The Doom of a City, Part I - The Voyage

A poem by James Thomson (BV)

From out the house I crept,
The house which long had caged my homeless life:
The mighty City in vast silence slept,
Dreaming away its tumult, toil, and strife:
But sleep and sleep's rich dreams were not for me,
For me, accurst, whom terror and the pain
Of baffled longings, and starved misery,
And such remorse as sears the breast,
And hopeless doubt which gnaws the brain
Till wildest action blind and vain
Would be more welcome than supine unrest,
Drove forth as one possest
To leave my kind and dare the desert sea;
To drift alone and far,
Dubious of any port or isle to gain,
Ignorant of chart and star,
Upon that infinite and mysterious main
Which wastes in foam against our shore;
Whose moans and murmurs evermore,
Insupportably sublime,
Haunting the crowded tumult of our Time,
Suspend its hurrying breath
Like whispers of sad ghosts and spirits free
From worlds beyond our life and death,
The unknown awful realm where broods Eternity.


I paced through desert streets, beneath the gleam
Of lamps that lit my trembling life alone;
Like lamps sepulchral which had slowly burned
Through sunless ages, deep and undiscerned,
Within a buried City's maze of stone;
Whose peopling corpses, while they ever dream
Of birth and death of complicated life
Whose days and months and years
Are wild with laughters, groans, and tears,
As with themselves and Doom
They wage, with loss or gain, incessant strife,
Indeed, lie motionless within their tomb,
Lie motionless and never laugh or weep,
All still, and buried deep
For ever in death's sleep,
While burn the quiet lamps amidst the breathless gloom.


My boat lay waiting there,
Upon the moonless river
Whose pulse had ceased to quiver
In that unnatural hush of brooding night.
I thought, Free breezes course the billowy deep!
And rowed on panting through the feverous air,
Leaving the great main waters on in my right
For that canal which creeps into the sea
Across the livid marshes wild and bare.
So slowly faded back from sight,
As cloth a dream insensibly
Fade backward on the ebbing tide of sleep,
That city which had home nor hope for me,
That stifling tomb from which I now was free.


Like some weak life whose sluggish moments creep
Diffused on worthless objects, yet whose tide
With dull reluctance hard to understand
Refrains its death-in-life from death's full sleep,
The river's shallow waters oozed out wide,
Inclosing dreary flats of barren sand;
So merged at last into the lethal waste
That bounds of sea and stream could not be traced.


Long languidly I rowed,
With sick and weary pain,
Between the deepest channel's bitter weeds
Whose rankness salt slime feeds;
And so out blindly through the dismal main,
Now shaken with a long hoarse-growling swell.
And soon the Tempest-as a King who had slept
The sleep of worn-out frenzy, while his slaves
Cowered still in stupor till he woke again
Refreshed for carnage-from his torpor leapt
Breathed swarthy pallor through the dense low sky,
And hurrying swift and fell
Outspeeded his own thunder-bearing glooms;
Then prone and instantaneous from on high
Plunged down in one tremendous blast,
Which crashed into white dust the heaving waves
And left the ocean level when it past....
There was a moment's respite; silence reigned;
Such shuddering silence as may once appal
The universe of tombs,
Ere the last trumpet's clangour rend them all:
And I sank down, one frail and helpless man
Alone with desolation on the sea,
To pray while any sense of prayer remained
Amidst the horrors overwhelming me.


How shall I tell that tempest's thunder-story?
The soldier plunged into the Battle-stress,
Struggling and gasping in the mighty flood,
Stunned with the roar of cannon, blind with smoke,
'Midst yells and tramplings drunk and mad with blood,
What knows he of the Battle's spheric glory?
Of heavenly laws that all its evil bless
Of sacred rights of justice which invoke
Its sternest pleading of the tranquil eye
Triumphant o'er its chaos of the Mind
Commanding all, serene and unsubdued,
Which having first with wisest care designed
Works to the end with vigilant fortitude;
And from that field so drenched with angry blood
Shall reap the golden harvest, VICTORY?


