Monday, January 25, 2010

I ponder these thoughts and they comfort me - The City of Dreadful Night - my first official Scottish Literature Challenge post

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.


  1. I love the glee in your tone, macabre, lugubrious, ha ha.

  2. Your posting provokes me to posit a thesis for the reading challenge: Scottish writers (of the 18th and 19th centuries--and perhaps early 20th century), if categorized and generalized, tend to the dour (like Thomson/Vanolis) rather than the exuberant. There are probably reasons for Scottish aversion to gleeful enthusiasm (and many might be related to political history and geography), but let us see if my thesis holds true as others weigh in with their readings and comments.

  3. I clicked over to this poem after you first posted about it, and had the surprising realization that for some reason I have a hard time taking seriously a poem of despair written in rhyming couplets. It all seems too neat and tidy, somehow. It's like hearing a funeral dirge performed by the Monkees. But that's just me.

  4. Very nice, thank you. The tone and the story of the poem (man walks through city, feels gloomy) remind me a bit of Cesario Verde's 'The Feelings of a Westerner',* although Verde doesn't share Vanolis' faith-rooted anguish. Despair makes the Scot feel removed from the scene; it makes the Portuguese quiver with engagement: "Could I but paint / With skilled, sincere, salubrious verses / The delicate shimmering of your streetlamps." Meanwhile Venolis "strode on austere."



  5. I have completed my first post for the Scottish Literature Challenge

    Boswell's The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides

  6. Wow, that Cesario Verde poem ("The Feeling of a Westerner", 1880, greatest Portuguese poem of the 19th century) is something else:

    "In a neighbourhood where cats meow
    And the rotting fish breed infection!"

    He can't possibly have known The City of Dreadful Night? The link is presumably back through Baudelaire, although now I'm just speculating about B.V.

    Thanks so much for the link. What a poem.

    Nicole - you want the Canongate Classics edition. So do I. I could really use the annotations.

    I wonder about those dour literary Scots. Stevenson seemed pretty jolly, but he had somehow turned himself into a Frenchman, so he might be an exception.

    The B.V. poem is also part of a "Scotsman goes to London" theme I have noticed, starting with Roderick Random.

    Emily - it's not just you. Definitely not just you. I have an idea why and will possibly write about it. I'll assure you that the poem has cumulative power.

    mel, all right! I'll stop by at some point (I've read it already - really good, thanks). I think I'll finish the book this weekend and write something here as well.

  7. My father always talks about 'celtic melancholy' but this goes much further...
    am interested to read more of your thoughts

  8. I'm not a huge fan of depressing poems like this. I'll be passing on it.

  9. verbivore - B.V. is definitely a special case. This poem isn't just describing his sensibility or temperament. It's presenting a vision of the world.

    Rebecca - it's not a depressing poem. It's exhilarating. Great writing is exhilarating. The last chapter of The Sign of Four, the second Sherlock Holmes novel, that I'm struggling to finish - now that's depressing.

  10. S'good, isn't it? I'm glad you liked it. I'm pretty fond of what the commentary on the site calls, "unexpected associations of images – juxtaposed according to a method suggestive of techniques employed decades later by expressionist cinema" -- like those envisioned wives "who chastely nest in clear-glass mansions." I see them sitting with their hands in their laps, sweetly oval-faced, like Madonnas in a terrarium.

    Re. He can't possibly have known The City of Dreadful Night?

    I've been scratching around the internet for an answer. If Verde knew Dreadful Night there doesn't seem to be any sign of it out there. It looks as if he didn't read English, and it doesn't seem likely that DN would have been translated into Portuguese (not impossible, but not likely) -- so -- probably coincidence.

  11. Ah, the question is not what Verde read in English, but what he read in French. Same for B.V. That's why I know (Verde) or suspect (Thomson) that Baudelaire is the ancestor.

    The thing that threw me was the invocation of London in the second stanza. Weird coincidence.

    If this all goes well, maybe I'll host a Portuguese reading challenge.

  12. They both read Baudelaire. Vanolis used to review his books for British publications before they were translated into English.

  13. Thanks for the digging regarding Thomson's French. I was sure, absolutely sure, but you never know.