20 October 2011

The Poet Inside Me

Since I'm sure many of us have seen Shakespeare in Love and, equally, since many of us are writers, I think I can count on most people getting the joke when I saw, "Ooh, great title!"

This happens on a regular basis, especially in my current home-away-from-home -- which is to say, the humanities library of a large-ish state university. I mean really, who can resist The Russian Novel in English Literature? (Well, okay...) But some of them really are too good to pass up. Look at the spine of what you're reading right now, and tell me that title didn't just call to you from the shelf, assuming you're not reading something you were compelled to by some, for example, educational institution.

Thus did I discover James Thomson, crouching, as it were, against the wall of said home-away-from-home. As I was making my way back towards the stairs, I was stopped and, Joseph Fiennes-like, murmured, "Oh, good title!"

And how could I have done anything else, since the title was The City of Dreadful Night? I mean, it sounds like a Moreau painting, a Will Christopher Baer fantasy -- some weird, forgotten thing from the fag end of the Roman Empire, even. The City of Dreadful Night! Tell me you're reading that and not lusting after it. Tell me, if you want -- I won't believe you.

Of course I took it home.

And wow.


James Thomson may be someone you think is someone else. Just to straighten things out, he is neither Jim Thompson, nor Francis Thomson. He's mostly forgotten now, it seems, though there is a rather nice page dedicated to him here.

But for a while there, Thomson was the going thing. Some of his contemporaries, still reeling from Swinburne, even dubbed him "the poet laureate of pessimism." And seriously, check this out:

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.

This is pulled pretty much at random from the title piece (from Canto VII, to be more precise), and it pretty representative of the mood in which Thomson seems permanently to dwell. And the poem is more than seventy pages long, in the edition I lucked into. It's bleak, bleak, bleak stuff, and it's difficult to read for very long without becoming a little too sympathetic with Thomson's mindset. 

It's also so far over the top it can't even see the bottom, which brings us to the central question here:  If the stuff our poems are made of is as melodramatic as all this, what really separates Thomson from, say, this kind of internet abomination (read at your own risk)? How is Thomson's imagery, which is, to all intents and purposes, utterly indistinguishable from our beloved internet-bred goffik lolicon Hot-Topic shopping xXxwrist_slashy_luvvrxXx (i.e. some fourteen-year-old with lots of makeup and too much money to spend on clothes and/or Tara Gilesbie)? How are the dark and grimy scrapings from Thomson's soul different from some emo kid with a livejournal? (And here I tread dangerous waters -- good thing I'm not a kid, per se, and rocking Blogger with my angst.) 

The difference is, I think, this:  Thomson means it

That's right, all that business about everyone being crazy and the other stuff in the poem with crazy preachers, giant statues of Melancholy and landscapes worthy of Fernand Knopff's creepy friends; all those other poems about the three ladies of death and Thomson's dead girlfriend and all the death, blood, sadness, sorrow, dead girls in white dress et cetera ad nauseum...

He means it. 

How's that to put some fear in your Halloween? 

Incidentally, Thomson's reputation has not held up too well. One critic in the '60s (I believe the name was Byron) went so far as to say that Thomson "will never be one of the great poets," nor even one of the second-stringers, "but he will always have his audience." And this is a guy who made a career studying the poor man. 

This year, I suggest you do something really frightening for Halloween. 

I suggest you read James Thomson. 

It gets no darker in the human mind than this. 

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