Ourosboros Symbol in “The Conqueror Worm” by Edgar Allan Poe

OurosborosThis is a poem that fascinated me when I was young. I read it many times in my early teenage years. There is a strange blending of the macabre and refinement that gives this poem a truly unique feel.

The structure of the poem is quatrain that employs the ballad stanza form: A-B-A-B rhyme scheme with iambic tetrameter. I think it is this structure, combined with the imagery of a theater, that creates the sense of refinement for me.

The poem is a dark allegory of human life. Basically, Poe sees our existence as a tragic play acted out for the amusement of divine beings who refuse to intervene in our suffering. The Conqueror Worm, on a basic level, represents death, which is the finale of all our individual scenes upon the great stage of life. The Worm always triumphs in the end, feasting upon the remains of our mortal flesh.

When I read the poem this morning, though, the third stanza stood out for me and I discovered symbolism I had never noticed before.

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.

Structurally, this marks the very center of the poem, being the third of five stanzas, which made me think that this symbolizes the heart of what Poe was expressing. The Phantom for me represents the elusive meaning of life, which no one seems to be able to grasp. But what struck me as the most interesting, and I had never made this connection before, is the image of the “circle that ever returneth in / To the self-same spot.” I see now that this is the image of the ourosboros, the snake devouring its own tail. The Conqueror Worm is, then, the ourosboros. It symbolizes the cyclical aspect of existence. Poe sees this as a dark and disturbing cycle. Instead of a spiritual renewal, which is often associated with the ourosboros symbol, Poe sees it as a cycle of madness, horror, and decay. Mankind is trapped in an eternal loop of sin and death from which there is no escape.

I love it when I read a poem that I am familiar with and discover new symbolism. For me, that is one of the greatest thrills about reading poetry and literature. Your interpretations and what you get out of reading something is dependent upon what you bring to the reading — your life experiences and the knowledge you’ve gained from your other readings.

Click here to read the poem online.


Filed under Literature