There was a stupor stung with pain and fear,
Amidst the strangling surf flung on and on;
There was bewilderment above all dread,
Delirious calm and desperate joy austere
Of revelling through the tempest lorn and lone.
My boat and I with dizzy swiftness sped,
In strange salvation from the certain doom,
Along the urgent ridges over-reeling
And gathering up their ruins as they fled;
And down into the depths of scooped-out gloom
Whose crystal walls glowed black in the revealing
Of lightning-kindled foam; and up again,
Perched on the giddy balance of two waves
Which fiercely countering mingle with the shock,
And rush aloft confused, and tower and rock
Foaming with wild convulsion, till amain
The mass heaves down from struggling, self-destroyed,
And leaves us shuddering in a gulfy void.
Confused and intermingled, fire, sea, air,
Wrought out their ravage; for the thunders there
Were echoing in the dreadly stormless caves
And shook the deep foundations of the seas;
The air was like an ocean, drenched with spray
Whose meteor-flakes outflashed tumultuously
Against the sinking heaven's black incline,
When sudden lightnings seemed to burst their way
Up through the deep to flood and fire its brine,
Ingulfing for each moment all the Night,
The blackness and the howling rage, in light
More lurid and appalling, a World-pyre....
But heart and brain were overwrought; and soon,
All vision reeling from my powerless eyes,
I lay in quiet mercy-granted swoon
As senseless as the boat in which I lay:
And we two things through all the agonies
Of night, tornado, sea, and fire,
Were drifted passive on our fearful way.


I know not for what time I lay in trance,
Nor in what course the tempest hurled us on.
At length to scarce-believed deliverance
I woke; and saw a sweet slow silent dawn
Upgrowing from the far dim grey abyss,
So slow, it seemed like some celestial flower
Unfolding perfect petals to its prime,
And feeling in its secret soul of bliss
Each leaf a loveliness for many an hour,
With amaranthine queenship over time.
It grew: its purple splendours, flecked and starred
With golden fire, spread floating up the steep
Until they sole possessed the mighty sweep
Of crystal lucent aether: its regard,
The blessing of a light of peace and love,
Charmed with a gradual spell the sullen mood
Of the sea-giant, until all-subdued
No more his huge bulk livid shook and hove
The meteor-threatenings of his tawny mane,
No more growled lingering wrath and turbulent pain;
But calm and glad th' unmonstered monster lay
Beneath the royal sun's perfected sway.


And there was Land. Where seemed a bank of clouds
Piled in the South, now nobly, one by one,
The pinnacles of lofty mountain-peaks
Flamed keen as stars, enkindled by the sun;
Emerging as with life from out their shrouds
Of silvern haze far-cleft with roseate streaks:
And far beneath them, down along the shore,
A wave of low round hills gleamed pure and pale.
But soon-like any human life
The golden promise of whose dawn doth fail
Into the same drear noon of barren strife
Of which our hearts were weary-sick of yore,
The day grew chill and dark;
And through its sullen hours the wintry gale
Beat restlessly my bark,
Beside that coast-line drifting to and fro
Upon the ocean's vapour-shrouded flow.


I saw grey phantoms, fading as they fled,
Glide hurrying in loose rank
O'er livid backgrounds of the upper sky,
Whose vast and thunderous threat'ning overfrowned
Abysses strangely dread,
Cold, glassy gulfs, each like an evil eye
Of serpent-malice which is dead and blank
To every sight but woe and agony.
The fascination of their wan green glance
Was fixed upon the hills which (at the foot
Of that stern wall of mountain lifted proud
Above the firmament of level cloud)
Lay stretched out cold and mute,
In leaden bulk, beneath the long expanse
Of dark and desert sky, whose brooding gloom
Was blanched with cruel pallor here and there,
Pallor of wrath or dread, instinct with doom.
There stretched they far, a dark and silent host,
Like monsters stranded from their deep-sea lair
Benumbed with terror cowering;
Still unrecovered from the storm whose ire
Had drowned them in wild floods of pitiless fire,
Or prescient of some deadlier tempest lowering.


At intervals, opposing the sun's track,
Circling about the North
Shone strangely blazoned forth
Wild rainbow-fragments on the sweeping rack,
The gale's rent symbol on rent banners borne.
For ever and anon the sun gazed down
From dizzy summits of the cloud-crags black;
Or where the wind had torn
Vast jagged rifts athwart their mass
(Behind whose heavy frown
Faint smiles of soothing like a robe of grass
Had fallen from him on the frozen hills),
He gazed out powerless o'er the rain-grey sea:
No eye which sorrow fills
With constant bitter tears,
Drowning all life and lustre, joy and pride,
Can gaze more faint and wan and hopelessly
Into the homeless world and waste of years
Spread out between it and the grave's sweet sleeping;
Can let the dark lid sink upon its weeping
More often, fain to hide
The chilling desolation blurred with strife
Which, seen or unseen, maps its future life.


