“Annabel Lee” is narrated by a first-person speaker who tells a story that took place in a coastal location sometime in the past. From the speaker’s point of view, the story he tells happened in a past so distant that it resembles the mythic past of fairy tales. The poem may not begin with the classic fairy tale opener (“Once upon a time in a faraway land”), but it starts with something very similar: “It was many and many a year ago, / In a kingdom by the sea” (lines 1–2). Despite how long ago the story appears to have taken place, the speaker evidently remains very distraught about his beloved’s death. Indeed, the intensity of his distress suggests that he may, in fact, have lost Annabel quite recently. If that’s the case, then the speaker could be casting her death far back into a mythic past in an attempt to distance himself from his own grief.

Regardless of when Annabel Lee died, the speaker’s grief is very much still present, and his grief is symbolically mirrored in the physical setting of his story, in “a kingdom by the sea.” The speaker says a version of that phrase eight times in the poem, repeatedly drawing the reader’s attention to the seaside setting. The speaker also uses subtler methods to evoke the sea. For instance, the poem’s variable meter, which oscillates between four-beat and three-beat lines, mimics the oceanic rhythm of waves lapping at the shore. The speaker’s repetition of key end-rhyme words throughout the poem also suggests the constant return of waves. The ever-present evocation of the sea becomes especially important in the poem’s final stanza. There, the speaker expresses his desire to join his beloved “In her sepulchre there by the sea— / In her tomb by the sounding sea” (lines 40–41). In these lines, which close the poem, the speaker suggests his own desire for death, perhaps to be swallowed by the waves of “the sounding sea.”