2004 SAMLA Panel
Roanoke, Virginia
12-14 November

Paul Beidler,

Lenoir-Rhyne College

"The Passion of Desire in James Thomson (B.V.)'s The City of Dreadful Night "

Do not cite without permission of the author.


"The Passion of Desire in James Thomson (B.V.)'s The City of Dreadful Night "

In late-February of 1883 Amy Levy published an essay entitled "James Thomson: A Minor Poet" in The Cambridge Review . This homage to her fellow pessimist and poet, who died eight months earlier, is structured around Thomson as an "image of a great mind and a great soul thwarted in their development by circumstance" (Levy 509). She reinforces this structure with passages from The City of Dreadful Night , Thomson's "major" poem and minor claim to fame with its 1874 serialization in Charles Bradlaugh's socialist periodical Nationalist Reformer . Levy summarizes Thomson's obscure magnum opus in the following manner:

The City of Dreadful Night , his masterpiece, as it is a poem quite unique in our literature, stands forth as the very sign and symbol of that attitude of mind which we call Weltschmerz, Pessimism, what you will; i.e. , the almost perfect expression of a form of mental suffering which I can convey by no other means than by the use of a very awkward figure--by calling it "grey pain," "the insufferable inane" which makes a man long for the "positive pain." (502)

In other words, it is a representation of an indeterminate agony in life that yearns for the extreme absolutism of death. Or in milder terms, a desire to address the sense of futility stimulated by doubt. A majority of Thomson's poems were shrouded in a dark, brooding skepticism and Levy mentions a few to flesh out her portrayal of a life whose death, as she puts it, "created but little stir" (501). But a great deal of her essay remains focused on The City of Dreadful Night as the key to better understanding Thomson as a great, and minor, poet. And her purpose in assigning him this status is made clear in the essay's opening lines:

He is distinctly what in our loose phraseology we call a minor poet; no prophet, standing above and outside things, to whom all sides of a truth (more or less foreshortened, certainly) are visible; but a passionately subjective being, with intense eyes fixed on one side of the solid polygon of truth, and realizing that one side with a fervour and intensity to which the philosopher with his birdseye view rarely attains. (501)

Unable to perform the role of Romantic prophet or Victorian Sage, Thomson's greatness was his intensity of perspective and attentiveness to the "attitude of mind" that accommodates thought. Her use of the phrase "minor poet" is thus complementary and sympathetic in its privileging of the "passionately subjective being" over the "birdseye view" of an objectivist perspective. Or as I see it, there is no transcendental standpoint with this "minor poet".

Levy's refined portrait of Thomson as ill-fated genius failed to affect many at the time who saw the poet simply as a depressive pessimist and destitute alcoholic. This negative representation of Thomson became commonplace with biographical works such as Henry S. Salt's The Life of James Thomson ("B.V.") [1889] and Bertram Dobell's The Laureate of Pessimism: A Sketch of the Life and Character of James Thomson ("B.V.") [1910]. Few critics of Thomson and his poetry have since left the biographical or psychological approach. Recent scholars such as Ian Fletcher, who describes The City of Dreadful Night as a poem that "promises no transcendence, and the alienation of the speaker is final", have begun to evaluate the philosophical strands of Thomson's major work (xix). And Isobel Armstrong's influential work on Victorian poetry devotes a chapter to deconstructing the operations of atheism in this poem, a poem she considers an "anti-humanist challenge to Christian transcendence and Christian humanism" (474). The purpose of this paper is to extend the critical perspective that germinated with Levy and developed through critics such as Fletcher and Armstrong. For me, Thomson's poem is not simply a representation of an "attitude of mind" and critique of transcendence but a critical approach to desire as well. I will present a closer reading of the poem's representation of desire that offers a better understanding of pessimism as a constructive epistemological model capable of critiquing the value of knowledge and its relationship to desire and its affects. More specifically, I will show how a more refined analysis of The City of Dreadful Night allows for a more rigorous epistemological approach to the passion of desire, or the intensity of feeling and suffering that accommodates longing, and a better understanding of what is called pessimism.

