Edgar Allan Poe’s Apocalyptic Vision in “The Conqueror Worm“ and “The City in the Sea“

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

19 Pages, Grade: 2,3



1. Introduction

2. What is apocalyptic ? An attempt of a definition

3. Poe’s apocalyptic vision in “The Conqueror Worm”

4. Poe’s apocalyptic vision in “The City in the Sea”

5. Summary

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“Themes of ruin and apocalypse intensify in several poems of the 1840’s”[1] and as one of the today most approved writers of that time, Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry is certainly worth being investigated in this regard.

In this paper I want to investigate the apocalyptic vision in Edgar Allan Poe’s poems “The Conqueror Worm”, published in 1843, and “The City in the Sea”, in its final version from the year 1845. I also have to mention that I will examine “The Conqueror Worm” as a poem on its own and not in connection with the tale Ligeia, into which the poem was later (1845) established. I have also decided to work with the five-stanza version of “The City in the Sea”, opposed to a widely spread opinion that the poem should only contain four stanzas[2].

For an analysis concerned with this topic, it has to be made clear what I understand when I use the term apocalyptic. Therefore the paper starts with an attempt to define the term as good as possible. Afterwards I am going to give a thorough analysis of “The Conqueror Worm” first, and then I will analyze “The City in the Sea”. The analyses are going to include interpretations according to the apocalyptic vision in the poems.

At the end of the paper I will give a short summary together with the most important outcomes of the analyses.

2. What is apocalyptic? An attempt of a definition

Writing a term paper dealing with the apocalyptic vision in two poems of Edgar Allan Poe first requires a definition of the term apocalyptic. The OED defines apocalypse as “1. (With capital initial.) The ‘revelation’ of the future granted to St. John in the isle of Patmos. The book of the New Testament in which this is recorded, 2. By extension: Any revelation or disclosure.”. Only recently (June 2008), there has been an addition to the original entry, and it reads: “b. More generally: a disaster resulting in drastic, irreversible damage to human society or the environment, esp. on a global scale; a cataclysm. Also in weakened use”.

As the dictionary entries already suggest, there is not one definition of the term. Events described as apocalyptic can therefore include destruction, revelation, or destruction and new beginning.

When trying to define the term, I should first consider the traditional (i.e. theological) view of the Apocalypse. In biblical terms, an apocalypse always features a prophet or a visionary to deliver a divine message to the people, the two opposed worlds of Christ and the Antichrist, the destruction of the world by means of catastrophes, the battle between Christ and the Antichrist and the final defeat of the Antichrist.

Hence, theologians consider all religious scriptures which support the idea that the universe is a dualistic system, in which the destruction of the present world is a necessary precondition to build up a visionary future world[3].

Dealing with Poe’s apocalyptic vision one should not be misdirected to interpret his writings strictly according to this traditional approach to apocalypse. One can be pretty sure that Poe was familiar with the biblical connotations of the Apocalypse but one should not forget to take into consideration the ongoing secularization of his time and along with that the shift of meaning of the term apocalypse.

Gutzen also provides a more modern definition of apocalypse when he writes that interpreters use it either in the theological sense as an admonition not to neglect beliefs, or in the secularized form. In this form, writers try to use metaphors or images of destruction to define their society. This process has lead to a breaking away of the term from the traditional connotation to nearly any possible employment as a synonym for destruction and feeling of doom[4]. In this respect it is quite usual to refer to catastrophes and scenarios of destruction in literature as apocalyptic and the modern use of the word only shares these aspects of destruction with the biblical Apocalypse.

Still, there is the question of how to approach an interpretation of Poe’s poems with regard to the apocalyptic vision. In this paper I will try to find out, if Poe tried to establish a connection to passages of the Bible in his two poems or if the term apocalyptic should be seen in a more modern way when referring to these poems. Therefore I will investigate parallels between the biblical passages and the poems but I will also take into consideration that it might be possible that Poe’s apocalyptic visions can be seen as mere images of destruction as in the modern sense of the word.

3. Poe’s apocalyptic vision in “The Conqueror Worm”

In “the most nihilistic of Poe’s poems”[5], the universe is shown as a theater where the human world is considered the stage and the celestial worlds are represented as the orchestra. Although the actors on the stage are human beings, the hero of this play is death and it becomes obvious that death, in his dramatic personalization, will eventually conquer all. The poem also seems to make it clear that even though man think of themselves as the most important and the most powerful beings in the universe, they are in the end controlled by dark forces they are not able to understand and which makes their lives futile and meaningless.

The structure of the play with its five stanzas seems to represent the structure of a classic tragedy with its five acts, and according to Howard it symbolizes the Greek and Roman idea of ‘scene vitae’ or the Elizabethan and Jacobean idea of ‘theatrum mundi’, which consider life and the world to be a mere play on a stage[6].

