The City of Dreadful Night

James Thomson

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Per me si va nella citta dolente.

— Dante

Poi di tanto adoprar, di tanti moti

D’ogni celeste, ogni terrena cosa,

Girando senza posa,

Per tornar sempre la donde son mosse;

Uso alcuno, alcun frutto

Indovinar non so.

Sola nel mondo eterna, a cui si volve

Ogni creata cosa,

In te, morte, si posa

Nostra ignuda natura;

Lieta no, ma sicura

Dell’ antico dolor . . .

Pero ch’ esser beato

Nega ai mortali e nega a’ morti il fato.

— Leopardi


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 mouldering hidden?

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,

  False dreams, false hopes, false masks and modes of youth;

Because it gives some sense of power and passion

In helpless innocence to try to fashion

  Our woe in living words howe’er uncouth.

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.”

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

Will comprehend the language of the message,

  Although proclaimed aloud for evermore.


The City is of Night; perchance of Death

  But certainly of Night; for never there

Can come the lucid morning’s fragrant breath

  After the dewy dawning’s cold grey 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;

  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

  Discern that dream from real life in aught?

For life is but a dream whose shapes return,

  Some frequently, some seldom, some by night

And some by day, some night and day: we learn,

  The while all change and many vanish quite,

In their recurrence with recurrent changes

A certain seeming order; where this ranges

  We count things real; such is memory’s might.

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

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

Which swells out two leagues from the river marge.

  A trackless wilderness rolls north and west,

Savannahs, savage woods, enormous mountains,

Bleak uplands, black ravines with torrent fountains;

  And eastward rolls the shipless sea’s unrest.

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

In house or palace front from roof to basement

  Doth glow or gleam athwart the mirk air cast.

The street-lamps burn amid the baleful glooms,

  Amidst the soundless solitudes immense

Of ranged mansions dark and still as tombs.

  The silence which benumbs or strains the sense

Fulfils 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

  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

  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,

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

Broods maddening inwardly and scorns to wreak

  Itself abroad; and if at whiles it grow

To frenzy which must rave, none heeds the clamour,

Unless there waits some victim of like glamour,

  To rave in turn, who lends attentive show.

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,

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;

  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 1

1 Though the Garden of thy Life be wholly waste, the sweet flowers withered, the fruit-trees barren, over its wall hang ever the rich dark clusters of the Vine of Death, within easy reach of thy hand, which may pluck of them when it will.


Because he seemed to walk with an intent

  I followed him; who, shadowlike and frail,

Unswervingly though slowly onward went,

  Regardless, wrapt in thought as in a veil:

Thus step for step with lonely sounding feet

We travelled many a long dim silent street.

At length he paused: a black mass in the gloom,

  A tower that merged into the heavy sky;

Around, the huddled stones of grave and tomb:

  Some old God’s-acre now corruption’s sty:

He murmured to himself with dull despair,

Here Faith died, poisoned by this charnel air.

Then turning to the right went on once more

  And travelled weary roads without suspense;

And reached at last a low wall’s open door,

  Whose villa gleamed beyond the foliage dense:

He gazed, and muttered with a hard despair,

Here Love died, stabbed by its own worshipped pair.

Then turning to the right resumed his march,

  And travelled street and lanes with wondrous strength,

Until on stooping through a narrow arch

  We stood before a squalid house at length:

He gazed, and whispered with a cold despair,

Here Hope died, starved out in its utmost lair.

When he had spoken thus, before he stirred,

  I spoke, perplexed by something in the signs

Of desolation I had seen and heard

  In this drear pilgrimage to ruined shrines:

Where Faith and Love and Hope are dead indeed,

Can Life still live? By what doth it proceed?

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.

Then turning to the right paced on again,

  And traversed squares and travelled streets whose glooms

Seemed more and more familiar to my ken;

  And reached that sullen temple of the tombs;

And paused to murmur with the old despair,

Hear Faith died, poisoned by this charnel air.

I ceased to follow, for the knot of doubt

  Was severed sharply with a cruel knife:

He circled thus forever tracing out

  The series of the fraction left of Life;

Perpetual recurrence in the scope

Of but three terms, dead Faith, dead Love, dead Hope. 2

2                                                  333 LXX
Life divided by that persistent three = —— = .210.


Although lamps burn along the silent streets,

  Even when moonlight silvers empty squares

The dark holds countless lanes and close retreats;

  But when the night its sphereless mantle wears

The open spaces yawn with gloom abysmal,

The sombre mansions loom immense and dismal,

  The lanes are black as subterranean lairs.

And soon the eye a strange new vision learns:

  The night remains for it as dark and dense,

Yet clearly in this darkness it discerns

  As in the daylight with its natural sense;

Perceives a shade in shadow not obscurely,

Pursues a stir of black in blackness surely,

  Sees spectres also in the gloom intense.

The ear, too, with the silence vast and deep

  Becomes familiar though unreconciled;

Hears breathings as of hidden life asleep,

  And muffled throbs as of pent passions wild,

Far murmurs, speech of pity or derision;

but all more dubious than the things of vision,

  So that it knows not when it is beguiled.

