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.

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