The City of Dreadful Night has traditionally been viewed as one of the strongest and most relentless portrayals of pessimism in English literature. In this portrayal of existential vacuity, the city is an eternal night of endless thought and hopelessness. In brief, its inhabitants wander endlessly in a moonlight haze of self-absorbed thought. This constant strain of consciousness keeps each individual roaming alone amidst a populous of isolated lives, each self-absorbed life seeking an escape. The city's mandate dictates that any entering must leave hope behind, hopelessness being the foundation on which the city stands. The River of Suicides is the only hope of one has for escape but remains unapproachable because it surrounds the city and remains just out of a hopeless reach. And the dread that fills all thought and dominates the dark city is time's indomitable rule, the constant awareness each inhabitant endures of this unending condition. The poem's nomadic chronicler wanders through this cityscape of infinite, empty longing only to observe that he, like all the city's residents, suffers the same chronic sense of hopelessness.

           The poem's final canto, however, offers a unique moment of reflection. For twenty cantos the poem's chronicler wandered and observed the various miseries that populate a city where "Faith and Love and Hope are dead indeed" (II.29). In the twenty-first canto he approaches the image that best represents the hopelessness of Thomson's city - its "somber Patroness and Queen" (XXI.72), the figure of "'MELENCOLIA' that transcends all wit" (42). She sits atop a crest at the north end of the city, a "bronze colossus of a wingèd Woman" (6) whose solid gaze stares out across the cityscape. He remarks that words "cannot picture her" (15) but she is well known from a sixteenth-century engraving. By way of Dürer's famous sketch the narrator simply describes what he sees and then embarks upon an exploration of her meaning:

                      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 might heart of hearts ends bitter war. (43-56)

The narrator interprets the "adamantine Never / Encompassing her passionate endeavor" (61-62) as her dark regard, a shadowy expression of the sense that "all is vanity and nothingness" (70). The canto's final lines end with an especially notable commentary on the monumental role she has in the city of suffering and lament: "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" (81-84).

           This "'Melencolia' that transcends all wit", or the longing that exceeds reason, is an apt image to end this poem on. Dürer's Melencolia , which depicts a thinker suspended in an introspective dejection, transformed melancholy's medieval associations of sloth and sin into a Renaissance image of genius and divine frenzy. However, by the turn of the twentieth century, Sigmund Freud would theorize this dejection into a psychological condition, a pathological form of mourning that operates like an open wound wherein the melancholic identifies with, and feels responsible for, their loss. And Walter Benjamin would conjecture this condition as an epistemological circumstance, illuminating the degree to which modernity transformed objects that once proved integral to self-knowledge into cultural productions devoid of meaning. For both thinkers, melancholy becomes a condition of modern subjectivity in which we suffer our losses. We suffer because we desire and all desire originates in lack. I mention these two perspectives to illuminate a similar point of view in Thomson's rendering of dejection. Thomson's figuration of melancholy is a modern image of stoic resignation, an assurance and confirmation of the fact that time turns hope into hopelessness, gain into loss, and life into death. Her indifference, or lack of desire, strengthens those strong enough to endure a life of desire and subsequent lack. Her coldness seems a cruelty to the weak, a terrifying reminder that desire, or the lack thereof, is an impossible condition. In either case, she confirms "the old despair" that in time all things pass except time itself. In other words, the suffering of desire is the intensity of desire as a temporal process, a self-consciousness rooted in the passionate and turbulent flow of a longing that exceeds reason.

           Arthur Schopenhauer, the nineteenth-century German Idealist often characterized as the philosopher of pessimism, didn't write on melancholy aside from an occasional comment or two. Where he does, it is associated with artistic genius. For Schopenhauer, the artist-genius attains a clear view of the world as a formless and timeless reality, space and time being constituent elements of our desire. This clear view is a heightened perception that is "better" than actual experience because it remains a timeless reality where the universal is seen in the particular. And in this timelessness, the will is capable of escaping the "end-seeking" processes of desire. In other words, a will-less escape from life's suffering into the timeless confines of art. Similar ideas are echoed in Thomson's reference to Dürer's engraving in his final canto especially interesting when one considers the poem's prefatory "PROEM". In this fragment that is both a part of and peripheral to The City of Dreadful Night, Thomson address the reader and poses three questions: Why evoke sadness? Why exhume dead faith? Why speak of despair? He provides two reasons for offering this work - the desire to expose "the bitter old and wrinkled truth" (9) and the "sense of power and passion" (12) that writing it affords. In effect, this poem is an escape for both himself and the reader who wishes to escape alongside him, if only for a moment. And this work, he adds, can only be comprehended by someone like-minded, someone "desolate, Fate-smitten, / Whose faith and hopes are dead, and who would die" (27-28). But in the end, art is merely an escape and not an end to the passion of desire.

