248. (James Thomson)

Among the reasons Thomson’s “The City of Dreadful Night” can be enjoyed is that it is a second-rate poem that mimics one of the greatest of all poems that came before it, and that can be heard as lightly anticipating, through the by-ways of adolescent influence, one of the great poets that appears after. In its romance-quest structure, the poem owes as much to Shelley’s “Alastor” and Browning’s “Childe Roland” as to Dante, but Dante is the epigraph and Dante is the ultimate object of imitation, and T.S. Eliot acknowledged that the poem impressed itself upon his mind when he read it at age 16. It is very much the poem’s strength that it does not seek to be original, and that instead it manages, in its way, to embody the faith, love, and hope that some of the voices within it says are dead.


When he had spoken thus, before he stirred,

I spoke, perplexed by something in the signs

Of desolation I had seen and heard

In this drear pilgrimage to ruined shrines:

When Faith and Love and Hope are dead indeed,

Can Life still live? By what doth it proceed?


As whom his one intense thought overpowers,

He answered coldly, 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.


Then turning to the right paced on again,

And traversed squared and travelled streets whose glooms

Seemed more and more familiar to my ken;

And reached that sullen temple of the tombs;

And paused to murmur with the old despair,

Here Faith died, poisoned by this charnel air.


I ceased to follow, for the knot of doubt:

Was severed sharply with a cruel knife:

He circled thus for ever tracing out

The series of the fraction left of Life;

Perpetually recurrent in the scope

Of but three terms, dead Faith, dead Love, dead Hope.


That faith and hope are formal: the faith of form, the hope that is fulfilled when form and rhyme are met. But all three are felt most keenly in the faith, hope, and love directed towards Dante. In its relation to Dante, Thomson’s poem aspires to show that some of Dante’s method, something of his spirit, can pay dividends for the 1870s; and that love for Dante comes to seem, to Thomson’s benefit, a dependency. His poem cannot be read independently, but must be read as homage; it succeeds because it does not seem a pastiche.

In one section of the poem, the relation to Dante is dramatized. What at first seems a superficial recasting of the Inferno becomes a commentary on the psychology of melancholy and depression, as well an understanding on the influence and limits of Thomson’s ambitions to recreate Dante’s effects:


I reached the portal common spirits fear,

And read the words above it, dark yet clear,

“Leave hope behind, all ye who enter here:”


And would have passed in, gratified to gain

That positive eternity of pain,

Instead of this insufferable inane.


A demon warder clutched me, Not so far;

First leave your hopes behind!—But years have passed

Since I left all behind me, to the last:


You cannot count for hope, with all your wit,

This bleak despair that drives me to the Pit:

How could I seek to enter void of it?


He snarled, What thing is this which apes a soul,

And would find entrance to our gulf of dole

Without the payment of the settled toll?


So Thomson is barred from Hell, lacking the payment of hope that is required, and unable to go where Dante goes; but, on the other hand, it might be thought that Thomson is blind to the hope he has, unable to see what the gatekeeper must, that he clings to some hope still:


So I returned. Our destiny is fell;

For in this Limbo we must ever dwell,

Shut out alike from Heaven and Earth and Hell.


The other sighed back, Yea; but if we grope

With care through all this Limbo’s dreary scope,

We yet may pick up some last minute hope;


And, sharing it between us, entrance win,

In spite of fiends so jealous for gross sin:

Let us without delay our search begin.


There remains, at least, the hope to find hope, if only they seek it in order to be able to cast it aside; there might remain also the hope of writing, and of writing in the mode of Dante (hindering but also enabling the poem in the first place)

In these lines, also, we can see a sort of wit that is really a double-perspective and detachment from the situation he dramatically presents. This too is a lesson from Dante. The poet might be in hell, but he is not solely in hell, and hell is not solely in him; there are others who suffer the melancholy of the City, and though the poet is a denizen of that city, he is also always a visitor there, able to remind himself of the possibility that he might live elsewhere, if only… That double-perspective is felt at times as an irony, a division of the self from the self, which is dramatized in one passage of the poem through a heavy-handed allegorical scene, but which is also learned perhaps from Arnold’s despairing poetry, always alive to there being one part of his voice that speaks of and not from the experience he describes. It is felt in Thomson in the final stanza:


The moving moon and stars from east to west

Circle before her in the sea of air;

Shadows and gleams glide round her solemn rest.

Her subjects often gaze up to her there:

The strong to drink new strength of iron endurance,

The weak new terrors; all, renewed assurance

And confirmation of the old despair.


In part, the self-awareness and self-detachment is a matter of cadence (the brisk clip of “the weak new terrors”); in part it is diction, where the phrase “old despair” admits fatigue but also familiarity that permits the poet a mastery over experience that pushes it to a side, allowing him to see around it.

Because the poet needs to see around his own experience, he gains purchase and hold over his language, so as to judge it from more than one vantage point. Because the poet is not alone in the City–because he neither contains all hell, nor is solely contained by hell, and because hell does not contain all people– he imagines other distinct voices who do not speak as he does. When the figure Thomson follows pronounces “Here faith died, poisoned by this charnel air,” the effect is tragic-comical, the absurdity of his walking to the exact point of space, where faith died, leavening the situation. It is not so distant from Alice’s encounters through the Looking Glass.

And when the same figure explains to Thomson how life may run without Faith, Hope, and Love, his explanation takes the form of a voice that is utterly without the poesy’d dew that sometimes adorns Thomson’s own, and that instead belongs to the hard-headedness of nonsense:


As whom his one intense thought overpowers,

He answered coldly, 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.


It’s not nonsense to the man, or to the people in the city; but not everyone is there, and not everyone will go. They can read about it, second-hand, in a poem that is very much aware of the second-handedness of its own imagination, so that the City of Despair becomes quite spirited with a sense of play suggesting why life might be worth living, why the poem worth reading.


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