‘A Pæan‘ by Edgar Allan Poe is an eleven stanza “pæan” celebrating the life of a dearly departed wife. Each stanza, or strophe, is made up of four lines. These lines are consistently formatted with a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD, and so on.
The lines are all similar in length, containing around six syllables each. The “sing song” nature of this poem fits with its intended purpose as a pæan.
Summary of A Pæan
The poem begins with the speaker trying to figure out how the “burial rites” are going to be read for the death of someone he loves. He does not yet know whether a solemn or joyous song will be sung.
The speaker takes the reader to the side of the body. There, many are gathered. They mourn over her departure, crying and weeping unnecessarily. He believes that their actions dishonor her. They should not mourn but celebrate.
In contrast, the mourners do not believe that the speaker should sing the songs he is singing. His voice is weak and they wish him to sing something sadder. He refuses, hits the coffin, and uses the reverberations as a part of his song. When he addresses the dead woman, who the reader learns is his wife, he tells her that while she may be dead that her spirit lives on. Her love touched everything around her, so he will not mourn. He will sing a “pæan” to celebrate her life rather than a “requiem” to mourn it.
Analysis of A Pæan
How shall the burial rite be read?
The solemn song be sung?
The requiem for the loveliest dead,
That ever died so young?
The speaker of ‘A Pæan‘ begins by asking a number of questions. These are rhetorical and are meant to set the scene for all that is to come. They also give the reader a preemptory look into the speaker’s head, at his deep emotions.
The speaker wants to know how the “burial rite” will be read. Will it be “sung” solemnly? Or sadly? By default this question also asks, is it not more appropriate to celebrate this life?
Her friends are gazing on her,
And on her gaudy bier,
And weep! — oh! to dishonor
Dead beauty with a tear!
The speaker then takes the reader to the body. The dead woman’s friends are surrounding and “gazing on her.” The “bier” or table, on which she is laying is said to be “gaudy” it is most likely overly decorated and more lavish than the speaker feels is appropriate. He does not believe her beauty needs to be supplemented with flowers or decorations.
Additionally, he takes offense at the fact that her friends are crying. He does not find in himself the need to weep over her body. Her “Dead beauty” is “dishonor[ed]” by their tears. He is outraged by their emotions and he finds intrinsic fault in them that will be expanded upon in the next strophe.
They loved her for her wealth —
And they hated her for her pride —
But she grew in feeble health,
And they love her — that she died.
It is clear that the speaker has a number of misgivings about these apparent “friends” who surround his beloved’s body. He does not believe that they truly cared about her, they were influenced by who they thought she was rather than by who she actually was.
They flocked to her, and loved her, “for her wealth,” but “hated her” for the pride she exhibited. They were incapable of loving her fully or completely.
When this unnamed woman “grew in feeble health,” when she got sick, the friends did not exhibit compassion. That emotion only came after “she died.” They profess to “love” her now that she is dead. This rings false to the speaker.
They tell me (while they speak
Of her “costly broider’d pall”)
That my voice is growing weak —
That I should not sing at all —
The friends that have gathered around the body in mourning are quickly torn from their fake grief to reprimand the speaker for singing. Previously they had been speaking to one another about the “costly broider’d pall” that is draped over the body. This fine piece of fabric was drawing their attention more than the woman who is now dead.
They break this train of thought to tell the speaker that his singing is “growing weak.” They do not wish to hear his voice and think that he “should not sing at all.”
Or that my tone should be
Tun’d to such solemn song
So mournfully — so mournfully,
That the dead may feel no wrong.
In the fifth stanza of ‘A Pæan‘, the speaker continues to be critiqued by the mourners. They think that if he has to sing, he should not do so joyously. He should turn his voice to a “solemn song” that reflects the darkness of the moment. From their perspective, he is wronging the dead woman. They pretend as if this is something that should matter to her.
But she is gone above,
With young Hope at her side,
And I am drunk with love
Of the dead, who is my bride.—
The speaker quickly rebuffs them, and any who believe a funeral should be a time for weeping. He knows that she is “gone above” along with all of his, and her own, “Hope” at her side.
Still, even with his love departed, he is “drunk with love” for the “dead.” She is now revealed to have been his “bride.” He has more right to her funeral proceedings than do the “friends” who want nothing more than to gossip.
Of the dead — dead who lies
All perfum’d there,
With the death upon her eyes,
And the life upon her hair.
He is “drunk with love” for the dead one who lies before him. She is “perfum’d” and done up unnaturally. These things stand in stark contrast to the “death” that is “upon her eyes.”
Just as is common after death, the narrator recognizes that there is still life “upon her hair.” This continuation of her beauty is perhaps a comfort to him.
Thus on the coffin loud and long
I strike — the murmur sent
Through the grey chambers to my song,
Shall be the accompaniment.
The full sight of his dead wife inspires him to go against what the others have said. He “strike[s]” his hand on the coffin and continues to sing. The reverberations, or “murmurs” the material makes echo through the “grey chambers” of the building and follows along with his song.
Thou died’st in thy life’s June —
But thou did’st not die too fair:
Thou did’st not die too soon,
Nor with too calm an air.
The speaker now turns to address the woman who has died. He says that “Thou” died in the prime of life but unlike what others might say “you” are not gone.
He tells of how even though she is dead, she did not die “too fair,” “too soon, / Nor with too calm an air.” She lives on in the world she leaves behind.
From more than fiends on earth,
Thy life and love are riven,
To join the untainted mirth
Of more than thrones in heaven —
He describes in this stanza how her spirit is “riven” upon more than just the “thrones of heaven.” She is there with God in heaven, but she also resides on Earth in everything she once touched. Her “life and love” have made a permanent impact on the world.
Therefore, to thee this night
I will no requiem raise,
But waft thee on thy flight,
With a Pæan of old days.
In the final stanza of ‘A Pæan‘, the speaker tells the body of his wife, and the reader, that “to [you] this night / I will no requiem raise.” He shall not sing a song for the dead, for she is not gone.
Instead, he has decided he will support her on her “flight” by singing a “Pæan of old days.” He will sing a triumphant song that celebrates her life and carries her further on her way to God.
About Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston, Massachusetts. Both of his parents died before he reached the age of three and he was raised as a foster child in Virginia. As a young man, Poe was sent to some of the best schools in the state and excelled in his studies. Unfortunately, his success was mired by his bad habits. He was forced out of university after his foster father refused to pay Poe’s gambling debts.
In 1827, Poe joins the United States Army and published his first collection of poems, Tamerlane and Other Poems. His second collection was published two years later. Neither of these volumes received praise from the public. Poe would eventually make a home for himself alongside his aunt and cousin, Virginia, in Baltimore, Maryland.
In 1835, Poe was to become the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, and the next year he married his thirteen-year-old cousin. Throughout the next years of his life, he edited a number of magazines and made a name for himself as a writer and editor. It was also during this time that he wrote some of his best-known stories such as, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”
Poe’s wife and cousin would die in 1847 from tuberculosis, causing a deepening of his depression and worsening of his alcoholism. To this day there is a mystery surrounding his death. He was found on October 3, 1849, semi-conscious in Baltimore. He died four days later of what was then called, “acute congestion of the brain.” It is now thought that he had perhaps contracted rabies.