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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
If there’s one thing the speaker seems to want the reader to understand, it’s that he and Annabel Lee share an eternal bond of love. Although she died “many and many a year ago” (line 1), the speaker’s mind remains completely preoccupied with her memory. Indeed, he still feels so distraught by her absence that, at the end of the poem, he crawls into her tomb. Regardless of her untimely death, however, the speaker makes a strong claim that their love remains intact across the mortal divide that separates them. In the second and third stanzas, he describes how their love proved so profound that it inspired envy among the angels. In their supernatural jealousy, the angels caused Annabel Lee’s death. However, even after his beloved had been cloistered away in her tomb, the angels remained jealous and “Went [on] envying her and me” (line 27). The fact that angelic envy would persist after Annabel Lee’s death clearly indicates that their love survived her passing. The speaker confirms this suggestion in the fifth stanza, where he explicitly affirms that neither angel nor demon “Can ever dissever my soul from the soul / Of the beautiful ANNABEL LEE” (lines 32–33).
Like many of Poe’s other works, “Annabel Lee” concerns the untimely death of a beautiful young woman. The painful fact of her death can be felt in the poem’s every stanza. The grief-struck speaker repeatedly calls out her name in an almost incantatory way, as if an attempt to call her back to life. But the repetition only serves to remind him, again and again, of the loss he’s still trying to process. Throughout the poem, then, the speaker is attempting to come to terms with the tragic fact that life is ephemeral. What makes the ephemeral nature of life that much more painful to bear is the speaker’s competing sense that, unlike life, love is eternal. His affection for Annabel Lee has never diminished, despite the abyss of mortality that separates them from one another. In short, the speaker suffers from the profound sadness that arises from the fact that love can survive where life cannot.
Even though his beloved died a long time ago, the speaker of “Annabel Lee” has never been able to process his grief fully. Over time, it appears that the failure to process his grief properly has ushered the speaker nearer to a state of madness. Although the poem doesn’t offer any clear evidence that the speaker has lost his mind, it does present subtle hints that his psyche may be approaching a state of mania. Consider the poem’s unique rhyme scheme. With just two minor exceptions, the only end-rhyme words in the poem are “me,” “sea,” and “LEE.” The use of these repeating rhymes across the poem’s six stanzas evokes a sense of obsessive compulsiveness, as if the speaker simply cannot calm his agitated mind. In the final stanza, the speaker explicitly confesses that he can’t stop thinking of his beloved. Unable to escape her ever-present memory, he ultimately joins her in her tomb in an act that could be interpreted as suicidal. Whether we understand the speaker’s suicide as literal or figurative, it represents his attempt to relieve the maddening pain of his unresolved grief.