Ulalume by Edgar Allan Poe: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

'Ulalume' is one of Poe's more musical poems, and tells the story of a man who finds himself walking to the grave of his deceased love on the anniversary of her death. This lesson analyzes the poem and looks at key themes.

Brief Overview

An image of the Ulalume poem itself
ulalume poem

'Ulalume' is a poem written by Edgar Allan Poe that is told in the first person voice and focuses on the narrator's walk on an October night. He follows a star, which does not entirely trust, but decides to see where it is taking him. It turns out that his suspicions were correct, and the star was leading him to the grave of his lost love, Ulalume. At this point, the narrator suddenly realizes that he buried her in this place on the same October night of the previous year.

A photograph of Edgar Allan Poe, writer of Ulalume.
Edgar Allan Poe

Themes

'Ulalume' deals with various themes, including death, grief, and the rational and irrational sides of human nature.

Death

This theme is probably quite clear from the story told in the poem; after all, the narrator discovers that he has walked to the grave of his beloved and then realizes that he buried her on this same night the year before. In addition to these obvious references to death, however, the poem has many other more subtle nods to this theme. For example, it takes place on an October night, and October is a month that is associated with nature's transition into winter, or the shift from life to death. Further, Poe uses various words in 'Ulalume' that bring to mind death and decay, such as 'senescent,' 'gloom,' 'tomb,' and so on.

Grief

Unsurprisingly, alongside the theme of death we find the theme of grief, or the feelings of loss and deep sadness that accompany the death of a loved one. For example, the narrator tells us:

'She revels in a region of sighs:

She has seen that the tears are not dry on

These cheeks, where the worm never dies.'

In other words, the narrator is suggesting that he has spent much of the previous year crying, ever since the night he buried his love. At the end of the poem, once he realizes where he is, he is once again overtaken by grief.

Rational and Irrational Human Nature

An illustration of
illustration of ulalume

Everyone is to some degree rational, or driven by reason, and irrational, or compelled by emotional impulses. The tension between these two sides of people's personalities is part of what makes life so interesting! Poe deals with this theme through the two entities that are trying to guide the narrator on his walk: the star Astarte on the one hand, and his soul, or Psyche, on the other. Throughout 'Ulalume,' the narrator personifies (or treats a non-human entity as though it's a person) his soul, and addresses it as 'Psyche.' Psyche, as the rational voice inside the narrator, warns him that she doesn't trust the star that is guiding them; a warning that the narrator ignores. And there's good reason for Psyche's suspicion: Astarte is not just any star, but is also associated with fertility and sexuality. We can assume that this tie to romance is the reason the star guides the narrator to the grave of his lost love. Through this conflict between Astarte (or sexuality) and Psyche (or reason), Poe shows us that sexuality is the more powerful force, at the end of the day.

Sounds and Musicality

'Ulalume' makes great use of certain sounds and rhythms, and because of this, it has a greater impact when read aloud. This puts 'Ulalume' in the same category as other poems written by Edgar Allan Poe, such as 'Annabel Lee,' which also place great focus on sound, particularly on the letter 'L' sound. This sound is featured in the names of the poems' central characters and is repeated throughout. For example, the 'L' sound dominates these lines about Astarte:

'Come up through the lair of the Lion,

With love in her luminous eyes.'

The repeated use of the 'L' sound in these two lines is clear, and adds a musical element to this description of Astarte, the star that's compelling the narrator to continue walking on this fateful night.

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