‘The City in the Sea’ – A poem by Edgar Allan Poe

Context: The poem appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger, The American Review, the Broadway Journal, as well as in the 1850 collection The Poets and Poetry of America. Poe drew his inspiration from several works, including Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The final version of text appeared in 1845 and contains many subjects associated with Gothic fiction. Poe was inspired at least in part by Flavius Josephus’s History of the Jewish Wars, a first-century account of the Biblical city of Gomorrah. Poe was accused of plagiarizing part of the poem from a poem called “Musing Thoughts”, first published in 1829 in The Token. Both poems include a line about a “thousand thrones”.

Themes: Death; a city in the sea ruled by death. Death is a real person here and resides in a tower from where he can see everything. Other themes are typical for the Gothic tradition such as loneliness and melancholy; catastrophe and collapse. The city can be a metaphor of man’s own soul. In another poem “Annabel Lee” there is also a reference to a kingdom by the sea as the narrator’s love suddenly dies.

****************

Lo! Death has reared himself a throne
In a strange city lying alone
Far down within the dim West,
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.
There shrines and palaces and towers
(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)
Resemble nothing that is ours.
Around, by lifting winds forgot,
Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie.

No rays from the holy heaven come down
On the long night-time of that town;
But light from out the lurid sea
Streams up the turrets silently —
Gleams up the pinnacles far and free —
Up domes — up spires — up kingly halls —
Up fanes — up Babylon-like walls —
Up shadowy long-forgotten bowers
Of sculptured ivy and stone flowers —
Up many and many a marvelous shrine
Whose wreathéd friezes intertwine
The viol, the violet, and the vine.
So blend the turrets and shadows there
That all seem pendulous in the air,
While from a proud tower in the town
Death looks gigantically down.

There open fanes and gaping graves
Yawn level with the luminous waves;
But not the riches there that lie
In each idol’s diamond eye —
Not the gaily-jeweled dead
Tempt the waters from their bed;
For no ripples curl, alas!
Along that wilderness of glass —
No swellings tell that winds may be
Upon some far-off happier sea —
No heavings hint that winds have been
On seas less hideously serene.

But lo, a stir is in the air!
The wave — there is a movement there!
As if the towers had thrust aside,
In slightly sinking, the dull tide —
As if their tops had feebly given
A void within the filmy Heaven.
The waves have now a redder glow —
The hours are breathing faint and low —
And when, amid no earthly moans,
Down, down that town shall settle hence,
Hell, rising from a thousand thrones,
Shall do it reverence.

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