Thursday, October 28, 2010

City of Dreadful Night and Other Poems by James Thomson

My LibraryThing friend and Master of the Chapel of the Abyss ben waugh recently led me to a consideration of Thomson’s work. Of the poems in this volume (available on Internet Archive), most of which I have admittedly only skimmed, none carries the force of the title piece (although “Sunday Up the River” contains a nice tribute to my beloved Jameson’s whiskey). “City of Dreadful Night” is an extended night wanderer’s meditation on the vanity of life and the comforts of the grave’s dreamless sleep. It is a kind of British cousin to the more exquisitely constructed - but thematically similar - German masterpiece Die Nachtwachen des Bonaventura.

Atheistic at heart, the wanderer cannot help a knife thrust at the great deceiver, the absent God, author of this deficient world, who created man in a spirit of mockery –

Who is most wretched in this dolorous place?
I think myself; yet I would rather be
My miserable self than He, than He
Who formed such creatures to his own disgrace.

There is, in a litany of circumstances, a refrain that speaks of the vanity of human wishes in a meaningless existence -

I wake from daydreams to this real night.

And yet there is some comfort in the void, in the liberation from the fear of God and the monotony of eternal life-

Good tidings of great joy for you, for all:
There is no God; no Fiend with names divine
Made us and tortures us; if we must pine,
It is to satiate no Being’s gall.
This little life is all we must endure,
The grave’s most holy peace is ever sure,
We fall asleep and never wake again

The wanderer views the corpse of a dead beauty on a bier before ending up in a dark and gloomy cathedral, in which a preacher, announcing the nonexistence of God, gives absolution to all who seek relief from the vale of tears and presents the holy sacrament of suicide -

Lo, you are free to end it when you will-
Without the fear of waking after death.

The gloomy odyssey continues on to the River of Suicides before ending before a colossal statue representing Durer’s Melancholia, the guardian spirit of the City of Dreadful Night. Thomson’s verse may not be a high poetic achievement, but it is an impressive statement of a subterreanean current of existential despair in the Victorian era.