city in the sea - 1

‘The City in the Sea’ is another gloomy gothic verse from Poe, this one possibly inspired by another Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and his masterpiece, ‘Kubla Khan’.

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.

This atmospheric verse was published in 1845, though it did exist in earlier versions. There are no actual characters in this poem, except for Death itself, but this poem still follows some of the major tropes of Poe’s brand of Gothic fiction: the decay of the aristocracy, death and madness. It’s an easy read, and when read aloud it’s pleasing to the ear, which is interesting, since the poem contains no descriptions of any kind of sound: the city is silent, like the dead. I think the elevated language is intentional, giving the poem a feeling of antiquity.

The image is a photograph I took of the sun setting into the western Pacific. Poe possibly set his mysterious city to the west, because the setting sun was often associated with the end of life–something Poe obsessed over.

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