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.


The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll

Henry Holiday’s cover for the first edition

Appropriately for a nonsense poem, Lewis Carroll’s Snark came into being last-line-first:

“I was walking on a hill-side, alone, one bright summer day, when suddenly there came into my head one line of verse — one solitary line — ‘For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.’ I knew not what it meant, then: I know not what it means now; but I wrote it down: and, some time afterwards, the rest of the stanza occurred to me, that being its last line: and so by degrees, at odd moments during the next year or two, the rest of the poem pieced itself together, that being its last stanza.”

What the above account (from Carroll’s essay “Alice on the Stage”) doesn’t say is that the walk was taken in a break from caring for his 22-year-old cousin and godson, Charles Hassard Wilcox, who had tuberculosis. After tending his godson, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), managed three hours sleep then went for that walk, whereupon he became, so to speak, “snarked”. This was July 1874; Dodgson heard of his godson’s death on 11th November of the same year, by which time he seems already to have been making plans for The Snark’s publication. A diary entry for 23rd November mentions Ruskin coming round to look at illustrations Dodgson had commissioned from the Pre-Raphaelite artist Henry Holiday. Dodgson initially asked for three pictures, one for each of the (at the time) three “fits”, but kept adding to the poem, and eventually had Holiday produce nine in all, including a frontispiece.

In the end, it wasn’t till October of the following year that Dodgson had the “sudden idea” (as he put it in his diary) to get The Hunting of the Snark published in time for Christmas. It turned out to be too late for that, so it came out at Easter 1876. It would go through eighteen reprints between then and 1910.

Initial reviews were mixed. The Weekly Dispatch, 16th April 1876, for instance:

Alice in Wonderland was such a delightful volume for all right-minded readers between the ages of four and fourscore, and Through the Looking-glass was such a capital continuation of it, that, while any book their author may write is sure to be eagerly devoured by them, perhaps no book he could write would be altogether satisfactory to them. The Hunting of the Snark, at any rate, is, we think, quite certain to be popular, and quite as certain to disappoint most of those who take it up. The disappointment, however, will not take shape till they have read to the end, and then perhaps it will be quite as much because the eighty pages to which the story does extend are not more evenly crowded with good things.”

Andrew Lang, in The Academy (8th April), perhaps put his finger on it by saying that, if it was “rather disappointing, it is partly the fault of the too attractive title”. Aside, then, from the disappointment of it not featuring Alice — who, I feel, would have punctured the tale from the start by asking the obvious question “What is a Snark?” — there’s a feeling The Hunting of the Snark simply promises more than it delivers. Or, contrariwise, that there ought to be more of it.

Tove Jansson’s cover for the British Library edition

In part, I think this is perhaps because, like Chaucer at the start of The Canterbury Tales, Carroll sets up his cast of characters embarking on this nonsensical quest (ten in all) but only gives six of them a lead place in one of the poem’s eight “fits”. We could, charitably, suggest he was sticking to the form of the unfinished Canterbury Tales by leaving gaps in his tale, but Chaucer at least had the excuse of being dead. Carroll, still alive, simply failed to give us a tale for the Boots, the Maker of Bonnets and Hoods, the Broker, and the Billiard-marker. The final “fit” is, really, exactly the sort of let-down ending you’d expect of a shaggy dog tale, but Carroll didn’t make his dog shaggy enough for it to work.

Like so many of the other greats of fantasy poetry I’ve covered in Mewsings, this is the story of a confrontation with a fantastical being. Wilde’s The Sphinx and Poe’s The Raven are all about that moment of confrontation; Keats’s Belle Dame and Rossetti’s Goblin Market are mostly about the devastating aftermath of such an encounter. Like The Snark, Browning’s Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came is all about the lead-up to the object of a quest, but I think the greatest similarity lies with Clark Ashton Smith’s The Hashish Eater: both start with an extended indulgence in weird exoticism (for Smith) or nonsense (for Carroll), before that very excess of indulgence leads to a final, terrible confrontation with something overwhelming.

What can be said about the nature of Carroll’s Snark? (And I’m conscious that, some years ago, I wrote a mewsings on the dangers of over-interpreting nonsense — “Fallacies of Wonderland” — but I still like to eke out what can be said.)

