The City of Dreadful Night is a study in melancholia and the introverted mind. For centuries melancholia was called the English Disease. Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy analysed it as early as 1621. You can see how widespread it was from all the nouns devoted to it: vapours, spleen, fits of the mother, hypp, hypocons, moonpals, markambles, hockogrockles are just a few among dozens. The related key words and phrases are grief, fear, sadness, sorrow. Sorrow over nothing, fear of nothing, sadness about nothing.

No sooner are their eyes open, after terrible and troublesome dreams, their heavy hearts begin to sigh: they are always fretting, chafing, sighing, grieving, complaining, finding faults, repining, grudging, weeping, vexing themselves, disquieted in mind. As a man that's bitten by fleas, their restless minds are tossed and vary. They are in great pain and horror of mind, distraction of soul, restless, full of continual fears, cares, torments, anxieties, they can neither sleep nor take rest, fear takes their content away, dries the blood, wastes the marrow. They are tortured in their souls.

Some people, I suggest, are temperamentally more prone to melancholy than others. We all have an inner and an outer life but we always favour one more than the other. Introverts are people whose inner world is more real to them then the outer. If that world is damaged, or becomes over-preoccupied with the self, then pain, anxiety and sadness become the only true reality, and who can escape that? In a concept not available to the Victorians, a positive feedback loop can be set up.

If I'm in any way at all right then The City of Dreadful Night is a poem about their world. It's a city of the mind, but real: a real unreal city. Nobody knows how they got there because the place itself is lost in a trackless wilderness of savage mountains, ravines, and bleak moors. Even the sea into which the River of the Suicides flows is called �shipless'. (Besides, the river filters through reeds before it reaches the sea.) From the hills, the city is a nocturne in lead and faded gold: a line of faint light marks where the city broods in its own endless night. On the skyline, like congealed grief, looms the city's goddess, Melencolia. In day time the city shrinks till it's no bigger than a human heart but it is always there, a place of despair peopled by a sad brotherhood of monks and kings, priests, drunks, artists, poets, soldiers. It is a brotherhood, being inhabited mainly by men. Few women are there and, says the poet thankfully, fewer children. Nor are there many elderly men, which may suggest that the people afflicted this way either grow out of it or die young. (Thomson wrote the poem in two stages, when he was thirty-six and next when he was thirty-eight. He was only forty-seven when he died.)

Those smudges of faded gold are lamps little brighter than the moon. By their light the poets follows the only man who seems to act with purpose yet he, too, merely circles wearily from where love died to where faith died to where hope died. Can there be life when these have gone? Only like a clock without a dial: it ticks, it works, it has no purpose or meaning.

Two men sit by an elm bole above the River of the Suicides. One speaks:

And yet I asked no splendid dower, no spoil
Or sway of fame or rank or even wealth:
But homely love with common food and health,
And nightly sleep to balance daily toil.

The world rolls round for ever like a mill;
It grinds out death and life and good or ill;
It has no purpose, heart or mind or will.

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.

Later, the poet wanders dejectedly into a great cathedral where dim shafts of moonlight sift down like dust. A preacher mounts the pulpit:

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!

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 . . .

This little life is all we must endure, The grave's most holy place is ever sure, We fall asleep and never wake again.

O Brothers of sad lives! they are so brief;
A few short years must bring us all relief.

But without a God life can be made even briefer with impunity. "End it when you will," he tells the congregation.

"What comfort can I find in this?" a voice cries from the semi-darkness of the great cathedral.

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;

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.

From the pulpit the preacher gently replies:

My Brother, my poor Brothers, it is thus,
This life holds nothing good for us
But it ends soon and never more can be.
I ponder these thoughts and they comfort me.

Thomson was neither a deep thinker nor a great poet, but he was a Victorian. He wasn't challenging his times in new and exciting ways or meditating on alienation in an urban environment. What he did was hit upon one beautifully simple image which matched exactly the mental state he knew inside out. He was also able to capture it in memorable words. (The title is a line of poetry in its own right. Both O Henry and Kipling used it as a title. Elgar proposed writing (but never did) a City of Dreadful Night Overture to Cockaigne No 2.) But Thomson was also well aware of being in an extremely small minority. And so he asks:

Why break the seals of mute despair unbidden
And wail life's discords into careless ears?

