The Conqueror Worm
"The Conqueror Worm" is a poem
Poetry is a form of literary art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its apparent meaning...

 by Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe was an American author, poet, editor and literary critic, considered part of the American Romantic Movement. Best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre, Poe was one of the earliest American practitioners of the short story and is considered the inventor of the detective...

 about human mortality and the inevitability of death. It was first published separately in Graham's Magazine
Graham's Magazine
Graham's Magazine was a nineteenth century periodical based in Philadelphia established by George Rex Graham. It was alternatively referred to as Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine , Graham's Magazine of Literature and Art , Graham's American Monthly Magazine of Literature and Art Graham's...

in 1843, but quickly became associated with Poe's short story
Short story
A short story is a work of fiction that is usually written in prose, often in narrative format. This format tends to be more pointed than longer works of fiction, such as novellas and novels. Short story definitions based on length differ somewhat, even among professional writers, in part because...

"Ligeia" is an early short story by American writer Edgar Allan Poe, first published in 1838. The story follows an unnamed narrator and his wife Ligeia, a beautiful and intelligent raven-haired woman. She falls ill, composes "The Conqueror Worm", and quotes lines attributed to Joseph Glanvill ...

" 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.


An audience of weeping angels watches a play performed by "mimes, in the form of God on high", and controlled by vast formless shapes looming behind the scenes. The mimes chase a "Phantom" which they can never capture, running around in circles. Finally, a monstrous "crawling shape" emerges, and eats the mimes. The final curtain comes down, "a funeral pall," signaling an end to the "tragedy
Tragedy is a form of art based on human suffering that offers its audience pleasure. While most cultures have developed forms that provoke this paradoxical response, tragedy refers to a specific tradition of drama that has played a unique and important role historically in the self-definition of...

, 'Man'" whose only hero is "The Conqueror Worm".


Poe's mother and father were both actors, and the poem uses theater metaphors throughout to deal with human life on a universal level.

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 which was reviewed in an 1840 issue of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine
Burton's Gentleman's Magazine
Burton's Gentleman's Magazine or, more simply, Burton's Magazine, was a literary publication published in Philadelphia in 1837-1841. Its founder was William Evans Burton, an English-born immigrant to the United States who also managed a theatre and was a minor actor.-Overview:The magazine included...

. That poem contained the lines "Let him meet the conqueror worm / With his good sword by his side".

Role in "Ligeia"

The poem plays an important symbolic role as part of its inclusion in the short story "Ligeia." The poem is written by Ligeia as she is dying, though it is actually recited by the narrator, her husband.

Because it emphasizes the finality of death, it calls to question Ligeia's resurrection in the story. Also, the inclusion of the bitter poem may have been meant to be ironic or a parody
A parody , in current usage, is an imitative work created to mock, comment on, or trivialise an original work, its subject, author, style, or some other target, by means of humorous, satiric or ironic imitation...

 of the convention at the time, both in literature and in life. In the mid-19th century it was common to emphasize the sacredness of death and the beauty of dying (consider Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens
Charles John Huffam Dickens was an English novelist, generally considered the greatest of the Victorian period. Dickens enjoyed a wider popularity and fame than had any previous author during his lifetime, and he remains popular, having been responsible for some of English literature's most iconic...

's Little Johnny character in Our Mutual Friend and the death of Helen Burns in Charlotte Brontë
Charlotte Brontë
Charlotte Brontë was an English novelist and poet, the eldest of the three Brontë sisters who survived into adulthood, whose novels are English literature standards...

's Jane Eyre
Jane Eyre
Jane Eyre is a novel by English writer Charlotte Brontë. It was published in London, England, in 1847 by Smith, Elder & Co. with the title Jane Eyre. An Autobiography under the pen name "Currer Bell." The first American edition was released the following year by Harper & Brothers of New York...

). Instead, Ligeia speaks of fear personified in the "blood-red thing."

"The Conqueror Worm" also uses the word "evermore", which would later evolve into "nevermore" in Poe's famous poem "The Raven
The Raven
"The Raven" is a narrative poem by American writer Edgar Allan Poe, first published in January 1845. It is often noted for its musicality, stylized language, and supernatural atmosphere. It tells of a talking raven's mysterious visit to a distraught lover, tracing the man's slow descent into madness...

" in 1845.

Publication history

"The Conqueror Worm" was first published as a stand-alone poem in the January 1843 issue of Graham's Magazine. Shortly after, it was included among several other poems by Poe in the February 25 issue of the Saturday Museum in a feature called "The Poets & Poetry of Philadelphia: Edgar Allan Poe". It was later included in Poe's poetry collection The Raven and Other Poems in 1845. That same year, it was incorporated into "Ligeia" for the first time when the story was reprinted in the February 15, 1845, issue of the New York World. "Ligeia" was again republished with "The Conqueror Worm" in the September 27, 1845, issue of The Broadway Journal while Poe was its editor. This was not unusual for Poe, who had also incorporated poems "The Coliseum" and "To One in Paradise" into tales.


In 1935, Baltimore-born composer Franz Bornschein
Franz Bornschein
Franz Carl Bornschein was an American composer, teacher, and music critic. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, he studied at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, later becoming a professor there. He also served for a time as the music critic of the Baltimore Evening Sun. His wife, Hazel Knox, was a...

 wrote a three-part chorus for women with orchestra or piano accompaniment based on "The Conqueror Worm". The poem was also rewritten and adapted as the first track to Lou Reed
Lou Reed
Lewis Allan "Lou" Reed is an American rock musician, songwriter, and photographer. He is best known as guitarist, vocalist, and principal songwriter of The Velvet Underground, and for his successful solo career, which has spanned several decades...

's 2003 album of Poe adaptations and Poe-inspired songs, The Raven. It was also adapted as a song by the Darkwave
Dark Wave or darkwave is a music genre that began in the late 1970s, coinciding with the popularity of New Wave and post-punk. Building on those basic principles, dark wave added dark, introspective lyrics and an undertone of sorrow for some bands...

 act, Sopor Aeternus & the Ensemble of Shadows on the album Flowers in Formaldehyde
Flowers in Formaldehyde
"Flowers in Formaldehyde" is the second EP by darkwave band Sopor Aeternus & the Ensemble of Shadows, and was released in 2004 as a companion to the album "La Chambre D'Echo" - Where the dead Birds sing...

in 2004. Vol. 5 of the Hellboy
Hellboy is a comic book superhero created by writer-artist Mike Mignola. The character first appeared in San Diego Comic-Con Comics #2 , and has since appeared in various eponymous miniseries, one-shots and intercompany crossovers...

 comic book
Comic book
A comic book or comicbook is a magazine made up of comics, narrative artwork in the form of separate panels that represent individual scenes, often accompanied by dialog as well as including...

 mini-series by Mike Mignola
Mike Mignola
Michael Joseph "Mike" Mignola is an American comic book artist and writer who created the comic book series Hellboy for Dark Horse Comics. He has worked for animation projects such as Atlantis: The Lost Empire and the adaptation of his one shot comic book, The Amazing Screw-On Head.-Career:Mignola...

 titled Hellboy: Conqueror Worm was based on the poem.

The British horror film Witchfinder General
Witchfinder General (film)
Witchfinder General is a 1968 British horror film directed by Michael Reeves and starring Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, and Hilary Dwyer. The screenplay was by Reeves and Tom Baker based on Ronald Bassett's novel of the same name. Made on a low budget of under £100,000, the movie was coproduced by...

was retitled The Conqueror Worm for U.S. release, but was not actually based on Poe's poem.

External links

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