I've been referring to desire's relationship to time and will now explore their relationship to philosophical pessimism. As Schopenhauer first theorized it in The World as Will and Representation and later elaborated in other writings, the will (or desire) is itself suffering because it arises out of deficiency and unhappiness:

All willing springs from lack, from deficiency, and thus from suffering. Fulfilment brings this to an end; yet for one wish that is fulfilled there remain at least ten that are denied. Further, desiring lasts a long time, demands and request go on to infinity; fulfillment is short and meted out sparingly. But even the final satisfaction itself is only apparent; the wish fulfilled at once makes way for a new one; the former is a known delusion, the latter a delusion not as yet known. No attained object of willing can give a satisfaction that lasts and no longer declines; but it is always like the alms thrown to a beggar, which reprieves him today so that his misery may be prolonged tomorrow. Therefore, so long as our consciousness is filled by our will, so long as we are given up to the throng of desires with its constant hopes or fears, so long as we are the subject of willing, we never obtain lasting happiness or peace. (196)

To desire something is to feel an absence, of what one desires and of happiness. The awareness of that absence intensifies one's desire. Fulfillment and happiness are therefore never achieved, because satisfaction is always absent; the fulfillment of any deficiency and subsequent feeling of satisfaction is impossible because having no desire whatsoever is inconceivable (and should it occur then boredom would ensue which, in effect, stimulates the desire to alleviate it). Desire is always present, so suffering always exists and happiness becomes bound to suffering since it is both an absent and a desirable goal. And most importantly, this entire process is rooted in a linear conception of time which is inseparable from one's awareness of it.

Thomson was familiar with Schopenhauer's work and his influence is apparent in the poem's pessimistic representation of the interplay between desire and time. The passage of time transforms desire into lack, happiness into sorrow, and hope into hopelessness. Taken as a hopefulness or desire for happiness in the future, optimism is entirely absent in The City of Dreadful Night . Its inhabitants wander through the dreadful night because their hope has dissipated and they're tormented by the melancholy that remains. They suffer a desire for hope amidst hopelessness and this condition is their limbo, their existential intermediacy. Their only consolation is an image of a pessimistic desire, a productive hopelessness that addresses one's desire without any hope of fulfillment, the "City's sombre Patroness and Queen". Although she offers no end to their suffering and no release from their thoughts, she does provide a momentary escape. In viewing her, for better or for worse, the inhabitants view each other in their apparent solitude as a community of sufferers. By escaping their individuality they escape their suffering, to a degree. And in this overwhelming condition, one experiences the notion that one's suffering is indicative of another's pain, one's passion representative of another's desire. This condition is the suffering that accompanies desire and the terror of desire's constant emptiness. It is the conclusion that happiness is futile and there is hope in relinquishing a happy existence. It is the relinquishment of hope, or the cessation of desire, that is the Schopenhauerian sublime of timelessness.

Although Immanuel Kant considered sublimity a terrifying representation of excessive desire, an extreme state of self-consciousness that affects one's rationality, Schopenhauer believed the sublime moment was indicative of a common ground. This common ground isn't the optimistic assurance afforded by Kant's faith in universal reason or Hegel's belief that the individual mind thinks toward a collective truth. For in each thinker's epistemology desire is [][]]]]

                        []]]]]]]]]]]]observes, pessimism is "concerned with the burden of time and with the problem of organizing the best kind of human life in the absence of a promise of progress, happiness, or salvation for society as a whole" (71). Although it is not entirely wrong to view it as "negative thinking", it is important to remember that pessimism, or anti-optimism, critically addresses the idea of progress as a process of universal improvement through reason and grounded in a linear conception of time. In other words, it is a legitimate philosophical position which asserts the desire for things to be better, right now in the present, since things seem to be getting worse for the future.

Concluding Rem[]]]


See http://www.wfu.edu/academics/art/pc/images/pc-durer-melencolia.jpg for a reproduction of Dürer's engraving.