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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 499 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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