The City of Dreadful Night by James Thomson

Canongate PB, art by Giorgio de Chirico

James Thomson’s most well-known poem (or poem-sequence, consisting as it does of 21 cantos plus an introductory “proem”) The City of Dreadful Night was first published in four instalments between March and May 1874, in the National Reformer, an unusual newspaper for the Victorian Age in that it was “Atheistic in theology, Republican in politics, and Malthusian in social economy”. (The paper was tried in the courts, at various times, for all three of these — “Malthusian” here meaning it supported birth control. It was cleared each time. The paper’s publisher Charles Bradlaugh even became an MP for Northampton, though was briefly incarcerated for refusing to take the Oath in Parliament, instead trying to replace it with an atheistic Affirmation.)

James Thomson (1834–1882), the son of a sailor, was born in Glasgow, though the family soon moved to London. Thomson’s father suffered a permanently debilitating stroke when Thomson was four; his younger sister died of measles (caught, Thomson always believed, from him); his mother then died of dropsy, and by the age of eight Thomson was being raised in an orphanage. At least this meant he got an education, which led to his finding a position as an army schoolmaster. This gave him enough time to write poetry, publishing it under the byline “B. V.” (for “Bysshe Vanolis”, a reference to two of his poetic heroes, Shelley and Novalis). By this point Thomson was already espousing the atheistic and republican beliefs that would make him a perfect fit for the National Reformer, and was also engaging in another lifelong pursuit that would eventually lead to his early death, alcoholism. One or the other or both resulted in him being court-martialled and demoted for insubordination, after which he achieved his dismissal from the army “with disgrace”. He turned to writing to make a living.

1899 cover

The City of Dreadful Night is an exploration of the state of despair, taking its form from Thomson’s insomniac night-time wanderings in London. The poem’s narrator wanders the City of Dreadful Night (“The City is of Night; perchance of Death… The City is of Night, but not of Sleep”), a metropolis as crowded with buildings as London, but almost entirely empty of souls. Those who do wander there, anyway, are empty of soul: they’re all caught in despair or depression, a relentless, unending limbo-state that affects both rich and poor, though mostly (according to Thomson) adult males, and which leaves some of them begging even to be hated by whatever force governs their Fate, for that would be better, they say, than to suffer nothing but its “supreme indifference”.

It is, this state, a sterile nullity of an existence, and best exemplified by one such city-wanderer the narrator follows, who visits the location in the city where he deems Faith died, then where Love died, then where Hope died — then back to the beginning again, in a constant round.

And it’s with such characters, or predicaments, that the poem works best: the man, for instance, whose desperation leads him to search for the gateway to Hell, so he may quit the world, only to find that Hell requires, as its price of entry, one’s last remaining drop of Hope, and as he has none left, he’s not allowed in. Or, the rather Beckettian episode of the old man the narrator finds crawling down a lane, jealously guarding the golden thread he believes he’s any moment about to find, that will somehow lead him back to the Eden of his babyhood. Most weirdly powerful is the tale a man preaches of his arrival in the City, of how he passed through a desert filled with monsters, but felt no fear, for “No hope could have no fear” — until he sees himself prostrate on the ground, being approached by a woman with a red lamp, only it’s not a lamp, it’s her own burning heart, and she weeps over the prostrate man, unable to help him, until both are washed away by a flood. It reminds me of a line from Will Sharpe’s dark comedy Flowers, where the depressed Maurice, asked if love might help with his depression, can only say: “Love makes it worse.”

“Melancholia” by Albrecht Dürer — an image that Thomson worked into his poem

Thomson has never been a major poet, and knew from the start his City of Dreadful Night wasn’t everyone’s cup of bitter tea. (Even among the National Reformer’s readers, some of whom wrote in to complain about it. It’s hardly selling the paper’s atheistic stance, after all, with its examination of Godless despair.) Dante Gabriel Rossetti called it an “extremely remarkable poem, of philosophic meaning and symbolic or visionary form”; critic George Sainstbury called it “a pessimist and nihilist effusion of the deepest gloom… couched in stately verse of an absolute sincerity”; US decadent writer Henry S Salt, in 1896, called it “the most notable pessimist poem in the English language”; Clark Ashton Smith deemed it “about the last word in the literature of despair and pessimism”. TS Eliot first encountered it at the age of 16, and went on to allude to Thomson’s works in his own “The Hollow Men” and “The Waste Land”. Another writer to first encounter it as a schoolboy — and the one who perhaps made its title more well-known through reusing it for a story of his own — was Kipling, who said in his autobiography that Thomson’s poem “shook me to my unformed core”.

