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A Closer Look at Poe's Windfall Poem

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A handwritten, signed manuscript of "The Conqueror Worm," one of Edgar Allan Poe's most disturbing poems (and that's saying a lot), sold at auction for $300,000 last week, at 15 times its estimate.

The poem is memorable, and apparently quite valuable, for its strange and powerful allegorical frame and its brutal detail. The setting is a "gala night" at a theater, where an audience of angels watches a tragedy unfold that, we readers come to realize, hits close to home. Here's the full text of the poem:

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.

The poem's most disturbing aspect -- other than the "blood-red, writhing worm eating everyone on stage -- might be that Poe's angels, while clearly saddened by the show, simply sit and watch the gruesome spectacle play out. And their reaction in the final stanza implies that man is a tragedy and the worm (the worm!) is a hero.

Poe later expanded on "The Conqueror Worm," incorporating it into his short story Ligeia, which puts some power back in human hands, positing that it's only a lack of will that leaves us at the mercy of worms (and angelic theater-goers for that matter). He sums this up with an epigraph from the English philosopher Joseph Glanvill that includes the line: "Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will."

The story's title character, Ligeia, shows no such weakness of will. The narrator describes her as having "a wild longing...an eager vehemence of desire for life -- but for life -- that I have no power to portray -- no utterance capable of expressing." Ligeia's will is so strong that she overcomes death, taking over the body of another woman in a scene that slowly and horrifyingly plays out at the story's end. And Poe's description of the title character implies that she's done it many times before.

Ligeia, through sheer force of will, defeats death, worms, angels and all. It's part of a fearless, fantastical and disturbing world sprung from a poem -- the conqueror Poe at is best.