Wednesday, July 17, 2013

"The City in the Sea" (1845) by Edgar Allan Poe, with Commentary discussing its relationship to the Cthulhu Mythos


“The City in the Sea”

© 1845


Edgar Allan Poe

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 marvelous shrine
Whose wreathéd friezes intertwine
The viol, the violet, and the vine.
So blend the turrets and shadows there
That all seem pendulous in the 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-jeweled 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.



COMMENTARY, with especial regard to the Cthulhu Mythos:

Poe first published this in a substantially-different version as “The Doomed City” in 1831, and then in revised form as “The City of Sin” in 1836.  It first appeared in its final  version as “The City in the Sea” in 1845.

The city is ruled by Death, whom Poe sees as worse than the Devil:  note that when it is finally drawn down to the infernal regions, the powers of Hell honor the City of Sin.  This seems to be a purely Judeo-Christian conception, as the connections between the Devil, Sin and Death date back to the tale of the Garden of Eden in Genesis; the anthropomorphization of Death at least to medieval times; and of Sin at least to Milton’s Paradise Lost (and probably back to the medieval morality plays).

Aside from its substantial beauty, the poem is also of interest to us as it was clearly one of the sources of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.  Lovecraft was a great admirer of Poe, and himself a weird poet of no small talent, and there are themes in this poem which anticipate the Mythos.  The reasons why this poem would especially have touched him are obvious:  it is directly weird fantasy or horror; and Lovecraft had a personal fear of the sea and hence found horror stories set in the sea especially terrifying.

The City of Sin is a “strange sunken city” lying “far down within the dim West” … Poe (though American) may have had in mind medieval concepts of (the Atlantic) Ocean as the realm of Death; Lovecraft located his R’lyeh “far down within the dim West” from the Americas, in the South Pacific.  Like R’lyeh,

There shrines and palaces and towers
(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)
Resemble nothing that is ours.

Note that the towers “tremble not” despite the fact that they are “time-eaten” – they show the signs of great age but are still intact.

As to it being a city of the dead, people who think of R’lyeh in connection with the Deep Ones forget that it was mainly the city of the Cthulhi, and that they there lie in seeming death:  the Deep Ones, who do not mind living at tremendous oceanic depths, merely tend the city of their masters.  Cthulhu and his kind may seem dead, but

That is not dead which can eternal lie
And with strange aeons even Death may die.
(Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu")

they are in fact only sleeping in suspended animation, awaiting the day when the stars are right and they can rise to reclaim the Earth.  Over the City of Sin

… from a proud tower in the town
Death looks gigantically down.

just as great Cthulhu waits in his temple, the highest structure on the central mountain of R’lyeh, which overlooks the ancient subcontinent-wide  megalopolis.

At the end of the poem, some unnamed geological cataclysm is about to draw the City of Sin down to the infernal regions where

Hell, rising from a thousand thrones,
Shall do it reverence.

which is physically the opposite but substantially the identical destiny claimed (by the Cthulhu-cult) for R’lyeh.  When the “stars are right,” R’lyeh will rise from the sea (instead of sinking through the crust) and great Cthulhu become the supreme Lord of evil upon the Earth (hell shall do him reverence).

Thus, aside from its great inherent merits as a poem, “The City in the Sea” is one of the major inspirations for at least two Cthulhu Mythos stories:  “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928) and “Dagon” (1919).


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