Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
of Work and Publication
Allan Poe's "The Coliseum" is a lyric
poem of forty-seven lines. It first appeared in The Baltimore
Saturday Visiter (Visitor) in 1833. After he revised it, it
appeared in The Southern Literary Messenger in August 1835 and The
Saturday Evening Post on June 12, 1841.
sets the poem in the Coliseum (preferred modern spelling: Colosseum),
the amphitheater constructed in Rome between AD 70 and 82 near the Roman
Forum. It could accommodate fifty thousand spectators for gladiatorial
contests, executions, fights between men and animals, and other "entertainments."
It was originally named the Flavian Amphitheater, after the family name
of the ruling Romans of the time. Emperor Vespasian commenced construction
on it between AD 70 and 72. Emperor Titus completed and dedicated it in
AD 80, and Emperor Domitian modified it between AD 80 and 82 to add an
extra story. Over the centuries, fire, earthquakes, and weather damaged
it, and looters took its marble stones. But much of the building still
stands today as a symbol of ancient Rome. It is one of the modern city's
most popular tourist attractions.
speaker presents his thoughts in first-person point of view, identifying
himself only as a traveler reacting to the atmosphere of the Colosseum.
By Michael J. Cummings
speaker makes a long and tiring journey to the Colosseum, a grand symbol
of ancient Rome and its pomp and power. He has come to it—as
have so many others over the centuries—to
contemplate its extraordinary architecture and to imagine the events that
took place there. He kneels humbly in its shadows to consider the lore
of the place and to absorb its "grandeur, gloom, and glory" (line 9).
is vast and very old, and quiet, desolate, and dim. It casts a spell on
him. He imagines the past, noting that where a column has collapsed a hero
once fell. And where a bat keeps vigil, the emblem of Rome—a
golden figure of an eagle—once looked down
upon the crowds.
as well as men watched the spectacles in the arena, their hair waving in
the wind. Now only reed and thistle wave in the winds sweeping through
the Colosseum. And where the Roman emperor sat upon a marble throne, a
lizard now glides over the ruins.
speaker asks whether ivy-covered arcades and decaying columns, friezes,
and cornices are all that's left of the Coliseum. Echoes answer him, saying
the stone ruins utter prophecies to the wise: These prophecies are the
lessons that history teaches about how Rome became great and how it fell
to ruin, like the Colosseum itself. The wise and the mighty learn from
these lessons to avoid ruination for everyone under their influence.
of the antique Rome! Rich reliquary
lofty contemplation left to Time
buried centuries of pomp and power!
length, at length—after so many days
weary pilgrimage and burning thirst—.............................5
for the springs of lore2
that in thee lie)
kneel, an altered and an humble man,
thy shadows, and so drink within
very soul thy grandeur, gloom, and glory.
and Age, and Memories of Eld!3..........................10
and Desolation, and dim Night!
and phantom-peopled aisles
feel ye now—I feel ye in your strength.
spells more sure than e'er Judæan king
in the gardens of Gethsemané.5..............................15
charms more potent than the rapt Chaldee6
drew down from out the quiet stars!
where a hero fell, a column falls!
where the mimic eagle glared in gold,7
midnight vigil holds the swarthy bat!.................................20
where the dames of Rome their yellow hair
to the wind, now wave the reed and thistle!
where on golden throne the monarch8
spectre-like, unto his marble home,
by the wan light of the hornéd moon,9.............................25
swift and silent lizard of the stones!
stay!—these walls, these ivy-clad arcades,10
these sad and blackened shafts,
this crumbling frieze,13
this wreck, this ruin,.................30
stones—alas, these grey stones—are they all—
of the grand and the colossal left
the corrosive hours to Fate and me?
all"—the echoes answer me—"not all.
sounds, and loud, arise forever............................35
us, and from all ruin, unto the wise,
to the sun.
rule the hearts of mightiest men—we rule
a despotic sway all giant minds.
are not impotent—we pallid stones...............................40
all our power is gone—not all our fame—
all the magic of our high renown—
all the wonder that encircles us—
all the mysteries that in us lie—
all the memories that hang upon...................................45
cling around about us like a garment,
us in a robe of more than glory."
of lore: Tales that the ruins tell about
the Colosseum and its events.
of Gethsemané: Gardens on the Mount
of Olives just outside Jerusalem. Jesus prayed there after Judas Iscariot
. . . gold: Firgures of eagles on flags
and atop standards, symbolizing Rome's might.
Emperor of Rome.
Passageways with arched roofs.
Square blocks of stones beneath columns.
Horizontal structure above the columns and beneath the roof.
horizontal band on an entablature, often with sculpted images.
