The Conqueror Worm by Edgar Allen Poe

This poem by Edgar Allen Poe always brings to me the memory of Shakespeare’s Hamlet where he tells Horatio “Alas, Poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio.” And he continues, “I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. —Where be your gibes now? Your gambols?”


Alas Poor Yorick

Alas Poor Yorick, Oil on Canvas, Painted When I was a Teenager.


And then again in Hamlet, “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm. A man can fish with the worm that ate a king, and then eat the fish he catches with that worm. Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.”

I wonder if Poe had the seeds of Shakespeare in his mind when he created The Conqueror Worm.


Illustration for The Conqueror Worm, Illustrated by W. Heath Robinson. 1900.

Illustration for The Conqueror Worm, Illustrated by W. Heath Robinson. 1900.


The Conqueror Worm

by Edgar Allen Poe


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
Invisible Wo!

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.



Note: I should have also mentioned the reference in this poem to life as a stage, of course, appears in Shakespeare as well. This appears in As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances…



Self-Portrait, Oil on Canvas.

Self-Portrait, Oil on Canvas.


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