Chris Riddell cover

For instance, whereas The Canterbury Tales’ pilgrims represent a fair mix of the society of Chaucer’s day, the Bellman’s crew are often ridiculously specialised, and none with skills that might be of help in a hunt. This is epitomised by the Banker who, faced not with the Snark itself but the presumably lesser threat of a Bandersnatch, can only defend himself by offering the creature a “large discount” (on what?) and “a cheque”. They do not form a society, this crew, but a loose collection of isolated individuals.

The poem was conceived in a moment of isolation (“I was walking on a hill-side, alone” — recalling Keats’s “cold hill-side”) and ends with the Baker alone on a similar height (“On the top of a neighbouring crag”) encountering the ultimate loneliness of disappearing from the world altogether. (And it could well be that Dodgson, when he came up with the line, was contemplating the reality of his godson disappearing from the world altogether.) The only character apart from the fated Baker to encounter a Snark is the Barrister, who does so in a dream, where the Snark starts to take on the roles of the entire court — Defence, Prosecution, Jury and Judge — as though it were turning the entire world into one faceless “other”, that other being, ultimately, just oneself by another name. There’s certainly, then, an air of loneliness, absence (the Bellman’s empty map and directionless voyage) and solipsism about the Snark.

And the Snark is also — perhaps can’t help being — the embodiment, or non-embodiment, of nonsense, too: or the thing that awaits when nonsense ceases to be play and becomes a revelation of the meaninglessness of everything, or even, in the case of the Banker, of insanity (“Words whose utter inanity proved his insanity”). A Snark is sought through the purest nonsense of the non-sequitur, the collection of unrelated, random things forced together:

They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.

It’s as though the way to catch a Snark is to keep assembling unrelated things (including a crew of vastly unrelated professions), until the sheer mass of unrelatedness causes a fissure in reality and the creature, summoned like a demon, appears. (And is this what J G Ballard’s multiple protagonists of The Atrocity Exhibition were doing with their “Terminal documents”? If so, what sort of Snark was Ballard trying to summon?)

Mervyn Peake cover

The thing that seems, in the poem, to separate nonsense from the wailing void of meaninglessness is the imposition of rules. The rules don’t, though, have to make sense. They can be as arbitrary as the Bellman’s “What I tell you three times is true.” And it’s notable that this rule is the thing that saves — and brings together — the only two characters who emerge from The Hunting of the Snark happier, and less lonely, than before: the Beaver and the Butcher. These two, who are set up as natural enemies (the Butcher’s specialisation is the butchering of beavers), on facing a moment of terror together, get through it by the application of the Bellman’s nonsensical rule (plus a little equally nonsensical mathematics). The point being, it doesn’t matter what gets them through their experience of terror, only that they do it together, and having done so, have punctured the divisions between them. (The Beaver is also the only character not defined by its specialisation. It’s of course an animal, but, though referred to as an “it”, has characteristics that Carroll’s contemporary audience would have associated with being female: it makes lace, and it weeps. The Butcher, meanwhile, recalls his childhood, “That blissful and innocent state”, and in that moment ceases to be a mere social role, and is humanised.)

Of course, the Baker has a nonsensical rule too:

“But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
And never be met with again!”

And, in a sense, he perishes not of the Snark — which, arguably doesn’t exist — but from the rule, and the fear it engenders. If a Snark doesn’t exist, it cannot be a Boojum; but if it doesn’t exist, it also can’t not be a Boojum, therefore every Snark is, potentially, a Boojum. The “What I tell you three times” rule leads to the truth (or at least a belief that there might be such a thing as truth — “truth” perhaps being definable as a belief that can be shared, and so a way out of isolation), but the “If your Snark be a Boojum” rule leads only deeper into nonsense, and so into isolation.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, “so to speak, ‘snarked'”

I think The Snark — particularly in the second fit, “The Bellman’s Speech”, where the Bellman reveals his blank map, and the sixth, “The Barrister’s Dream” — contains some of Carroll’s best nonsense writing, second only to his absolute best, the “Advice from a Caterpillar” chapter of Alice and “Jabberwocky” from Through the Looking-Glass. And, if I can mention just one more favourite, there’s “The Mad Gardener’s Song”, perhaps the purest nonsense of the lot.

