Verse > Anthologies > Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. > A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895
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Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. (1833–1908).  A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895.  1895.
 
Melencolia
 
James Thomson (1834–82)
 
 
From “The City of Dreadful Night”
 
 
ANEAR the centre of that northern crest
  Stands out level upland bleak and bare,
From which the city east and south and west
  Sinks gently in long waves; and throned there
An Image sits, stupendous, superhuman,        5
The bronze colossus of a winged Woman,
  Upon a graded granite base foursquare.
 
Low-seated she leans forward massively.
  With cheek on clench’d left hand, the forearm’s might
Erect, its elbow on her rounded knee;        10
  Across a clasp’d book in her lap the right
Upholds a pair of compasses; she gazes
With full set eyes, but wandering in thick mazes
  Of sombre thought beholds no outward sight.
 
Words cannot picture her; but all men know        15
  That solemn sketch the pure and artist wrought
Three centuries and three score years ago,
  With fantasies of his peculiar thought:
The instruments of carpentry and science
Scatte’d about her feet, in strange alliance        20
  With the keen wolf-hound sleeping undistraught;
 
Scales, hour-glass, bell, and magic-square above;
  The grave and solid infant perch’d beside,
With open winglets that might bear a dove,
  Intent upon its tablets, heavy-eyed;        25
Her folded wings as of a mighty eagle
But all too impotent to lift the regal
  Robustness of her earth-born strength and pride;
 
And with those wings, and that light
  Wreath which seems        30
  To mock her grand head and the knotted frown
Of forehead charged with baleful thoughts and dreams,
  The household bunch of keys, the house-wife’s gown
Voluminous, indented, and yet rigid
As if a shell of burnish’d metal frigid,        35
  The feet thick-shod to tread all weakness down;
 
The comet hanging o’er the waste dark seas,
  The massy rainbow curv’d in front of it
Beyond the village with the masts and trees;
  The snaky imp, dog-headed, from the Pit,        40
Bearing upon its batlike leathern pinions
Her name unfolded in the sun’s dominions,
  The “MELENCOLIA” that transcends all wit.
 
Thus has the artist copied her, and thus
  Surrounded to expound her form sublime,        45
Her fate heroic and calamitous;
  Fronting the dreadful mysteries of Time,
Unvanquish’d in defeat and desolation,
Undaunted in the hopeless conflagration
  Of the day setting on her baffled prime.        50
 
Baffled and beaten back she works on still,
  Weary and sick of soul she works the more,
Sustain’d by her indomitable will:
  The hands shall fashion and the brain shall pore,
And all her sorrow shall be turn’d to labor,        55
Till Death the friend-foe piercing with his sabre
  That mighty heart of ends bitter war.
 
But as if blacker night could dawn on night,
  With tenfold gloom on moonless night unstarr’d,
A sense more tragic than defeat and blight,        60
  More desperate than strife with hope debarr’d,
More fatal than the adamantine Never
Encompassing her passionate endeavor,
  Dawn glooming in her tenebrous regard:
 
The sense that every struggle brings defeat        65
  Because Fate holds no prize to crown success;
That all the oracles are dumb or cheat
  Because they have no secret to expresses;
That none can pierce the vast black veil uncertain
Because there is no light beyond the curtain;        70
  That all is vanity and nothingness.
 
Titanic from her high throne in the north,
  That City’s sombre Patroness and Queen,
In bronze sublimity she gazes forth
  Over her Capital of teen and threne,        75
Over the river with its isles and bridges,
The marsh and moorland, to the stern rock-ridges,
  Confronting them with a coeval mien.
 
The moving moon and stars from east to west
  Circle before her in the sea of air;        80
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, renew’d assurance
  And confirmation of the old despair.        85
 

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