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The City in the Sea
By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Title, Publication History
Setting
Summary
Text of the Poem
Themes
Rhyme
Meter
Figures of Speech
Biography
Study Questions
Writing Topics
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2010
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Type of Work

.......Edgar Allan Poe's "The City in the Sea" is a lyric poem about an ancient city ruled by death. 

Title and Publication History

.......Poe entitled the original version of the poem "The Doomed City" and published it in 1831 in Poems, a collection of his verse. Poe revised the poem and published it as "The City of Sin" in 1836 in The Southern Literary Messenger. Other revisions of the poem appeared in the 1840s. The version on this page, entitled "The City in the Sea," appeared in the August 30, 1845, issue of the Broadway Journal. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore has posted all the versions online under Historical Texts.

Setting

.......The setting is an empty ancient city about to sink into the sea. The stillness of the site, the sense of foreboding around it, and the presence of supernatural forces all give the poem a Gothic atmosphere. Poe may have drawn inspiration for the poem from the biblical account of the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorra (Genesis, Chapters 10-19) believed to have been located near the Dead Sea. According to the Bible, raining brimstone destroyed the cities (circa 1900 BC). Some biblical archeologists believe their ruins now lie at the bottom of the Dead Sea, a salt lake that forms part of the border between Israel and Jordan.

Summary

.......In the dim light of the sinking western sun, Death sits enthroned as ruler of a silent city lapped by the melancholy waters of the sea—a city of magnificent buildings that include palaces and temples to the gods. No heavenly rays fall on the city, where all the inhabitants lie entombed; but an eerie light from beneath the waves illumines its domes and spires, its kingly halls and mighty walls. Carved into the stone entablatures of the buildings are images of flowers and intertwining viols and vines. 
.......From a tower of one of the buildings, Death looks down on the shrines and the idols and the great city walls, like the walls of ancient Babylon. The earth trembles and graves open, exposing bejeweled corpses. Then the ocean floor parts, casting upward a reddish glow, as the jaws of the Underworld widen to receive the doomed city.

Text of the Poem
As Published in the Broadway Journal on August 30, 1845

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................................5
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..................................10
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—............................15
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—........................20
Up many and many a marvellous shrine
Whose wreathed friezes intertwine
The viol, the violet, and the vine.

Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie......................................25
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.

There open fanes and gaping graves........................30
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;.............................35
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.....................40
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 thrown aside,
In slightly sinking, the dull tide—.............................45
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,..........................50
Down, down that town shall settle hence,
Hell, rising from a thousand thrones,
Shall do it reverence.

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Themes

The Death of a Way of Life

.......The city by the sea was once home to a civilization that worshipped material wealth and splendor under the stony gaze of idols. So in love with their riches were the inhabitants of this city that they even took their jewels to the grave. Eventually, however, their way of life died out, prompting the poem's speaker to observe that their 

      shrines and palaces and towers
(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)
Resemble nothing that is ours. (lines 6-8)
Death then ruled the city, replacing the kings who occupied the palaces. The time came when the floor of the sea opened and the city trembled. "Down, down that town shall settle hence," the speaker says, and hell will pay it the homage it no longer receives on earth.
.......In the opening lines of "Mac Flecknoe" (1682), John Dryden wrote, "All human things are subject to decay, / And when fate summons, monarchs must obey." Fate had summoned the city by the sea. 

The Brief Glow of Glory

.......Glory is like a match flame that burns brightly for a moment, then dies. With its magnificence and might, the city in Poe's poem enjoyed a brief epoch of glory before its flame burned itself out. 
.......The evanescence of power, glory, and riches is a frequently occurring theme in world literature. For example, in Imitation of Christ (1418), Saint Thomas Kempis wrote: "O quam cito transit gloria mundi" ("O how quickly passes the glory of the world"). In Henry VI Part I (circa 1591), Shakespeare wrote,

Glory is like a circle in the water,
Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself
Till by broad spreading it disperse to nought. (1.2.139-141)
.......In the poem "Ozymandias" (1818), Percy Bysshe Shelley developed a similar theme.

Rhyme

.......The end rhyme in the poem consists mainly of couplets (two successive rhyming lines). However, triplets (three successive rhyming lines) occur in the first and second stanza. In addition, in the first stanza, lines 7 rhymes with lines 9, and 11; in the last stanza, line 50 rhymes with line 52, and line 53 rhymes with line 54. The first stanza contains all three types of rhyme.

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................................5
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..................................10
The melancholy waters lie.
Meter

.......The prevailing meter in "The City in the Sea" is tetrameter, consisting of four feet. The feet in the poem are usually iambic or anapestic, with an occasional occurrence of catalexis. Following is an illustration of the versification pattern of the first five lines of the poem. 

........1....................2..................3...................4
Lo! DEATH..|..has REARED..|..him SELF..|..a THRONE.............................(Iambic tetrameter)
..1..............2.............3.............4
In A..|..strange CI..|..ty LY..|..ing a.LONE..................................................(Tetrameter, with three iambic feet and one anapestic foot)
.......1................2............3.............4
Far DOWN..|..with IN..|..the DIM..|..West,.................................................(Tetrameter, with three iambic feet and catalexis)
............1........................2........................3.........................4
Where the GOOD..|..and the BAD..|..and the WORST..|..and the BEST.......(Anapestic tetrameter)
.......1...................2.............3..............4
Have GONE..|..to THEIR..|..e TER..|..nal REST..........................................(Iambic tetrameter)


Figures of Speech

Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem.

Alliteration 2, 12, 14, 21, 23

In a strange city lying alone (line 2)
holy heaven (line 12)
light from out the lurid sea (line 14)
many and many a marvellous shrine (line 21)
The viol, the violet, and the vine (line 23
Anaphora
Up domes—up spires—up kingly halls—
Up fanes—up Babylon-like walls—
Up shadowy long-forgotten bowers (17-19)
Metaphor
Along that wilderness of glass (line 37)
Comparison of the sea surface to glass
Metonymy
Hell, rising from a thousand thrones,
Shall do it reverence. (line 52-53)
Hell stands for all those who occupy thrones
Paradox
hideously serene (line 41)
Personification
Death has reared himself a throne (line 1)
Comparison of Death to a person
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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 coupleJohn 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. 
.......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 “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. 
.......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
  • In an essay, tell your readers about the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which may have been the models for the city in Poe's poem. 
  • In your opinion, why did Poe write so many short stories and poems centering on death? Explain your answer. 
  • Write a short poem on the theme of death.
  • In line 23, Poe says the image of a viol was sculpted into friezes on the buildings? Is this reference to a viol an example of an anachronism? Explain your answer. 

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