Patrick Woodroffe cover for Mike Batt’s musical version of The Hunting of the Snark


La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats

John Keats in 1819, by Charles Brown

What folklorist Katherine Briggs has called “one of the most beautiful fairy poems in the English language”, and William Morris “the germ” from which all the poetry of the Pre-Raphaelites sprung, seems to have been written on 28th April 1819. Keats included it in a packet of letters addressed to his brother George and his brother’s wife Georgina, who had moved to a settlement in America the year before. Keats wrote regular letters to the couple, including among them finished and unfinished verse, and would add to the pile till he could find someone to deliver the lot, rather than sending one at a time. The bundle containing “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” was begun on 14th February, with a complaint that he was finding his latest composition, the never-to-be-completed Hyperion, difficult, and that he must wait for “spring to rouse me up a little” so he could continue. “I know not why Poetry and I have been so distant lately”, he writes in March. The bundle continued to accrue until 3rd May, by which time he’d resumed writing poetry, though not Hyperion. His poems contained in the bundle included a playful tale in which a princess wants to show her latest finery to the fairies and, finding them not at home, instructs her dwarf to open the fairies’ door and let her in anyway; the dwarf refuses, saying he was a handsome prince till he made the mistake of entering the fairy realm unbidden, so she lets herself in, and isn’t heard from again. There was also a mock-Spenserian verse, a sonnet on Dante’s damned lovers Paolo and Francesca, and a “Chorus of Fairies”. Fairies, or faery generally, ran throughout Keats’s poetry, as Freudian critic Maureen Duffy writes:

“With Keats faery isn’t simply a convenient idiom… it is a mode of the imagination so natural to him that he can’t write poetry in any other way.”

Keats took the title “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” from a French poem of one hundred 8-line stanzas written in 1424 by Alain Chartier, and translated into English around 1526 (by Richard Ros, though for a long time it was thought to be by Chaucer). And he had in fact referred to the title already, in his long poem, “The Eve of St. Agnes”, composed earlier the same year. “St. Agnes” is a Romeo and Juliet-inspired tale of Porphyro seeking to win the love of Madeline, who belongs to a rival family house. Madeline has performed the rites and prayers of St Agnes’s Eve, by which a woman is granted a dream of her true love. Porphyro sneaks into her bedchamber, so he can make it seem he is the prayed-for vision. To wake her, he picks up a lute and plays Chartier’s “La Belle Dame”, perhaps hoping its tale of a knight who dies when scorned by a heartless woman will warn Madeline against the cruelty of rejection and the risks of loneliness.

Keats’s own “Belle Dame” owes more to fantastical incarnations of the cruel-hearted woman, including Nimue, who imprisons Merlin in Le Morte Darthur, the fairy queen in folk ballads of Tamlin and Thomas the Rhymer, and, most of all, the story of the Enchantress Phaedria, who lures a knight to an island, woos him to sleep, then abandons him, in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. (It was a volume of The Faerie Queene that set Keats on the path to becoming a poet himself.)

Tom Keats, by Joseph Severn

But there may have been more concrete, biographical origins for Keats’s poem. His life had its share of women he’d lost or longed for (Andrew Motion, in his biography of Keats, says the poet’s relationships with women had a “pattern of possession and abandonment”). This included his mother, who died when he was fourteen, and his latest amour, Fanny Brawne, whom he either couldn’t commit to, or wouldn’t commit to him, sickly and impecunious poet that he was. But the most relevant episode from Keats’s life seems to have been the death of his younger brother Tom the previous December. Looking through Tom’s papers, Keats came across letters purporting to be from a woman, “Amena”, who said she loved Tom, and who Tom at one point seems to have gone to France in search of. But she was, Keats realised, an elaborate joke by Tom’s friend Charles Wells. In those days, it was a common belief that intense emotion could kill you, and Keats was convinced this futile search contributed to his brother’s death.

There are two versions of Keats’s poem. The one in the letter to his brother George is the earlier version, whereas the first published version appeared in Leigh Hunt’s journal The Indicator in May 1820, where it was signed not Keats but “Caviare”. There are only a few differences between the two, one of which is that in the first verses of the early version, the lost and forlorn victim is called a “knight-at-arms”, while in the published version he’s a “wretched wight”. Although the published version sounds more poetic, the earlier version feels more concrete, but perhaps one of the reasons Keats changed that “knight-at-arms” is that the invented “Amena” addressed her supposed lover Tom as her “knight”, too. Perhaps Keats felt this veiled reference to his brother’s death was too raw for him to publish, even under a pseudonym.

