The City in the Sea by Edger Allan Poe: Summary and Analysis

The City in the Sea, published in 1845, is a lyric poem by Edger Allan Poe in which Death is personified and the setting is Gothic. Gothic setting is the chief instrument of Poe in his works of art. Its earlier version was published in 1831 as 'The Doomed City'.

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

The sun is sinking in the west and Death is presented as the monarch of the silent city which lies near the sea.  All the huge buildings, massive infrastructures and heavenly temples are in the cruel, but the silent grip of the sea water. There is no presence of heavenly light in the city, but the doomed light coming from underneath the sea waves dominates the city. Nothing is spare. Death looks down in a royal manner from one of the tall buildings and the tremors on the earth is felt. Suddenly a great volcanic eruption comes from the underworld to receive the beautiful and magnificent, but certainly a doomed city. 

In this poem, Edgar Allen Poe describes the persuasiveness of death. Death has built a throne in the West in itself symbolizes death. For the speaker, Death lives in the tower and looks down from there. Edger Allan Poe places the Death in the tall tower so as to justify his supreme power over everything. The poet conveys the message that the death is the final point of everything. Like Whitman and Dickinson, Poe finds death superior and final and, yet beautiful. But they differ in terms of their attitude towards death. For Poe, the good and the bad and the best and the worst all go to eternal rest in the city. Through this description, he highlights the eternity of nothingness. Once we die, nothing remains hereafter. He further intensified this argument with reference to the heaven, whose light cannot be seen in the city. Rather, the light of the city can be seen everywhere. Through this argument, Poe justifies his claim of eternal nothingness with which Dickinson agrees. But Whitman opposes this argument by saying that life continues hereafter —when we die, the body dies yet soul continues.

The poet further presents two important aspects of death. First and foremost, it is above human desire, greed, hunger and wealth. It is rich in not having greed for riches. Second, death takes us to our origin or the source or another. It is in the sea that life germinates and when we die, it goes back to the sea. Thus, it helps in the cosmic union with our origin. Death brings equality and dismantles the demarcations created by the human beings since it is the great equalizer. Since death is so beautiful a thing, the speaker sings of death in the musical notes of poetry.

Poe’s Gothic setting is created with the isolation of the city, its close connection with the Death, the sinking sun in the west, and silent sea.  The gazing look of personified Death, the light coming from beneath the sea and gasping graves intensify the horror mood of the poem. As the city is doomed to Death, it silently, without any protest surrender to the Death. This act of the city is another way to celebrate the superiority of the Death over all human and non-human beings.

Poe has beautifully used elevated language and internal rhyming pattern of ‘down, down, the town shall settle hence’. His occasional use of alliteration like ‘gasping graves’, ‘slightly sinking’ add to the gothic setting and atmosphere of the poem. He frequently uses sight imagery in this poem, like domes, spires, kingly halls, and tall buildings.

Related Topics

The Raven: Summary and Analysis

Edgar Allan Poe: Biography