Verse > Anthologies > T. H. Ward, ed. > The English Poets > Vol. IV. Wordsworth to Rossetti
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Thomas Humphry Ward, ed.  The English Poets.  1880–1918.
Vol. IV. The Nineteenth Century: Wordsworth to Rossetti
 
Extracts from The City of Dreadful Night
By James Thomson (1834–1882)
 
I.
THE CITY is of Night; perchance of Death,
  But certainly of Night; for never there
Can come the lucid morning’s fragrant breath
  After the dewy dawning’s cold grey air;
The moon and stars may shine with scorn or pity;        5
The sun has never visited that city,
  For it dissolveth in the daylight fair.
 
Dissolveth like a dream of night away;
  Though present in distempered gloom of thought
And deadly weariness of heart all day.        10
  But when a dream night after night is brought
Throughout a week, and such weeks few or many
Recur each year for several years, can any
  Discern that dream from real life in aught?
 
For life is but a dream whose shapes return,        15
  Some frequently, some seldom, some by night
And some by day, some night and day: we learn,
  The while all change and many vanish quite,
In their recurrence with recurrent changes
A certain seeming order; where this ranges        20
  We count things real; such is memory’s might.
 
A river girds the city west and south,
  The main north channel of a broad lagoon,
Regurging with the salt tides from the mouth;
  Waste marshes shine and glister to the moon        25
For leagues, then moorland black, then stony ridges;
Great piers and causeways, many noble bridges,
  Connect the town and islet suburbs strewn.
 
Upon an easy slope it lies at large,
  And scarcely overlaps the long curved crest        30
Which swells out two leagues from the river marge.
  A trackless wilderness rolls north and west,
Savannahs, savage woods, enormous mountains,
Bleak uplands, black ravines with torrent fountains;
  And eastward rolls the shipless sea’s unrest.        35
 
The city is not ruinous, although
  Great ruins of an unremembered past,
With others of a few short years ago
  More sad, are found within its precincts vast.
The street-lamps always burn; but scarce a casement        40
In house or palace front from roof to basement
  Doth glow or gleam athwart the mirk air cast.
 
The street-lamps burn amidst the baleful glooms,
  Amidst the soundless solitudes immense
Of rangèd mansions dark and still as tombs.        45
  The silence which benumbs or strains the sense
Fulfils with awe the soul’s despair unweeping:
Myriads of habitants are ever sleeping,
  Or dead, or fled from nameless pestilence!
 
Yet as in some necropolis you find        50
  Perchance one mourner to a thousand dead,
So there; worn faces that look deaf and blind
  Like tragic masks of stone. With weary tread,
Each wrapt in his own doom, they wander, wander,
Or sit foredone and desolately ponder        55
  Through sleepless hours with heavy drooping head.
 
Mature men chiefly, few in age or youth,
  A woman rarely, now and then a child:
A child! If here the heart turns sick with ruth
  To see a little one from birth defiled,        60
Or lame or blind, as preordained to languish
Through youthless life, think how it bleeds with anguish
  To meet one erring in that homeless wild.
 
They often murmur to themselves, they speak
  To one another seldom, for their woe        65
Broods maddening inwardly and scorns to wreak
  Itself abroad; and if at whiles it grow
To frenzy which must rave, none heeds the clamour,
Unless there waits some victim of like glamour,
  To rave in turn, who lends attentive show.        70
 
The City is of Night, but not of Sleep;
  There sweet sleep is not for the weary brain;
The pitiless hours like years and ages creep,
  A night seems termless hell. This dreadful strain
Of thought and consciousness which never ceases,        75
Or which some moments’ stupor but increases,
  This, worse than woe, makes wretches there insane.
 
They leave all hope behind who enter there:
  One certitude while sane they cannot leave,
One anodyne for torture and despair;        80
  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.
*        *        *        *        *
XVII.
How the moon triumphs through the endless nights!
        85
  How the stars throb and glitter as they wheel
Their thick processions of supernal lights
  Around the blue vault obdurate as steel
And men regard with passionate awe and yearning
The mighty marching and the golden burning,        90
  And think the heavens respond to what they feel.
 