In the end, it was the earlier version of the poem that became the accepted version, as it was included in the Life, Letters, and Literary Remains, of John Keats (1848), edited by Richard Monckton Milnes, and that was how it was discovered by the next generation of Keats’s admirers.

Henry Meynell Rheam’s 1901 painting of the same name

In the poem, the last thing this knight-at-arms remembers is balmier days, when he met a lady, “a fairy’s child”, who took him to her elfin grotto, lulled him asleep, and abandoned him, whereon he woke after a vision of “pale kings and princes too,//Pale warriors, death-pale were they all” who had been the fairy’s woman’s previous victims. But is “victims” the right word? What exactly happens in this elfin grotto? In the revised, first published version of the poem, the lady merely gazes at her “wretched wight” and sighs deep, which makes you wonder if, though she regrets what she’s about to do, she’s intent on casting her spell on this young man anyway. But in the earlier version “she wept and sighed full sore”, making it seem as though she’s too taken up with her own sorrow to love this young knight, or is genuinely helpless to prevent what’s about to happen. When he sleeps, and wakes to find himself alone and now in winter, it could be she hasn’t cast a spell on him at all, but he has somehow been infected by her sadness. More than any other difference between the two versions of the poem, the revision of this line feels like Keats trying to make his poem make sense — make the lady into a properly wicked enchantress — whereas the earlier version, in which both knight and lady are sucked into an overpowering and ensorcelling sadness, is the stranger and more evocative idea.

So what is this “fairy child”, this lady who attracts a knight only to woo him to sleep and have him wake, seasons later, on a cold hill side, bereft and alone? Robert Graves, commenting on the poem in The White Goddess, found in Keats’s “Belle Dame” another incarnation of his own dangerous muse:

“…the Belle Dame represented Love, Death by Consumption (the modern leprosy) and Poetry all at once… She was Death, but she granted poetic immortality to the victims whom she had seduced by her love-charms.”

John William Waterhouse’s 1893 painting inspired by the poem

The muse of Romantic poetry was both inviting and dangerously addictive. She was Keats’s “Lamia” (written soon after “Belle Dame”) and Coleridge’s Life-in-Death from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. She could be laudanum, consumption, imagination, passion, the brief fiery brightness of genius, and poetry itself. This seems even more underlined for Keats, whose poetic muse took the form of a fairy lady because he was awakened to his own poetic ambition quite literally by a faerie queen — Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. In the light of this, it’s interesting to read his comment in the bundle of letters sent to George and Georgina where he hoped spring would bring with it a renewed poetic inspiration, as “La Belle Dame” begins with its knight lost and forlorn in winter, when “sedge has withered from the lake,//And no birds sing”. The abandoned knight-at-arms is also, then, a wintered poet, bereft of his muse’s inspiring presence, in need of spring. (And when that spring comes, it’s not a heartening warmth, but a poetically-inspiring sorrow.)

The poem’s power, I think, comes from its being such a distilled version of a tale with so many potential meanings. And this fits perfectly with Keats’s poetical ideal, his determination to stand back from the central image of his poem and let it be what it is without any attempt to interpret it. He called this:

Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason…”

Coleridge and Keats — the more sickly and imaginative of the Romantics, though of different generations — met just the once, while Coleridge was out for a walk with another (unnamed) man, rambling endlessly over many subjects as he apparently did. Keats joined in (or at least listened in, as Coleridge doesn’t seem to have needed much by way of responses) then left, but immediately returned. What happened next was reported in a collection of anecdotes about Coleridge, supposedly in his own words, Specimens of the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Keats came back and said:

“Let me carry away the memory, Coleridge, of having pressed your hand!” — “There is death in that hand,” I said to —, when Keats was gone; yet this was, I believe, before the consumption showed itself distinctly.”

Keats died in 1821 of tuberculosis, as had, and would, most of his family. (Even his brother George and sister-in-law Georgina, out in America, did not escape.) His reputation really caught fire with the Pre-Raphaelites and other Victorian poets of their age, such as Tennyson, Swinburne, and William Morris, and with painters such as John William Waterhouse, Walter Crane and Arthur Hughes.

I think that, as a fantasy poem, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is significant for the way it allows its central situation to be whatever the reader wants it to be. In it, fantasy breaks from allegory into pure poetry, and thus gains a new and ageless power to enchant those with a fairy turn of mind.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci, according to Punch Magazine (1920)