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The City of Dreadful Night, by James Thomson

Stonier’s Memoirs of a Ghost extended some of the “The Waste Land”’s lines, and “The Waste Land” extends certain lines that can be traced back to “The City of Dreadful Night” by James Thomson (serialized in 1874 and published entire in 1880).  Stonier writes the living city from the point of view of a dead bypasser, while for Thomson the city is dead, and death.  The result is a visionary work of nihilistic fantasy resembling Lovecraft’s “Fungi from Yuggoth” and prose poems like “Nyarlathotep” and “What the Moon Brings.”

“Although lamps burn along the silent streets,
Even when moonlight silvers empty squares
The dark holds countless lanes and close retreats;
But when the night its sphereless mantle wears
The open spaces yawn with gloom abysmal,
The sombre mansions loom immense and dismal,
The lanes are black as subterranean lairs.”

Nihilism is never very far away, but it has a variety of related forms, and expresses itself in topically variable idioms.  It’s likely not a coincidence that such a work as “The City of Dreadful Night” should appear only a few years after Darwin published The Descent of Man.  This was the time for what Lovecraft called “cosmic horror,” which oscillates painfully between two positions or points of view:  a) that the universe is indifferent to humanity, and b) that the universe is actively hostile to humanity.  The question ultimately seems to be whether or not the nonbenevolence of the universe is imputable to it as a legitimate grievance, and most authors who touch on this theme are never able to decide.  However, if this is the case, it’s only because the formation of a decision on the question isn’t as interesting as turning the problem this way and that.
The poem is a testimony of undeserved and impersonal misery, which, while it strikes at the inner roots of the speaker’s being, is nevertheless a general condition of existence characteristic of modernity and the city.  Seething further down, though, is a feeling of betrayal and a rage directed back at the sources of suffering, which are now the malice or indifference of the world, and now again are exactly those things which stir up hope or seek to overcome nihilism.  Happiness in any form is only an insipid drug or at best a pitiful delusion of the weak-minded, while the proudly self-lacerating martyr to the intolerable Truth congratulates himself on the strength of his mind and the power with which he describes his own despair.  The complete devastation of all hope is at once a torture and a sort of noble task.  The refrain of the fourth section repeats:

“Yet I strode on austere;
No hope could have no fear.”

The poem treats its emotional contents with Wagnerian exhaustiveness, and the pace is even, measured, and thorough.  There are few weak spots.  The meter seems archaic for reasons I can’t really pin down, and the style is august and severe, euphonious with dark pomp but cast in a sometimes nervous start-and-stop rhythm, a little like pacing up and down.  His best turns of phrase are the surprising throw-aways and verse-fillers, like “shipless sea’s unrest.”  Thomson is not formally inventive, and so his verse reads easily and transparently.  He often draws on Poe-esque repetitions, although his lines have less obvious musicality than do Poe’s.  Certainly the opening passages of the poem (which has 21 sections, filling, in my edition, all of 44 pages) are filled with echoes of Poe.  The visual imagery is strong even if there isn’t much in the way of extensive description;  he seems to hit on the one gesture or shape that matters and everything else follows reliably from that.  His real originality though lies with the relentless intensification of the atmosphere of hopelessness and bitter depression, which he takes to unusual, bottom-scraping depths.  Many of the lines resound as though they were announced aloud into an awesome silence.
There is plain allegory here, as you would expect, but something more than a mere masking of events in order to make them more readily generalizable.  While identifying with a given scene is easy, in doing so one sees the allegory has an immense suggestive power that goes beyond the exigencies of giving the episode a lively outer integuement.  The imagery of the poem is more intriguing than reductive.  In one sequence, the narrator finds, amid row after row of gloom-enshrouded stately homes, a mansion blazing with lights in every room.  He explores it and finds it empty, but hung everywhere with funeral decorations and, in every room, a portrait of the same young woman.  So the house is something like a maze of lights that is finally only the fractured and multiplied image of a single loved one who lies dead in the heart of the house.
Thomson returns often to the motif of being trapped, overpowered by internal weakness and weird compunctions that are not wholly internal or external, as an expression of impersonal pessimism.  The whole poem is not however an empty slandering of life, it stops short of that because it does not cease to want and honor worthy things;  there is not so much cynicism here as a grim sense of being doomed by an indifferent negative providence.  The eleventh section in particular is one of the best invocations of a silent chorus of the depressed and alienated, recognized as the modern form of mystery religion.

“What men are these who haunt these fatal glooms,
And fill their living mouths with dust of death,
And make their habitations in the tombs,
And breathe eternal sighs with mortal breath,
And pierce life’s pleasant veil of various error,
To reach that void of darkness and old terror,
Wherein expire the lamps of hope and faith?

 “They have much wisdom yet they are not wise,
They have much goodness yet they do not well ...
They have much strength but still their doom is stronger,
Much patience but their time endureth longer,
Much valour but life mocks it with some spell.”

You’ll notice the ambivalence in the attribution of strength and suffering, the misery of acuter penetration and so on, all the heaviness and seriousness of the traditional heroic type.  The whole poem is something like a heroic epic of depression, so read it at the beach.
There are also two disconnected sections describing an extraordinary gathering in a cathedral, a sermon given in total darkness to anonymous shadows – presumably some of the men described in the verses quoted above - by a dark and brooding figure delineated only as an intense gaze beaming out of the blackness in the apse.  Thomson, as it happens, was one of a handful of Melville enthusiasts who helped to keep his literary fame alive in England at a time when it had all but dissipated in the US.  The rediscovery of Moby-Dick in the 1920’s was in part a result of their efforts to keep the novel in circulation, and I wonder if this sermon doesn’t owe something to Father Mapple’s, even if its import is grimmer.  The voice behind the eyes proclaims that everything is reducible to Mystery and Necessity, so that neither faith nor knowledge are of any use.  In the twelfth section a series of representative figures, some of whom are recognizeable as particular persons, are neutralized by cosmic futility:  the genuinely reforming politician, the visionary artist, the good ruler, the idealistic rebel, and two I’d bet money are supposed to be Coleridge and Milton.
The poem ends with a dissection of Dürer’s engraving of Melancolia;  a sullen, beefy female angel sitting  in an attitude of dejection and failure surrounded by an assortment of alchemical and optical devices.  Thomson takes his time reproducing her in the by now familiarly ambivalent way.  As before, the poem charges itself by oscillating between an indictment of the world or the universe on grounds of deliberate malice and on the other hand a reiteration of cosmic indifference.  The latter often conceals the former, or intensifies it, by making indifference into a malevolence, and so winning back what -  the chance of an audience?

Michael Cisco
20 May 2005


Michael Cisco is the author of The Divinity Student, which received the International Horror Guild’s award for Best First Novel of 1999, as well as The Tyrant (2004), and a number of other forthcoming novels. He’s just finished his PhD at New York University, and considers himself “The Melville Guy.” His column Jungle Mind appears monthly on The Modern Word.

For Michael Cisco’s previous columns, visit the Jungle Mind Archive.

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