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The Conqueror Worm
By Edgar Allan Poe  (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
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Summary of the Poem
Complete Poem With Notes
Theme
Structure
Rhyme
Shakespearean Motifs
The Grand Guignol
Worms With Jaws
Date of Publication
Author Information
Other Poe Study Guides
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Notes Compiled by Michael J. Cummings..© 2005

Date of Publication

"The Conqueror Worm" was published first in January 1843 in Graham's Magazine, then in February 1845 as part of Poe's short story "Ligeia."

Theme

.......The theme is death conquers all. The worm, of course, represents death. It is an apt choice, for it feeds on corpses lying at final rest under the earth. Whether the worm is an evil creature that swallows sinful man into hell is open to interpretation.

Summary of the Poem

.......Life is a stage play in a universe that becomes a theater. The human actors perform before an audience of angels who know–even before the curtain rises–that the drama will end in the deaths of the players. Consequently, the angels wear veils and weep as the orchestra plays the sounds of nature (wind, rain, and so on) and the production begins. 
.......The actors are mimes pretending to be godlike, for they believe themselves to be superior beings–images of perfection. But these actors are anything but perfect. As they run to and fro in the pursuit of a phantom (their dreams and hopes), they fall victim time and again to temptations in scenes presented by demons with flapping wings. 
.......As they pursue the phantom, the actors run in a circle (apparently representing the earth) and always end up where they started. In attempting to catch the phantom and thereby fulfill their dreams–perhaps dreams for pleasure, success, fame, or power–they commit sin; their life becomes madness and horror. While they chase the phantom, a blood-red crawling thing comes onstage, writhing with hunger pangs, and consumes the entire company of actors, dripping blood from its fangs. The lights go out, the curtain falls, and the angels rise to leave. They are sick at heart, for they have just witnessed a tragedy, a play called Man, in which the hero is the conqueror worm–death.

Structure and Rhyme

.......The poem has five stanzas, representing five acts in a typical play. Each stanza has eight lines. In the first four stanzas, Lines 1 and 3 rhyme; Lines 2, 4, 6, and 8 rhyme; and Lines 5 and 7 rhyme. In the last stanza, Lines 1 and 3 rhyme and Lines 2 and 4 rhyme. Lines 5 and 7 are in eye rhyme–that, is the vowels in each word are the same, but their pronunciations are different. Lines 6 and 8 rhyme with each other but are in near rhyme with Lines 2 and 4.

Shakespearean Motifs

.......Shakespeare made famous the worm-as-death motif, as well as the life-as-a-play motif. 
.......Regarding the first of these motifs, Shakespeare frequently refers to worms as the final conquerors of man. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio–after suffering a mortal stab wound–utters these dying words to Romeo:

    A plague o’ both your houses!
    They have made worms’ meat of me.–Act III, Scene I, Line 112
.......In Cymbeline, Pisanio observes that slander is such a pernicious evil that its tongue “outvenoms all the worms of Nile” (Act III, Scene IV, Line 35). In the last two lines of "Sonnet VI," Shakespeare advises his reader (the young man to whom he dedicated his sonnets) that “thou art much too fair / to be death’s conquest and make worms thine heir.” 
Regarding the second motif, Shakespeare wrote in his play As You Like It that 
    All the world’s a stage,
    And all the men and women merely players:
    They have their exits and entrances;
    And one man in his time plays many parts.–Act II, Scene V, Line 139
Shakespeare then describes the “seven ages” of man, beginning with infancy and ending with old age. He made the Latin translation of All the world’s a stage (Totus mundus agit histrionem) the motto of the famous Globe Theatre in London, where he presented many of his plays.
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The Worm, the Puppets, and the Grand Guignol

.......Fifty years after Poe died, a Paris theater began staging short plays featuring simulated gore and violence intended to shock the audience (as Poe shocked his audience of angels in “The Conqueror Worm”). The Paris playhouse and its presentations grew in part out of the popularity in France of blood-soaked tales of terror, including Poe’s, and the popularity of puppet shows featuring a working-class character constantly at odds with officialdom. This hand-puppet character, named Guignol, became something of a celebrity in France after he was crafted, probably between 1808 and 1815.  In 1897, Parisians opened a small playhouse in Montmartre that capitalized on the intimacy of puppet theater, the brevity of its presentations, and the popularity of Guignol as an antiestablishmentarian. However, in the one-act dramas they staged, they turned the lovable puppet’s resistance to authority into murder, mutilation, and decapitation–in short, into a blood-letting free-for-all. The playhouse where they presented their productions was known as Le Théâtre du Grand Guignol. It continued operation until 1962. Today, the words “Grand Guignol” refer not only to a gory stage drama but also to any event that evokes shock and disgust. Writers for the Grand Guignol theater adapted the works of Poe, as well as many other authors, for staging. It is interesting to note that Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm” presents a gory drama that foreshadowed Grand Guignol plays. Moreover, the actors in it are referred to as puppets.