Topmost part of an entablature.
from Memnon: Reference to seveny-foot-high
statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III at Thebes, Egypt. After an earthquake
damaged one of the them in 27 BC, it made the sound of a plucked harp string
every morning when the rays of the sun fell upon it. It is believed that
air warmed by the sun caused the sound.
The Awe-Inspiring Roman
Colosseum inspires awe in the speaker, as it does in most people who see
it for the first time. It is not only its magnificent architecture that
affects the visitor; it is also the imagined sounds of the crowd cheering
or hissing a gladiator, or the sounds of animals fighting one another.
In addition, it is what the Colosseum symbolizes: the power, the glory,
the ingenuity, and the corruption of ancient Rome.
Learning From History
with crowds of fifty thousand Romans citizens, the emperor and prominent
politicians frequently attended the entertainments in the Colosseum, which
included gladiatorial contests, performances by animals and their trainers,
and even mock naval battles that required flooding of the arena.
watched men kill one another. They also watched wild animals kill men or
other beasts, and men kill animals. The echoes of the past from the ruins
of the Colosseum tell the speaker that "Prophetic
sounds, and loud, arise forever / From us, and from all ruin, unto the
other words, the Colosseum is a testament to the perverted entertainments
that fascinated the Romans. The ancient stones of the amphitheater warn
that civilizations will fall to ruin, like the Colosseum, if they adopt
the Roman penchant for blood sport.
of the poem is in unrhymed iambic pentameter (blank verse), as lines 7
and 8 demonstrate
However, several lines—such
as the first and last—contain eleven syllables,
making them incomplete hexameters rather than pentameters.
frequently uses anaphora, a figure of speech in which a word or phrase
is repeated at the beginning of a clause or another group of words. Anaphora
imparts emphasis and balance. Here are boldfaced examples from "The Coliseum":
a hero fell, a column falls!
Figures of Speech
Here, where the mimic
eagle glared in gold
A midnight vigil holds the
Here, where the dames
of Rome their gilded hair (lines 18-21)
These moldering plinths—these
sad and blackened shafts-
These vague entablatures—this
These shattered cornices—this
These stones- alas!
these grey stones—are they all—
Not all our power
is gone—not all our fame-
Not all the magic
of our high renown—
Not all the wonder
that encircles us—
Not all the mysteries
that in us lie—
Not all the memories
that hang upon (lines 41-45)
are examples of other figures of speech from the poem. For definitions
of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
My very soul thy
and glory! (line 9)
where a hero fell,
a column falls (line 18)
where the mimic
eagle glared in gold
of the stones! (line 26)
Vastness! and Age!
and Memories of Eld!
Silence! and Desolation!
and dim Night!
I feel ye now—I
feel ye in your strength (lines 10-12)
The speaker address vastness,
age, memories, silence, desolation, and night.
By buried centuries
of pomp and power! (line 2)
Comparison of centuries
and so drink within
My very soul thy grandeur,
gloom, and glory! (lines 8-9)
Comparison of grandeur,
gloom, and glory to beverages
these sad and blackened
shafts (line 2*)
Comparison of shafts
to humans. (Only humans can feel sad.)
the Echoes answer me—"not all!
Prophetic sounds and loud,
From us, and from all Ruin,
unto the wise (lines 34-36)
Comparison of the echoes
to speaking humans
Here, where on golden
throne the monarch lolled,
Glides, spectre-like, unto
his marble home,
Lit by the wan light of
the hornéd moon,
The swift and silent lizard
of the stones! (lines 23-26)
Comparison of the lizard
to a ghost (spectre)
Not all the memories that
And cling around about us
as a garment,
Clothing us in a robe of
more than glory. (lines 45-47)
Comparison of the memories
to a garment
Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned
at age two, he was taken into the home of a childless couple—John
Allan, a successful businessman in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was
believed to be Poe’s godfather. At age six, Poe went to England with the
Allans and was enrolled in schools there. After he returned with the Allans
to the U.S. in 1820, he studied at private schools, then attended the University
of Virginia and the U.S. Military Academy, but did not complete studies
at either school.
beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his
young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined
the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while,
he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his
poem “The Raven” in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international
fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented
the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an
outstanding literary critic.
the acclaim he received, Poe was never really happy because of his drinking
and because of the deaths of several people close to him, including his
wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble paying his debts. It is believed
that heavy drinking was a contributing cause of his death in Baltimore
on October 7, 1849.
Questions and Writing Topics
Write a poem in unrhymed iambic
pentameter (the verse form of "The Coliseum"). The topic is open. The poem
should have a minimum of ten lines.
Write an essay about a historic
site that you found awe-inspiring when you visited it. Focus on your feelings
at the time you visited the site, and present enough background about it
to familiarize the reader with it. Include interesting anecdotes about
the site to keep the reader interested.
What is the meaning of "phantom-peopled
aisles"? (line 12).
of alliteration besides those identified above.