Ulalume
A Poem by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
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Complete Poem With Notes
Type of Work
Setting
Characters and References
Point of View
Themes
Title Derivation
Figures of Speech
Atmosphere, Word Choice
Rhyme Scheme
Meter
Author Information
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Notes and Annotation by Michael J. Cummings 
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Type of Work

"Ulalume" is a ballad, a poem that tells a story. Like other ballads, "Ulalume" includes refrains (repetition of key phrases). Although the poem is not intended to be sung, its rhyme, rhythm, repetition, and alliteration give it a musical quality.  

Setting 
 
The action takes place on a bleak October evening, probably Allhallows Eve (Halloween), in a forest near a lake.  
 
Characters and References to Entities 

The Narrator (Speaker): Unnamed man whose beloved has died in the past year. 
Psyche: The narrator's personified soul, addressed as a female. Psyche is described as having wings.   
Astarte: Moon goddess of fertility, love, and reproduction in the ancient Middle East. She beckons the narrator to follow her. 
Dian: Another name for Diana, the virgin moon goddess in Roman mythology. In Greek mythology, her name is Artemis. The narrator compares Astarte to Dian. Dian herself does not appear in the poem.  
Ulalume: The narrator's deceased beloved. Poe conceived the idea for the poem several months after his wife, Virginia, died. It is likely that he had her in mind when he was writing the poem.   
Ghouls: Demons that haunt the forest. They exhume and eat corpses.  
The Lion: A reference to the constellation Leo, a group of stars that include one very bright star. In "Ulalume," the narrator refers to the Lion as a threat when Astarte passed by him.  

Point of View 

The narrator tells the story in first-person point of view.  When he carries on a dialogue with Psyche, he uses quotation marks. The narrator uses past tense except in the quotations. As in other works of Poe, the narrator is distraught and subject to the whims of his imagination. His state of mind, of course, opens the way for elaborate metaphors depicting surreal images. In other words, a touch of madness makes the poem work.  

Themes

Sadness 

The central theme of "Ulalume" is the profound and prolonged sadness which the death of a beautiful woman causes her beloved. This theme, a favorite of Poe, appeared in many of his other works, including "The Raven" and "Ligeia." 

The Pain of Old Memories 

The narrator seeks relief from the agony of remembering his lost love. But seeing the tomb of Ulalume in the "ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir" revives his memories of her and renews his agony.  

Deception 

Astarte deceives the narrator. Promising to lead him to a peaceful region, she leads him instead to the tomb of Ulalume, causing him to relive painful memories.  

Derivation of the Title 

No one knows for certain why Poe named the poem Ulalume. It is possible, however, that he coined the word from ululare, a Latin word meaning to shriek, howl, lament, or wail. But instead of using that Latin infinitive as he found it, he cut off the last three letters and replaced them with ume (pronounced oom) so that the word would rhyme with other words in the poem, gloom and tomb, and rhyme with an unspoken word that looms over the poem: doom. Keep in mind, too, that the vowel in ume rhymes with the vowels in ghoul. It all makes sense, but is it so? You be the judge.  

Figures of Speech

Following are examples of figures of speech in "Ulalume":  

    Alliteration: Of my most immemorial year (Line 5, Stanza 1)  
    Alliteration: Our talk had been serious and sober (Line 1, Stanza 3) 
    Anaphora 
        It was night in the lonesome October 
    Of my most immemorial year;  
    It was hard by the dim lake of Auber, 
           In the misty mid region of Weir- 
    It was down by the dank tarn of Auber, 
    In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir. 
    Simile: There were days when my heart was volcanic / As the scoriac rivers that roll- (Comparison using as) 
    Personification/Metaphor: Reference to the soul, Psyche, as a person  
Atmosphere and Word Choice 

The atmosphere of "Ulalume" is not only bleak and depressing but also mysterious and otherworldly. To create this atmosphere, Poe uses words connoting decay, disease, death, destruction, loneliness, and suffering; he combines them with words connoting vagueness, ethereality, and mystery. Among the words enabling Poe to create his nightmarish poem are ashen, withering, lonesome, dim, misty, dank, ghoul-haunted, sulphurous, groan, agony, sorrowfully, senescent, liquescent, nebulous, and Lethean. The phrase mid region in Stanzas 1 and 9 seems to suggest a place halfway between the world and the underworld. 
 