Worms With Jaws

.......Poe's gigantic, blood-red worm with deadly jaws was, of course, a creation of his macabre imagination. However, it does have a basis in reality–in the form of the clam worm (also called rag worm). This creature, which can attain lengths of more than a foot, has hook-like jaws and a body that is bright red, green, or brown. The clam worm makes its home along seacoasts. It belongs to the genus Nereis and the phylum Annelida

Author Information

Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned at age two, he was taken into the home of a childless couple–John Allan, a successful businessman in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poe’s godfather. At age six, Poe went to England with the Allans and was enrolled in schools there. After he returned with the Allans to the U.S. in 1820, he studied at private schools, then attended the University of Virginia and the U.S. Military Academy, but did not complete studies at either school. After beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while, he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his poem “The Raven” in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an outstanding literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received, he was never really happy because of his drinking and because of the deaths of several people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a contributing cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849. 

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The Conqueror Worm
By Edgar Allan Poe
Complete Text With Annotations by Michael J. Cummings

1
Lo! 'tis 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.

lonesome latter years: time near the end of life
bewinged: having wings
bedight: dressed, arrayed
drowned in tears: example of hyperbole
play of hopes and fears: life
barks: small sailing vessels. 
music: sounds of nature, such as wind
breathes: plays. Breathes is an implied metaphor comparing the sound of the orchestra with that of the wind.
spheres: the orbs making up the universe; the planets and other celestial bodies
end rhyme: A; B, A; B, C, B, C, B.
 

2
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 out their Condor wings
    Invisible Woe!

Mimes...God on high: mimics, pantomimists. They are pretending to be godlike, for they think themselves superior beings. But they are but puppets manipulated by dark forces (the vast formless things that tantalize them with shifting images that attract them). 
Mimes, mutter, mumble, and mere: alliteration
vast formless things...Condor wings: winged demons that present scenes of temptation to the actors. A condor is a large vulture native to North and South America. 
It has been suggested that the movement of the condor wings represents the opening and closing of the theater's curtains. However, this interpretation cannot be correct, for Poe writes in the last stanza that the curtain "comes down." There is only one curtain, not two. 
Naiad airs: Peaceful, gentle breezes or qualities 
end rhyme: A, B, A, B, C, B, C, B

3
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.

motley: having many elements or much diversity; made up of various types of people; having many colors.
Phantom: hopes and dreams
seize it not: The pursuers are unable to catch up with the Phantom.
through a circle . . . spot: This imagery recalls the ancient Greek myths of Tantalus and Sisyphus. Tantalus was condemned by the gods to thirst for water that always receded when he tried to drink it and to desire fruit on a tree branch that was always out of reach. Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to roll a stone to the top of a hill. But every time he neared the top, the stone rolled back down to the bottom. The actors in Poe's drama run through a circular corridor that spiral inwards. When they reach the end of the corridor, they stand where they started. Then they repeated their journey, only to wind up again and again where they started.
end rhyme: A, B, A, B, C, B, C, B

4
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 the angels sob at vermin fangs
    In human gore imbued.

rout: noisy, disorderly crowd
amid the mimic: alliteration
scenic solitude: alliteration
mortal pangs: deadly desire; hunger
end rhyme: A, B, A, B, C, B, C, B
in human gore imbued: filled or colored with clotting blood

5
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,
And the angels, all pallid and wan,
    Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy "Man,"
    And its hero the Conqueror Worm.

Out–out are the lights–out all: anaphora
The curtain, a funeral pall: metaphor
End rhyme: A, B, A, B, A. 
Other rhyme: Wan and Man are eye rhyme–that, is the vowels in each word are the same, but their pronunciations are different. Affirm and Worm are end rhyme when compared with each other but near rhyme when compared with form and storm.
 

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