His answer:

Because a cold rage seizes one at whiles
To show the bitter old and wrinkled truth.

But more importantly, he goes on, because here and there some wanderer in this city of tremendous night will find his words and feel a stir of fellowship. Some fellow sufferer will know he is not as alone as he suspected. To him The City will be a mirror held up to a blighted life, offering an image with which to make some sense of what has happened. But it is a special mirror - only a few can see what is reflected. The poet, therefore, can assure his fellow-citizens he is giving none of their secrets away. People who have never lived in this terrible place can never know or understand it - no matter how often they are told. This, then, is a poem for an unfortunate very few.

So what can it offer the majority of the more well-balanced? To begin with it is not about what the Spanish poet St John of the Cross called the Dark Night of the Soul, the via negativa , as a way to God. It is not, as the Terrible Sonnets are with Hopkins, about a temporary loss of a sense of universal Love. This is the darkness of the self-absorbed. But it can be read as an expression of the cosmic emptiness which comes to a mind which is too involved in its own self. It can thus give some insight into one aspect of what it's like to be human even if it is morbid and the antithesis of gladness.

The poem has been taken up by some atheist societies, though what good it can do their cause is not clear; the City really is a place of sickness. Nor is it totally Godless. One of the two men talking by the elm tree above the River of the Suicides says: "The vilest thing must be less vile than Thou. Not for all Thy power would I assume the ignominious guilt of having made such men in such a world." Thomson was an atheist who could still lash out at the God who failed.

The City is presided over by a goddess, or genius loci, the spirit of the place. She is, in fact, Dürer's Melancolia I (1514). The poem ends with a verse description of the engraving. If the City is the afflicted mind, then she is that affliction personified. Dürer called his engraving Melancolia I because she represents the first of three kinds of melancholy identified by Cornelius Agrippa. This is melencolia imaginativa . I'll leave it to the Latinists to decide the exact definition of imaginativa in Late Medieval or Renaissance Latin but imago can, I understand, carry the meaning of idea or concept as well as image or likeness. It seems fair to suggest it means a mind overwhelmed by what it has imagined, rather than what is real. Which in a sense is what I'm claiming for Thomson himself.

In Thomson's world Melancolia sits on the northern hills — the quarter from which coldest winds blow through London in winter. Significantly, too, she is as good as blind because she is too self-absorbed to see beyond herself. She also conveys a sense of something deeper than defeat — the very impossibility of success; things go wrong because they can never go right because reality is ultimately based on a void.

All the oracles are dumb and cheat
Because they have no secret to express,
None can pierce the vast black veil uncertain
Because there is no light beyond the curtain:
That all is vanity and nothingness.

The poem was first published in instalments in Bradlaugh's National Reformer in 1874 although it had been written in two bites in 1870 and 1873. The idea of the City may well have evolved in that time — some sections sit uncomfortably as though forced together as an afterthought. For instance, Section IV opens with a man declaiming his story from a knoll in an empty square though the events themselves take place in a desert and on a desolate sea shore, remote from the City. There is also, I feel, an element of Victorian grotesquery in it which is not in the rest of the poem. A woman crosses the desert, for example, carrying a lamp which is her own bleeding heart. The man is split in two. She finds his corpse on the beach and they are swept away by the sea. The lost half of the man is left behind. It does show, however, that the power of the poem lies entirely in the image of the tormented mind as a great night time city. This is niche poetry, but of its kind I suspect there is none better in English.

Related Material


Burton, Robert. The Anatomy of Melancholy. Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press. Oxford. 1989-94.

Leonard, Tom. Places of the Mind: the Life and Works of James Thomson (BV). Jonathan Cape. London 1993.

Thomson, James. The City of Dreadful Night. Watts & Co. London. 1932.

Last modified 5 March 2005