No time abates the first despair and awe,

  But wonder ceases soon; the weirdest thing

Is felt least strange beneath the lawless law

  Where Death-inLife is the eternal king;

Crushed impotent beneath this reign of terror,

Dazed with mysteries of woe and error,

  The soul is too outworn for wondering.


He stood alone within the spacious square

  Declaiming from the central grassy mound,

With head uncovered and with streaming hair,

  As if large multitudes were gathered round:

A stalwart shape, the gestures full of might,

The glances burning with unnatural light:—

As I came through the desert thus it was,

As I came through the desert: All was black,

In heaven no single star, on earth no track;

A brooding hush without a stir or note,

The air so thick it clotted in my throat;

And thus for hours; then some enormous things

Swooped past with savage cries and clanking wings:

  But I strode on austere;

  No hope could have no fear.

As I came through the desert thus it was,

As I came through the desert: Eyes of fire

Glared at me throbbing with a starved desire;

The hoarse and heavy and carnivorous breath

Was hot upon me from deep jaws of death;

Sharp claws, swift talons, fleshless fingers cold

Plucked at me from the bushes, tried to hold:

  But I strode on austere;

  No hope could have no fear.

As I came through the desert thus it was,

As I came through the desert: Lo you, there,

That hillock burning with a brazen glare;

Those myriad dusky flames with points a-glow

Which writhed and hissed and darted to and fro;

A Sabbath of the Serpents, heaped pell-mell

For Devil’s roll-call and some fete of Hell:

  Yet I strode on austere;

  No hope could have no fear.

As I came through the desert thus it was,

As I came through the desert: Meteors ran

And crossed their javelins on the black sky-span;

The zenith opened to a gulf of flame,

The dreadful thunderbolts jarred earth’s fixed frame;

The ground all heaved in waves of fire that surged

And weltered round me sole there unsubmerged:

  Yet I strode on austere;

  No hope could have no fear.

As I came through the desert thus it was,

As I came through the desert: Air once more,

And I was close upon a wild sea-shore;

Enormous cliffs arose on either hand,

The deep tide thundered up a league-broad strand;

White foambelts seethed there, wan spray swept and flew;

The sky broke, moon and stars and clouds and blue:

  Yet I strode on austere;

  No hope could have no fear.

As I came through the desert thus it was,

As I came through the desert: On the left

The sun arose and crowned a broad crag-cleft;

There stopped and burned out black, except a rim,

A bleeding eyeless socket, red and dim;

Whereon the moon fell suddenly south-west,

And stood above the right-hand cliffs at rest:

  Yet I strode on austere;

  No hope could have no fear.

As I came through the desert thus it was,

As I came through the desert: From the right

A shape came slowly with a ruddy light;

A woman with a red lamp in her hand,

Bareheaded and barefooted on that strand;

O desolation moving with such grace!

O anguish with such beauty in thy face!

  I fell as on my bier,

  Hope travailed with such fear.

As I came through the desert thus it was,

As I came through the desert: I was twain,

Two selves distinct that cannot join again;

One stood apart and knew but could not stir,

And watched the other stark in swoon and her;

And she came on, and never turned aside,

Between such sun and moon and roaring tide:

  And as she came more near

  My soul grew mad with fear.

As I came through the desert thus it was,

As I came through the desert: Hell is mild

And piteous matched with that accursed wild;

A large black sign was on her breast that bowed,

A broad black band ran down her snow-white shroud;

That lamp she held was her own burning heart,

Whose blood-drops trickled step by step apart:

  The mystery was clear;

  Mad rage had swallowed fear.

As I came through the desert thus it was,

As I came through the desert: By the sea

She knelt and bent above that senseless me;

Those lamp-drops fell upon my white brow there,

She tried to cleanse them with her tears and hair;

She murmured words of pity, love, and woe,

Shee heeded not the level rushing flow:

  And mad with rage and fear,

  I stood stonebound so near.

As I came through the desert thus it was,

As I came through the desert: When the tide

Swept up to her there kneeling by my side,

She clasped that corpse-like me, and they were borne

Away, and this vile me was left forlorn;

I know the whole sea cannot quench that heart,

Or cleanse that brow, or wash those two apart:

  They love; their doom is drear,

  Yet they nor hope nor fear;

  But I, what do I here?


How he arrives there none can clearly know;

  Athwart the mountains and immense wild tracts,

Or flung a waif upon that vast sea-flow,

  Or down the river’s boiling cataracts:

To reach it is as dying fever-stricken

To leave it, slow faint birth intense pangs quicken;

  And memory swoons in both the tragic acts.

But being there one feels a citizen;

  Escape seems hopeless to the heart forlorn:

Can Death-inLife be brought to life again?

  And yet release does come; there comes a morn

When he awakes from slumbering so sweetly

That all the world is changed for him completely,

  And he is verily as if new-born.

