The Conqueror Worm by Edgar Allan Poe: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Damon Barta

Damon has taught college English and has an MA in literature.

This lesson will provide a summary of Edgar Allen Poe's poem ~'The Conqueror Worm~' (1843) and offer an allegorical analysis of the poem and the tragic drama it describes.

A Horrible Tragedy

Have you ever watched a movie that felt a little too much like your own life? Poe's 'The Conqueror Worm' might make you feel uneasy in a similar way. It describes a play in which the main characters wander aimlessly while angels look on. The final stanza reveals the inescapable fate that we share with these characters. Now that we may not want to, let's have a closer look!

Summary

The first stanza describes a 'Gala night' in which a group of veiled angels tearfully watch a stage drama as an orchestra plays.

The second stanza describes the action on the stage. Mimes fly about muttering, coming and going for no apparent reason, and the scenery shifts according to the same capricious invisible forces that seem to direct the mimes.

The third stanza assures us that this drama will not be forgotten because it repeats itself over and over again. In an echo of the second stanza, a phantom is chased by crowds but is never captured. The plot is not a plot at all, but merely 'Madness,' 'Sin,' and 'Horror.'

The fourth stanza describes an interloper in the drama, a 'blood red thing' with fangs that intrudes upon the stage and devours the mimes.

The fifth stanza reveals that this play is a tragedy titled 'Man' and that the hero of the play is the blood red-thing, the Conqueror Worm, that devours the mimes.

Witness to a Tragedy
Weeping Angel

Analysis

'The Conqueror Worm' can be seen as an allegory, a literary work in which the characters and events symbolize larger concepts. The most apparent of these symbols in the poem is the play itself. The title 'Man' and its description as a 'tragedy' explicitly tells us what the play represents and give us a way to interpret some of the other concepts in the poem.

The mimes who flit about the stage, for example, express the aimlessness of humans and their inability to articulate themselves. The phantoms that are chased by crowds could represent the things humans chase but cannot attain, such as happiness and immortality, or concepts humans invent to comfort themselves, such as God.

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