"The Conqueror Worm" is a poem about the inevitability of death by the American writer Edgar Allan Poe. It was first published in the January 1843 issue of Graham's Magazine and appears in the 1845 anthology The Raven and Other Poems. For the February 15, 1845 edition of The New York World newspaper, Poe incorporated "The Conqueror Worm" into the text of his short story "Ligeia", which had first been published without the poem in 1838.
The poem's title refers to the idea that buried corpses are eaten by worms. Although the connection between worms and death dates back many centuries, Poe may have been influenced by the poem "The Proud Ladye" by Spencer Wallis Cone, which was published in an 1840 edition of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, in which the phrase "the conqueror worm" appears.
"The Conqueror Worm" describes angels watching a play in which the characters appear to have little control over their own destinies. A monster appears which eats each of the actors. The saddened and horrified angels leave the theater. It is revealed that the angels have been watching human lives and that the monster represents death.
The theatrical imagery in the poem may have been influenced by the fact that Poe's parents, Eliza Poe and David Poe, Jr., both of whom died before they reached the age of thirty, had both been actors.
Angels gather to see a play, accompanied by the sound of the music of the spheres. The actors in the piece are said to look like God but their speech cannot be clearly understood and they seem to rush about the stage aimlessly. The actors appear to be mere puppets who are controlled by someone else who cannot be seen. The actors chase after something unseen, it is not clear what they are pursuing, but they fail to get hold of it. In spite of all the movements they make, all the actors ultimately come back to the point from which they started.
A red monster comes slithering onto the stage. It eats each of the characters one by one. The angels cry as they see its teeth become covered in the actors' blood.
The lights go out and the curtain falls. The horrified angels leave. The poem ends with the revelation that the angels have been watching "the tragedy Man" and that "the Conqueror Worm" is the protagonist of the piece.
The poem has inspired several musicians and songwriters, particularly those within the gothic and heavy metal genres. Notably, the first track on Lou Reed's 2003 Poe- inspired album The Raven is a recitation of "The Conqueror Worm" set to a musical accompaniment.
The 1968 British-American horror film Witchfinder General, starring Vincent Price, was renamed The Conqueror Worm for release in the United States. This was done in an attempt to tie the film in with seven earlier films inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe in which Price had appeared. However, the film's plot has no connection to the poem or any other works by Poe. When the film was first theatrically released in the United States, a recitation of the poem "The Conqueror Worm" by Vincent Price was added to its end credits. This was cut from most North American home video releases of the film.
- For example, in Hamlet Act IV, scene iii, Hamlet says, "Your worm is the only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures else to fat us and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service - two dishes, but to one table. That's the end."
- The ancient concept of the music of the spheres held that the movements of the sun, moon and planets formed part of a kind of music. The music which they formed part of may or may not have been audible to human ears.
- This is a Biblical reference. In Genesis 1:26, God says, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness".