Text: Kent Ljungquist, “ ‘The Coliseum’: A Dialogue on Ruins,” Poe Studies, December 1983, Vol. XVI, No. 2, 16:32-33


[page 32:]

“The Coliseum”: A Dialogue on Ruins

Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Poe’s interest in ruins, evident in his review of J. L. Stephens’ Arahia Petraea and selected tales and poems, connects him to that Romantic tradition described by Thomas McFarland in Romanticism and the Forms of Ruin.(1) As McFarland points out, behind the overt Romantic obsession with unity and oneness lay an uneasy sense of incompleteness and fragmentation. In Romantic prose and poetry, physical ruins served a more serious function than generating an atmosphere of melancholy. Rather, ruins were diasparactive forms that could produce subtle psychological or symbolic effects. Among those figures who reflect what McFarland calls “modalities of fragmentation” are Coleridge and Wordsworth; to his list, one might add writers like Emerson and Carlyle who display an even greater kinship with Poe in their adoption of a tone of secular prophecy.(2) For Poe in particular, ruins, in their mystery, silence, and desolation, served a prophetic function, offering premonitions, suggestions, and submerged meanings that resisted representation in ordinary language.

Sometimes dismissed as an exercise in mutability rhetoric or as an uncharacteristic venture into blank verse “The Coliseum” represents Poe’s most direct poetic expression on the power of ruins. Thomas Ollive Mabbott, in surveying the sources of “The Coliseum,“3 has suggested that Poe may have sought an answer to Lord Byron, who found the Roman ruins symbolic of imperial declension In doing so, Mabbott may have unwittingly pointed to a heretofore neglected aspect of “The Coliseum.” In providing an “answer,” the majestic structures participate in a dialogue, one of the hallmarks of the lieeraeure of ruin.

Byron’s impact may have been so pervasive as to provide an immediate source for Poe, but “The Coliseum” derives from a long-standing poetic eradition ehae extends well back into the eighteenth century. John Dyer’s The Ruins of Rome (1720) is often cited as one of the earliest evocations of Italian ruins, while Thomas Warton’s Pleasures of Melancholy (1745) contains almost a full range of conventional properties associated with ruined landscapes: fallen columns, ivy, fungi, adders, lizards, ravens, bees, owls, reeds, and thistles. In such poems, aesthetic gratification derives from the perceived contrast between present desolation and former glory. This contrast could often take the form of a dialogue, sometimes with two discrete speakers, as in the famous A Dialogue on Stowe (1751).(4) More commonly, the dialectical interchange reflected two architectural styles, the classical, for example, played off against the gothic. Sometimes the contrast of silence and sound could induce a complex of mingled feelings in the observer, the melding of awe and melancholy [column 2:] roughly consonant with the experience of sublimity. And Wordsworth’s “Salisbury Plain,” rather than presenting two separate corporeal speakers, offers instead a disembodied voice addressing the observer of ruins as the poet alludes to Dyer’s The Ruins of Rome.(5)

Thus, the dialectic of poetry about ruins provided a conventional framework within which a wide range of tensions and dilemmas could be explored. In “The Coliseum,” the fragmentary nature of the ruined forms mirrors the partial character of expression offered by each speaker in the dialogue. Confirming Schlegel’s dictum that “a dialogue is a chain or garland of fragments,“(6) the exchange between Poe’s speaker and the Echoes does not constitute a simple statement and unequivocal answer but an independent voicing of discrete attieudes. Each side of the argument reveres to rhetorical flourishes that are really just fragments. Poe’s speaker lapses into “lofty contemplation” calling forth associations with the heroic past: “Here, where a hero fell, a column falls! / Here, where the mimic eagle glared in gold, / A midnight vigil holds the swarthy bat!” The speaker, nevertheless, discovers that the desolate silence of the ruins still possesses strength. While each grand property of the past finds its visual counterpart in a current, muted remnant of its former glory, an analogous auditory relationship develops in which awesome silence comes to suggest majestic sound. The ruins provoke the exclamations “Vastness! and Age!” and the Echoes that reply to the speaker claim that ruins still have the power to chasten and subdue. Poe’s contrast of observed ruin and unseen glory, awesome silence and suggested sound, surface desolation and submerged grandeur — all these pairings reflect his manner of allowing undercurrents of prophetic meaning to emerge from what appears to be dismal waste.