James Thomson

The City of Dreadful Night isn’t really a fantasy poem such as the others I’ve covered in Mewsings — though something in its apocalyptically empty night-city does, at times, feel as though it’s on the borderlands of the fantastic. Certainly, once Thomson mentions the “phantoms” who haunt his city (an idea he doesn’t dwell on too much, otherwise, surely, it would undermine his tenet that for his city-wanderers death is a longed-for end to their suffering), I couldn’t help thinking of Philip Pullman’s Cittàgazze from The Subtle Knife, another metropolis with mostly empty streets, haunted by spectres. Thomson’s phantoms are not as dangerous as Pullman’s, just more despairing. A living man, Thomson tells us, however deep in despondency, still “Reserves some inmost secret good or bad”, but the spirits of the dead have nothing to hide:

The nudity of flesh will blush though tameless
The extreme nudity of bone grins shameless

But the poem does have a resonance with another thing I’ve looked at occasionally in Mewsings, cosmic horror. Once Thomson starts turning his atheism into poetry, his language takes a cast that would become a lot more familiar in the early 20th century:

While air of Space and Time’s full river flow
The mill must blindly whirl unresting so:
It may be wearing out, but who can know?

Man might know one thing were his sight less dim;
That it whirls not to suit his petty whim,
That it is quite indifferent to him.

It only takes Thomson to say, of the God-less Heavens, that “The empyrean is a void abyss”, for him to be paddling in the shores of Lovecraftian cosmicism, as though the vastness and darkness of space were the natural poetic image for such feelings.

Perhaps the most balanced view on Thomson’s poem came from George Eliot, to whom Thomson sent a copy upon its publication. Though she admired its “distinct vision and grand utterance”, she nevertheless hoped “an intellect informed by so much passionate energy as yours will give us more heroic strains with a wider embrace of human fellowship in them.” And this, I feel, is the thing about The City of Dreadful Night: so lengthy a poem about a state such as despair is hard to sustain, as it’s about such an unpoetic state. Thomson points out how despair is about being bereft, nullified, empty of all that makes life meaningful; but it’s the images where some passion, and therefore some life, remains — where despair turns to desperation, however pitiful — that The City of Dreadful Night achieves its most striking moments.

If it is, as Clark Ashton Smith says, “the last word in the literature of despair and pessimism”, that’s perhaps not because it says all that needs to be said about the subject, just that it says it at such length, wringing this particular theme of what few drops of poetry it has, and then continuing to wring and wring, beyond the point at which anything keeps coming.


Swastika Night by Murray Constantine

SF Masterworks cover, art by Eamon O’Donogue

Swastika Night is described by the Encyclopedia of SF as “the first Hitler Wins tale of any significance”, and the interesting thing about this (and the thing that made me want to read it) is that it was published in 1937 — i.e., before World War II. At least one contemporary review notes that “Murray Constantine” is a pseudonym, but it was not generally known that the author was in fact Katharine Burdekin (1896–1963) until the 1980s.

The novel is set in the Year of Our Lord Hitler 720 — presumably measured since the end of the “Twenty Years War”, or what we would call World War II. The globe is, at this time, divided between two empires, the German and the Japanese, which have been in a static truce for centuries. There are no uprisings (the Germans “ruling with such realistic and sensible severity that rebellion became as hopeful as a fight between a child of three and an armed man”), and Nazi rule is ensured via a religion in which Hitler is a god, not born of woman but exploded into existence, who took the form of a seven foot tall, blond, bearded giant. The catechism of this religion enforces a rigid hierarchy, beginning “As a woman is above a worm // So is man above woman”, and goes on to place Nazis above all foreign men, and the elite Knights (hereditary descendants of the Teutonic Knights created by Hitler) above everyone else. (As well as worms, women do get to be above one other thing: Christians.)

Women are kept separate from men, in huts in caged compounds, and are allowed only once each month into the swastika-shaped temples to worship Hitler. Their hair is kept shorn. They have no right to refuse any man, and if they give birth to a male child, it is taken from them after eighteen months.

Gollancz HB, 1937

Not unsurprisingly, their numbers are declining, though this is not something anyone but a few Knights have noticed, at this point. In fact, the German Empire as a whole is in a state of deep stagnation, and the only thing that prevents it being attacked and defeated by the Japanese is that their empire, equally hierarchical and militaristic in nature, is in a similar state.

