Poe’s morbid gothic romanticism slithers from the page in his gloriously dark and depressing ‘Conqueror Worm.’ Published in 1843, it presages his ultimate gothic gem, ‘The Raven’ penned just a couple of years later. ‘The Conqueror Worm’ uses theatrical and stage imagery to paint a grim picture of the universe; both of Poe’s parents acted, and both died young.
Lo! ’t is 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.
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 from out their Condor wings
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.
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 seraphs sob at vermin fangs
In human gore imbued.
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,
While the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”
And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.
So what do we have here? The world is a stage (perhaps borrowing from Shakespeare), where pathetic humans–the mimes–live out the folly of their useless lives, witnessed only by angels. Every mortal is eventually devoured by a blood-red thing with vermin fangs that writhes and writhes. Life is a tragedy, and the evil thing that devours us–the Conqueror Worm–is our hero. I love this poem.
This verse, along with ‘The Raven’ and a select number of Poe’s most grotesque short stories, have done the most to cement Poe’s undying reputation as the Father of Modern Horror. Go ahead, light some candles and read this aloud. And then go listen to some Goth Rock.
The image comes from the 1968 Vincent Price movie, which has virtually nothing to do with the poem at all. But it sure makes a great movie title.