Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Poe; Cats and Echoes in the Coliseum

I don't recall ever having read "The Coliseum" by Edgar Allan Poe before, even though I've been reading Poe since high school. Somehow I missed that one. As in some of his other poems, Poe starts at too high a pitch and has nowhere to go, rhetorically, so the poem seems overwrought and gravitates toward self-parody.

The poem is of interest, however, because it's in blank verse, whereas Poe in most of his other poetry prefers to rhyme. In a couple of places, he seems to rhyme almost accidentally here (Gesthemane/Chaldee). Also, as far as I know, Poet didn't ever visit Rome--or Italy. As a youth, he did live and go to school in England, but I don't think he visited Italy then, and I'm pretty sure he didn't visit Italy as an adult, but I could be wrong. His not having actually visited the Coliseum may explain why, a few lines into the poem, he turns literal thirst into figurative thirst, so that the speaker is thirsting for lore, not for water (after having traveled a ways to see the Coliseum).

I remember being hot and thirsty when I visited the Coliseum. It is an impressive structure, considering when it was built, that's for sure. Many cats live there, so that speaks well of it, too. However, cats are everywhere in Rome, so I don't know how discerning Italian cats are. I suppose Poe would have preferred black cats. Anyway, here's the unusual poem:

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 an 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 moldering plinths- these sad and blackened shafts-
These vague entablatures- this crumbling frieze-
These shattered cornices- this wreck- this ruin-
These stones- alas! these grey 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."

I do like how the Echoes insist that they and the Coliseum still matter; that's rather charming.

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