Like Constanrin Francois Volney’s The Ruins, numbered among the “valuable books of Eastern travel“(7) in Poe’s review of Arabia Petraea, “The Coliseum” provides a response to any charge about the ruins’ incapacity to provoke sustained inspiration. Also like “The Invocation” of Volney’s Ruins,(8) “The Coliseum” consists of a dialogue between a speaker and an unseen but palpable presence. Poe’s pairing of the observed and unseen, the audible and unheard, despite his term “Echoes,” does not reflect a simple antiphonal pattern. The Echoes do not merely answer back and assert a superior role in the argument. They function, after all, not as a collective voice of response or repetition but more as a presence, a presiding spirit much like the Genius in Volney’s work. Their function is, paradoxically, to go unnoticed until they must be heard to declaim most forcefully when the observed structures, the ruins, appear their weakest.

Through their paradoxical nature, the ruins allow Poe to include a degree of psychological penetration that transcends fragmentary rhetorical flourishes. As Richard Wilbur has pointed out, “The Coliseum” comments on all ruin by acknowledging man’s despotic nostalgia for the world’s past.(9) Poe’s speaker recalls the narrator of “MS. Found in a Bottle,” that inveterate traveler in ruined cities, who remarks: “I have been all my life a dealer in antiquities, [page 33:] and have imbibed the shadows of fallen columns at Balbec, Tadmor, and Persepolis, until my very soul has become a ruin” (Works, II, 145). The speaker of the poem also drinks within his soul the gloomy grandeur of fallen empires, but Poe includes two puns, the multiple meanings of which cause one to question the health of such a single-minded pursuit. The phrase “At length — at length” implies temporal duration and physical diseance, both required to reach the destination of crumbling ruin. A linked phrase from a later line, “I kneel, an altered and humble man,” indicates the physical and psychological toll of a journey which has left the speaker supine (“at length”) and humbled before the ruins. Moreover, Poe insinuates that the “altered” speaker is prostrating himself before what has become, for him, an “altar” of crumbled stones. If one also entertains Volney’s theme — that greater ruin suggests the greater loss of prized civilization and, by implication, an intensification of human decline — “The Coliseum” becomes much more than an updating of Byronic rhetoric. As Monos says in “The Colloquy of Monos and Una,” “But, for myself, the Earth’s records had taught me to look for widest ruin as the price of highest civilization” (Works, II, 611). Beyond the literal claim that ruins retain their power, “The Coliseum” comments, much as the prophetic rationalist Volney warned, on the hard exchange exacted for the loss of civilization.

Less schematically than the review of Arabia Petraea “The Coliseum” shows how fascination with ruin can alter individual psychology. Poe’s systematic contrasts, deriving from the discrepancy between past grandeur and present waste, are reinforced by the dialectical quality of the poem. Moreover, these contrasts contribute to the mixed mood of exaltation and lassitude that characterizes his speaker. Because the speaker’s pronouncements represent only one side of an exchange, the reader must infer from a complex dialectic what prophetic meaning is suggested by the poem. Or to put the matter in different terms, Poe allows the fragmented remnants, the broken masses of ruin, to suggest significances that belie their pallid, broken appearance. What significance Poe intended is never made completely clear in the poem, but one apparently innocuous allusion provides some clarification. In what appears to be a heretical touch, the speaker suggests that the Roman ruins possess “spells more sure than e‘er Judean king / Taught in the gardens of Gethsemane!” Here, another significant contrast is introduced, that between the historical depth of pagan Rome and Christ’s teachings. “The Coliseum” is “Type of the antique Rome,” center of spectacular bloodshed; Poe’s allusion to Gethsemane thus suggests that the modern world has come under Rome’s violent but riveting “spell” rather than following the tender messages of Christ. Consonant with the ominous, prophetic tone of his review of Arabia Petraea, Poe implies that an orthodox source of spiritual wisdom has been slighted or rejected in favor of darker obsessions. His prophetic meaning does emerge in partial, broken form through imagery and allusion. Tracing a course of empire that cuts a broader swath than that associated with one locality, his speaker, prostrate before an altar of crumbling waste, completes his pilgrimage to a decidedly fallen city rather than to the City of God.



