Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Essentially, Poe’s “The City in the Sea” is not obviously metaphoric; that is, it does not talk about one thing as though it were something else. (It does not, for example, discuss a beloved woman as if she were a rose.) Rather, this poem presents what Poe wants to discuss—a city—in nightmarish and frightening terms. When Poe asks his readers to consider this city, however, he is also asking them to think about all that cities have come to represent for civilized humans—activity, work, pleasure, art, music, and society (“The viol, the violet, and the vine”). This city is filled with the accomplishments of human beings, with “shrines and palaces and towers,” but the city is ruled over by death, and the city exists in a land where resignation, melancholy, and stillness prevail. While no one is present in the city save death, everyone comes here eventually, and the poem seems to hint that all human efforts are vain and hopeless and—according to the final lines of the poem—honored only by hell and death.

Poe would probably resist this reading of the poem since he did not believe that poetry existed to teach; he believed rather that poetry existed for its own sake, for the beauty of its lines, mood, atmosphere, and feeling. For Poe, the importance of this poem would lie in how eloquently and elegantly he had represented this doomed city, how poignantly he had sketched the city’s fall, how fully he had developed the atmosphere of...

(The entire section is 475 words.)