He scarcely can believe the blissful change,

  He weeps perchance who wept not while accurst;

Never again will he approach the range

  Infected by that evil spell now burst:

Poor wretch! who once hath paced that dolent city

Shall pace it often, doomed beyond all pity,

  With horror ever deepening from the first.

Though he possess sweet babes and loving wife,

  A home of peace by loyal friendships cheered,

And love them more than death or happy life,

  They shall avail not; he must dree his weird;

Renounce all blessings for that imprecation,

Steal forth and haunt that builded desolation,

  Of woe and terrors and thick darkness reared.


I sat forlornly by the river-side,

  And watched the bridge-lamps glow like golden stars

Above the blackness of the swelling tide,

  Down which they struck rough gold in ruddier bars;

And heard the heave and plashing of the flow

Against the wall a dozen feet below.

Large elm-trees stood along that river-walk;

  And under one, a few steps from my seat,

I heard strange voices join in stranger talk,

  Although I had not heard approaching feet:

These bodiless voices in my waking dream

Flowed dark words blending with sombre stream:—

And you have after all come back; come back.

I was about to follow on your track.

And you have failed: our spark of hope is black.

That I have failed is proved by my return:

The spark is quenched, nor ever more will burn,

But listen; and the story you shall learn.

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.

A demon warder clutched me, Not so fast;

First leave your hopes behind! — But years have passed

Since I left all behind me, to the last:

You cannot count for hope, with all your wit,

This bleak despair that drives me to the Pit:

How could I seek to enter void of it?

He snarled, What thing is this which apes a soul,

And would find entrance to our gulf of dole

Without the payment of the settled toll?

Outside the gate he showed an open chest:

Here pay their entrance fees the souls unblest;

Cast in some hope, you enter with the rest.

This is Pandora’s box; whose lid shall shut,

And Hell-gate too, when hopes have filled it; but

They are so thin that it will never glut.

I stood a few steps backwards, desolate;

And watched the spirits pass me to their fate,

And fling off hope, and enter at the gate.

When one casts off a load he springs upright,

Squares back his shoulders, breathes will all his might,

And briskly paces forward strong and light:

But these, as if they took some burden, bowed;

The whole frame sank; however strong and proud

Before, they crept in quite infirm and cowed.

And as they passed me, earnestly from each

A morsel of his hope I did beseech,

To pay my entrance; but all mocked my speech.

No one would cede a little of his store,

Though knowing that in instants three or four

He must resign the whole for evermore.

So I returned. Our destiny is fell;

For in this Limbo we must ever dwell,

Shut out alike from heaven and Earth and Hell.

The other sighed back, Yea; but if we grope

With care through all this Limbo’s dreary scope,

We yet may pick up some minute lost hope;

And sharing it between us, entrance win,

In spite of fiends so jealous for gross sin:

Let us without delay our search begin.


Some say that phantoms haunt those shadowy streets,

  And mingle freely there with sparse mankind;

And tell of ancient woes and black defeats,

  And murmur mysteries in the grave enshrined:

But others think them visions of illusion,

Or even men gone far in self-confusion;

  No man there being wholly sane in mind.

And yet a man who raves, however mad,

  Who bares his heart and tells of his own fall,

Reserves some inmost secret good or bad:

  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.

I have seen phantoms there that were as men

  And men that were as phantoms flit and roam;

Marked shapes that were not living to my ken,

  Caught breathings acrid as with Dead Sea foam:

The City rests for man so weird and awful,

That his intrusion there might seem unlawful,

  And phantoms there may have their proper home.


While I still lingered on that river-walk,

  And watched the tide as black as our black doom,

I heard another couple join in talk,

  And saw them to the left hand in the gloom

Seated against an elm bole on the ground,

Their eyes intent upon the stream profound.

“I never knew another man on earth

  But had some joy and solace in his life,

  Some chance of triumph in the dreadful strife:

My doom has been unmitigated dearth.”

“We gaze upon the river, and we note

The various vessels large and small that float,

Ignoring every wrecked and sunken boat.”

“And yet I asked no splendid dower, no spoil

  Of sway or fame or rank or even wealth;

  But homely love with common food and health,

And nightly sleep to balance daily toil.”

“This all-too-humble soul would arrogate

Unto itself some signalising hate

From the supreme indifference of Fate!”

“Who is most wretched in this dolorous place?

  I think myself; yet I would rather be

  My miserable self than He, than He

Who formed such creatures to His own disgrace.

“The vilest thing must be less vile than Thou

  From whom it had its being, God and Lord!

  Creator of all woe and sin! abhorred

Malignant and implacable! I vow

“That not for all Thy power furled and unfurled,

  For all the temples to Thy glory built,

  Would I assume the ignominious guilt

Of having made such men in such a world.”

“As if a Being, God or Fiend, could reign,

At once so wicked, foolish and insane,

As to produce men when He might refrain!

“The world rolls round for ever like a mill;

It grinds out death and life and good and ill;

It has no purpose, heart or mind or will.

