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Edgar Allan Poe

The Conqueror Worm

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1843

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

In the deliberately over-the-top surrealism of “The Conqueror Worm” (1843), gothic showman Edgar Allan Poe stages nothing less than the apocalypse itself. Poe storyboards the end of the world as a delightfully shocking, eerily goofy theater piece complete with an on-stage audience of teary angels, a cast of puppet-people hopelessly and helplessly running about the stage, and a giant writhing red worm.

Despite his contemporary reputation for being a writer whose macabre imagination plunges us into the darkest corners of humanity’s twisted psychology, here Poe revels not only in the image of a giant red worm eating everything in sight (an image that surely straddles that line between the horrific and comic) but also in the music of the carefully crafted lines themselves, the sonic weave of vowels and consonants playing off each other that creates a playful, mesmerizing aural effect. Like “The Raven” or “The Bells” or “Annabel Lee,” or “El Dorado”—other iconic Poe poems that seem morbid and gloomy—“The Conqueror Worm” is best appreciated when read aloud, relishing how the words create a complex and fetching music.

Poet Biography

Much about Edgar Allan Poe’s biography remains as mysterious as his stories. He was born the child of two actors on January 19, 1809 in Boston. When he was two, after his father abandoned the family and his mother died, Poe was sent to live with his godfather, Scotch-born John Allen, a wealthy tobacco entrepreneur in Richmond, Virginia, and his wife. Although he was given every advantage, Poe’s childhood was tempestuous—he did not get along with his foster father. After a brief time in England, Poe returned to the United States when he was a young teenager. School never fit him—he started at both the University of Virginia and later West Point but never graduated.

A voracious reader, Poe dreamed of being a poet but pragmatically pursued journalism as a career. By his late twenties, he was already known as a prolific journalist as well as a sharp-eyed and often caustic literary critic. His poetry delighted in treating shocking and unsettling topics in lyrical, musical lines that reflected Poe’s admiration (and careful study) of the iconic works of British Romantics, most notably George Gordon, Lord Byron and John Keats. “The Conqueror Worm” appeared in the January 1843, issue of Graham’s Gentleman’s Magazine, an influential literary weekly in New York. The publication of “The Raven” just two years later secured Poe a reputation as a major new writer. During the same time, Poe published a series of short stories, most notably “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Pit and Pendulum,” and “The Gold Bug,” that became models for the architecture of the modern short story.

Over the next decade, Poe, then living in Baltimore, developed his revolutionary theories for crafting short stories; these stories, dark and terrifying supernatural tales about murder, torture, nightmares, and violence, found a wide market appeal. Poe himself struggled with his own demons: financial insolvency, a gambling addiction, bouts of ill-health, homelessness, the death of his wife (1847), a series of complicated emotional entanglements with women, an alcohol addiction, and a tendency to experiment with street drugs. He died in Baltimore on October 7, 1849 at the age of 40 under mysterious circumstances—perhaps alcohol poisoning, perhaps from a stroke or a heart attack or the effects of an undiagnosed brain tumor; perhaps after a beating, perhaps from rabies poisoning. Originally buried in an unmarked grave in the Westminster Presbyterian Churchyard in Baltimore, the body was later exhumed and reinterred beneath an elaborate marble tombstone which has since become a pilgrim site for generations of Poe’s goth-fans.

Poem Text

Lo! ’t is a gala night    

   Within the lonesome latter years!    

An angel throng, bewinged, bedight   

  In veils, and drowned in tears,   

Sit in a theatre, to see  

   A play of hopes and fears, 

While the orchestra breathes fitfully    

   The music of the spheres.

Mimes, in the form of God on high,     

   Mutter and mumble low,  

And hither and thither fly— 

   Mere puppets they, who come and go    

At bidding of vast formless things  

   That shift the scenery to and fro, 

Flapping from out their Condor wings  

   Invisible Wo!

That motley drama—oh, be sure 

   It shall not be forgot!  

With its Phantom chased for evermore  

   By a crowd that seize it not, 

Through a circle that ever returneth in 

   To the self-same spot,  

And much of Madness, and more of Sin,   

   And Horror the soul of the plot.

