Melancholy is a word often used to describe Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry and prose. In the case of Poe’s masterwork, “Ulalume,” melancholy may be an understatement when describing the poem’s mood. The sounds of the verse are hypnotic, the setting dark. The poem appears on the verge of transcending this gloom only to reaffirm it, leaving you along with the narrator submerged in a morass of utter despair and hopelessness.
Given the circumstances of Poe’s life, it’s no wonder the mood of “Ulalume” and other Poe verse is so drab. His father left him, his mother died when he was 3, and he left the University of Virginia in disgrace due to gambling debt. Later, his fiancée left him and he wound up marrying his young teenage cousin. “Ulalume” was published the year of her death, and some speculate she was its inspiration. He died under mysterious circumstances two years later. The official cause of death was congestion of the brain, but some suggest the real cause was alcoholism, rabies, epilepsy or carbon monoxide poisoning. The maudlin mood of “Ulalume” reflects that of Poe’s tragic life.
The poem’s protagonist stumbles into a dark dream world where through happenstance he comes upon the crypt of his beloved a year to the date after her death. As if the subject matter weren’t enough to set the gloomy mood, the sound of the language itself enhances it. One critic compared the poem to a gothic musical selection. Another critic claims the musical nature of the poem taps into your inner and most disturbing emotions. The title suggests the Latin “ululare,” to wail. Poe’s use of sound deepens the poem’s dark and haunting mood.
Time and Place
Like the rolling, sonorous verse, the setting evokes dread and fright. The poem takes place in October, with ashen skies, dead leaves clinging to trees and a walk through a dark and mysterious wood. In contrast to the scene, the narrator’s emotions are churning, his heart “volcanic.” Rather than uplift the mood, the narrator’s emotions against the setting heighten the dread. As the poem progresses, its time and setting blur. The narrator remains in a mysterious wood, but his conversation with his soul suggests he’s traveling inward. The mood is unsettling because of what is about to be revealed to the narrator.
Ghosts lead the narrator first to Astarte, a love goddess, where it appears the narrator may have transcended the surrounding gloom. His despair has apparently inverted to ecstasy. But less than a verse later, the narrator learns this insight provided by Astarte has led him to the tomb of his beloved Ulalume. The preceding gloom is only magnified by the hint of its transcendence. Like Adam handed an apple from the tree of knowledge, the narrator’s vision, like the bite of fruit, takes him and you, the reader, from Edenic bliss to damnation, hopelessness, despair.