My rating: 5 of 5 stars
James Thomson (B.V.) is one of my all-time favourite writers and, whilst I mist admit that my favourite works of his are his hilarious and cutting Satires and Profanities amongst his other essays, he definitely secures his place as more than a merely comic writer, more than a journalist, more than a political commentator, in this wonderful piece of Victorian pessimist fiction that shows his mastery of poetic form, a strong social conscience, and his talents as a literary writer.
The City of Dreadful Night is an epic poem set in ninteenth-century Victorian London that follows a protagonist both in the present and past tense on a journey through a landscape of urbanism and more, that critiques the desolate decadence of London and the misery and pain found therein, often dismissed by wider society and misconceived by the rest.
Thomson is a profoundly pessimistic writer. As an alcoholic whose life was marked by grief and a battle with depression, Thomson is easy to define as a cynical critic with little to offer as a hopeful alternative and, in part, this is true. His condemnation of the city and the lives of its inhabitants has no hint of a meaningful alternative. In fact, the very absence of meaning is what Thomson holds up as the key to release. The graves of hope and love are indeed encountered by the wanderer. The emptiness of the things that should give us hope is dwelt upon – like the young man grieving his bride, who seems to have more concern for her physical body than who she was. And at the gates to hell, people are being turned away because they have no hope left to abandon. The atheistic sermon that argues that suicide is, in fact, not immoral, but the best option is surely the epitome of Victorian pessimist philosophy – the idea that the struggle is never-ending, that we’re not moving forward, that nothing gets better, that there’s only the endless vicious circle and therefore choosing when you get to end it is the only semblance of freedom you’ll have.
But the truth isn’t so simple. Thomson’s writing is most definitely pessimistic, but there is hope to be found. At the very beginning he writes:
“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 nor doubt nor dearth,
Or pious spirits with a God above them
To sanctify and glorify and love them,
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.
If any cares for the weak words here written,
It must be some one desolate, Fate-smitten,
Whose faith and hopes are dead, and who would die.
Yes, here and there some weary wanderer
In that same city of tremendous night,
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.”
Thomson is saying that he is writing so that people who feel like him can feel less alone, that they can know that there is someone else who sympathises with them and who cares. Equally, the fact that a man who suffered with debilitating depression and lived in poverty for most of his life could get up every day and write a poem with such structured rhythm, such a meaningful and significant rhythm at that, shows that Thomson’s cynical view of the world’s meaninglessness was what drove him to create his own meaning. And in that context the atheistic sermon takes on a new guise too. He’s not calling us to give in to inevitability and accept our inherent powerlessness, he’s merely saying that if that is the case then we must breathe anew, face our fate and shape the world we live in with that knowledge. We must have less tolerance for others’ sufferings and we must make this place better. Whether or not we can is Thomson’s unspoken question, because he clearly isn’t sure that we can himself. But even in the most dire scepticism, you can find some goodness and even a speck of hope.
Thomson’s dark poem is gothic, cynical, and depressing, with a deep social conscience and a sense of listlessness that belies a whole wealth of meaning: mental illness, social isolation, modern urbanism, rampant capitalism, negative effects of individualism, and much more. Victorian literature lovers will find this a searing contemporary portrait of a city that was prescient for its time and still tells us a lot today.