The story follows a middle-aged English mechanic, Alfred, on a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to the Holy Land (i.e., Germany). He seeks out a German friend, Hermann, who spent some time in England, and who is clearly in love with Alfred. A rather happy-go-lucky man unafraid to speak his mind, Alfred tells Hermann that he knows how to defeat the German Empire: not through violence, but ideas. It only rules, after all, thanks to the ideals and values it forces on its subjects. Key among these is the notion of “the Blood”, the hereditary nature of the Nazi that makes him essentially superior to all others. Alfred has decided that such a belief is in fact a weakness, and that “acceptance on my part of fundamental inferiority is a sin not only against my manhood but against life itself.” The Nazi ideals of “pride, courage, violence, brutality, ruthlessness” are, he points out, “characteristics of a male animal in heat”, and “A man must be something more, surely?”

Feminist Press PB from 1985, cover by Odilon Redon

Hermann, loving Alfred too much to do the patriotic thing and turn him into the authorities, merely groans helplessly. Later, the two meet a German Knight, Friedrich von Hess who, sensing something in Alfred, takes him into his confidence and shows him (and, at Alfred’s insistence, Hermann), two things that will give a new focus to his airy talk of bringing down the German Empire. The first is a book containing an account of the true history of the world before the founding of the German Empire (which has taught its subjects they were savages before it civilised them); the second is a photograph of the real Hitler, proving him to be not a blond giant but a shortish, dark-haired man with a silly moustache. But Hitler’s true physical nature isn’t the real revelation of that photograph. Perhaps the best moment in the book is when it’s revealed to Hermann and Alfred that the youthful, vigorous and attractive long-haired blond creature standing next to Hitler is not a boy, as they immediately assume, but a girl…

The bulk of the book is devoted to conversations between von Hess and Alfred, about how the German Empire set about consolidating its power — by destroying all knowledge of the before-times, and eradicating all culture except music. The result is that the Empire has come to a dead end:

“We can create nothing, we can invent nothing—we have no use for creation, we do not need to invent. We are Germans. We are holy. We are perfect, and we are dead.”

The moment when the “boy” in the photograph with Hitler is revealed to be a girl is an illustration of what this book does so well: capturing how deeply people justify their irrational beliefs, all the better to cling to them. As someone in this book says of women with their shorn heads:

“Why, if they were meant to have hair on their heads they would have it on their faces. Have you ever seen a woman with a beard like mine?”

2017 French edition, art by Jean Bastide

As with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which this novel is often compared to (there’s no evidence, apparently, Orwell read Constantine’s book), Swastika Night has encapsulated some essential ideas about how power warps reality in order to entrench its rule, and how difficult it can be to make one’s way out of the dead end this creates, once all alternatives, and even the possibility they once existed, have been eradicated.

Contemporary reviewers seem generally united in finding the book “as entertaining as it is frightening” (from The News Chronicle, 23 June 1937), but some reveal surprising caveats about the focus of the book’s attack — surprising, anyway, from the position of looking back with a knowledge of subsequent events.

Phyllis Bentley, for instance, in The Yorkshire Post, felt it was unfair of the author to project such a horrible future and blame it on a real people:

“That it is fair, right, and civilised, even in a work of fiction, to throw the onus of creating such a nightmare of a future on any specific nation, whether German or Japanese or other, I have strong doubts; but if we will take the satire ourselves, and regard it as the results of those human tendencies towards fear, greed, and stupidity which must be conquered if they are not to prove fatal, the lesson is striking enough.”

H S Woodham, in The Daily Independent (in Sheffield), makes a statement I still can’t quite fathom, unless it’s a comment on how so many intellectuals between the wars sought to condemn nationalism of any type — both the war-like and the prideful — as a means of preventing future conflicts:

“Murray Constantine is the nom-de-plume of a very able individual who seems to dislike the Nazi system without also disliking his own country—which borders on the unusual.”

He goes on to conclude:

“I do not imagine that the author believes this fantastic picture for one moment; he has exaggerated and caricatured with deliberate intent. Even so the story is fascinating, whether we agree with its trend or not.”

That “with deliberate intent” sounds oddly like the accusation of a crime, and is surely nonsensical, as the alternative is that Constantine wrote the book without intent, i.e., by accident.

Katharine Burdekin

Perhaps the fact that Swastika Night is about Nazis specifically (rather than, as with Orwell, an invented and therefore multiply-applicable ideology) might obscure its insights into the workings of power generally, seeming to relegate its problems to history (though it was certainly prescient in its time) and not the ongoing need to prevent the rise of any such form of totalitarianism. But its core lesson, that you must look to the most ill-treated members of society to understand how the forces in power achieve their ends, remains valuable. (As Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addition puts it: “How you treat the weak is your true nature calling.”) I have to admit I found the conversations in the book a little too long, particularly when they weren’t dealing with the book’s themes but its plot (which is slight), but Swastika Night remains a classic for its key ideas, as well as its boldness in stating them before a world that was, at the time, perhaps not quite ready to listen.