Rhyme Scheme and Meter 

Poe uses end rhyme throughout the poem. In each stanza, the first line rhymes with the fourth, and the second line rhymes with the third. The rhyme scheme of other lines varies, since not all stanzas have the same length. The meter also varies, but Poe relies mainly on anapestic feet, sometimes mixed with iambic feet. Catalexis (an extra syllable at the end of a line) occurs occasionally. Following are examples: 

    ....iamb..... | ....anapest....... |....anapest. | .catalexis 
    The SKIES | they were ASH | en and SO |  ber 

    ........anapest...... | .......anapest....... | ...anapest.....| .catalexis 
    There were DAYS | when my HEART | was vol CAN | .ic 

    ......iamb......... | ....anapest..... |........anapest 
    Though ONCE | we had JOUR | neyed down HERE 

Author Information

Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned at age two, he was taken into the home of a childless couple–John Allan, a successful businessman in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poe’s godfather. At age six, Poe went to England with the Allans and was enrolled in schools there. After he returned with the Allans to the U.S. in 1820, he studied at private schools, then attended the University of Virginia and the U.S. Military Academy, but did not complete studies at either school. After beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while, he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his poem “The Raven” in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an outstanding literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received, he was never really happy because of his drinking and because of the deaths of several people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a contributing cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849.  

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Ulalume
By Edgar Allan Poe
Written and Published in 1847
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Text of the Poem Notes
1  
The skies they were ashen and sober; 
       The leaves they were crisped and sere- 
The leaves they were withering and sere; 
    It was night in the lonesome October 
Of my most immemorial year;  
It was hard by the dim lake of Auber, 
       In the misty mid region of Weir- 
It was down by the dank tarn of Auber, 
In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir. 

 

Summary: The skies were gray and somber. All around were crisp, dried up leaves. The time was a lonesome October evening. The place was a lake named Auber in a misty forest named Weir, which was haunted by ghouls. The gloomy surroundings appear to symbolize the narrator's melancholy state of mind. (Poe wrote the poem not long after his wife, Virginia, died. Apparently, she is Ulalume. )  

sere: dried up, withered
immemorial: lasting a very long time. The narrator has spent an "eternity" agonizing over death of his beloved.
mid region: term suggesting a place halfway between the world and the underworld; a nether region
ghoul: demon that digs up graves and feeds on corpses

2
Here once, through an alley Titanic,
Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul-
Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul.
There were days when my heart was volcanic
As the scoriac rivers that roll-
As the lavas that restlessly roll
Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek
In the ultimate climes of the pole-
That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek
In the realms of the boreal pole.
Summary: The narrator says he once walked in a path through this forest, where cypress trees grow, while communing with his soul. At times, his heart erupted with emotions that flowed like rivers of lava down the slopes of a volcano, Mount Yaanek, in the arctic region.

alley: passageway bordered by foliage or trees
cypress: evergreen tree with dark-green leaves. It can attain heights of 80 to 90 feet.
Psyche: soul of a human
scoriac rivers: flowing lava
sulphurous: fiery, with a stifling odor
ultimate climes: farthest, most remote climate zones
pole: North Pole
boreal: northern

3  
    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- 
       (Ah, night of all nights in the year!) 
We noted not the dim lake of Auber- 
(Though once we had journeyed down here), 
    Remembered not the dank tarn of Auber, 
       Nor the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir. 
    And makes me end where I begun. 
Summary: The narrator's dialogue with his soul was rational, sensible, logical. But his thoughts–that is, memories–were fevered and frenzied, dysfunctional. Consequently, he was not aware of the month or the day–apparently October 31, Allhallows Eve ("night of all nights"). Nor was he entirely aware of the locale, although he had visited it before.  

palsied: tremulous, disabled, diseased; paralyzed 
 

4   
 And now, as the night was senescent 
       And star-dials pointed to morn-  
       As the star-dials hinted of morn-  
    At the end of our path a liquescent  
And nebulous lustre was born,  
    Out of which a miraculous crescent  
Arose with a duplicate horn-  
    Astarte's bediamonded crescent  
Distinct with its duplicate horn.  
 
