Apostrophe and Edgar Allan Poe
An apostrophe is a literary device that an author uses to have his characters address characters, personifications, or ideas directly, as though they were present in the scene. Apostrophes are common in plays and poetry, but they also appear in fictional and non-fictional prose.
Edgar Allan Poe is regarded as one of the greatest writers to emerge from 19th century American literature. A native of Boston, Massachusetts, Poe is renowned for his poetry and short fiction, which is often centered on the dark and macabre. He was a pioneer in the genre of detective fiction, and he himself met a mysterious end with the details of his death reaming obscure.
Poe made use of many literary devices, including the apostrophe. We’ve comprised a list of 10 dramatic examples of apostrophe in the poetry of Poe, so that you can get a good idea of how this literary device is used in a variety of styles.
List of Apostrophe Examples
• “The Sleeper” – 1831 Lines 18-19, 31-32
“Oh, lady bright! can it be right — / This window open to the night?”
“Oh, lady dear, hast thou no fear? / Why and what art thou dreaming here?”
The first poem on our list contains not one, but two different apostrophes. “The Sleeper” is a very atmospheric poem, and, like many of Poe’s poems, is addressed to a deceased woman. Poe is well-known for his creepy themes and settings. Keeping to this tradition, “The Sleeper” takes place in a cemetery at night. The narrator in “The Sleeper” is addressing his deceased love, Irene. Creepy, huh?
• “A Dream within a Dream” – 1827 Lines 19-22
“O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?”
The next poem on our list contains one of the most common uses of apostrophe. “A Dream within a Dream” is about the nature of perception and reality. It is a probing poem, and, as in the lines above, the narrator is referring to grains of sand on which he has fixed his attention. He then calls out to God in a helpless plea.
• “To Science” – 1829 Lines 1-2
“Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art! / Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.”
In this sonnet, we find a great example of an extended apostrophe. In fact, tho whole sonnet acts as an apostrophe. This feat is easy to do with a 14-line poem. Poe here addresses science directly, as though it were a person. Addressing personified ideas like science, night, day, death, etc., are very common applications of apostrophe within poetry.
• “Al Aaraaf” – 1829 Lines 258-261
My beautiful one!
Whose harshest idea
Will to melody run,”
“Al Aaraaf,” is one of Poe’s early poems, and also the longest. Poe drew inspiration from the Qur’an to write a strange tale concerning spiritual beings and a purgatory-like dimension, from which the poem draws its title. In the poem, an angel named Ligeia is called upon by God. This poem contains several examples of apostrophe. However, the most dramatic occurs when Nesace, Beauty herself, calls out to Ligeia.
• “Tamerlane” – 1827 Lines 176-177
“O, human love! thou spirit given / On Earth, of all we hope in Heaven!”
“Tamerlane” is another of Poe’s early poems. First published anonymously, it is one of Poe’s longest poems. The poem centers on the character Tamerlane, who is a dramatization of a real 14th century Turkic invader. In this example, we see the narrator address an idea: human love. The apostrophe itself personifies the idea of human love, as if it were a character with whom the narrator can speak.
• “The Coliseum” – 1833 Line 13
“I feel ye now–I feel ye in your strength”
“The Coliseum” is a poem of historical perspective. Lacking the usual creepy atmosphere or macabre subject matter that is frequently present in Poe’s poetry, “The Coliseum” focuses on one man’s journey to the ancient Roman structure. In the above line, the narrator addresses the coliseum directly as if it were a person standing beside him.
• “Elizabeth” – 1850 Lines 1-3
“Elizabeth, it surely is most fit
(Logic and common usage so commanding)
In thy own book that first thy name be writ,”
“Elizabeth” is a love poem of sorts. Poe wrote many of these love poems addressed to different individuals. This poem is titled and addressed to Poe’s object of affection, a woman named Elizabeth. This poem reads almost like a letter. Since Poe calls this woman by name, this instance qualifies as an apostrophe.
• “Eulalie” – 1845 Lines 16-17
“Now Doubt–now Pain / Come never again,”
“Eulalie” is another one of Poe’s love poems. It is uncharacteristically happy and upbeat for a Poe poem. In it, the narrator tells how he was unhappy until he married his new bride Eulalie. The narrator addresses both doubt and pain, commanding them to never reenter his life.
• “Hymn” – 1835 Lines 2-4
“Maria! thou hast heard my hymn!
In joy and woe–in good and ill-
Mother of God, be with me still!”
“Hymn” is a poem with heavy religious overtones. Reading as if it were lines from a prayer book, Poe utilizes apostrophe by addressing the mother of Christ by name. This is an example of the very common use of apostrophe: Oh! God, O Lord!, etc. However, this usage is more unique, as it addresses Mary instead of God.
• “To the River” – 1829 Lines 1-2
“Fair river! in thy bright, clear flow / Of crystal, wandering water,”
“To the River” is a poem that is not just about a river, but also a beautiful woman. The narrator compares the river’s beauty to that of the woman’s. Poe begins the poem by addressing the river directly, using an apostrophe to set the stage for this dramatic love poem.
Each example on this list illustrates, not only Edgar Allan Poe’s ability as a poet, but also the ability of the apostrophe to enhance verses with dramatic energy. Poe makes frequent use of this literary device in both his prose and poetic works. Now that you are familiar with this literary device and its use in poetry, see how many other examples of apostrophe you can find the rest of Poe’s works.