“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 conventional words and concepts (“towers,” “shrines,” and “palaces”). A vast stillness dominates the scene, and even the wind has forgotten to blow here.
Poe turns his attention to the distance between this city and heaven when he comments on the light. This light is not a holy or natural light (as light from heaven would be) but rather one that gleams from the “lurid” sea onto walls that remind the poet of Babylon, another condemned and sinful city of the ancient world. Despite the fact that the domes, spires, and halls are highly decorated in this city, they remain deserted and forgotten. Poe focuses again on the surreal quality of this landscape when he tells the reader that the turrets and shadows seem to blend and to hang suspended in air. With this assertion, Poe implies that there is no distinction here between what is real (the turrets) and what is unreal (the shadows). Substance and shadow become one, and death rules majestically over all.
The feeling that everything is reduced to immobile similarity is intensified in the third stanza, where Poe shows that both churches (fanes) and graves, symbols of life and death, are “level” with the waves. The scene is so threateningly still that it causes one to think that there may not even be normal, “happier” seas elsewhere in the world. The stillness of both sea and air enhances the unnaturalness of this city, and both make the apparent serenity of the scene hideous rather than comforting. Poe concludes his description, however, with a final appeal to the reader to look carefully, for he again says, “lo,” and calls attention to the fact that movement finally occurs: The city seems to sink and settle, and as it does so, hell rises to meet and honor the city.
One characteristic of the lyric poem is its focus on pictorial and melodic aspects of experience. “The City in the Sea” is no exception to this rule, for in this work a detailed picture of a city is offered, and the language in which the picture is rendered is intensely melodic and beautiful. The pictorial aspects of “The City in the...
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Sea” are conveyed primarily through imagery, that is, language that appeals to the senses. The sense to which this poem makes its greatest appeal is the visual. Poe wants the reader to see this city; he wants him or her to visualize this beautiful and yet doomed human edifice. His choice of language reveals his preoccupation with sight; words such as “gleam,” “shadow,” “sculptured,” “resemble,” “streams,” “open,” “ripples,” “glass,” and “diamond” remind the reader that he or she is looking at something, that Poe wants his readers to see what he places before them.
The visual beauty of this city is further emphasized by the melodic beauty of Poe’s skillful versification, his use of rhyme and meter. While the poem does not conform to a fixed form (such as a sonnet or a rondel), it does employ various patterns of sound that enhance its appeal. All the lines are arranged in rhymed couplets (two lines), tercets (three lines), or quatrains (four lines), and some lines and words are repeated for emphasis and effect (“Resignedly beneath the sky/ The melancholy waters lie”). Poe makes frequent use of rhymes other than these end rhymes (rhyming words at the end of the line). He uses initial rhyme, or rhyme that comes at the beginning of a line (“Streams up the turrets silently—/ Gleams up the pinnacles far and free”), as well as internal repetition of sounds (“The viol, the violet, and the vine”) to intensify his description. In general, each line has four metrical beats, but because the number of syllables in each line varies, the rhythm of the poem is sometimes surprising and emphatic (as in the longest line of the poem—“Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best”—in which the stress falls heavily on the significant words of the passage: “good,” “bad,” “worst,” and “best”).
The poem also contains allusions to several real places, although it clearly presents a fantasy of these places rather than a realistic depiction of them. Babylon is mentioned in line 18, a reference to the ancient city devoted to material and sensual pleasures, and the entire poem reminds the reader of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which—as is this city—were utterly destroyed for their wickedness. That the city Poe has created is, indeed, evil becomes even more obvious when one considers how unnatural it seems—the wind does not blow, nothing moves, the light is strange—and how far from heaven it is: The light does not come from heaven, the waters are sad rather than joyful, and the gods there are death and “idols.”
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