Text: Thomas Ollive Mabbott (and E. A. Poe), “The Coliseum,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe — Vol. I: Poems (1969), pp. 226-231 (This material is protected by copyright)


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­[page 226, continued:]

THE COLISEUM

This poem is a major effort, but somewhat atypical of Poe’s work. It was almost surely composed for submission in a prize contest, and probably in haste. It is extremely rhetorical, perhaps calculated to please judges more likely to admire rhetoric than subtler kinds of art. The form, blank verse, was new to Poe, and one in which he was never, I think, at home.

The subject is commonplace, for everyone knows the Coliseum, at least from pictures. Poe was well acquainted with Byron’s descriptions in Manfred, III, iv, 10-41 and Childe Harold, IV, cxlii-cxlv. Poe, however, answers Childe Harold, who saw in the ruins only the fall of Rome and her impotence.(1) The American, like Manfred, sees a memorial of the source of our civilization, by no means impotent but even now an inspiration. Richard Wilbur (Poe, p. 138) compares “MS. Found in a Bottle”: “I have been all my life a dealer in antiquities, and have imbibed the shadows of fallen columns . . . until my very soul has become a ruin.” ­[page 227:]

In the issue of the Baltimore Saturday Visiter for June 15, 1833, Charles Ferree Cloud and William P. Pouder (pronounced “Pooder”), the proprietors, announced premiums of “50 dollars for the best Tale and 25 dollars for the best Poem, not exceeding one hundred lines.” The judges of the contest, John P. Kennedy, John H. B. Latrobe, and Dr. James H. Miller, met early in October at Latrobe’s home, 11 West Mulberry Street, and in the Visiter of the twelfth announced the awards — for the story to Poe, and for a poem to “Henry Wilton.” Kennedy and Latrobe told Poe he had won both prizes, but the “award was . . . altered” — these are Poe’s own words in a letter of July 20, 1835, to Thomas W. White.

Poe’s tale, “MS. Found in a Bottle,” appeared in the Visiter for October 19, 1833, and his poem “The Coliseum” on the twenty-sixth. “Henry Wilton” turned out to be John H. Hewitt (1802-1890), then editor of the Visiter. His verses, “The Song of the Wind,” printed in the Visiter of October 19, may be found in his Miscellaneous Poems (Baltimore, 1838) and in his autobiographic Shadows on the Wall (Baltimore, 1877), pp. 157-159. The Hewitt piece was also printed by George C. Perine in The Poets and Verse-Writers of Maryland (Cincinnati, 1898), pp. 47-49; it is there recorded (p. 43), on the authority of William M. Marine, that on one occasion Poe and Hewitt came to blows.

“The Coliseum” was incorporated as a soliloquy in the eleventh and last scene of Poe’s tragedy Politian. J. P. Kennedy revealed in a letter of April 13, 1835, to T. W. White, printed in Griswold’s “Memoir,” p. xiii, that Poe was working on his play at that time. The readings of the last lines in the Visiter text were never repeated, hence that version is obviously earlier than the one in the play. Winning the Visiter prize really launched Poe on his career as a professional man of letters.

 

TEXTS

(A) Baltimore Saturday Visiter, October 26, 1833; (B) manuscript of Politian, scene XI (1835); (C) Southern Literary Messenger, August 1835 (1:706); (D) manuscript in the album of Mary Estelle Herring (1841?); (E) Saturday Evening Post, June 12, 1841; (F) The Poets and Poetry of America, ed. R. W. Griswold (1842), pp. 387-388; (G) Philadelphia Saturday Museum, March 4, ­[page 228:] 1843; (H) Broadway Journal, July 12, 1845 (2:14); (J) The Raven and Other Poems (1845), pp. 12-13; (K) The Poetry of the Sentiments (Philadelphia, 1845), pp. 53-54; (L) J. Lorimer Graham copy of The Raven . . . with one correction (1849); (M) Works (1850), II, 15-16.

Griswold’s text (M) is used; in it line 24 has superior readings. Variants of the Politian manuscript (B) are recorded only for “The Coliseum,” not for the lines that tie it into the play. The Mary Herring manuscript was facsimiled by Kenneth Rede in the American Collector of December 1926 (3:100-102) — the original is now in the Koester Collection at the University of Texas. The poem appeared in the first nine editions of The Poets and Poetry of America, but was dropped from the tenth. The Poetry of the Sentiments (K) was stereotyped, reissued in 1846, and occasionally after 1850; its supposed publication of 1842 does not exist.

[[v]]

[[n]]

THE COLISEUM [M]

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[[n]]

Type of the antique Rome! Rich reliquary

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Of lofty contemplation left to Time

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By buried centuries of pomp and power!

