The City in the Sea Summary

Extended Summary

Although an earlier version of "The City in the Sea" appeared under the title "The Doomed City" in 1831 (and is, therefore, one of Poe's earlier verses), it was worked into its final form for publications in an 1845 edition of the American Review. It is composed of four stanza, each having a different rhyme scheme. There is no narrative persona per se, but the poem is related by a coherent observing intelligence who directs the reader's attention to the sights that he places before him.

The poem begins with the statement that Death (with a capital D) established a city beneath the waves of the sea where the souls of all people (good and bad alike) go for their eternal rest. The city has familiar structures---shrines, palaces, and towers---but they nonetheless defy full description because they "resemble nothing that is ours." It is a sad realm that is not illuminated from above by the rays of Heaven but by an infernal light from below, the hellish beams moving up shrines, "Whose weathered friezes intertwine/The viol, the violet, and the vine." The buildings and their shadows are indistinguishable, so that the entire city seems to float on the air. Its one permanent fixture is the "proud tower" from which Death governs all. The city is filled with graves, and the sea itself is perfectly still, "hideously serene."

Yet in the fourth and final stanza, the narrator detects a stir in the air and the movements of a wave that causes the city's towers to shake and sink ever so slightly. The waves of the sea now emit a more vibrant glow, time itself seems to breathe again. Sensing these motions, the speaker foresees that the city itself will eventually settle downward, toward Hell, and that this will cause the spirits there to rise from their thrones and revere the dead.