The City of Dreadful Night, by James Thomson

Like many another c19th writer – Stendhal, Lautréamont – Thomson admits his long poem, The City of Dreadful Night, isn’t for everyone:

For none of these I write, and none of these
Could read the writing if they deigned to try …
If any cares for the weak words here written,
It must be some one desolate, Fate-smitten
Whose faith and hopes are dead, and who would die.

By which we may understand, Thomson’s poem isn’t a happy one; in fact, quite otherwise. Despite being written in the style of doggerel, and perhaps not in terms of language of any great worth, its subject matter – its vision, if you like – nonetheless fascinates and was quite out of place (so one assumes) in mid-Victorian England (Scotland?). The poem is about depression (Thomson suffered from it in a chronic way), the sense that comes over us that nothing is of any worth – but depression entirely characterised through the analogy of a man’s dreams – his recurring dreams – of wandering around a largely desolate city at night, all recounted in the visionary and symbolic manner of medieval poetry.

But when a dream night after night is brought
Throughout a week, and such weeks few or many
Recur each year for several years, can any
Discern that dream from real life in aught? …

It is a psychological poem: that is, its primary interest is in delineating in detail – if only ever by analogy – the state of the depressive mind:

The City is of Night, but not of Sleep;
There sweet sleep is not for the weary brain;
The pitiless hours like years and ages creep,
A night seems termless hell. This dreadful strain
Of thought and consciousness which never ceases,
Or which some moments’ stupor but increases,
This, worse than woe, makes wretches there insane.

Bleakness, and thoughts of death and suicide fill out the poem; the vision is of a world in which all faith and hope is lost. There is no purpose in living:

Take a watch, erase
The signs and figures of the circling hours,
Detach the hands, remove the dial-face;
The works proceed until run down; although
Bereft of purpose, void of use, still go…

The world rolls round for ever like a mill;
It grinds out death and life and good and ill;
It has no purpose, heart or mind or will.

and God is dead,

From writing a great work with patient plan
To justify the ways of God to man,
And show how ill must fade and perish quite:
I wake from daydreams to this real night…

And now at last authentic word I bring,
Witnessed by every dead and living thing;
Good tidings of great joy for you, for all:
There is no God; no Fiend with names divine
Made us and tortures us….

It was the dark delusion of a dream…

We bow down to the universal laws,
Which never had for man a special clause
Of cruelty or kindness, love or hate…

We have no personal life beyond the grave;
There is no God; Fate knows nor wrath nor ruth:
Can I find here the comfort which I crave? …

This life itself holds nothing good for us,
But ends soon and nevermore can be;
And we knew nothing of it ere our birth,
And shall know nothing when consigned to earth:
I ponder these thoughts and they comfort me.

Cheery stuff! – I’ve heard of this poem from time to time, and have often thought about reading it. I finally did so, because I’d started reading a biography of Kipling, and it was mentioned that Kipling was influenced in his own writing of scenes of cities at night by the poem. He belonged – his parents did – to that Victorian counter-culture of Rossettis and William Morrises, and read the poem at a young, impressionable age. (I imagine Kipling went through a Goth phase).


2 thoughts on “The City of Dreadful Night, by James Thomson

  1. Wonderful. A sharp, all too rare dose of genuine gloomy Victorian literary craziness. A Goth phase, that sounds about right.

  2. It is a very interesting poem. I need to read more poetry, especially from the c19th. In our neat division between the c19th and c20th, far too much attention is paid, it seems to me, to the novel; but the novel isn’t all art or thought. In terms of, say, psychology – describing and analysing psychological states – poetry has always had much more interest in it.

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