Saturday, 30 April 2011

James B.V. Thomson’s “City of Dreadful Night” - a misery masterpiece

I  read the whole of James B.V. Thomson’s  City of Dreadful Night last month. I’d come across excerpts in various Victorian poetry anthologies (its 21 sections were written between 1871 and 1873, and published in 1874), but hadn’t been particularly impressed.

I now understand why – anthologists tend to choose the wrong stanzas. Thomson was a monumentally gloomy, alcoholic (drink caused his death at the age of 48), insomniac Scottish atheist who suffered throughout his life from bouts of clinical depression (he spent time in mental institutions), and wasn’t exactly a happy bunny in the intervals between.  

I generally try to avoid art whose sole purpose is to convince me that life is meaningless and ghastly. I don’t quite see the point of trying to persuade other people to abandon all hope. I don’t think we should expect artists to serve as dispensers of cultural Prozac – but if they really can’t find any meaning in existence, I’d generally prefer they kept it to themselves. (For me, the paintings of Munch and Francis Bacon belong in this category.) 

But while City of Dreadful Night demonstrates astonishing levels of angst, Thomson isn’t trying to convince us to share his diseased outlook:  he’s just describing, with enormous verve and skill, what it feels like to be utterly miserable for no discernible reason. He seems perfectly aware that his condition is pathological.

The city which the poet wanders while attempting to escape a soul-destroying sense of alienation is London (in a grubby section of which Thomson was living when he wrote it), and it’s a London wreathed in the fogs of Jack the Ripper’s East End and Sherlock Holmes stories, and the dense murk of Gustave Doré’s London illustrations. There’s something very reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe about the tone and atmosphere: perhaps not surprising, given they were both psychologically fragile, hag-ridden substance abusers. And City of Dreadful Night, along with Poe’s stories,  definitely belongs to the horror genre - vast, unnatural, mythic, demonic forces are everywhere, and the minatory city becomes an extension of and a metaphor for Thomson’s numbed, desperate inner state. (He’s a precursor of the American master of epic but short-form horror fiction, H.P. Lovecraft in this regard - they both excel at describing what appear to be extraordinarily vivid nightmares.) The following stanza is fairly typical:

“At length he paused: a black mass in the gloom,
A tower that merged into the heavy sky;
Around, the huddled stones of grave and tomb:
Some old God's-acre now corruption's sty:
He murmured to himself with dull despair,
Here Faith died, poisoned by this charnel air.”

All together now...

In one particularly haunting section the poet reaches a portal to Hell above which is inscribed the phrase “ Leave hope behind, all you who enter here”. He wants to pass through (“...gratified to gain/That positive eternity of pain/Instead of this insufferable inane...”) but, a snarling demon warder prevents him, because he has no hope left with which to pay the entrance fee. He begs other lost souls for a morsel of hope to place in the open chest, “Pandora’s Box”, “whose lid shall shut/And Hell-gate too, when hopes have filled it...” But none will oblige him.

My favourite segment, though, is the penultimate section, which would serve as a complete poem (or short story) in its own right - and, had I encountered it in an anthology, would have had me seeking out the complete poem years ago:

“I sat me weary on a pillar's base,
  And leaned against the shaft; for broad moonlight
O'erflowed the peacefulness of cloistered space,
  A shore of shadow slanting from the right:
The great cathedral's western front stood there,            
A wave-worn rock in that calm sea of air.

Before it, opposite my place of rest,
  Two figures faced each other, large, austere;
A couchant sphinx in shadow to the breast,
  An angel standing in the moonlight clear;                 
So mighty by magnificence of form,
They were not dwarfed beneath that mass enorm.

Upon the cross-hilt of the naked sword
  The angel's hands, as prompt to smite, were held;
His vigilant intense regard was poured                      
  Upon the creature placidly unquelled,
Whose front was set at level gaze which took
No heed of aught, a solemn trance-like look.

And as I pondered these opposed shapes
  My eyelids sank in stupor, that dull swoon                
Which drugs and with a leaden mantle drapes
  The outworn to worse weariness. But soon
A sharp and clashing noise the stillness broke,
And from the evil lethargy I woke.

The angel's wings had fallen, stone on stone,               
  And lay there shattered; hence the sudden sound:
A warrior leaning on his sword alone
  Now watched the sphinx with that regard profound;
The sphinx unchanged looked forthright, as aware
Of nothing in the vast abyss of air.                       

Again I sank in that repose unsweet,
  Again a clashing noise my slumber rent;
The warrior's sword lay broken at his feet:
  An unarmed man with raised hands impotent
Now stood before the sphinx, which ever kept                
Such mien as with open eyes it slept.

My eyelids sank in spite of wonder grown;
  A louder crash upstartled me in dread:
The man had fallen forward, stone on stone,
  And lay there shattered, with his trunkless head          
Between the monster's large quiescent paws,
Beneath its grand front changeless as life's laws.

The moon had circled westward full and bright,
  And made the temple-front a mystic dream,
And bathed the whole enclosure with its light,              
  The sworded angel's wrecks, the sphinx supreme:
I pondered long that cold majestic face
Whose vision seemed of infinite void space.”

There’s more than a touch here of the “rough beast”  with its “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun” which “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born” in Yeats’ magnificent “The Second Coming”. 

It’s a great pity, of course, that Thomson had to go through such psychic pain to produce something as startlingly original as City of Dreadful Night.  But if he eventually discovered that his atheism was a mistake, I sincerely hope the demon warder redirected him upstairs.

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