As mentioned before, the structure of the poem resembles that of a play and also the content of the stanzas bears a resemblance to that of a tragedy. The first stanza stands as an introduction into the theater where the surrounding and the spectators are described. The second stanza focuses on the actors onstage and in the third stanza emphasis is put on the actual play. The fourth stanza embodies the climax of the play, the hero (the conqueror worm) appears for the first time, and in the last stanza the audience encounters the tragic moment, the death of all the actors onstage.

Each stanza of the poem consists of 8 lines rhyming ababcbcb, which Carlson regards as “obsessive”[7] considering the four lines ending in b in each stanza. This rhyme scheme adds to the structure of the poem inasmuch as it closes the individual stanzas off each other, just as Poe suggested it himself: “In its primitive, (which was also its best,) form, the stanza would most probably have absolute unity. In other words, the removal of any one of its lines would have rendered it imperfect”[8].

The meter of the poem is an iambic tetrameter alternating with iambic trimeter which contributes to the smooth flow of the poem.

Throughout the poem there is a frequent use of the ‘m’-sound to be observed which, as a result of its round and deep sound, creates a feeling of impending doom and dread. And if the occurrence of this sound is investigated even more closely, one can see that in the first and the fifth stanza, when the focus of the poem is on the audience in the theater, there are seven occurrences of ‘m’, but in the second, third and fourth stanza, where the center of attention is on the stage and on the actors onstage, there are 28 occurrences of the same sound, which shows a disparity in the mood when the appearance of the worm is inevitable.

A similar phenomenon can be observed for the ‘o’-sound, which creates a feeling of darkness and largeness. The ‘o’ is also very frequently used in the poem and it is also significant that it is the dominant vowel in the title of the poem, which generates a dark, despondent mood right from the beginning onwards. The general mood of darkness, despair, and hopelessness of the poem also contributes to a feeling of an approaching apocalypse.

The first stanza provides an introduction into the scenery of the poem. In the first line (“Lo! ‘tis a gala night”), the reader is led astray to believe that he is going to witness a joyful, festive occasion, which is in this first impression received as positive. But right in the second line, this assumption is refuted, when one finds out that the gala takes place “within the lonesome latter years”, which also points to an approaching end of the world. Also in the second line, the alliteration “lonesome latter years”, evokes feeling of loneliness because the ‘l’-sound usually slows down the reading process and so creates the impression that the words are lengthened. This has the effect that reader focuses his attention on the expression and will of course notice the discrepancy between the first positive impression of the gala night and the second line, where a certain fear of the future is conveyed.

In the next lines the reader encounters the spectators of the play: angels who are “drowned in tears”. This hyperbole even increases the feeling of the reader that the poem (and the play in it) will not come to a positive end. The angels should normally act as guardians and protectors and if even they are drowned in tears, then something terrible is going to happen. It could be suggested that the angels are already familiar with the play because they have seen it many times before and they know that the end will always be the same because the actors will make the same mistakes time and time again.

In the last two lines of the first stanza, the orchestra of the theater is introduced and is said to “breath” the “music of the spheres”. This metaphor of the music which is made out of the breath of the musicians indicates that the play represents life and the theater the human world because breath could stand for wind, which then would stand for the forces of nature in the world. This assumption would be very appropriate considering that the actors onstage all die in the end while the theater, the orchestra and the audience stay alive, just as the world and nature will survive even if all humans are dead.

In the second stanza of the poem, the actors on the stage are focused on. In their description, the previously mentioned frequent use of the ‘m’-sound is realized (“Mimes, in the form of God on high / Mutter and mumble low”, “Mere puppets they, who come and go”) and is in stark contrast to the description of the angels in the first stanza, where Poe uses the more hard and sharp ‘b’-sound (“bewinged, bedight”). The hard sound in the description of the angels in the first stanza shows that they know their place in the universe, whereas the humans, who are described by the use of slow, low and menacing ‘m’-sound, are always in search for their place in life and one gets the impression that there will be no positive end for them.


[1] Thompson, 1988. p. 271

[2] For both poems, I used the edition of Mabott, 1969.

[3] Cf. Gutzen, 1991. p. 36

[4] Cf. ibid. p. 33-34

[5] Carlson, 1996. p. 92

[6] Cf. Howard, 1988. p.36

[7] Carlson, 1996. P. 93

[8] Poe, 1984. P. 39

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Edgar Allan Poe’s Apocalyptic Vision in “The Conqueror Worm“ and “The City in the Sea“
RWTH Aachen University
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Edgar, Allan, Poe’s, Apocalyptic, Vision, Conqueror, Worm“, City, Sea“
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Nadine Esser (Author), 2009, Edgar Allan Poe’s Apocalyptic Vision in “The Conqueror Worm“ and “The City in the Sea“, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/156424


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