Saturday, April 2, 2011

The City of Dreadful Night by James Thomson

Edition: The City of Dreadful Night (Dodo Press)
The City of Dreadful Night is a long poem by Scottish poet James Thomson. It was first published in four parts by The National Reformer in 1874. The National Reformer was a radical, secular periodical; under editor Charles Bradlaugh, also the president and co-founder of the atheistic National Secular Society, the publication was prosecuted for blasphemy and sedition.

The poem is made up of 21 Cantos and a proem; these sections vary widely in form.
Proem: Verse form: ababccb in iambic pentameter. The proem begins with the speaker quoting Titus Andronicus: "Lo, thus, as prostrate, 'In the dust I write / My heart's deep languor and my soul's sad tears.'" The speaker asks why it matters to write in such a hopeless position, and answers, "Because it gives some sense of power and passion / In helpless innocence to try to fashion / Our woe in living words howe'er uncouth." The speaker makes clear that he is not writing for the "hopeful young," those who find happiness valuable, those who find material pleasures on earth, or the pious who believe in God. This is a poem for those whose faith and hope are dead. Yet, there is value in this: a "fellowship" or a "sad [f]raternity" in this faithless, hopeless condition.
Canto I: Verse form: ababccb in iambic pentameter. Canto I describes the landscape surrounding the city, which is bleak, black, and wild. The city is compared to a necropolis, where occasionally there are mourners wandering. These people are characterized by their immense solitude and isolation: "They often murmur to themselves, they speak / To one another seldom, for their woe / Broods maddening inwardly and scorns to wreak / Itself abroad..." Their only anodyne is the "certitude of Death."
Canto II: Verse form: ababcc in iambic pentameter. Here the speaker follows someone in the city, though they do not speak with each other. The speaker describes the man stopping before a tomb where his faith died, a villa where his love died, and a house where his hope died. He asks the man, "Where Faith and Love and Hope are dead indeed, / Can life still live? By what doth it proceed?" The answer is cryptic, telling the speaker to take a watch and erase its face, suggesting that despite this action time will continue, bereft of purpose. In the end, the speaker stops following him, and realizes that this figure was circling this same path forever.
Canto III: Verse form: ababccb in iambic pentameter. This canto describes sights and sounds the dark: shades, shadows, spectres, breathings, muffled throbs, murmurs--all indefinite, amorphous things.
Canto IV: Verse form: with the exception of the first stanza, abbccddee with repeating lines at the beginning and end of each stanza. The first stanza describes a man (John the Baptist?) standing alone in a "spacious square" gesturing but this stanza is truncated with a dash. What comes after are a series of stanzas with the man repeatedly beginning, "As I came through the desert thus it was, / As I came through the desert: [varying words here]" and ending with the certainty of "But [or Yet] I strode on austere; / No hope could have no fear." The experiences between these repeating lines are terrifying images: enormous things, clanking wings, jaws of death, sharp claws, swift talons, serpents, thunderbolts, and so on. Near the end of the canto, he sees a female figure with a red lamp that seems beautiful: this stanza ends differently with "I fell as on my bier, / Hope travailed with such fear." The cantos continue to break form as far as the last lines go, narrating the story of how the speaker divides into two selves, one "corpse-like" who encounters the woman, and one "vile," watching the scene. The woman's red lamp turns out to be her bleeding heart, which drops blood onto the narrator's "white brow." She carries the corpse away as the other "vile" self watches. 
Canto V: Verse form: ababccb in iambic pentameter. The speaker asks how an unnamed "he" arrives into the city and doesn't have an answer. This canto abstractedly tells how "he" might have "sweet babes and loving wife," :home of peace by loyal friendships cheered," yet has to "dree his weird" (surrender to his fate), suggesting ultimately that even these are meaningless?
Canto VI: Verse form: first two stanzas in ababcc in iambic pentameter, breaks into aaa, bbb, ccc...for the rest of the canto. The speaker watches the bridge lamps by the river side, hearing voices without bodies talking. At this point the verse breaks and he begins to tell a story of reaching the gates of hell, where he finds that he needs to pay the toll of hope. He doesn't have any hope to pay and watches other spirits "casting off hope" and entering. He can't even gain the certainty of hell, so he resolves: "With care through all this Limbo's dreary scope, / We yet may pick up some minute lost hope; / And sharing it between us, entrance win."
Canto VII: Verse form: ababcccb in iambic pentameter. This canto briefly and abstractly expresses uncertain and strange images of phantoms, mad men, and "unsexed skeletons."
Canto VIII:  Verse form: varying, ababcc--> shortening to 4 and 3 line stanzas. The speaker witnesses two people conversing about the indifference of fate and whether it was better to be their "miserable selves" or "He, / Who formed such creatures to His own disgrace." One of the people concludes: "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."
Canto IX: Verse form: ababccb in iambic pentameter. Three short stanzas give the image of a "Fate-appointed hearse," which bears away "the joy, the peace, the life-hope, the abortions / Of all things good which should have been our portions / But have been strangled by that City's curse."
Canto X: Verse form: ababcc in iambic pentameter, switches to 3 line unrhymed stanzas when speaker switches. The speaker describes a mansion which he enters, pacing "from room to room, from hall to hall." He discovers pictures, statues, and busts of "A woman very young and very fair," and then reaches an oratory where a young man is kneeling before the "lady of the images" who is herself "supine, / Deathstill, lifesweet." The youth murmurs a prayer of eternal grief.
Canto XI: Verse form: ababccb in iambic pentamter. This short canto describes the type of men (a group to which the speaker belongs), who have give up hope and their strange fraternity. "They are most rational and yet insane," they know no faith or hope but in this shared melancholy there is a kind of brotherhood. The speaker says, radically, that this kind of brotherhood has no basis "in rank and wealth and power." There are poor men who have given up hope and faith as well as rich men.  
Canto XII: Verse form: varying. Here, the speaker continues on the same themes from the last canto. He begins with the question: "Our isolated units could be brought / To act together for some common end?" In trying to forge a kind of community out of these pessimistic, isolated individuals, all walking towards a cathedral together, the speaker repeatedly affirms the "reality" of their beliefs: the stanzas repeatedly reject various earthly pursuits from hedonism to writing poetry and political revolutions, and conclude instead, "I wake from daydreams to this real night."
Canto XIII: Verse form: ababccb in iambic pentameter. Continuing with the same theme, the speaker further consolidates this brotherhood of those who have given up on life and embraced its meaninglessness. He argues against those who complain that life is too short; instead, his brotherhood affirms: "WE do not ask for a longer term of strife...We yearn for speedy death in full fruition, / Dateless oblivion and divine repose."
Canto XIV: Verse form: ababcc in iambic pentameter. The speaker describes the brotherhood assembled within the cathedral to hear a sermon, negating traditional forms of worship: "And all was hush: no swelling organ-strain / No chant, no voice or murmuring of prayer; / No priests came forth, no tinkling censers fumed, / And the high altar space was unillumed." The sermon begins, and though the orator's message is bleak, he is described positively as "steadfast" and passionate. His words, furthermore, are real: "And now at last authentic word I bring," he says, "This little life is all we must endure." There is a comforting definitiveness to the "countless interactions interknit," that "Not all the world could change or hinder..." The sermon ends with the assertion that it would be okay to commit suicide.
Canto XV: Verse form ababccb in iambic pentameter. This short canto observes how the city is dense with thoughts, even if unspoken.
Canto XVI: Verse form: Varying, between ababcc and four line abab. In the congregation, a man speaks out, lamenting how they are offered only one chance of life. The sermon-giver replies: "My Brother, my poor Brothers, it is thus; / 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."
Canto XVII: Verse form: ababccb in iambic pentameter. This canto basically affirms "The empyrean is a void abyss," though men would like to read in the heavens pity or divinity.
Canto XVIII: Verse form ababcc in iambic pentameter. The speaker comes upon a prostrate, grotesque figure on a path that he ventures down. The figure is a man who tells him how, in vain, he looks for a "lost thread of gold" "which unites my present with my past." The description of this figure corresponds closely with Blake's pictorial representation of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian King whose pride led to his degeneration into animal behavior, and whom Blake associated with apocalyptic times.
Canto XIV: Verse form: ababccb in iambic pentameter. These stanzas describe the River of Suicides that flows through the city. The speaker ponders why people remain "actors and spectators" in this life.
Canto XX: Verse form: ababcc in iambic pentameter. The speaker beholds a stone sphinx and a stone angel. A warrior strikes down the angel but is prostrate and impotent before the sphinx. The warrior actually shatters himself before the vision of the sphinx, which seems "of infinite void space."
Canto XXI: Verse form: ababccb in iambic pentameter. There really aren't women in Thomson's text, though the final two cantos end with mysterious female figures that he seems to align with the blankness of eternity. The final stanza describes Durer's "Melencolia." The figure of melancholy is "the City's sombre Patroness and Queen," who gazes forth much like the sphinx.