“While air of Space and Time’s full river flow

The mill must blindly whirl unresting so:

It may be wearing out, but who can know?

“Man might know one thing were his sight less dim;

That it whirls not to suit his petty whim,

That it is quite indifferent to him.

“Nay, does it treat him harshly as he saith?

It grinds him some slow years of bitter breath,

Then grinds him back into eternal death.”


It is full strange to him who hears and feels,

  When wandering there in some deserted street,

The booming and the jar of ponderous wheels,

  The trampling clash of heavy ironshod feet:

Who in this Venice of the Black Sea rideth?

Who in this city of the stars abideth

  To buy or sell as those in daylight sweet?

The rolling thunder seems to fill the sky

  As it comes on; the horses snort and strain,

The harness jingles, as it passes by;

  The hugeness of an overburthened wain:

A man sits nodding on the shaft or trudges

Three parts asleep beside his fellow-drudges:

  And so it rolls into the night again.

What merchandise? whence, whither, and for whom?

  Perchance it is a Fate-appointed hearse,

Bearing away to some mysterious tomb

  Or Limbo of the scornful universe

The joy, the peace, the life-hope, the abortions

Of all things good which should have been our portions,

  But have been strangled by that City’s curse.


The mansion stood apart in its own ground;

  In front thereof a fragrant garden-lawn,

High trees about it, and the whole walled round:

  The massy iron gates were both withdrawn;

And every window of its front shed light,

Portentous in that City of the Night.

But though thus lighted it was deadly still

  As all the countless bulks of solid gloom;

Perchance a congregation to fulfil

  Solemnities of silence in this doom,

Mysterious rites of dolour and despair

Permitting not a breath or chant of prayer?

Broad steps ascended to a terrace broad

  Whereon lay still light from the open door;

The hall was noble, and its aspect awed,

  Hung round with heavy black from dome to floor;

And ample stairways rose to left and right

Whose balustrades were also draped with night.

I paced from room to room, from hall to hall,

  Nor any life throughout the maze discerned;

But each was hung with its funereal pall,

  And held a shrine, around which tapers burned,

With picture or with statue or with bust,

all copied from the same fair form of dust:

A woman very young and very fair;

  Beloved by bounteous life and joy and youth,

And loving these sweet lovers, so that care

  And age and death seemed not for her in sooth:

Alike as stars, all beautiful and bright,

these shapes lit up that mausolean night.

At length I heard a murmur as of lips,

  And reached an open oratory hung

With heaviest blackness of the whole eclipse;

  Beneath the dome a fuming censer swung;

And one lay there upon a low white bed,

With tapers burning at the foot and head:

The Lady of the images, supine,

  Deathstill, lifesweet, with folded palms she lay:

And kneeling there as at a sacred shrine

  A young man wan and worn who seemed to pray:

A crucifix of dim and ghostly white

Surmounted the large altar left in night:—

The chambers of the mansion of my heart,

  In every one whereof thine image dwells,

Are black with grief eternal for thy sake.

The inmost oratory of my soul,

Wherein thou ever dwellest quick or dead,

Is black with grief eternal for thy sake.

I kneel beside thee and I clasp the cross,

With eyes forever fixed upon that face,

So beautiful and dreadful in its calm.

I kneel here patient as thou liest there;

As patient as a statue carved in stone,

Of adoration and eternal grief.

While thou dost not awake I cannot move;

And something tells me thou wilt never wake,

And I alive feel turning into stone.

Most beautiful were Death to end my grief,

Most hateful to destroy the sight of thee,

Dear vision better than all death or life.

But I renounce all choice of life or death,

For either shall be ever at thy side,

And thus in bliss or woe be ever well. —

He murmured thus and thus in monotone,

  Intent upon that uncorrupted face,

Entranced except his moving lips alone:

  I glided with hushed footsteps from the place.

This was the festival that filled with light

That palace in the City of the Night.


What men are they who haunt these fatal glooms,

  And fill their living mouths with dust of death,

And make their habitations in the tombs,

  And breathe eternal sighs with mortal breath,

And pierce life’s pleasant veil of various error

To reach that void of darkness and old terror

  Wherein expire the lamps of hope and faith?

They have much wisdom yet they are not wise,

  They have much goodness yet they do not well,

(The fools we know have their own paradise,

  The wicked also have their proper Hell);

They have much strength but still their doom is stronger,

Much patience but their time endureth longer,

  Much valour but life mocks it with some spell.

They are most rational and yet insane:

  And outward madness not to be controlled;

A perfect reason in the central brain,

  Which has no power, but sitteth wan and cold,

And sees the madness, and foresees as plainly

The ruin in its path, and trieth vainly

  To cheat itself refusing to behold.

And some are great in rank and wealth and power,

  And some renowned for genius and for worth;

And some are poor and mean, who brood and cower

  And shrink from notice, and accept all dearth

Of body, heart and soul, and leave to others

All boons of life: yet these and those are brothers,

  The saddest and the weariest men on earth.


Our isolated units could be brought

  To act together for some common end?

