Reference > Anthologies > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library > Verse

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
From ‘The City of Dreadful Night’
By James Thomson (1834–1882)
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 moldering hidden?        5
Why break the seals of mute despair unbidden,
And wail life’s discords into careless ears?
Because a cold rage seizes one at whiles
  To show the bitter old and wrinkled truth
Stripped naked of all vesture that beguiles,        10
  False dreams, false hopes, false masks and modes of youth;
Because it gives some sense of power and passion
In helpless impotence to try to fashion
  Our woe in living words howe’er uncouth.
Surely I write not for the hopeful young,        15
  Or those who deem their happiness of worth,
Or such as pasture and grow fat among
  The shows of life and feel nor doubt nor dearth,
Or pious spirits with a God above them
To sanctify and glorify and love them,        20
  Or sages who foresee a heaven on earth.
For none of these I write, and none of these
  Could read the writing if they deigned to try:
So may they flourish, in their due degrees,
  On our sweet earth and in their unplaced sky.        25
If any cares for the weak words here written,
It must be some one desolate, fate-smitten,
  Whose faith and hope are dead, and who would die.
Yes, here and there some weary wanderer
  In that same city of tremendous night        30
Will understand the speech, and feel a stir
  Of fellowship in all-disastrous fight:
I suffer mute and lonely, yet another
Uplifts his voice to let me know a brother
  Travels the same wild paths, though out of sight.        35
O sad Fraternity, do I unfold
  Your dolorous mysteries shrouded from of yore?
Nay, be assured: no secret can be told
  To any who divined it not before;
None uninitiate by many a presage        40
Will comprehend the language of the message,
  Although proclaimed aloud forevermore.

THE CITY is of Night: perchance of Death,
  But certainly of Night; for never there
Can come the lucid morning’s fragrant breath        45
  After the dewy dawning’s cold gray air:
The moon and stars may shine with scorn or pity;
The sun has never visited that city,
  For it dissolveth in the daylight fair.
Dissolveth like a dream of night away;        50
  Though present in distempered gloom of thought
And deadly weariness of heart all day.
  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        55
  Discern that dream from real life in aught?…
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        60
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        65
Which swells out two leagues from the river marge.
  A trackless wilderness rolls north and west,
Savannas, savage woods, enormous mountains,
Bleak uplands, black ravines with torrent fountains;
  And eastward rolls the shipless sea’s unrest.        70
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        75
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.        80
  The silence which benumbs or strains the sense
Fulfills 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        85
  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        90
  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,        95
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        100
Broods maddening inwardly and scorns to wreak
  Itself abroad; and if at whiles it grow
To frenzy which must rave, none heeds the clamor,
Unless there waits some victim of like glamour,
  To rave in turn, who lends attentive show.        105
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,        110
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,—        115
  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.
*        *        *        *        *
Of all things human which are strange and wild,        120
  This is perchance the wildest and most strange,
And showeth man most utterly beguiled,
  To those who haunt that sunless City’s range:
That he bemoans himself for aye, repeating
How Time is deadly swift, how life is fleeting,        125
  How naught is constant on the earth but change.
The hours are heavy on him, and the days;
  The burden of the months he scarce can bear:
And often in his secret soul he prays
  To sleep through barren periods unaware,        130
Arousing at some longed-for date of pleasure;
Which having passed and yielded him small treasure,
  He would outsleep another term of care.
Yet in his marvelous fancy he must make
  Quick wings for Time, and see it fly from us:        135
This Time which crawleth like a monstrous snake,
  Wounded and slow and very venomous;
Which creeps blindworm-like round the earth and ocean,
Distilling poison at each painful motion,
  And seems condemned to circle ever thus.        140
And since he cannot spend and use aright
  The little Time here given him in trust,
But wasteth it in weary undelight
  Of foolish toil and trouble, strife and lust,
He naturally claimeth to inherit        145
The everlasting Future, that his merit
  May have full scope; as surely is most just.
O length of the intolerable hours,
  O nights that are as æons of slow pain,
O Time, too ample for our vital powers,        150
  O Life, whose woeful vanities remain
Immutable for all of all our legions,
Through all the centuries and in all the regions,
  Not of your speed and variance we complain.
We do not ask a longer term of strife,        155
  Weakness and weariness and nameless woes;
We do not claim renewed and endless life
  When this which is our torment here shall close,
An everlasting conscious inanition!
We yearn for speedy death in full fruition,        160
  Dateless oblivion and divine repose.

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