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“Annabel Lee” has a variable meter that consists mainly of two types of metrical feet: anapests and iambs. An anapest is a metrical foot that consists of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. Words like “in-com-plete” and “con-tra-dict” are naturally anapestic. Whereas anapests are less common in English-language poetry, iambs are extremely common, and they consist of one unstressed and one stressed syllable. The word “to-day,” for instance, is an iamb. Throughout “Annabel Lee,” Poe uses a combination of anapests and iambs to create a dynamic rhythm. This rhythm constantly slows down and speeds up, like a horse moving between a trot and a gallop. Consider the poem’s opening four lines:
It was ma- | ny and ma- | ny a year | a-go
In a king- | dom by | the sea
That a mai- | den there lived | whom you | may know
By the name | of Ann- | a-bel Lee.
All four lines consist entirely of anapestic and iambic feet, but always in a different combination, as shown in the following line-by-line breakdown:
Line 1: three anapests, one iamb
Line 2: one anapest, two iambs
Line 3: two anapests, two iambs
Line 4: one anapest, one iamb, one anapest
This dynamic pattern continues throughout the poem, constantly shifting between the measured trot of the iamb and the propulsive gallop of the anapest.
The constant shifting of the meter gives the poem a sense of restlessness. This restlessness reflects the speaker’s agitated state of mind. More subtly, it also echoes the restlessness of the seaside landscape where Annabel Lee died, and where the speaker eventually joins her, “In her tomb by the sounding sea” (line 41). The reader can discern the disquiet of this “sounding sea” in the ceaselessly shifting meter. It’s important to note, however, that despite the irregularity of the meter, a sense of regularity does emerge. On the one hand, regularity arises from the consistent use of only two types of metrical foot. On the other hand, it develops from the regular alternation between four-beat lines and three-beat lines. The only two exceptions to this pattern occur in the final two stanzas, each of which contain two consecutive three-beat lines (i.e., lines 28–29 and 40–41). The poem’s overall sense of metrical regularity evokes the rhythms of ballad measure, though without reproducing them exactly. Ballad measure also alternates between four- and three-beat lines, but unlike in “Annabel Lee,” it usually consists strictly of four-line stanzas.