Lo, thus, as prostrate, “In the dust I write
My heart’s deep languor and my soul’s sad tears.”
Yet why evoke the spectres of black night
To blot the sunshine of exultant years?
Why disinter dead faith from mouldering hidden?
Why break the seals of mute despair unbidden,
And wail life’s discords into careless ears?
So begins James Thomson’s The City of Dreadful Night, a work with justifiable pretence to the title of the most depressing poem ever written. Throughout its 21 separate sections it fleshes out an urban nightmare – a lifeless city of perpetual darkness illuminated only through the baleful glare of street lamps, along the streets of which lost souls wander aimlessly, each weighed down by their own tragedies. It is a place where the poet’s own alcoholism and depression, interlocked with the poverty and inequality of Victorian London, becomes solidified in bricks and mortar. No resolution or glimpse of a happy ending is offered, and at the close of the poems alternating sections of tragic narrative and Gothic description, Thomson leaves us only with ‘confirmation of the old despair.’ As far as I know, it is the only poem ever to advocate mass suicide:
They leave all hope behind who enter there:
One certitude while sane they cannot leave,
One anodyne for torture and despair;
The certitude of Death, which no reprieve
Can put off long; and which, divinely tender,
But waits the outstretched hand to promptly render
That draught whose slumber nothing can bereave.
Perversely, I love it. I must have read it twenty times over, and no matter how miserable, worthless and forlorn I feel at the time I pick up the book, by the time I put it down I always feel that perhaps my life really isn’t quite that unbearable after all. The world seems a brighter place in comparison with the gloom of the City, and after bearing with the unnameable sins and sorrows of the characters for a thousand lines or so, my heart leaps with catharsis. Not only that, but much of the poem’s violent atheist rhetoric is enjoyable and intensely quotable.
“The vilest thing must be less vile than Thou
From whom it had its being, God and Lord!
Creator of all woe and sin! abhorred,
Malignant and implacable! I vow
“That not for all Thy power furled and unfurled,
For all the temples to Thy glory built,
Would I assume the ignominious guilt
Of having made such men in such a world.”
“As if a being, God or Fiend, could reign,
At once so wicked, foolish and insane,
As to produce men when He might refrain!
A more pungent antidote to the mellifluous platitudes of Victorian religious verse cannot be imagined!
Its extremism offends perhaps as much as it entertains, but it is a helpful extremism, a place which marks the far end of the scale of disillusionment on which we all have to live. Somewhere between the rose-tinted glasses, and Thomson’s ‘bitter, old and wrinkled truth’, we have to strike a balance. The City of Dreadful Night is a warning not to slide too far to one end of the scale, and let your worldview become an unbearable trap. Even Thomson himself was happy for a good deal of his life, and other’s among his collected poems, such as ‘Sunday Up the River’ are joyous celebrations of bourgeois domesticity. Unsurprisingly, they don’t exact the same pull as the great gloomy Gothic edifice of his most famous work.
I have never believed in Thomson’s City to the extent that I have been prepared to throw myself off a bridge, but I have found the scale of disillusionment has tipping his way more than once. Here, for example, is a recording of Part IV of The City of Dreadful Night I made some years ago while suffering from a broken heart and an extremely bad cold: