The City in the Sea by Edgar Allan Poe: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Damon Barta

Damon has taught college English and has an MA in literature.

This lesson will provide a stanza-by-stanza summary of Edgar Allan Poe's ''The City in the Sea'' (1845) and offer an analysis that focuses on its striking imagery.

'The City in the Sea': A Romantic Destination?

Born in 1809, Edgar Allan Poe was a ''hopeless romantic'' writer and poet, although not in the way that we might think of today. Romanticism was a literary movement of Poe's time that emphasized emotions and imagination in literature, and Poe's hopelessness arose from a lifetime of struggle. His poem The City in the Sea might leave you with many questions, but it will also leave you with some strong images, and maybe an eerie feeling or two. Let's take a closer look at this poem.

Summary

Stanza One

The first stanza describes an isolated 'strange city' presided over by Death on his throne. In this city, lies all of the dead, regardless of their virtue. It also contains 'shrines,' 'palaces,' and 'towers' that are unlike those that the living would recognize.

Stanza Two

The only light that can reach the city is that of the 'lurid sea.' This light reveals the ornate architecture of the city, with its domes, spires, and walls decorated with 'sculptured ivy' and 'stone flowers.' Death looks down on the shadows and turrets in the city from one of its 'proud' towers.

Stanza Three

The speaker describes the cities open temples and graves as yawns that appear to be level with the waves. There are no winds beneath the waves to cause ripples in the still waters of the city, and no way of knowing that such wind might exist elsewhere.

Stanza Four

A wind suddenly disrupts this stillness and a wave seems to 'thrust aside' the towers, creating a 'void within the filmy Heaven.' The speaker describes the waves as glowing red as the city sinks. Meanwhile, hell is rising towards it 'from a thousand thrones' to 'do it reverence.'

Raising Hell?
Sunset

Analysis

The poem begins with the personification of death. Personification is when an author attributes human qualities to a non-human thing, in this case a concept. When Death looks 'gigantically down' from 'a proud tower' we understand that he is both powerful and pleased with his desolate city under the water.

He has good reason to be: the imagery the speaker presents of the city is as beautiful as it is melancholy. Imagery is a set of visual descriptions that emphasizes themes within a literary work. While the 'heavenly' light from above the water cannot reach the city, the light from the 'lurid sea' has several enhancing effects on the structures there: it 'streams' and 'gleams' along 'sculptured' and 'marvelous' surfaces as it works its way up to Death.

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