Much of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry tends to personify Death as the final, and therefore, most powerful of entities conceivable. In “The City in the Sea,” a young Poe dreams up a dwelling for Death to reign as sovereign, and illustrates the trademark gothic imagery that will come to identify the poet’s literary career.
Poe gives clear and detailed descriptions of this city of Death:
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.
The second to last line above is the most intriguing, as it suggests that the moral character of a person is of no importance in determining one’s future destination in Death’s lonely kingdom. This contrasts sharply with Western conception of an afterlife that claims to take into account one’s moral standing. Adding to this is the suggestion that Death is not just a transitional figure between realities (as commonly believed), but an eternal presence for the souls who pass into his city; Poe’s Death is all-encompassing in his reign, and like Hades, disinterested in our mortal nuances, as seen by the images that accompany his city:
There shrines and palaces and towers
(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)
Resemble nothing in ours.
Around, by lifting winds forgot,
Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie.
Death’s dwelling is of no comparison to anything we can conceive of, for ours is a world of motion, his of eerie calm. And despite the fact that both good and bad reside within his place of sovereignty, his city is one of gloom for all:
No rays from the holy heaven come down
On the long night-time of that town;
But light from out of 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 wretched friezes intertwine
The viol, the violet, and the vine.
Death city is one of elegance, and glamor, but ultimately it lies cold in sight. The sun does not shine on its inhabitants, and the lights that do breach the city walls come as a haunting reminder of that beyond the melancholy shores, lies a livelier place. The structures are impressive, but they are empty in tone, serving as no substitute to the artistic touch that the warmth of a living soul can create.
Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie.
This is the second time that Poe has bothered to pen these lines to emphasis how even the seemingly unbound sea lies restrained by the city’s lifeless hold.
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.
While all else in the city murks into one endless sea of melancholy, Death stands clearly visible to his subjects. He is the true constant keeping all else still–the inescapable Lord of his domain.
There open fanes and gaping graves
Yawn level with 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;
Poe’s intent is to subtly impress onto the reader the horror of timelessness that accompanies this city. It is more imposing than the force of gravity, for at least gravity allows its subjects the privilege of feeling the passing of time through its affects. Also, by taking away the value of finite existence, all the petty values that give our minds rest are deprived from our very being. To exist in such a state is not to exist at all.
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.
To move with no feeling of motion, to breathe with no sensation of breath, is a sentence worse than physical torment could ever be. In such a realm, one would eager wish to endure all the flames of Hell, just so one can know to have felt something again. What are we as living beings in this world, if we are forbidden from feeling the world around us?–Nothing! Nothing, but empty phantasms. Forced serenity is the most dehumanizing form of torture to a lively mind.
But lo, a stir in the air!
The wave–there is motion 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.
Besides the shift in imagery, a reader should take note of the prose Poe uses in this half of the stanza. It is the towers which appear to hold the ultimate power over the forces of nature, and all else. But the towers are inseparable from the city, which is inseparable from its sovereign and creator, Death. Therefore, Death’s dominion extends further beyond the gates of his city–possibly even above that of “filmy Heaven”? For if all souls are subject to Death’s domain, what purpose lies there for Heaven, at all?
The waves have now a redder glow–
The hours are breathing faint and low–
A shift in imagery is still occurring, as Poe is continuing to introduce the concept of motion into this once motionless world. However, even though the first six lines of the stanza are ambiguous about the malevolence of the changing scenery, the two that follow above end any positive impressions the reader may have forged about the coming events. (At no time are reddening seas, and faint breathing a sign of benignity.)
And when, amid no earthly moans,
Down, down that town shall settle hence,
Hell, rising from a thousand thrones,
Shall do it reverence.
Hell has risen on earth, out of the same melancholy sea. But what took Hell a thousand thrones to rule, Death did with just one. For that, even the Devil must pay his respects to his ominous superior, whose authority not even beneficent Heaven can reprimand.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The City in the Sea,” 1831.