Poe's Poetry Summary and Analysis

"The City in the Sea"

Buy Study Guide

Summary:

Death rules in a lonely city in the far West, where the buildings are unfamiliar and everything has come to rest beside melancholy waters. Here, nighttime prevails, but light from the sea shines onto the towers, and Death looks down from his tower. The graves lie open, but none of their riches tempts the still waters. Then, suddenly, a breeze causes some movement in the sea, which gains a red glow as if to advent the coming of Hell as the city begins to sink.

Analysis:

By beginning with the personification of death, "The City in the Sea" quickly sets the tone for the remainder of the poem, which exemplifies the Gothic setting that Poe establishes in many of his works. The city does not have a realistic location and instead resides in a romantic, distant land that simultaneously promotes a feeling of mystery and apprehension. Poe's Gothicism deals intimately with atmosphere and mood, and the loneliness of the city and its close association with death help to convey the increasing horror of the poem's setting. "The City in the Sea" is a revision of Poe's earlier work, "The Doomed City," and this previous title hints at the sense of decay that is also typical in Poe's Gothic romances.

In "The City in the Sea," the setting lies at the center of the work, but the main motif deals with the influence of death. The personified Death rules the city, and from a tower, he "looks gigantically down" upon his domain that includes "gaping graves," emphasizing the huge scale of death in this city. To further cement the connection, the city is located "far down within the dim West," indicating both descent from life and the direction of the setting sun, which has symbolized death since the time of the ancient Egyptians. The phrase "the dim West" also foreshadows the next stanza, which explains that light does not come from the sky, but rather from the sea, which reverses the usual characterizations and becomes sinister and "hideous" in its serenity.

Poe adds to the ambiance of deathly peace by contrasting the crowded and elaborate buildings with the distinct absence of life within the city. The dead are "gaily-jewelled," which implies joviality and celebration, but they lie in open graves with no more energy than the "resigned" and "melancholy" waters. Even the plants consist of "sculptured ivy and stone flowers." Eventually, the first hint of movement fails to revive the city and instead causes it to sink weakly into the sea without resistance. By contrast, as Poe's short story "Ligeia" suggests, men only succumb to the end of their lives through a weakness of will, and Ligeia is the emblem of resistance to death. The city's lack of willpower positions it as predestined for catastrophe, and in the end, the city in the sea literally begins to fall into the sea. At the same time, because of the inevitability of its destruction, the city is less the tragic protagonist than a pitiful victim.

Although Poe did not believe that allegory was useful in poetry or in other works, "The City in the Sea" can be interpreted as an allegory for the death of the human soul, which results from sin. The apparently exotic architecture and the riches of the dead hint at the sins that result from wealth, and although these evils are never precisely stated, the "open fanes," or churches, suggests corruption. The descent into the sea of the final stanza is clearly also portrayed as a descent into hell, which rises as the city and by extension the soul begin to fall. When viewed through this interpretation, the city invites comparisons to the Biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, which are destroyed by God for their citizens' sins, but it also can be viewed as the mirror image of the mythical Atlantis. Whereas Atlantis had a great civilization that ended abruptly upon its sinking into the sea, the city in the sea has a dead civilization whose sinking comes too late.

The elevated diction of the writing gives the poem an archaic feeling, which supplements the Gothic setting of age and decay. Although Poe does not use a regular meter or rhyme scheme in this work, he uses the internal rhyme of "down, down, that town shall settle hence" to emphasize the word "down," which is the directional focus of the poem. He also includes occasional alliteration, as in "gaping graves" and "slightly sinking," both of which contribute to the establishment of atmosphere. Most importantly, he uses sensual imagery to establish his meaning, as he explores the captivatingly visual domes, spires, and kingly halls while never mentioning any hint of sound. Because there is no sound and little movement, the city lacks the concreteness of a real setting, and we do not regret its final disappearance into the sea.