgar Allan Poe lived and wrote during the first half of the nineteenth century, when Romanticism dominated the literary landscapes of Europe and the United States. Admittedly, there’s no neat way to encapsulate the complex diversity of Romanticism as it developed in different times and places. However, it is possible to describe a few broad trends that characterized the Romantic era, and which influenced Poe’s imaginative and critical writing. For one thing, Romantic writers generally privileged intuition over rationality. They also emphasized the expression of emotion over the communication of didactic messages. As evidenced by his critical writings, Poe strongly believed in both principles. His primary goal in his imaginative writing was to produce a unified aesthetic effect that elicited an emotional response from the reader. Poe also often explored strange subject matter, which echoes a Romantic-era fascination with all things unusual and even bizarre. “Annabel Lee” reflects many of these preoccupations. Poe refuses to provide a specific moral or communicate a particular lesson for the reader to learn. Instead, he uses carefully controlled language and an unusual poetic form to provoke a strong emotional response in the reader.
The nineteenth century gave birth to the idea that art could—and should—exist for its own sake. The earliest and most famous proponent of this idea was the French writer and critic Théophile Gautier, who coined the phrase “art for art’s sake” (l’art pour l’art) in the preface to his 1835 novel Mademoiselle de Maupin. Most accounts of the “art for art’s sake” movement focus on Gautier’s European context. However, it’s important to note that a similar concern with aesthetic value was also developing in nineteenth-century America. The thinker at the forefront of this development was Edgar Allan Poe. In addition to writing many well-known poems and short stories, Poe was also an accomplished critic. His critical essays resisted the literary culture of his time, which valued literature only insofar as it served some moral or other didactic purpose. By contrast, he believed that writers should focus on style, producing aesthetic effects through painstaking technical control. The point of doing so wasn’t simply to impress the reader, but to evoke a deeper truth or beauty. Poe demonstrated his commitment to formal precision in poems like “Annabel Lee,” where his careful control of repetition and rhyme produces powerful aesthetic effects.