Friday, November 9, 2007

The end of Poe week - "The City in the Sea"

I didn’t mean to make this Poe week. Let’s finish it up.

I mentioned earlier that in his early career Poe had written a few great poems. Looking them over again, I’m ready to reduce “a few” to “one.” What was it I saw in “Lenore”? More good ones would come later – “The Raven”, “The Bells”, “Annabel Lee”. Here’s the early little masterpiece:

The City in the Sea

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 marvellous shrine
Whose wreathed friezes intertwine
The viol, the violet, and the vine.
Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie.
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.

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-jewelled 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.

Just a work of imagination, beautiful for its own sake, if you like this sort of thing. “The viol, the violet, and the vine.” Strange and original. Why does Death live in an underwater city? How can the graves be level with the waves? What is going on at the end – some hint of apocalypse? The poem is full of suggestive images and ideas, all suggesting something greater, whether it is actually there or not. One definition of the sublime.

1 comment:

  1. Poems like this one help me understand why the French poets were so enamored of Poe. First of all, apart from a few archaisms like "fane", the language wouldn't have been that difficult for a non-native to read or to translate. Second, Poe goes a step beyond the Romantic poets and presents his mythical city without any historical or moral melancholy. There is nothing to be learned from Poe's city. We just immerse ourselves in its beautiful, dreamy melancholy.