Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Coliseum - Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe is best known for his creepy short stories, as well as Gothic poems such as "The Raven" and sound-effects poems such as "The Bells".  Those are all fun (and who knows, we'll probably visit some of them here in the future), but I really like some of his more serious poetry as well.  This poem, while still melodramatic and full of sound effects (watch for alliteration!), conveys an evocative sense of the beauty of ancient ruins, and their emotional effect upon the psyche.  The speaker imagines what the setting around him was like at the height of its glory, and refers to the sway the ruins still hold over men's imaginations.  Having seen and experienced many ancient ruins over the past ten years, I think that Poe captures their grandeur and emotional impact well in this poem.  Forgive him his baroque language -- if you've seen the ruins of ancient Rome before, you'll understand.  :)

A side note: As an admirer of literature, I often encounter content in literature with which I disagree, while still fully admiring the artistry of the work.  That's the case in this poem.  I really do believe that grandeur and pathos of the story of Christ, in all its glory, holds more power over the psyche than the ruins of antiquity.  But I still think this poem conveys much of the experience of being in the presence of ancient monuments, and I admire it for that!

The Coliseum

Type of the antique Rome! Rich reliquary
Of lofty contemplation left to Time
By buried centuries of pomp and power!
At length -- at length -- after so many days
Of weary pilgrimage and burning thirst,
(Thirst for the springs of lore that in thee lie),
I kneel, an altered and a humble man,
Amid thy shadows, and so drink within
My very soul thy grandeur, gloom, and glory!

Vastness! and Age! and Memories of Eld!
Silence! and Desolation! and dim Night!
I feel ye now -- I feel ye in your strength --
O spells more sure than e'er Judaean king
Taught in the gardens of Gethsemane!
O charms more potent than the rapt Chaldee
Ever drew down from out the quiet stars!

Here, where a hero fell, a column falls!
Here, where the mimic eagle glared in gold,
A midnight vigil holds the swarthy bat!
Here, where the dames of Rome their gilded hair
Waved to the wind, now wave the reed and thistle!
Here, where on golden throne the monarch lolled,
Glides, spectre-like, unto his marble home,
Lit by the wan light of the horned moon,
The swift and silent lizard of the stones!

But stay! these walls -- these ivy-clad arcades --
These mouldering plinths -- these sad and blackened shafts --
These vague entablatures -- this crumbling frieze --
These shattered cornices -- this wreck -- this ruin --
These stones -- alas! these gray stones -- are they all --
All of the famed, and the colossal left
By the corrosive Hours to Fate and me?

"Not all" -- the Echoes answer me -- "not all!
Prophetic sounds and loud, arise forever
From us, and from all Ruin, unto the wise,
As melody from Memnon to the Sun.
We rule the hearts of mightiest men -- we rule
With a despotic sway all giant minds.
We are not impotent -- we pallid stones.
Not all our power is gone -- not all our fame --
Not all the magic of our high renown --
Not all the wonder that encircles us --
Not all the mysteries that in us lie --
Not all the memories that hang upon
And cling around about us as a garment,
Clothing us in a robe of more than glory."

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