The Conqueror Worm is a poem by Edgar Allan Poe about human mortality and the inevitability of death.
It was first published in Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine in 1843, but quickly became associated with Poe’s short story Ligeia after Poe added the poem to a revised publication of the story in 1845. In the revised story, the poem is composed by the eponymous Ligeia, and taught to the narrator in the fits of her death throes.
The poem seems to imply that human life is mad folly ending in hideous death, the universe is controlled by dark forces man cannot understand, and the only supernatural forces that might help are powerless spectators who can only affirm the tragedy of the scene.
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. That poem contained the lines “Let him meet the conqueror worm / With his good sword by his side.”
The Conqueror Worm also uses the word “evermore”, which would later evolve into “nevermore” in Poe’s famous poem “The Raven” in 1845.
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.
In 1935, Baltimore-born composer Franz Bornschein wrote a three-part chorus for women with orchestra or piano accompaniment based on “The Conqueror Worm”.
British horror film Witchfinder General was retitled The Conqueror Worm for American International Picture’s US release, despite having nothing to do with the Poe poem.
The poem was rewritten and adapted as the first track to Lou Reed’s 2003 album of Poe adaptations and Poe-inspired songs, The Raven.
It was adapted as a song by the Darkwave act, Sopor Aeternus & the Ensemble of Shadows on the album Flowers in Formaldehyde in 2004.
Vol. 5 of the Hellboy comic book mini-series by Mike Mignola titled Hellboy: Conqueror Worm was based on the poem.
Goth musician Voltaire wrote a song adaptation of “The Conqueror Worm” and following the text of the poem verbatim. It was released in early 2014 on his album Raised by Bats.
Dark Horse Comics released Edgar Allan Poe Conqueror Worm, a one-shot comic by Richard Corben in November 2012.
The music video for “Curtain” by Australian extreme metal band Portal features an adaptation of the poem using puppets.
The album Dies Irae by the band Devil Doll is loosely based on “The Conqueror Worm”.
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