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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Baxter

Historic Hauntings: Edgar Allan Poe's "The Coliseum"

Last week marked the 209th birthday of Edgar Allan Poe, one of the greatest poets of all time. No anthology of American poetry would be complete without poems like “The Raven,” “The Bells,” and “Annabel Lee.” For this week’s post, we’ll look at a lesser known poem of his, “The Coliseum.”

Link to poem here:

The poem is in keeping with Poe’s perpetual themes of death and ephemerality, but this poem features less of his signature gothic imagery. (Although a bat makes a cameo appearance in Line 19.)

The sound of the poem is a little different from the strong rhyming structures of his more famous poems. He calls back to antiquity by using a classic style known “Blank Verse." The style is marked by unrhymed lines with five metric beats per line, usually with an iambic meter.

This style is throwback to the verses of Milton and Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s famous “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech from Julius Caesar immediately comes to mind. That speech was written in the same blank verse style and shares the same grandiose oratory nature as Poe’s poem.

Poe's use of this older style syncs beautifully with the poem’s imagery of a classic locale. Everything about the poem is evocative of an older time: images of fallen heroes, Roman eagles, and “vague entablatures.”

The poem captures the feelings associated with visiting an old battlefield or historic war site: a paradoxical sensation of the impermanence of mankind's endeavors as well as the omnipresence of the "spirits" of the thousands who came and died here.

In this sense, these places are haunted, though not in the sinister or horrific sense of the word. Poe pays homage to the quiet power of these historic locales in the final verses of the poem when he gives voice to the pallid stones of the ruined Coliseum:

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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