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The Conqueror Worm
"The Conqueror Worm" is a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. It is about human mortality and the inevitability of death. It was first published in Graham's Magazine in 1843. It was incorporated into Poe's short story "Ligeia" in 1845. In the revised story, the poem is composed by Ligeia. She teaches it to the narrator during her death throes.
Weeping angels watch a play performed by "mimes, in the form of God on high", and controlled by vast formless shapes looming behind the scenes. The mimes chase a "Phantom" which they can never capture. Finally, a monstrous "crawling shape" emerges, and eats the mimes. The final curtain comes down, "a funeral pall," signaling an end to the "tragedy, 'Man'" whose only hero is "The Conqueror Worm".
Though Poe was referring to an ancient connection between worms and death, he may have been inspired by "The Proud Ladye", a poem by Spencer Wallis Cone which was reviewed in an 1840 issue of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine. That poem contained the lines "Let him meet the conqueror worm / With his good sword by his side".
Role in "Ligeia"
The poem plays an important symbolic role as part "Ligeia." The poem is written by Ligeia as she is dying, though it is actually recited by the narrator, her husband.
Because it emphasizes the finality of death, it calls to question Ligeia's resurrection in the story. Also, the inclusion of the bitter poem may have been meant to be ironic or a parody of the convention at the time, both in literature and in life. In the mid-19th century it was common to emphasize the sacredness of death and the beauty of dying (consider Charles Dickens's Little Johnny character in Our Mutual Friend and the death of Helen Burns in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre). Instead, Ligeia speaks of fear personified in the "blood-red thing."
"The Conqueror Worm" was first published as a stand-alone poem in the January 1843 issue of Graham's Magazine. Shortly after, it was included among several other poems by Poe in the February 25 issue of the Saturday Museum in a feature called "The Poets & Poetry of Philadelphia: Edgar Allan Poe". It was later included in Poe's poetry collection The Raven and Other Poems in 1845. That same year, it was incorporated into "Ligeia" for the first time when the story was reprinted in the February 15, 1845, issue of the New York World. "Ligeia" was again republished with "The Conqueror Worm" in the September 27, 1845, issue of The Broadway Journal while Poe was its editor. This was not unusual for Poe, who had also incorporated poems "The Coliseum" and "To One in Paradise" into tales.
The British horror movie Witchfinder General was retitled The Conqueror Worm for US release. It was not based on Poe's poem.
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- Kennedy, J. Gerald. Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987: 1–2. ISBN 0300037732
- Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. Cooper Square Press, 1992: 163. ISBN 0-8154-1038-7
- Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001: 56. ISBN 081604161X
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- Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001: 134. ISBN 081604161X
- Peeples, Scott. Edgar Allan Poe Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998: 31. ISBN 0-8057-4572-6
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