The response to the Scottish Literature Challenge has been great, just fantastic. So now I'm going to keep the momentum going by spending the week, or a good part of it, with the greatest pessimist in, apparently, English literary history. You want a dour Scot, take a look at James Thomson, better known as Bysshe Vanolis, author of The City of Dreadful Night (1874). By "keep the momentum going," I mean "kill it dead and drive everyone away." As Vanolis says:
He gazed and whispered with a cold despair,
Here Hope died, starved out in its utmost lair. (II 23-24)
I first read this poem a few days ago, all twenty-nine pages of it, and then immediately read it again, meaning that I am now in a flush of enthusiasm that no one else is likely to share. The City of Dreadful Night is about nothing but death, decay, futility, suicide, and the pointlessness of all things, set in a sometimes recognizable gaslight London. It's The Victorian Waste Land. If taken entirely seriously, it has to be among the most depressing poems ever written. T. S. Eliot is Groucho Marx in comparison.
As an example, the narrator, who mostly wanders around the city cataloguing its horrors, joins a congregation in what I think is supposed to be St. Paul's Cathedral. A congregant asks the minister for comfort ("What can console me for the loss supreme?" and so on), and gets this reply from the "pulpit speaker":
My Brother, my poor Brothers, it is thus;
This life itself holds nothing good for us,
But it ends soon and nevermore can be;
And we knew nothing of it ere our birth,
And shall know nothing when consigned to earth:
I ponder these thoughts and they comfort me. (XVI 49-54)
The last line scans a little oddly - dactyls, right? - which helps separate the thought from the rest of the stanza. That should give a good feel for the sound and sense of the poem.
The City of Dreadful Night is proto-modern, yet very much a Victorian poem. Some of its imagery is highly original, and, another link to The Waste Land, the poem is infused with quotations: Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Blake, and presumably many more I do not recognize. It in fact may be more of a pastiche than I realize. It continually suggests other poems. I'll see if I can write about some of this.
The perverse thing is that I am so happy to discover this poem of absolute despair. I read it with the thrill of encountering a great poem. It's not written for me - Vanolis specifically says so:
Surely I write not for the hopeful young,
Or those who deem their happiness of worth,
Or such as pasture and grow fat among
The shows of life, and feel not doubt or dearth,
Or pious spirits with a God above them
To sanctify and glorify and love them,
Or sages who foresee a heaven on earth. (Proem 15-21)
I am in at least one of those categories. I'll spend some time trying to get at why Vanolis might be wrong, why this poem might be for me after all.