James Thomson, the son of a Scottish sailor crippled by a stroke, was from humble origins but won significant literary recognition later in his life. Earlier in his career, Thomson's writings criticized middle-class, bourgeois values; his essays for The National Reformer in the 1860s earned him a place amongst other politically radical figures like Bradlaugh and literary figures like Swinburne. The City of Dreadful Night is often considered in conjunction with his all-consuming melancholy and depression later in life but nevertheless the political undertones are apparent. For one, numerous references to Milton and Blake overtly suggest a genealogy of political radicalism. Thomson, however, goes farther than any other political radical has before, in his vision of a "fraternity" based on pessimism, atheism, and looking forward to nothing but the certainty of death. Nonetheless, this radical community responds actively to other Victorian imaginings of community. Thomson's community, of course, is overtly not political; rather it transcends any sort of community which engages in life on earth. Yet, Thomson's fraternity can't help but to share some vocabularies from other Victorian imaginings of community. In a way, Thomson seems to embody Arnoldian Victorian liberalism taken to its logical extreme: Arnold thought that "culture" was a way of transcending social class--rich or poor doesn't matter as long as the individual tried to cultivate his "best self." Thomson rejects "culture," consigning it to the same status as any another unreal social imagining. Like Arnold's cultural community, though, Thomson's nihilistic fraternity finds a kind of triumph in its ability to transcend social status and achieve a kind of radical leveling: mental suffering is something that anyone, rich or poor, might engage in.

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