For one by one, each silent with his thought,

  I marked a long loose line approach and wend

Athwart the great cathedral’s cloistered square,

And slowly vanish from the moonlit air.

Then I would follow in among the last:

  And in the porch a shrouded figure stood,

Who challenged each one pausing ere he passed,

  With deep eyes burning through a blank white hood:

Whence come you in the world of life and light

To this our City of Tremendous Night? —

From pleading in a senate of rich lords

For some scant justice to our countless hordes

Who toil half-starved with scarce a human right:

I wake from daydreams to this real night.

From wandering through many a solemn scene

Of opium visions, with a heart serene

And intellect miraculously bright:

I wake from daydreams to this real night.

From making hundreds laugh and roar with glee

By my transcendent feats of mimicry,

And humour wanton as an elvish sprite:

I wake from daydreams to this real night.

From prayer and fasting in a lonely cell,

Which brought an ecstasy ineffable

Of love and adoration and delight:

I wake from daydreams to this real night.

From ruling on a splendid kingly throne

A nation which beneath my rule has grown

Year after year in wealth and arts and might:

I wake from daydreams to this real night.

From preaching to an audience fired with faith

The Lamb who died to save our souls from death,

Whose blood hath washed our scarlet sins wool-white:

I wake from daydreams to this real night.

From drinking fiery poison in a den

Crowded with tawdry girls and squalid men,

Who hoarsely laugh and curse and brawl and fight:

I wake from daydreams to this real night.

From picturing with all beauty and all grace

First Eden and the parents of our race,

A luminous rapture unto all men’s sight:

I wake from daydreams to this real night.

From writing a great work with patient plan

To justify the ways of God to man,

And show how ill must fade and perish quite:

I wake from daydreams to this real night.

From desperate fighting with a little band

Against the powerful tyrants of our land,

To free our brethren in their own despite:

I wake from daydreams to this real night.

Thus, challenged by that warder sad and stern,

Each one responded with his countersign,

Then entered the cathedral; and in turn

I entered also, having given mine;

But lingered near until I heard no more,

And marked the closing of the massive door.


Of all things human which are strange and wild

  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,

  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,

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 marvellous fancy he must make

  Quick wings for Time, and see it fly from us;

This Time which crawleth like a monstrous snake,

  Wounded and slow and very venomous;

Which creeps blindwormlike round the earth and ocean,

Distilling poison at each painful motion,

  And seems condemned to circle ever thus.

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

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 aeons of slow pain,

O Time, too ample for our vital powers,

  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,

  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,

  Dateless oblivion and divine repose.


Large glooms were gathered in the mighty fane,

  With tinted moongleams slanting here and there;

And all was hush: no swelling organ-strain,

  No chant, no voice or murmuring of prayer;

No priests came forth, no tinkling censers fumed,

And the high altar space was unillumed.

Around the pillars and against the walls

  Leaned men and shadows; others seemed to brood

Bent or recumbent in secluded stalls.

  Perchance they were not a great multitude

Save in that city of so lonely streets

Where one may count up every face he meets.

All patiently awaited the event

  Without a stir or sound, as if no less

Self-occupied, doomstricken while attent.

  And then we heard a voice of solemn stress

From the dark pulpit, and our gaze there met

Two eyes which burned as never eyes burned yet:

Two steadfast and intolerable eyes

  Burning beneath a broad and rugged brow;

The head behind it of enormous size.

  And as black fir-groves in a large wind bow,

Our rooted congregation, gloom-arrayed,

By that great sad voice deep and full were swayed:—

O melancholy Brothers, dark, dark, dark!

O battling in black floods without an ark!

  O spectral wanderers of unholy Night!

My soul hath bled for you these sunless years,

With bitter blood-drops running down like tears:

  Oh dark, dark, dark, withdrawn from joy and light!

My heart is sick with anguish for your bale;

Your woe hath been my anguish; yea, I quail

  And perish in your perishing unblest.

And I have searched the highths and depths, the scope

Of all our universe, with desperate hope

  To find some solace for your wild unrest.

And now at last authentic word I bring,

Witnessed by every dead and living thing;

  Good tidings of great joy for you, for all:

There is no God; no Fiend with names divine

Made us and tortures us; if we must pine,

  It is to satiate no Being’s gall.

It was the dark delusion of a dream,

That living Person conscious and supreme,

  Whom we must curse for cursing us with life;

Whom we must curse because the life he gave

Could not be buried in the quiet grave,

  Could not be killed by poison or the knife.

This little life is all we must endure,

The grave’s most holy peace is ever sure,

  We fall asleep and never wake again;

Nothing is of us but the mouldering flesh,

Whose elements dissolve and merge afresh

  In earth, air, water, plants, and other men.

We finish thus; and all our wretched race

Shall finish with its cycle, and give place

  To other beings with their own time-doom:

Infinite aeons ere our kind began;

Infinite aeons after the last man

  Has joined the mammoth in earth’s tomb and womb.

