The City in the Sea

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Themes and Meanings

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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 resignation and sadness. Yet, it is exactly for this reason that many readers find Poe objectionable. No one would argue that Poe has depicted here a healthy and moral environment. The city is clearly corrupt; however, Poe has made something beautiful of this corruption. The reader must decide for himself or herself whether such an effort is laudable, whether a poem should be more uplifting and hopeful.

Given all the stillness in the poem and in the city, a rising or hopeful movement would finish the poem with some triumph, with some sense of morality, but the movement at the end of “The City in the Sea” is instead a sinking that ends with hell “rising from a thousand thrones.” Only hell seems ascendant at the end of the poem. In this sense, the poem very much embodies the nightmarish state of mind that so fascinated Poe. He seemed to look at the world of familiar objects the way one looks at the elements of a very bad dream: Things look familiar, but they are really evil and terrifying. It is as if Poe takes a slightly different focus, an altered perspective, on the city, and in so doing he reveals it to be a place of death not life, stillness not activity, melancholy not hope, resignation not determination.

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