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December 15, 2017

Poe, Nabokov, "Annabel Lee"

On this day in 1849, The New York Daily Tribune published Edgar Allan Poe's last poem, "Annabel Lee." Poe had died two days earlier, from mysterious causes and in odd circumstances, even for him -- theories include political thugs, rabies, brain lesion, or the most likely, a final binge either chosen or forced upon him by brothers of his newly-betrothed, who viewed Poe's interest in their sister as opportunism. "Annabel Lee" was written the previous May; ever destitute and never without flair, Poe grandly gave a copy to a friend the day before his disappearance, passing it off as a recently-penned "little trifle that may be worth something to you," though he had already sold it to a handful of magazines. He had also sent a copy to Rufus Griswold, a personal enemy but also the editor of the popular anthology, The Poets and Poetry of America. After Poe's death he became his agent-editor-biographer, though a hostile and unreliable one: Poe had "no moral susceptibility," he deserved to die "without money and without friends," as a critic he was "little better than a carping grammarian," and other similar comments. Griswold is also responsible for shaping the Poe myth: he "walked the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses"; he wrote of "worlds no mortal can see" and spoke "in forms of gloomiest and ghostliest grandeur." It was Griswold, in his rambling and ranting obituary notice, who first published "Annabel Lee" in the Tribune:
    It was many and many a year ago,
    In a kingdom by the sea,
    That a maiden there lived whom you may know
    By the name of Annabel Lee;
    And this maiden she lived with no other thought
    Than to love and be loved by me.

    I was a child and she was a child,
    In this kingdom by the sea,
    But we loved with a love that was more than love,
    I and my Annabel Lee;
    With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
    Coveted her and me.
Although many other women, some encouraged by Poe, claimed to be his inspiration, the poem is generally thought to reflect Poe's relationship with his child-bride/cousin/"sister" Virginia, who was thirteen at the time of her marriage and just twenty-three when she died of tuberculosis. And as Virginia inspired Poe's "Annabel Lee," so Poe's Annabel inspired Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. It was originally titled, "Kingdom by the Sea," and Humbert Humbert's first nymphet was Annabel Leigh -- though they were both thirteen-somethings at this point. Their seaside almost-consummation was interrupted by other swimmers; when Annabel died four months later of typhus, Humbert was stamped him for life:
    I recall the scent of some kind of toilet powder-I believe she stole it from her mother's Spanish maid-a sweetish, lowly, musky perfume. It mingled with her own biscuity odor, and my senses were suddenly filled to the brim; a sudden commotion in a nearby bush prevented them from overflowing.... But that mimosa grove -- the haze of stars, the tingle, the flame, the honey-dew, and the ache remained with me, and that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since -- until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another.

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