We bow down to the universal laws,

Which never had for man a special clause

  Of cruelty or kindness, love or hate:

If toads and vultures are obscene to sight,

If tigers burn with beauty and with might,

  Is it by favour or by wrath of Fate?

All substance lives and struggles evermore

Through countless shapes continually at war,

  By countless interactions interknit:

If one is born a certain day on earth,

All times and forces tended to that birth,

  Not all the world could change or hinder it.

I find no hint throughout the Universe

Of good or ill, of blessing or of curse;

  I find alone Necessity Supreme;

With infinite Mystery, abysmal, dark,

Unlighted ever by the faintest spark

  For us the flitting shadows of a dream.

O Brothers of sad lives! they are so brief;

A few short years must bring us all relief:

  Can we not bear these years of laboring breath?

But if you would not this poor life fulfil,

Lo, you are free to end it when you will,

  Without the fear of waking after death. —

The organ-like vibrations of his voice

  Thrilled through the vaulted aisles and died away;

The yearning of the tones which bade rejoice

  Was sad and tender as a requiem lay:

Our shadowy congregation rested still

As brooding on that “End it when you will.”


Wherever men are gathered, all the air

  Is charged with human feeling, human thought;

Each shout and cry and laugh, each curse and prayer,

Are into its vibrations surely wrought;

Unspoken passion, wordless meditation,

Are breathed into it with our respiration

  It is with our life fraught and overfraught.

So that no man there breathes earth’s simple breath,

  As if alone on mountains or wide seas;

But nourishes warm life or hastens death

  With joys and sorrows, health and foul disease,

Wisdom and folly, good and evil labours,

Incessant of his multitudinous neighbors;

  He in his turn affecting all of these.

That City’s atmosphere is dark and dense,

  Although not many exiles wander there,

With many a potent evil influence,

  Each adding poison to the poisoned air;

Infections of unutterable sadness,

Infections of incalculable madness,

  Infections of incurable despair.


Our shadowy congregation rested still,

  As musing on that message we had heard

And brooding on that “End it when you will;”

  Perchance awaiting yet some other word;

When keen as lightning through a muffled sky

Sprang forth a shrill and lamentable cry:—

The man speaks sooth, alas! the man speaks sooth:

  We have no personal life beyond the grave;

There is no God; Fate knows nor wrath nor ruth:

  Can I find here the comfort which I crave?

In all eternity I had one chance,

  One few years’ term of gracious human life:

The splendours of the intellect’s advance,

  The sweetness of the home with babes and wife;

The social pleasures with their genial wit:

  The fascination of the worlds of art,

The glories of the worlds of nature, lit

  By large imagination’s glowing heart;

The rapture of mere being, full of health;

  The careless childhood and the ardent youth,

The strenuous manhood winning various wealth,

  The reverend age serene with life’s long truth:

All the sublime prerogatives of Man;

  The storied memories of the times of old,

The patient tracking of the world’s great plan

  Through sequences and changes myriadfold.

This chance was never offered me before;

  For me this infinite Past is blank and dumb:

This chance recurreth never, nevermore;

Blank, blank for me the infinite To-come.

And this sole chance was frustrate from my birth,

  A mockery, a delusion; and my breath

Of noble human life upon this earth

  So racks me that I sigh for senseless death.

My wine of life is poison mixed with gall,

  My noonday passes in a nightmare dream,

I worse than lose the years which are my all:

  What can console me for the loss supreme?

Speak not of comfort where no comfort is,

  Speak not at all: can words make foul things fair?

Our life’s a cheat, our death a black abyss:

  Hush and be mute envisaging despair. —

This vehement voice came from the northern aisle

  Rapid and shrill to its abrupt harsh close;

And none gave answer for a certain while,

  For words must shrink from these most wordless woes;

At last the pulpit speaker simply said,

With humid eyes and thoughtful drooping head:—

My Brother, my poor Brothers, it is thus;

This life itself holds nothing good for us,

  But 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.


How the moon triumphs through the endless nights!

  How the stars throb and glitter as they wheel

Their thick processions of supernal lights

  Around the blue vault obdurate as steel!

And men regard with passionate awe and yearning

The mighty marching and the golden burning,

  And think the heavens respond to what they feel.

Boats gliding like dark shadows of a dream

  Are glorified from vision as they pass

The quivering moonbridge on the deep black stream;

  Cold windows kindle their dead glooms of glass

To restless crystals; cornice dome and column

Emerge from chaos in the splendour solemn;

  Like faery lakes gleam lawns of dewy grass.

With such a living light these dead eyes shine,

  These eyes of sightless heaven, that as we gaze

We read a pity, tremulous, divine,

  Or cold majestic scorn in their pure rays:

Fond man! they are not haughty, are not tender;

There is no heart or mind in all their splendour,

  They thread mere puppets all their marvellous maze.

If we could near them with the flight unflown,

  We should but find them worlds as sad as this,

Or suns all self-consuming like our own

  Enringed by planet worlds as much amiss:

They wax and wane through fusion and confusion;

The spheres eternal are a grand illusion,

  The empyrean is a void abyss.


