He Wrote It for Me!
“Annabel Lee” was published just two days after Poe died in Baltimore. He had tinkered with the poem over the course of several months while he was caught up in the romantic desperation that characterized the two years following the death of Virginia and his attempts to find a second wife. His love life during that era became a kind of horror he never actually put on the page, with the simultaneous courtships, vicious meddling, and spectacular failed romances. All was drama—even public at times—and nothing worked.
Virginia died pathetically—cold, poor, and in pain from tuberculosis.
Helen Whitman, a poet six years older than Poe, finally listened to enough whispers that she broke off the engagement.
Annie Richmond broke off her friendship with Poe (who oddly saw himself as her suitor) when her husband finally insisted.
Elmira Shelton, Poe's childhood sweetheart, agreed to marry him, even though it meant she would have to forfeit three-fourths of her late husband's estate.
All of these intense, erratic courtships made for quite an inner life out of which the stately and serene “Annabel Lee” appeared. It's another poem about the death of a beautiful woman, and in this one the poet, who sounds like a troubadour plying a ballad, longs for the pure, childlike love he had known with Annabel Lee. “But we loved with a love that was more than love— / I and my Annabel Lee—”
“Annabel Lee” continues to capture artists’ imaginations. On her 1967 album Joan, Joan Baez sang about both “Eleanor Rigby” and “Annabel Lee,” and it's not difficult to find connections between those two lost, ill-fated female figures. Vladimir Nabokov—with a nimble respelling—makes Annabel Leigh his pedophile narrator's own youthful lost love in the novel Lolita.
Who was the source for “Annabel Lee”? Helen Whitman felt certain Poe had written the poem for her. But, then, so did Elmira Shelton. The length of time each woman spent mulling over his marriage proposal while she elicited comments about his character from everyone, including the milkman, showed an almost comical reluctance. What the man himself couldn't inspire, “Annabel Lee” did.
Fanny Osgood—whose relationship with Poe he called an “amour,” dramatically over by then—believed that “Annabel Lee” was written for Virginia. No wonder: all the intrigue and ambiguities of his other relationships of this period must have tasted quite sour compared to the deep, simple attachment he had known with the lost Virginia.