Tuesday, January 26, 2010

This insufferable inane - the originality of Bysshe Vanolis

A couple of scenes from The City of Dreadful Night, scenes that seem quite original to me.  Let me know if I'm wrong!

In Canto II, the narrator, flaneuring about doomed London, encounters - well, I'm not sure who.  A "shadowlike and frail" figure who acts as a sort of tour guide.  Just the highlights:  the graveyard where Faith died, "poisoned by this charnel air," the villa where Love died, "stabbed by its own worshipped pair," and so on.  The narrator asks "Can Life still live?  By what doth it proceed?" and gets this answer:

As whom his one intense thought overpowers,
   He answered coldly, Take a watch, erase
The signs and figures of the circling hours,
   Detach the hands, remove the dial-face;
The works proceed until run down; although
Bereft of purpose, void of use, still go.  (II 31-36)

The image of the distant Divine Clockmaker of the rationalists is simply demolished here.  The Surrealists are fifty years in the future.  What an image.  By the way, see what you think reading this aloud, treating it, from "Take a watch" on, as dialogue.  The pauses are just superb.

"Then turning to the right" the figure begins the dismal circuit again, like the useless watch, pausing to point out where Faith died and so on.  The narrator abandons him.
In Canto VI, the poet overhears two "bodiless voices in my waking dream," one of them just returned from the entrance to Hell, the Hell of Dante:  

I reached the portal common spirits fear,
And read the words above it, dark yet clear,
'Leave hope behind, all ye who enter here:'
And would have passed in, gratified to gain
That positive eternity of pain,
Instead of this insufferable inane.  (VI  19-24)

But he's not allowed in Hell, because he has no hope to abandon!  He, and his companion, who have already succumbed to total despair, are instead stuck in dreadful London.  The two spirits resolve to persevere, to "grope" through London, searching for "some minute lost hope," which will allow them to finally enter Hell!  This is wonderfully, brilliantly cracked, a literalization of a famous Dante line pushed to the breaking point.  I can give it one more twist, too - by hoping to find hope, they have already found it, but don't realize it.  Or perhaps not.  Who knows what the rules are in The City of Dreadful Night.
This is a most quotable poem.  Some fragments I enjoy, among many:  

The phantoms have no reticence at all:
The nudity of flesh will blush though tameless,
The extreme nudity of bone grins shameless,
The unsexed skeleton mocks shroud and pall.  (VII 11-14)
Which creeps blindwormlike round the earth and ocean,  (XIII 19)
She clasped the corpse-like me, and they were borne
Away, and this vile me was left forlorn;  (IV  100-101)

 If you think this is something - I sure do - I'll just warn that it's not all this good.


  1. Wow, brilliantly cracked is right. Wanting to find hope so they can go the Hell because it is preferable to their current state? Goodness, that is twisted.

  2. This is just brilliant. I'm upgrading from "want" to "must read."