I wandered in a suburb of the north,

  And reached a spot whence three close lanes led down,

Beneath thick trees and hedgerows winding forth

  Like deep brook channels, deep and dark and lown:

The air above was wan with misty light,

The dull grey south showed one vague blur of white.

I took the left-hand path and slowly trod

  Its earthen footpath, brushing as I went

The humid leafage; and my feet were shod

  With heavy languor, and my frame downbent,

With infinite sleepless weariness outworn,

So many nights I thus had paced forlorn.

After a hundred steps I grew aware

  Of something crawling in the lane below;

It seemed a wounded creature prostrate there

  That sobbed with pangs in making progress slow,

The hind limbs stretched to push, the fore limbs then

To drag; for it would die in its own den.

But coming level with it I discerned

  That it had been a man; for at my tread

It stopped in its sore travail and half-turned,

  Leaning upon its right, and raised its head,

And with the left hand twitched back as in ire

Long grey unreverend locks befouled with mire.

A haggard filthy face with bloodshot eyes,

  An infamy for manhood to behold.

He gasped all trembling, What, you want my prize?

  You leave, to rob me, wine and lust and gold

And all that men go mad upon, since you

Have traced my sacred secret of the clue?

You think that I am weak and must submit

  Yet I but scratch you with this poisoned blade,

And you are dead as if I clove with it

  That false fierce greedy heart. Betrayed! betrayed!

I fling this phial if you seek to pass,

And you are forthwith shrivelled up like grass.

And then with sudden change, Take thought! take thought!

  Have pity on me! it is mine alone.

If you could find, it would avail you naught;

  Seek elsewhere on the pathway of your own:

For who of mortal or immortal race

The lifetrack of another can retrace?

Did you but know my agony and toil!

  Two lanes diverge up yonder from this lane;

My thin blood marks the long length of their soil;

  Such clue I left, who sought my clue in vain:

My hands and knees are worn both flesh and bone;

I cannot move but with continual moan.

But I am in the very way at last

  To find the long-lost broken golden thread

Which unites my present with my past,

  If you but go your own way. And I said,

I will retire as soon as you have told

Whereunto leadeth this lost thread of gold.

And so you know it not! he hissed with scorn;

  I feared you, imbecile! It leads me back

From this accursed night without a morn,

  And through the deserts which have else no track,

And through vast wastes of horror-haunted time,

To Eden innocence in Eden’s clime:

And I become a nursling soft and pure,

  An infant cradled on its mother’s knee,

Without a past, love-cherished and secure;

  Which if it saw this loathsome present Me,

Would plunge its face into the pillowing breast,

And scream abhorrence hard to lull to rest.

He turned to grope; and I retiring brushed

  Thin shreds of gossamer from off my face,

And mused, His life would grow, the germ uncrushed;

  He should to antenatal night retrace,

And hide his elements in that large womb

Beyond the reach of man-evolving Doom.

And even thus, what weary way were planned,

  To seek oblivion through the far-off gate

Of birth, when that of death is close at hand!

  For this is law, if law there be in Fate:

What never has been, yet may have its when;

The thing which has been, never is again.


The mighty river flowing dark and deep,

  With ebb and flood from the remote sea-tides

Vague-sounding through the City’s sleepless sleep,

  Is named the River of the Suicides;

For night by night some lorn wretch overweary,

And shuddering from the future yet more dreary,

  Within its cold secure oblivion hides.

One plunges from a bridge’s parapet,

  As if by some blind and sudden frenzy hurled;

Another wades in slow with purpose set

  Until the waters are above him furled;

Another in a boat with dreamlike motion

Glides drifting down into the desert ocean,

  To starve or sink from out the desert world.

They perish from their suffering surely thus,

  For none beholding them attempts to save,

The while thinks how soon, solicitous,

  He may seek refuge in the self-same wave;

Some hour when tired of ever-vain endurance

Impatience will forerun the sweet assurance

  Of perfect peace eventual in the grave.

When this poor tragic-farce has palled us long,

  Why actors and spectators do we stay? —

To fill our so-short roles out right or wrong;

  To see what shifts are yet in the dull play

For our illusion; to refrain from grieving

Dear foolish friends by our untimely leaving:

  But those asleep at home, how blest are they!

Yet it is but for one night after all:

  What matters one brief night of dreary pain?

When after it the weary eyelids fall

  Upon the weary eyes and wasted brain;

And all sad scenes and thoughts and feelings vanish

In that sweet sleep no power can ever banish,

  That one best sleep which never wakes again.


I sat me weary on a pillar’s base,

  And leaned against the shaft; for broad moonlight

O’erflowed the peacefulness of cloistered space,

  A shore of shadow slanting from the right:

The great cathedral’s western front stood there,

A wave-worn rock in that calm sea of air.

Before it, opposite my place of rest,

  Two figures faced each other, large, austere;

A couchant sphinx in shadow to the breast,

  An angel standing in the moonlight clear;

So mighty by magnificence of form,

They were not dwarfed beneath that mass enorm.

