Context: “Ulalume” is perhaps one of Poe’s most well-known poems after “The Raven”.1 It was written in the style of elocution which pays attention to sound and pronunciation. Sometimes it’s presented as a ballad. Poe wrote this the same year as his wife Virginia Poe died of TB. This might explain his somber mood, but it’s also a poem heavily influenced by Gothic themes.2 We can determine this by looking at the setting scenes of the poem. Let’s take a look at the following lines and pay attention to the strange place names:
It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
in the midsty mid region of Weir –
It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.
So, the narrator tells us he’s standing by a dim lake named Auber, in ghoul-haunted woodland region called Weir. It’s not a very pleasant atmosphere here and that’s exactly what we can expect from a piece of Gothic literature whether poetry or not. Strange and spooky things are about to happen. The scenery is dramatic! The narrator’s inner feelings are just as big and vivid as the dark explosive nature around him. His heart is likened to a volcano and his feelings are as restless as the big lava streams. We know the month is October but time and location doesn’t affect the narrator who is busy walking the spooky landscape; talking to himself. Dawn approaches, it’s getting darker but a bright star emerges in the skies and lights up a pathway which he chose to follow. Despite the brightness of the star he’s afraid he will be mislead. He speaks to “Psyche” his inner self who tries to warn him not to continue.
Our talk had been serious and sober,
But our thoughts they were palsied and sere —
Our memories were treacherous and sere —
For we knew not the month was October,
And we marked not the night of the year
He chose to ignore Psyche’s voice and continue his walk on the path. Suddenly he stands in front of a tomb. Reality hits and he remembers how he buried his beloved Ulalume there a year ago. He doesn’t understand why he came. The poem ends at the gravesite and we really don’t know why happened as the end is a bit abrupt. We can always blame the narrator’s state of mind when things in the poem doesn’t work logical.
Then my heart it grew ashen and sober
As the leaves that were crispèd and sere —
As the leaves that were withering and sere,
And I cried — “It was surely October
On this very night of last year
That I journeyed — I journeyed down here —
That I brought a dread burden down here —
On this night of all nights in the year,
Oh, what demon has tempted me here?
Well I know, now, this dim lake of Auber —
This misty mid region of Weir —
Well I know, now, this dank tarn of Auber,
In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.”
Except from Psyche and Ulalume there are several other references. The ghouls are demons haunting the forest and they eat and consume corpses. The name of the star is Astarte which the narrator compares to the Roman Diana. Quotation marks are used when the narrator converse with Psyche. Past tense is used everywhere except within the conversations.
Themes: “Ulalume” focuses on the narrator’s loss and mourning of his beloved due to her death. Death and loss of a beloved one; usually a beautiful young woman is repeated over and over in Poe’s writings. You may want to notice how Poe prefer his muses to have the letter L attached in their names: Ligeia, Annabel Lee, Ulalume.
Read the poem in full with explanations here.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. New York: Cooper Square Press, 1992