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At length — at length — after so many days

5

Of weary pilgrimage and burning thirst,

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(Thirst for the springs of lore that in thee lie,)

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I kneel, an altered and an humble man,

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Amid thy shadows, and so drink within

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My very soul thy grandeur, gloom, and glory!

 

[[v]]

10

Vastness! and Age! and Memories of Eld!

Silence! and Desolation! and dim Night!

[[v]]

I feel ye now — I feel ye in your strength —

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O spells more sure than e’er Jud├Žan king

[[v]]

Taught in the gardens of Gethsemane!

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[[n]]

15

O charms more potent than the rapt Chaldee

Ever drew down from out the quiet stars!

 

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Here, where a hero fell, a column falls!

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Here, where the mimic eagle glared in gold,

[[v]]

A midnight vigil holds the swarthy bat!

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[[n]]

20

Here, where the dames of Rome their gilded hair

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Waved to the wind, now wave the reed and thistle!

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Here, where on golden throne the monarch lolled, ­[page 229:]

Glides, spectre-like, unto his marble home,

[[v]]

Lit by the wan light of the hornéd moon,

25

The swift and silent lizard of the stones!

 

[[v]]

But stay! these walls — these ivy-clad arcades —

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These mouldering plinths — these sad and blackened shafts —

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These vague entablatures — this crumbling frieze —

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These shattered cornices — this wreck — this ruin —

30

These stones — alas! these gray stones — are they all —

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All of the famed, and the colossal left

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By the corrosive Hours to Fate and me?

 

“Not all” — the Echoes answer me — “not all!

“Prophetic sounds and loud, arise forever

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35

“From us, and from all Ruin, unto the wise,”

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[[n]]

“As melody from Memnon to the Sun.

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“We rule the hearts of mightiest men — we rule

“With a despotic sway all giant minds.

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“We are not impotent — we pallid stones.

40

“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

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[[n]]

45

“And cling around about us as a garment,

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“Clothing us in a robe of more than glory.”

[1833-1843]

 


[page 229, continued:]

VARIANTS

Title:  None (B); The Coliseum. A Prize Poem (C, E); Coliseum (F, K)

1  Before this: Lone amphitheatre! Grey Coliseum! (A)

6  lore / love (misprint, A)

7  kneel / stand (B); altered / alter’d (F, G, H, K)

8  Amid / Within (D, F, K); Among (E)

10  Eld / old (K)

12  Before this: Gaunt vestibules and phantom-peopled aisles (A, B, C, D)

14  Gethsemane / Gethsemané (E, G)

15  charms / spells (B)

19  midnight / secret (B)

20  gilded / yellow (A, B, C, D)

21  Waved / Wav’d (A, C)

21  After this: Here where on ivory couch the Caesar sate (A, B, C); changed to ivory throne (D), golden throne (F, K)

22  Before this: On bed of moss lies gloating the foul adder (A, B, C, D, F, K) ­[page 230:]

22  golden throne / golden couch (D); ivory couch (F, K); lolled / loll’d (A, C, F, G, H, K)

24  wan light / wanlight (misprint J, corrected L); wan-light (H); hornéd / horned (A, B, C, H, J, K, L)

26  These crumbling walls; these tottering arcades (A, B, C, D); But hold! — these dark, these perishing arcades (F, K)

27  mouldering / mould’ring (G, H); blackened / blackened (A, C, F, G, H, K)

28  crumbling / broken (A, B, C, D, F, K)

29  shattered / shatter’d (F, G, H, K)

31  famed / great (A, B, C, D); grand (E); proud (F, K); fam’d (G, H)

35  unto / to (F, K)

36  melody from / in old days from (A, C, D); from the granite (B, over a canceled word)

39  impotent / desolate (A, B, C, D)

45  as a garment / now and ever (A); like a garment (E)

46  Clothing / And clothe (A)

 


[page 230, continued:]

NOTES

Title:  The Coliseum is the great Flavian Amphitheater at Rome, begun by Vespasian and finished and dedicated by his son Titus in A. D. 80. In the eighth century the Venerable Bede said of it (as Byron put it in Childe Harold, IV, cxlv, 1-3, pointing out that he merely translated a remark he found in the last chapter of Gibbon):

‘While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand;

‘When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall;

‘And when Rome falls — the World.’

The name may have come from its proximity to a colossal statue; hence some modern writers prefer a “more learned” spelling, Colosseum. The Venerable Bede called it Colyseus; but Gibbon and Byron the Coliseum, and Poe follows them.

1  Gibbon says “the most liberal of the pontiffs, Benedict the Fourteenth . . . consecrated [the Coliseum] a spot which persecution . . . had stained with blood of so many Christian martyrs.”