Boats gliding like dark shadows of a dream,
  Are glorified from vision as they pass
The quivering moonbridge on the deep black stream;
  Cold windows kindle their dead glooms of glass        95
To restless crystals; cornice, dome, and column
Emerge from chaos in the splendour solemn;
  Like faëry lakes gleam lawns of dewy grass.
 
With such a living light these dead eyes shine,
  These eyes of sightless heaven, that as we gaze        100
We read a pity, tremulous, divine,
  Or cold majestic scorn in their pure rays:
Fond man! they are not haughty, are not tender;
There is no heart or mind in all their splendour,
  They thread mere puppets all their marvellous maze.        105
 
If we could near them with the flight unflown,
  We should but find them worlds as sad as this,
Or suns all self-consuming like our own
  Enringed by planet worlds as much amiss:
They wax and wane through fusion and confusion;        110
The spheres eternal are a grand illusion,
  The empyrean is a void abyss.
*        *        *        *        *
XXI.
Anear the centre of that northern crest
  Stands out a level upland bleak and bare,
From which the city east and south and west        115
  Sinks gently in long waves; and thronèd there
An Image sits, stupendous, superhuman,
The bronze colossus of a wingèd Woman,
  Upon a graded granite base foursquare. 1
 
Low-seated she leans forward massively,        120
  With cheek on clenched left hand, the forearm’s might
Erect, its elbow on her rounded knee;
  Across a clasped book in her lap the right
Upholds a pair of compasses; she gazes
With full set eyes, but wandering in thick mazes        125
  Of sombre thought beholds no outward sight.
 
Words cannot picture her; but all men know
  That solemn sketch the pure sad artist wrought
Three centuries and threescore years ago,
  With phantasies of his peculiar thought:        130
The instruments of carpentry and science
Scattered about her feet, in strange alliance
  With the keen wolf-hound sleeping undistraught;
 
Scales, hour-glass, bell, and magic-square above
  The grave and solid infant perched beside,        135
With open winglets that might bear a dove,
  Intent upon its tablets, heavy-eyed;
Her folded wings as of a mighty eagle,
But all too impotent to lift the regal
  Robustness of her earth-born strength and pride;        140
 
And with those wings, and that light wreath which seems
  To mock her grand head and the knotted frown
Of forehead charged with baleful thoughts and dreams,
  The household bunch of keys, the housewife’s gown
Voluminous, indented, and yet rigid        145
As if a shell of burnished metal frigid,
  The feet thick-shod to tread all weakness down;
 
The comet hanging o’er the waste dark seas,
  The massy rainbow curved in front of it
Beyond the village with the masts and trees;        150
  The snaky imp, dog-headed, from the Pit,
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        155
  Surrounded to expound her form sublime,
Her fate heroic and calamitous;
  Fronting the dreadful mysteries of Time,
Unvanquished in defeat and desolation,
Undaunted in the hopeless conflagration        160
  Of the day setting on her baffled prime.
 
Baffled and beaten back she works on still,
  Weary and sick of soul she works the more,
Sustained by her indomitable will:
  The hands shall fashion and the brain shall pore,        165
And all her sorrow shall be turned to labour,
Till Death the friend-foe piercing with his sabre
  That mighty heart of hearts ends bitter war.
 
But as if blacker night could dawn on night,
  With tenfold gloom on moonless night unstarred,        170
A sense more tragic than defeat and blight,
  More desperate than strife with hope debarred,
More fatal than the adamantine Never
Encompassing her passionate endeavour,
  Dawns glooming in her tenebrous regard:        175
 
The sense that every struggle brings defeat
  Because Fate holds no prize to crown success;
That all the oracles are dumb or cheat
  Because they have no secret to express;
That none can pierce the vast black veil uncertain        180
Because there is no light beyond the curtain;
  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        185
  Over her Capital of teen and throne,
Over the river with its isles and bridges,
The marsh and moorland, to the stern rock-ridges,
  Confronting them with a coëval mien.
 
The moving moon and stars from east to west        190
  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        195
  And confirmation of the old despair.
 
Note 1. The description refers to Albert Dürer’s ‘Melencolia.’ [back]
 
 
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