The City in the Sea by Edgar Allan Poe

‘The City in the Sea’ was published in its final form in 1845. An earlier version of the poem was titled ‘The Doomed City’. It appeared in 1831 and then once more in a different form as ‘The City of Sin’.The poem was included in the tenth edition of The Poets and Poetry of America after Poe’s death. It was included as an example of Poe’s greatest work. It is considered to be one of Poe’s best early poems. 

In ‘The City in the Sea’ Poe explores themes of sin, death, and destruction. The tone and mood are both gloomy and foreboding throughout, helping to create a suitably gothic atmosphere for the text. 

The City in the Sea by Edgar Allan Poe

 

Summary of The City in the Sea 

‘The City in the Sea’ by Edgar Allan Poe is a dark, gothic poem that describes a doomed city of sin that sinks to the bottom of the sea. 

The poem takes the reader through Death’s city. He rules this place from a throne and towers over it “gigantically”. The city is lit by nothing but the light from the sea. By following its progression a reader can see the towers, palaces, friezes, and spires that fill the city-scape. Towards the end of the poem, a change comes over the usually very still ocean. It starts to move, as does the city itself. The city sinks, slowly, down into the water, consumed by its shiny surface. This dark place is compared to a more terrible version of hell in the last lines. A place that hell would worship. 

 

Structure of The City in the Sea 

The City in the Sea’ by Edgar Allan Poe is a five stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The first, second, and fourth stanzas contain twelve lines, the third: six, and the fifth: twelve again. Poe chose to give this piece a very structured rhyme scheme, something that is common in his poetic works. The lines rhyme AABBCC, and so on, with only a few moments in which the pattern is interrupted or changed. 

Within this poem, Poe makes use of archaic diction. Many of the words are examples of archaisms, and many others just sound old fashioned. This elevates the language, making it sound more poetic, adding to the dark mood of the description of the city that makes up the five stanzas. 

 

Poetic Techniques in The City in the Sea

Poe makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The City in the Sea’. These include personification, alliteration, anaphora, and caesura. The first, personification, occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. From the first line of ‘The City in the Sea’ Poe makes use of this technique. He describes Death as a human-like creature that has a “throne” and an independent agency, allowing it to make decisions and act on them. 

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For instance, “holy heaven” in the first line of the second stanza and “wilderness” and “winds” at the end of stanza four. 

Poe also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. This can be seen most clearly in stanza two with the repetition of “Up” at the beginning of four lines. 

Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might proceed an important turn or transition in the text. There are several examples in the middle portion of the second stanza. For example, lines six and seven which read: “Up domes—up spires—up kingly halls— / Up fanes—up Babylon-like walls”. With the addition of anaphora and repetition, these lines build off one another, following, step by step, the progression of “light from…the lurid sea”.

 

Analysis of The City in the Sea 

Stanza One 

     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.

In the first stanza of ‘The City in the Sea,’ the speaker begins by using personification to describe Death. “He” has created for himself “a throne”. It rests in a “strange city” that exists “within the dim West”. From just these first three lines it is clear that Death has a very important position in this landscape. His throne is somewhere “strange” and “dim”. It already does not seem like somewhere one would want to visit.

The location is described further in the fifth and sixth lines. Poe makes use of accumulation to describe the “West”. It is the place where “the good and the bad and the worst and the best” find their “eternal rest”. It is the afterlife, located as is often the case in the “west,” where the sun sets. 

The speaker, very aware of the differences between the “west” and “our” world, describes the “shrines and palaces and towers”. He notes that they are “Time-eaten” or show the progression of time (they’re very old) but they don’t “tremble”. There’s no chance that they’re going to collapse. It is as though they are immortally frozen as they are. They are very different from the buildings in “our” world. 

The last lines of this stanza describe the location of the city as beside the “melancholy waters”. This first stanza sets the tone for those which will follow. It is gloomy and foreboding, tones, and moods which are very common within Poe’s works. 

 

Stanza Two 

     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 scultured ivy and stone flowers—

Up many and many a marvellous shrine

Whose wreathed friezes intertwine

The viol, the violet, and the vine.

The second stanza is also twelve lines. It goes into more detail about the city, the light that strikes it, and what kind of sights one might see there. The speaker describes how despite its size that no “rays,” or light/goodness from “holy heaven” make it to the city. It is perpetually in the night, obscured from the warmth of God. But, there is another kind of light one will encounter there. 

The light that hits the city does not emanate from the sky but from the “lurid sea”. It has a vivid colour, but not an especially pleasant one. The light comes from the sea and touches the “turrets silently”. The quiet light is expanded in the next lines as Poe uses anaphora and more generally repetition to list out the places the light touches. It falls on the “domes,” “spires” and “kingly halls” of the city. It also travels “Up shadowy long-forgotten bowers” and “many a marvellous shrine”. 

Despite the dark descriptions of this place it also appears magically and entrancingly otherworldly. There are “marvellous” things to see and “bowers / Of ivy and stone flowers”. Last, the light hits the “wreathed friezes” of the shrines. 

 

Stanza Three 

     Resignedly beneath the sky

The melancholy waters lie.

So blend the turrets and shadows there

That all seem pendulous in air,

While from a proud tower in the town

Death looks gigantically down.

The third stanza is only six lines long, half the length of stanzas one, two, and four. In this stanza, the speaker describes how the “melancholy waters” are “resigned”. They don’t fight against their lot in life, nor do those in the city itself. Everything is blended into shadows in this place. All the towers in the city are contrasted with one separate tower, that belonging to Death. He looks down “gigantically” from his “proud tower in the town”. His residence has a different feeling to it than the others around him. 

 

Stanza Four

     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-jewelled 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.

The fourth stanza of ‘The City in the Sea’ starts with a description of “open fanes,” or churches, and “gaping graves”. The use of alliteration in this line, and other lines, benefits the overall rhythm of the poem. It is especially impactful as the poem starts to conclude. These two features, the churches, and the graves, are open and “level” with the waves. Anyone could step into them and loot what’s inside, but no one does. The “riches there that lie” do not tempt “the waters from their bed”.

The water could easily flood and overtake those places but it doesn’t. The fact that there are riches in these two places, to begin with, is an interesting thing to consider. It speaks to a variety of sins, as well as corruption. 

The water is still, as the speaker stated before. It is resigned and makes no move against the city. There are “no ripples” that curl up from it, nor are there any “swellings”. The latter, the speaker says, would tell an onlooker that there are winds on “some far-off happier sea” but this is not the case. This is the only world in reach. There are no “heavings” or powerful movements of the waves that tell those interested that the seas are different somewhere else.

 

Stanza Five 

 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. 

Suddenly, at the beginning of the fifth stanza, something changes. There is a “movement” in the water. It is no longer so “hideously serene” as it had been. The water begins to glow around the city and things start to shift. The towers appear to have moved slightly, something very unusual as the rest of the poem should make clear. 

The light from the water changes, appearing redder than it had before. Time is passing differently, its breath, also personified, is “faint and low”. As quietly as everything else in the city, the city begins to move. There are no “earthly moans” of the ground shifting. Instead, the city begins to sink “Down, down” to settle under the sea. The last lines tell the reader that Death’s city shall be held in reverence by Hell. There is something about this place that seems to be even worse than hell itself. 

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