2-3  Byron in Childe Harold, IV, cxxviii, 7-8, calls the Coliseum “This long-explored but still exhaustless mine / Of contemplation.”

3  Compare Gray’s “Elegy”: “The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,” echoed also in the 1827 version of “Tamerlane,” line 355: “My eyes were still on pomp and power.”

4  There may be a reminiscence of Keats’ “Eve of St. Agnes,” stanza 38:

Ah, silver shrine, here will I take my rest

After so many hours of toil and quest,

A famish’d pilgrim . . .

9  “Grandeur, gloom and glory” seems to me a rhetorical phrase needing no special inspiration, although a striking parallel is “Of life’s extremes the grandeur and the gloom,” in Thomas Campbell’s once widely read Gertrude of Wyoming, I, vii, 2.

13-14  At first sight this seems to be an allusion to Our Lord’s agony in the garden of Gethsemane. But the word “king” is not capitalized, nor is it quite correct to call His teachings “spells.” Solomon is the only Jewish king greatly famed, even in legend, for magic, but was he connected with Gethsemane? ­[page 231:]

15  The Chaldeans, priests among the Babylonians and Assyrians, were great students of astrology. Poe alludes to them in “Al Aaraaf,” II, 43.

17-25  Killis Campbell points out the triple use of “Here, where” in Childe Harold (IV, cxlii, 1, 2, 5) and compares Manfred, III, iv, 22-26:

Where the Caesars dwelt,

And dwell the tuneless birds of night, amidst

A grove which springs through levelled battlements,

And twines its roots with the imperial hearths,

Ivy usurps the laurel’s place of growth.

Also striking are lines from Lydia H. Sigourney’s “Rome”: “ ‘Mid Nero’s house of gold, with clustering bats, / And gliding lizards,” and Gray’s “Impromptu,” lines 13-14: “Here mouldering fanes and battlements arise, / Turrets and arches nodding to their fall.”

18  The reference is probably simply to the aquila, the principal standard of each Roman legion. It was an image of an eagle, sometimes made of gold and usually at least of gilded metal, carried on a pole. It was a symbol of victorious Jove. The eagles were themselves objects of worship among the Romans. See Poe’s “Marginalia,” number 228.

20  Poe changed “yellow hair” to “gilded hair” to be correct. Few Roman ladies were natural blondes, but many used a dye, a plant called lysimachia, which Pliny the Elder (Natural History, XXVI, xciii) said imparted a blonde tint to the hair.

29  Campbell (Poems, p. 220) again cites Childe Harold, IV, cxlv, 8: “Rome and her Ruin past Redemption’s skill.”

32  The striking phrase “corrosive hours” recurs in Poe’s “Colloquy of Monos and Una” (1841), and the rest of the line recalls Gray’s “Elegy”: “And leaves the world to darkness and to me.”

36  According to ancient Greek legends Memnon was the son of Tithonus and Eos, the Dawn. He was said to have been the ruler of Ethiopia and of Egypt and, according to Homer, was an ally of Priam during the Trojan War. Near Thebes in Egypt there are twin colossal statues, the more easterly of which, in Greco-Roman times, gave out, when struck by the rays of the morning sun, a sound like the breaking of a harpstring. It was heard by Strabo, and the Emperor Hadrian, but ceased in the third century. It was said that the statue was that of Memnon, saluting his mother. Actually, it represents King Amenophis III. The colossus is made of gritstone or breccia, repaired with sandstone. Poe in Politian called it the “granite Memnon” but abandoned the reading, for correctness.

37  Compare Manfred, III, iv, 40-41: “The dead, but sceptred, Sovereigns, who still rule / Our spirits from their urns.”

45  There seems to be an echo here of Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of immortality”: “trailing clouds of glory,” and of that poet’s sonnet “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge”: “This City now doth, like a garment, wear / The beauty of the morning.” The latter probably alludes to Psalm 104:2, “Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment.”

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 226:]

1  See Edgar Allan Poe, Representative Selections . . . by Margaret Alterton . . . and . . . Hardin Craig (New York, 1935), p. 495. Poe on several occasions wrote answers to poetry by others. Byron’s lines were indebted not only to observation of the ruins, but to a discussion of them in the seventy-first chapter — the last — of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. With this too Poe was very probably acquainted. Maxwell Morton in A Builder of the Beautiful (1928), p. 47, quotes a “parallel” from a poem by “E. B. B.” in the London New Monthly for July 1821 (2:59), but the verses concern the Acropolis and the analogy is remote.

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:1 - TOM1P, 1969] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (The Coliseum)