1 - Romanticism and the Forms of Ruin: Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Modalities of Fragmentation (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1981); see esp. “Introduction: Fragmented Modalities and the Criteria of Romanticism,” pp. 3-55. As an encompassing term for Romantic incompleteness, fragmentation, and ruin, McFarland uses the word “diasparaction,” pp. 495.

2 - See William Mentzel Forrest, “Poe Among the Prophets,” Univ. Of Virginia Alumni Bulletin, 17 (1924), 163-177, 326-335, and Killis Campbell, “Poe’s Knowledge of the Bible,” Studies in Philology, 27 (1930), 546-551, for relevant discussions of Biblical prophecy. David Halliburton’s brief comment in Poe: a Phenomenological View (Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), p. 101, seems more germane to my discussion here: “one might be able to determine not merely Poe’s exploitation of sources, but his place in the tradition of secular prophecy that, as Albert LaValley has shown, stares with Blake, and proceeds through a notable line of thinkers including Carlyle, Nietszche, and Marx.” Halliburton alludes to LaValley, Carlyle aud the Idea of the Modern.

3 - Mabbott cites Manfred, III, iv, 10-41 and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, IV, cxlii-cxlv in Works, 1226. Quotations from “The Coliseum” follow the Mabbote edition.

4 - A work mentioned by Rose Macaulay, Pleasure of Ruins (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1953), pp. 29-31, in her discussion of contrasts and pairings in poems about ruins. See p. 199.

5 - Laurence Goldstein discusses Wordsworth’s poem as a response to Dyer in his suggestive discussion of cultural contradictions and dilemmas in the literature of ruin, Ruins and Empire: The Evolution of a Theme in Augustan and Romantic Literature (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1977), pp. 130ff.

6 - Quoted in McFarland, p. 100, from Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel Ausgabe .

7 - Poe (Complete Works, X, 2) also quotes Volney in the “Marginalia” for the Democratic Review, 16 (1844), 32. Wilson O. Clough has suggested Volney’s Ruins as an influence on “The City in the Sea” in “Poe’s City in the Sea Revisted,” Essays on American Literature in Honor of Jay B. Hubell, ed. Clarence Gohdes (Durham, N. C.: Duke Univ. Press, 19G7), pp. 77-90. Volney’s Ruins appeared in six editions — four American — before the publication of “The Coliseum.” Although Volney may not be a direct source for Poe’s poem, the series of associations with heroic places, the dialectical interchange between the respective speakers and unseen voices, the declamatory and exclamatory qualities of the language, the somewhat heretical touch in Poe’s second stanza (reminiscent of the notorious anti clericalism and anti-religious bias of Volney) — all these elements make The Ruins, at least, an apt prose analogue for Poe’s poem.

8 - Volney’s highly rhetorical “The Invocation” is quite different in tone from other portions of The Ruins: or A Survey of the Revolution of Empires (Philadelphia: James Lym, 1799). The Genius is addressed in “The Invocation” (pp. iii-xix), and the declamatory dialogue continues in ch. II, “The Apparition,” and subsequent chapters, pp. 15-49. Poe would have come across passages from Volney’s Ruins in his reading of Rev. Alexander Keith’s Evidence of Prophecy (1832) in which Volney’s factual reports on ruins seem to fulfill Biblical predictions, as Volney grudgingly acknowledged despite his avowed infidelity. Paradoxically, the agnostic Volney’s own accounts were taken as evidence of the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, as noted by an anonymous reviewer in “Keith’s Evidence of Christianity,” American Monthly Review, 2 (1832), 466-473.

9 - Poe (New York: Laurel Poetry Series, 1958), p. 138; Wilbur also notes the following parallel with “MS. Found in a Bottle.”


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]