by Edgar Allan Poe
The Conqueror Worm
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to the strangest play you'll ever see. Well, sort of. "The Conqueror Worm" is actually a poem about a play, and unless you're an angel, you're not in the audience. In the story, the narrator tells us that Ligeia wrote the poem, but it's worth noting that "The Conqueror Worm" was first published separately by Poe in 1843. That's neither here nor there, though. It's not going to help us figure out what the poem's about. What will help is a very special Cast of Characters, the sort of thing you'll usually find in your playbill. So, here you go:
Cast of Characters
(in order of appearance)
The Audience… Angels, a.k.a. seraphs (a fancy word for a particular type of angel)
Man/mankind… variously played by mimes, puppets
The Hero… The Conqueror Worm
Now that we have our cast of characters, let's bang out a little summary. The poem is divided into five stanzas (a stanza is a grouping of lines). Each stanza has eight lines. As for a rhyme scheme, well, it's not totally consistent. If you look at the third stanza, though, you see a regular pattern of end rhymes – that is, rhymes involving the last word of each line. In this case, the pattern is ABABCDCD. So the last words of lines 1 and 3, "rout" and "out," rhyme with each other, as do the last words of lines 2 and 4, "intrude" and "solitude," and so on with the next four lines.
We'll go through each stanza and figure out what's going on. Still with us? Good!
In the first stanza, we've got a description of the "gala night," probably the play's opening night. In the audience? A bunch of angels, complete with wings and veils. The orchestra is playing "the music of the spheres," the spheres meaning the stars, in this case. Here, Poe's playing with words: the phrase was used to describe the movement of those spheres/stars or, in a bigger sense, the state of the universe.
So, now that the stage is set for our "play of hopes and fears," this is going to be some heavy drama. We get right to the action, and the action is weird. A bunch of mimes are walking around the stage, mumbling – they apparently didn't get the whole "mimes don't talk" memo. Their movements aren't entirely random, though. They're more like puppets, here – they move "at bidding of vast formless things," while invisible puppeteers manipulate everything around the actors, creating, as they do, "Invisible Wo."
This is a lot to handle all at once, so let's take it one thing at a time. The most confusing – and most important – thing here is the whole mime/puppet bit. Which are they – mimes or puppets? Well, as you might have noticed in the Cast of Characters, they're listed as playing the character of mankind. How do we know this? It's up there in the first line of the stanza. The mimes, Poe writes, are in the form of God on high. Now, if you're up on your Bible knowledge – and don't worry if you're not, that's why we're here – you know that the Book of Genesis says God created Man in his image. And, so, we can only assume that all these mimes and puppets are, in fact, representing mankind.
Now, as for those "vast formless things" with "Condor wings," they're a little harder to pin down. We do know that they're good at getting the mimes to do what they want, and at creating "Invisible Wo!," which definitely doesn't sound good. These guys seem to have control of the mimes' will – an important word in this story, judging by the number of times it comes up in that Glanvill quote alone. Their control actually contradicts something from the Book of Genesis. For at the same time that God is supposed to have made Man look like him, he's also gave him free will, something these mimes and puppets definitely don't have. This lack of control only leads to… well, maybe a look at the next stanza will help us figure that out.
After reminding us of how this play "shall not be forgot," Poe gets back to the story. Now we're introduced to "the Phantom," who sounds a lot like one of those "vast formless things" mentioned earlier. Now, let's say that's the case: according to Poe, the crowd – all those puppets – is always chasing this Phantom but never catching it. It'd sort of be like Pinocchio always trying to become a "real boy" but never quite being able to cut the strings. That'd be pretty depressing, yeah? Well, that's exactly what's going on here. All these puppets are trying their darndest to catch their puppetmaster, but with no success. Instead, they're left to move in "a circle that ever returneth/to the self-same spot" (13). They're literally running in circles, and their lives are full of terrible things: Madness, Sin, and Horror – running in circles can do terrible things to your mind, it seems.
Luckily, there is something to alleviate the boredom: a big old, blood-red, mime-eating creepy-crawly. He adds a bit of life – and death – to the story. All this blood and man-eating makes the angels cry, but it sure does make for a better story! With the appearance of the worm, the play ends, out go the lights, the curtain falls, and the angels shuffle home to heaven. Now, in case you haven't figure it out yet, Poe tells you exactly what you've just watched. It's a tragedy called "Man," and "its hero the Conqueror Worm."
So what's the take-away? Man is weak and totally without free will. He's doomed to sadness and sin and, ultimately, to be dinner for a disgusting worm. This is a pretty dark take on life, and no wonder: the poem's been written by a dying woman. It also seems to contradict Glanvill's quote. Yes, Glanvill he agrees that man's will is weak, but he also seems hopeful that maybe, just maybe, if a person could muster up the courage, they could break the vicious cycle and conquer the Conqueror Worm. When you put the quote and the poem together, you get a sort of Point/Counterpoint effect, like you might find on your average cable news show. As for who makes a stronger case, well…it's best to keep reading, really.