But see, amid the mimic rout, 

   A crawling shape intrude!  

A blood-red thing that writhes from out   

   The scenic solitude!  

It writhes!—it writhes!—with mortal pangs   

The mimes become its food,  

And seraphs sob at vermin fangs  

   In human gore imbued.

Out—out are the lights—out all!  

   And, over each quivering form,  

The curtain, a funeral pall,  

   Comes down with the rush of a storm,    

While the angels, all pallid and wan,    

   Uprising, unveiling, affirm  

That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”    

   And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Conqueror Worm.” 1843. Poetry Foundation.

Summary

“The Conqueror Worm” is at its most engaging level the engrossing account of a play, a kind of storyboard of an elaborate dramatic presentation, called, immodestly enough, Man.

As its title suggests, the play will be something of an allegory that attempts to present a reading of existence itself. The play’s story is rendered through symbolic characters—allegorical figures of humanity, angels, and ultimately death itself—all described as the spectacle effects of a wildly imaginative theater piece. None of the action, of course, is presented as real as in actually happening in real-time—this is the description of an exciting and big budget “gala” (Line 1).

The play takes place in the “lonesome, latter years” (Line 2), that is at a time when culture itself feels as if it is in the last days; that itself is not particularly alarming, after all, every generation thinks it’s the last. But the mood is apocalyptic already. On stage a mock audience is seated, dressed like “bewinged” angels (Line 3) who will watch the unfolding drama. As with most theatrical presentations of the era, there is an orchestra to provide musical accompaniment to the unfolding action, a kind of breathy ethereal New Age music that tries to capture a cosmic feeling, “the music of the spheres” (Line 8).

The stage is ready. Amid the overture, the play begins. Actors appears on stage. They have no lines, thus they are described as “mimes,” and they move about the stage without apparent logic or purpose, creating a kind of barely controlled atmosphere of chaos, even bumping into the scenery and making it move erratically “to and fro” (Line 15). The mimes themselves are like “mere puppets” (Line 12), their antic movements may seem chaotic but they are repetitive, more robotic, as if the mimes are being controlled by some entity, some “vast formless thing” (Line 13), making them do the same thing over and over.

The absence of plot is disconcerting. There is no exposition, no action, no apparent logic, just movement, characters making slow circles around the stage space and ending up back in the “self-same spot” (Line 22). They each appear to be chasing something indefinite, a “Phantom” (Line 19), that cannot be caught, indeed cannot even be named. Thus, the plot presents an existential dilemma, its nameless characters trapped in looping circles, motion without purpose, movement without meaning. The audience must endure this plotless plot; despite the elaborate lies they may tell themselves to give their lives purpose, the structure of the play forces them to consider if life itself is purposeless, much like the crazy action on stage, an unsettling choreography of “Madness” compelled by “Sin” and closing in final “Horror” (Lines 23 and 24).

The play continues along this grim plot trajectory, absurd and aimless movements on stage without explanation that could really go on forever, until in what becomes the final scene, the stage is suddenly invaded by a giant animated, blood-red, worm-like creature. The ghastly “crawling shape” (Line 26) writhes about the stage in apparently uncontrollable whip-like motions that create panic among the figures who have to this point been moving about the stage “hither and thither” (Line 11). The mammoth worm brings an end to that. For the briefest moment, it is unclear why this gargantuan worm with its menacing fangs has appeared at all—until, suddenly and without explanation, the worm turns on the mimes and begins to eat them, devouring them in its great gaping mouth in dramatic fashion, with its “vermin fangs” (Line 31) feasting insatiably on “human gore” (Line 32). The grotesque scene is at once ghastly and bloody and, most importantly, very theatrical.

The heavy stage curtain, appropriately black in color, rings down on the chaos like a “funeral pall” (Line 35). The effect is complete, even as the stage audience of angels, a surrogate for the theater audience, begins to panic, their faces pale and weakened by witnessing the gory spectacle. Thus, the poet tells us, ends the tragedy called Man. The speaker asserts that the play’s hero, the only character with distinguished features and a clear line of action, is the great animated crawling-about gap-mouthed worm itself, the play’s hero is itself a lurid and gross special effect.

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