Upon the cross-hilt of the naked sword

  The angel’s hands, as prompt to smite, were held;

His vigilant intense regard was poured

  Upon the creature placidly unquelled,

Whose front was set at level gaze which took

No heed of aught, a solemn trance-like look.

And as I pondered these opposed shapes

  My eyelids sank in stupor, that dull swoon

Which drugs and with a leaden mantle drapes

  The outworn to worse weariness. But soon

A sharp and clashing noise the stillness broke,

And from the evil lethargy I woke.

The angel’s wings had fallen, stone on stone,

  And lay there shattered; hence the sudden sound:

A warrior leaning on his sword alone

  Now watched the sphinx with that regard profound;

The sphinx unchanged looked forthright, as aware

Of nothing in the vast abyss of air.

Again I sank in that repose unsweet,

  Again a clashing noise my slumber rent;

The warrior’s sword lay broken at his feet:

  An unarmed man with raised hands impotent

Now stood before the sphinx, which ever kept

Such mien as if open eyes it slept.

My eyelids sank in spite of wonder grown;

  A louder crash upstartled me in dread:

The man had fallen forward, stone on stone,

  And lay there shattered, with his trunkless head

Between the monster’s large quiescent paws,

Beneath its grand front changeless as life’s laws.

The moon had circled westward full and bright,

  And made the temple-front a mystic dream,

And bathed the whole enclosure with its light,

  The sworded angel’s wrecks, the sphinx supreme:

I pondered long that cold majestic face

Whose vision seemed of infinite void space.


Anear the centre of that northern crest

  Stands out a level upland bleak and bare,

From which the city east and south and west

  Sinks gently in long waves; and throned there

An Image sits, stupendous, superhuman,

The bronze colossus of a winged Woman,

  Upon a graded granite base foursquare.

Low-seated she leans forward massively,

  With cheek on clenched left hand, the forearm’s might

Erect, its elbow on her rounded knee;

  Across a clasped book in her lap the right

Upholds a pair of compasses; she gazes

With full set eyes, but wandering in thick mazes

  Of sombre thought beholds no outward sight.

Words cannot picture her; but all men know

  That solemn sketch the pure sad artist wrought

Three centuries and threescore years ago,

  With phantasies of his peculiar thought:

The instruments of carpentry and science

Scattered about her feet, in strange alliance

  With the keen wolf-hound sleeping undistraught;

Scales, hour-glass, bell, and magic-square above;

  The grave and solid infant perched beside,

With open winglets that might bear a dove,

  Intent upon its tablets, heavy-eyed;

Her folded wings as of a mighty eagle,

But all too impotent to lift the regal

  Robustness of her earth-born strength and pride;

And with those wings, and that light wreath which seems

  To mock her grand head and the knotted frown

Of forehead charged with baleful thoughts and dreams,

  The household bunch of keys, the housewife’s gown

Voluminous, indented, and yet rigid

As if a shell of burnished metal frigid,

  The feet thick-shod to tread all weakness down;

The comet hanging o’er the waste dark seas,

  The massy rainbow curved in front of it

Beyond the village with the masts and trees;

  The snaky imp, dog-headed, from the Pit,

Bearing upon its batlike leathern pinions

Her name unfolded in the sun’s dominions,

  The “MELENCOLIA” that transcends all wit.

Thus has the artist copied her, and thus

  Surrounded to expound her form sublime,

Her fate heroic and calamitous;

  Fronting the dreadful mysteries of Time,

Unvanquished in defeat and desolation,

Undaunted in the hopeless conflagration

  Of the day setting on her baffled prime.

Baffled and beaten back she works on still,

  Weary and sick of soul she works the more,

Sustained by her indomitable will:

  The hands shall fashion and the brain shall pore,

And all her sorrow shall be turned to labour,

Till Death the friend-foe piercing with his sabre

  That mighty heart of hearts ends bitter war.

But as if blacker night could dawn on night,

  With tenfold gloom on moonless night unstarred,

A sense more tragic than defeat and blight,

  More desperate than strife with hope debarred,

More fatal than the adamantine Never

Encompassing her passionate endeavour,

  Dawns glooming in her tenebrous regard:

To sense that every struggle brings defeat

  Because Fate holds no prize to crown success;

That all the oracles are dumb or cheat

  Because they have no secret to express;

That none can pierce the vast black veil uncertain

Because there is no light beyond the curtain;

  That all is vanity and nothingness.

Titanic from her high throne in the north,

  That City’s sombre Patroness and Queen,

In bronze sublimity she gazes forth

  Over her Capital of teen and threne,

Over the river with its isles and bridges,

The marsh and moorland, to the stern rock-bridges,

  Confronting them with a coeval mien.

The moving moon and stars from east to west

  Circle before her in the sea of air;

Shadows and gleams glide round her solemn rest.

  Her subjects often gaze up to her there:

The strong to drink new strength of iron endurance,

The weak new terrors; all, renewed assurance

  And confirmation of the old despair.

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005