“loved with a love that was more than love”: From Poe’s “Annabel Lee” to Nabokov’s Lolita

Posted by Janet Chu on August 18, 2014 in Blog, Janet Chu tagged with


Since its initial publication in 1955, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita has been renowned (or infamous) for its controversial plot that charts a middle-aged professor Humbert Humbert’s paedophilic infatuation for a 12-year-old girl Dolores Haze, whom the former amorously nicknames Lolita. In constructing the episodes of such a distorted psyche—interestingly and unmistakably—Nabokov intertextually refers to his 19th-century American precursor Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” in naming Humbert’s childhood love “Annabel Leigh.” Annabel Leigh’s premature death results in Humbert’s later transferring his affection to Lolita, about which, Humbert himself explicitly confesses: “I am convinced, however, that in a certain magic and fateful way Lolita began with Annabel.” In addition to borrowing the appellation and the Poesque motif of a male’s obsession with a beautiful dead young woman, Nabokov in his Lolita also openly alludes to Poe’s “Annabel Lee” on a number of occasions: “When I was a child and she was a child, my little Annabel [Leigh] was no nymphet to me,” “We loved each other with a premature love, marked by a fierceness that so often destroys adult lives,” and “the search for a Kingdom by the Sea” (Nabokov initially planned to entitle his novel The Kingdom by the Sea). In order to dissect Nabokov’s Lolita and Humbert’s prepossession with Lolita, there is a need to trace back to their prototype—Poe’s “Annabel Lee.”

Published over a century earlier than Nabokov’s Lolita in 1849, Poe’s “Annabel Lee” has generally been considered as an exemplar of a bona fide love, a deep love, or an eternal love expressed by an unnamed male speaker for his long-lost Annabel Lee. Prominent Poe scholars such as Arthur Quinn, Thomas Mabbott, and Benjamin Fisher all tend to endorse such an interpretation, deeming Poe’s “Annabel Lee” as a love poem or a pure lyric poem. A further reading of this poetic piece, however, reveals that Poe’s “Annabel Lee” is probably more complicated than it appears to be. In this poem, for instance, seeming to convince himself and the narratee of the cause of Annabel Lee’s death, the speaker redundantly repeats in the entire fourth stanza that due to the envy of the love between him and his Annabel Lee, the angels maliciously send a wind to kill her (“The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,/ Went envying her and me:—/ Yes! that was the reason (as all men know,/ In this kingdom by the sea)/ That the wind came out of the cloud, chilling/ And killing my Annabel Lee.”). The interjection of “Yes!”, the suspicious self-reaffirmation of “that was the reason (as all men know,/ In this kingdom by the sea),” and the pleonastic stanza about the cause of Annabel Lee’s death connote quite the opposite—that what the speaker states is probably not true. As a speaker of a poem, his reliability is thus considerably questioned and lessened.

More importantly, throughout the poem, the speaker manifests in several different aspects his suffocating sense of possessiveness towards his sweetheart. For example, Annabel Lee is rendered linguistically tied with the speaker as in “She was a child and I was a child” (line 7), “Coveted her and me” (line 12), “And bore her away from me” (line 18), “Went envying her and me” (line 22), and “Can [n]ever dissever my soul from the soul/ Of the beautiful Annabel Lee” (lines 32-33). A cluster of possessive pronouns is used in referring to Annabel Lee, e.g. “I and my Annabel Lee” (line 10), “Chilling my Annabel Lee” (line 16), “And killing my Annabel Lee” (line 26), and “Of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride” (line 39), which demonstrate more the speaker’s intense desire to possess Annabel Lee than who Annabel Lee truly is as a free individual. Exceeding possessiveness leads to absolute domination. The speaker therefore in his narration further eradicates Annabel Lee’s selfhood: “And this maiden she lived with no other thought/ Than to love and be loved by me” (lines 5-6).

Excessive is his obsessive and possessive desire for Annabel Lee, so that when her kinsmen come to take away dead Annabel Lee and bury her within the “kingdom by the sea” where the speaker inhabits, he would consider this normal decorum as a hostile deed of splitting her from him. Such psyche of not willing to entomb Annabel Lee nevertheless explains his necrophilic inclination exhibited in the closing lines of the poem: “And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side/ Of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride/ In her sepulchre there by the sea—/ In her tomb by the side of the sea” (lines 38-41). Rather than being an ideal lover as it is generally assumed, the speaker is in fact represented as a control freak, an obsessed and domineering Gothic villain. In the poem he fervently and boastfully announces: “But we loved with a love that was more than love—/ I and my Annabel Lee—” (lines 9-10). Yet, if his love, as he claims, is more than “love,” is it still in essence—“love”? When a love exceeds “love,” it is supposed to be not “love” anymore. It is something else; it is something other than “love.” The speaker of “Annabel Lee” loves his Annabel Lee to the level of more than love, that he eventually and inevitably turns himself into a Gothic villain.

Over a hundred years later, another American writer Nabokov intertextually incorporated Poe’s “Annabel Lee” into his controversial novel Lolita. The unnamed speaker in “Annabel Lee” is named Humbert Humbert in Lolita; the unchanged and repeated naming signifies Humbert’s obsession with his childhood memories of Annabel Leigh. The manifesto of “loved with a love that was more than love” from the speaker in “Annabel Lee” is elaborated as “We loved each other with a premature love, marked by a fierceness that so often destroys adult lives” in Lolita. The possessiveness and obsessiveness of the speaker in “Annabel Lee” is extended to Humbert’s paedophilic fixation on Lolita, a substitute for Annabel Leigh. Therefore, it is assumed that perhaps, to a certain degree, Nabokov also read and recognised the Gothic undertones in Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” and then created his novel Lolita of a similar yet more sensational subject matter.


*The text of “Annabel Lee” is cited from Poe’s manuscript given to John R. Thompson on September 26, 1849, which contains the author’s last revisions to the poem.



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