Summary: As night neared its end and dawn was moments away, a strange glow–hazy and cloudy, like a liquefying mist–appeared to the narrator. Out of it arose a crescent resembling the shape of the visible part of the moon in its first or last quarter. (Click here to see a crescent moon.) It is the diamond-studded crescent of Astarte, a moon goddess of fertility, love, and reproduction in the ancient Middle East.  

senescent: becoming old  
liquescent: melting, liquefying  
nebulous: cloudy, vague, unclear 
duplicate horn: the two points of a crescent  
bediamonded: having diamonds 

5
And I said- "She is warmer than Dian:
She rolls through an ether of sighs-
She revels in a region of sighs:
She has seen that the tears are not dry on
These cheeks, where the worm never dies,
And has come past the stars of the Lion,
To point us the path to the skies-
To the Lethean peace of the skies-
Come up, in despite of the Lion,
To shine on us with her bright eyes-
Come up through the lair of the Lion,
With love in her luminous eyes."
Summary: The narrator says Astarte is more sensual than Diana (Dian), the virgin moon goddess in Roman mythology. After all, Astarte "revels in a region of sighs." She sees that the narrator still grieves for his lost love, for tears remain on his cheeks. After moving past the constellation Leo, containing a very bright star, she points out a path to a peaceful region in the skies where painful memories die. Astarte shines on the narrator and his soul with bright eyes full of love.   

Dian: virgin moon goddess in Roman mythology. See also Characters, above.  
Lion: in astronomy, the constellation Leo, containing a very bright star 
Lethean: referring to Lethe, the river of forgetfulness in Greek and Roman mythology. Anyone who drank its water would lose his memory. 

6
But Psyche, uplifting her finger,
Said- "Sadly this star I mistrust-
Her pallor I strangely mistrust:-
Oh, hasten!- oh, let us not linger!
Oh, fly!- let us fly!- for we must."
In terror she spoke, letting sink her
Wings until they trailed in the dust-
In agony sobbed, letting sink her
Plumes till they trailed in the dust-
Till they sorrowfully trailed in the dust.
Summary: Psyche, the narrator's soul, mistrusts Astarte and urges the narrator to leave the place immediately. So terrified is Psyche that her wings trail in the dust. Here, the narrator is in conflict. His rational side, Psyche, attempts to control his impressionable emotional side, represented by Astarte. 
7  
    I replied- "This is nothing but dreaming:  
Let us on by this tremulous light!  
Let us bathe in this crystalline light!  
    Its Sybilic splendor is beaming  
       With Hope and in Beauty to-night:-  
       See!- it flickers up the sky through the night!  
    Ah, we safely may trust to its gleaming,  
       And be sure it will lead us aright-  
    We safely may trust to a gleaming  
       That cannot but guide us aright,  
       Since it flickers up to Heaven through the night."
Summary: The narrator tells Psyche that she is dreaming, then declares that they must follow the light of Astarte in all of its splendor. For it is a beautiful light that offers hope. They can surely trust it. 

Sybilic : having the power of prophecy. The light of Astarte offers the narrator hope that he may overcome his sadness. 

8
Thus I pacified Psyche and kissed her,
And tempted her out of her gloom-
And conquered her scruples and gloom;
And we passed to the end of the vista,
But were stopped by the door of a tomb-
By the door of a legended tomb;
And I said- "What is written, sweet sister,
On the door of this legended tomb?"
She replied- "Ulalume- Ulalume-
'Tis the vault of thy lost Ulalume!"
Summary: Having pacified Psyche, the narrator and she walk on to the end of the pathway. There, however, they come upon the door of a tomb on which is written "Ulalume"–the name of his lost love.   

legended: inscribed with writing 
vault: enclosure of metal or concrete built into the ground to receive a casket

9  
    Then my heart it grew ashen and sober  
       As the leaves that were crisped 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,  
       Ah, 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,  
       This ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir."   
 
Summary: The scene saddened and distressed the narrator, for he now remembered that on the same night the previous year he "brought a dread burden" (apparently the body of his wife, for burial) to this place. He now realized that Astarte, or what appeared as a Astarte, was a demon and that he was well familiar with the lake of Auber and the forest of Weir.  

ashen: This word, which describes the skies in Line 1, Stanza 1, seems inappropriate here.  
dread: One cannot help but notice that dread rhymes with dead.

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