Annabel Lee and a Lesson in Existential Angst

I entered the classroom on a hot, humid Monday morning, after a hot, humid weekend. Before even saying hello to the dozen or so teen mothers seated at their desks, I began to recite:

“It was many and many a year ago …” and continued through all six stanzas of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic poem, “Annabel Lee,” about a perfect love and a perfect tragedy.

I was sure my students would love it.

But when I was done reading I looked up to see that their heads had melted into their desks. Their expressions were of torture mixed with surrender.

“What’s the matter?” I asked?

“Miss, you’re depressing us!” One student said.

“It’s hot, and we’re tired, and that poem was f&*#$ing sad.”

“We’re in school,” I reminded. “Can you express yourself using another word?”

I introduced the concept of angst, but they weren’t looking for new vocabulary.

“Even your clothes are depressing today, Miss!” another chimed in. “You’re wearing black”

“And your hair is up in a bun. You don’t even have it loose.”

I looked down. Didn’t they notice the pink trim on my black dress? But I didn’t argue. It was a rather somber outfit for a July day.

“We should be reading poems about summer and fun and the beach!” one girl suggested.

“Okay,” I said, and I tried again. Poe had a poem about the beach! And it was short! This would surely be the ticket.

I turned in my Poe primer to “A Dream Within a Dream.” In it the narrator stands at the shore (okay, so it’s a “surf-tormented shore”) and tries to hold a handful of sand, that the “pitiless” waves keep pulling from his grasp. Not exactly what they had in mind, as was evidenced by the groans the met my recitation of the final lines.

“But it’s the beach!” I was nearly whining now. “And anyway,¬†doesn’t it make you feel better to know you’re not the only ones who experience the pain and sorrow of life?” We all experience death, loss and decay, I explained. Even now, our youth is slipping away. The world claims everything. But on the other side there is hope! There is eternal love, love that survives material loss, love that survives death, beauty that transcends an individual flower or face.

Despite my attempt to salvage the lesson, I could see I had no converts.

M. looked up in despair. “Can we just write?” she asked.

Now it was my turn to surrender. I handed out the paper. Today, I just couldn’t get the class excited about existential angst. Maybe next week.