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The Coliseum
By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
Cummings Guides Home..|..Contact This Site
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Type of Work
Background
Point of View
Summary
Text and Notes
Themes
Meter
Anaphora
Other Figures of Speech
Biography
Study Questions
Writing Topics
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2011
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Type of Work and Publication

.......Edgar 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.

Background

.......Poe 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. 

Point of View

.......The speaker presents his thoughts in first-person point of view, identifying himself only as a traveler reacting to the atmosphere of the Colosseum.

Summary
By Michael J. Cummings

.......The 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~ez_mdash~as have so many others over the centuries~ez_mdash~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).
.......It 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~ez_mdash~a golden figure of an eagle~ez_mdash~once looked down upon the crowds.
.......Women 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. 
.......The 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.

Text
1841 Version

Type1 of the antique Rome! Rich reliquary 
Of lofty contemplation left to Time 
By buried centuries of pomp and power! 
At length, at length~ez_mdash~after so many days 
Of weary pilgrimage and burning thirst~ez_mdash~.............................5
(Thirst for the springs of lore2 that in thee lie)
I kneel, an altered and an humble man,
Among thy shadows, and so drink within 
My very soul thy grandeur, gloom, and glory.

Vastness and Age, and Memories of Eld!3..........................10
Silence and Desolation, and dim Night! 
Gaunt vestibules4 and phantom-peopled aisles
I feel ye now~ez_mdash~I feel ye in your strength.
O spells more sure than e'er Judæan king 
Taught in the gardens of Gethsemané.5..............................15
O charms more potent than the rapt Chaldee6
Ever drew down from out the quiet stars!

Here, where a hero fell, a column falls!
Here, where the mimic eagle glared in gold,7
A midnight vigil holds the swarthy bat!.................................20
Here, where the dames of Rome their yellow hair 
Waved to the wind, now wave the reed and thistle!
Here, where on golden throne the monarch8 lolled, 
Glides spectre-like, unto his marble home,
Lit by the wan light of the hornéd moon,9.............................25
The swift and silent lizard of the stones! 

But stay!~ez_mdash~these walls, these ivy-clad arcades,10
These mouldering plinths,11 these sad and blackened shafts, 
These vague entablatures,12 this crumbling frieze,13
These shattered cornices,14 this wreck, this ruin,.................30
These stones~ez_mdash~alas, these grey stones~ez_mdash~are they all~ez_mdash~
All of the grand and the colossal left 
By the corrosive hours to Fate and me? 

"Not all"~ez_mdash~the echoes answer me~ez_mdash~"not all.
"Prophetic sounds, and loud, arise forever............................35
"From us, and from all ruin, unto the wise,
"As melody from Memnon15 to the sun. 
"We rule the hearts of mightiest men~ez_mdash~we rule
"With a despotic sway all giant minds. 
"We are not impotent~ez_mdash~we pallid stones...............................40
"Not all our power is gone~ez_mdash~not all our fame~ez_mdash~ 
"Not all the magic of our high renown~ez_mdash~
"Not all the wonder that encircles us~ez_mdash~
"Not all the mysteries that in us lie~ez_mdash~
"Not all the memories that hang upon...................................45 
"And cling around about us like a garment, 
"Clothing us in a robe of more than glory."

Notes

1.....type: Symbol. 
2.....springs of lore: Tales that the ruins tell about the Colosseum and its events.
3.....Eld: Ancient times.
4.....vestibules: Enclosed entrances.
5.....gardens of Gethsemané: Gardens on the Mount of Olives just outside Jerusalem. Jesus prayed there after Judas Iscariot betrayed him. 
6.....Chaldee: Astrologer.
7.....eagle . . . gold: Firgures of eagles on flags and atop standards, symbolizing Rome's might.
8.....monarch: Emperor of Rome.
9.....hornéd moon: Crescent moon.
10...arcades: Passageways with arched roofs.
11...plinths: Square blocks of stones beneath columns.
12...entablature: Horizontal structure above the columns and beneath the roof.
13...frieze: horizontal band on an entablature, often with sculpted images.
14...cornice: Topmost part of an entablature.
15...melody 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. 

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Themes

The Awe-Inspiring Roman Past

.......The 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

.......Along 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. 
.......Romans 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 wise" (35-36).
.......In 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.

Meter

.......Most of the poem is in unrhymed iambic pentameter (blank verse), as lines 7 and 8 demonstrate

.....1.............2...............3................4...............5
I KNEEL..|..an AL..|..tered AND..|..an HUM..|..ble MAN

....1.............2.................3...................4..............5
A MID..|..thy SHA..|..dows AND..|..so DRINK..|..with IN

However, several lines~ez_mdash~such as the first and last~ez_mdash~contain eleven syllables, making them incomplete hexameters rather than pentameters.
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Use of Anaphora

.......Poe 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":

Here, where a hero fell, a column falls! 
Here, where the mimic eagle glared in gold 
A midnight vigil holds the swarthy bat
Here, where the dames of Rome their gilded hair (lines 18-21)

These moldering plinths~ez_mdash~these sad and blackened shafts-
These vague entablatures~ez_mdash~this crumbling frieze~ez_mdash~
These shattered cornices~ez_mdash~this wreck~ez_mdash~this ruin~ez_mdash~
These stones- alas! these grey stones~ez_mdash~are they all~ez_mdash~ (lines 28-31)

Not all our power is gone~ez_mdash~not all our fame-
Not all the magic of our high renown~ez_mdash~
Not all the wonder that encircles us~ez_mdash~
Not all the mysteries that in us lie~ez_mdash~
Not all the memories that hang upon (lines 41-45)

Other Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of other figures of speech from the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.

Alliteration

My very soul thy grandeur, gloom, and glory! (line 9)

Here, where a hero fell, a column falls (line 18)

Here, where the mimic eagle glared in gold (line 19)

The swift and silent lizard of the stones! (line 26)

Apostrophe
Vastness! and Age! and Memories of Eld!
Silence! and Desolation! and dim Night!
I feel ye now~ez_mdash~I feel ye in your strength (lines 10-12)
The speaker address vastness, age, memories, silence, desolation, and night.
Metaphor
By buried centuries of pomp and power! (line 2)
Comparison of centuries to corpses

and so drink within
My very soul thy grandeur, gloom, and glory! (lines 8-9)
Comparison of grandeur, gloom, and glory to  beverages

Personification
these sad and blackened shafts (line 2*)
Comparison of shafts to humans. (Only humans can feel sad.)

"Not all"~ez_mdash~ the Echoes answer me~ez_mdash~"not all!
Prophetic sounds and loud, arise forever
From us, and from all Ruin, unto the wise (lines 34-36)
Comparison of the echoes to speaking humans

Simile
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 hang upon
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

Author Information

.......Edgar 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~ez_mdash~John Allan, a successful businessman in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poe~ez_rsquo~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. 
.......After 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 ~ez_ldquo~The Raven~ez_rdquo~ 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. 
.......Despite 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. 

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Study 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).
  • List examples of alliteration besides those identified above.
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