The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The City in the Sea” is a poem of four uneven stanzas, the divisions between which Edgar Allan Poe reworked in the several editions of this lyric. The title of the poem and the revisions Poe made in that title suggest connections with the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah, ancient cities condemned for their wickedness and licentiousness. The city that Poe depicts here is certainly a doomed, dreary, and lonely place, one characterized by death rather than life, by stillness rather than human activity.

The poem is primarily descriptive, and by beginning as he does with the exclamation “Lo!”—meaning “Look closely!”—Poe emphasizes that he wants the reader to pay careful attention to the surprising and important picture he is about to paint.

Poe begins by introducing the sole inhabitant of this city in the sea, death, for death has erected his throne here and rules the unusual and alien landscape. The city is located in the “West,” the land of the setting sun and endings rather than the land of beginnings and hope, and eventually everyone—both the good and the bad—arrives in this region for “eternal rest.” The city seems, however, deserted, and a sense of hopelessness, resignation, and melancholy prevails. Poe infuses the poem with the quality of a nightmare—something familiar but terrifyingly abnormal—by asserting that the city resembles nothing that anyone would recognize while at the same time describing the city with...

(The entire section is 539 words.)