We’ve all got our dark places haven’t we? One of my current works in progress is aimed at publishing a new illustrated version of James Thomson’s The City of Dreadful Night, more of which below. While it will contain a brief biography of Thomson and some notes, the main part of my introduction will be a consideration of what draws us and artists and writers to the darkness, the darkness within and without.
I think by the time I was ten I’d read all of my older sister’s collection of Pan Horror Stories, and most of her Dennis Wheatley books. By the age of eleven I think I’d read her Encyclopaedia of Witchcraft and Demonology more than once.
Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost still greatly appeals to me – certainly much more than the pale and ghostly God who banished him. I wouldn’t say Satan was a role model but I loved his way with words: “Evil, be thou my Good!”, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heav’n” and his philosophising:
Farewel happy Fields Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time. The mind is its own place, and in it self Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
Yes, I was a strange child. Older, in bedsitter land with Leonard Cohen, reading James Ellroy’s My Dark Places, I also took to frequenting an ancient graveyard alone. At night. Especially when it was misty…..
The City of Dreadful Night
James Thomson’s poem (not to be confused with a Rudyard Kipling work with the same title) is bleak indeed. Thomson himself had a bleak life. Intelligent, sensitive and forsaken, a depressive and alcoholic who died an agonising death. Parallels with Poe are clear (though there are not as far as I know any literary connections). You can delight in the poem online – it’s in the public domain. I’ll be publishing it as I said with the main part of the introduction being directed less to the poem itself than to the ‘culture of melancholy’ from the Romantic period onwards, with attention to such jolly folk as Baudelaire and to the urban spiritual dystopia of Eliot’s Wasteland
The book will be illustrated with images, some from artists, some from my own photographs taken in the city of Glasgow.
Here’s a little from near the start of Thomson’s poem to put you in the mood:
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.