Ere sunset came a storm of rain
Ploughing up the barren main
With fierce and vital energy,
While brief bright lightnings flashed incessantly.
And then the South stood up, one solid wall
Of battlemented cloud, in which the mountains
And hills were fused together out of sight:
The sinking sun from his intense fire-f'ountains
Poured out against its heaven-absorbing might
Seas of lurid purple light
And fulvous meteors, surging and devouring
The shattered crests, the crumbling slopes,
The massive walls, the riven copes,
In fortitude of glowing bronze far-towering.


From all the secret caverns of the air
Night's gloomy phantoms issuing, gathered dense
To blot and stifle out the pageant there;
The murmur of their motions breathing wide
Through that new silence thrilled upon the sense;
When gazing southward I became aware
Of some slow movement by the dim sea-side,
As of a wind arousing from its lair
To rend the settled vapours. I descried,
After an interval of rapt suspense,
By what faint gloaming yet was left of day,
Two startling lamps uplifted slowly glide
From out the thick and dun immensity,
Fronting a long dark line like some array
Of men that came in silent mystery,
Across the undulations of the shore
Long-winding coil on coil unbrokenly,
To celebrate weird rites and sorceries hoar,
Shrouded in gloom beside the moaning sea.


I knew, but would not know,
I knew too well, but knowledge was despair.
It came on vast and slow,
And dipt those baleful meteors in the brine;
Whence soon it lifted them with hideous cries
That flung strange horror through the shuddering air.
Haling its length in many a monstrous twine,
It bore on steadfastly those loathsome eyes,
Set in the midst of intertangled hair
Like sea-weed in whose jungle have their lair
All foul and half-lived things:
With such a gleam as haunts the rotting graves
They fixed upon me their malignant stare;
Shallow and slimy, fiendish, eyes of death.
It neared me soon with ponderous wallowings
Athwart the heaving and repugnant waves;
Then paused a moment, and with one harsh roar
Heaved up its whole obscene and ghastly bulk,
To rankle in my memory evermore
With hissing shrieks and bursts of' strangled breath,
Torn by some agonizing pang, it fell,
And lay upon the sea a vast dead hulk;
But raised yet once the huge and formless head
Whence blood-dark foam was showering; and those eyes
Glared blinking on me with the hate of Hell,
Before it turned reluctantly and fled.
Down, down, convicted by the holy skies,
Away, away, 0 God! it hurtled forth;
To cower in frozen caverns of the deep;
To haunt a nightmare in that ghastly sleep,
The death and desolation of the North.


A man forlorn has wandered, cursed from rest,
Through Time's dead wastes and savage howling seas,
Bearing a fateful Horror in his breast,
Formless and dim, but mighty to disease;
Devouring, poisoning, stifling his pure life.
And suddenly, when Hope can hope no more,
He feels its coils unwinding from his heart,
And rich vitality with glorious strife
Surging through veins all shrunk and numb before:
But also sees the Incubus depart,
Coil after coil reluctant dragged away
As were a serpent's from its strangled prey,
And thus in his first health is clearly shown
What still was hidden from his lunacy,
The full obscene and deadly ghastliness
Of that which held and ruled him to this day:
Abhorrence almost chills him into stone,
And that great blow which struck the prisoner free
Hath nearly slain him by its mighty stress.
Such was my agony of joy that hour,
When saved for ever from the monster's power.


The sky was spacious warm and bright,
The clouds were pure as morning snow;
In myriad points of living light
The sea lay laughing to and fro.
Above the hills a depth of sky,
Dim-pale with heat and light intense,
Was overhung by clouds piled high
In mountain-ranges huge and dense;
Whose rifts and ridges ran aloft
Far to their crests of dazzling snow,
Whence spread a vaporous lustre soft
Veiling the noontide's azure glow.
Through mists of purple glory seen
Those dim and panting hill-waves lay,
Absorbed into the heavens serene,
Dissolving in the perfect day.

But when the sun burned high and bare
In his own realm of solemn blue,
The clouds hung isolated there,
Dark purple grandeurs vast and few;
Like massive sculptures wrought at large
Upon that dome's immensity,
Like constant isles whose foamlit marge
Rose high from out that sapphire sea.

And all the day my boat sped on
With rapid gliding smooth as rest,
As if by mystic dreamings drawn
To some fair haven in the West;
Flew onward swift without a gale
As if it were a living thing,
And spread with joy its snow-white sail
As spreads a bird its snow-white wing;
Flashed on along the lucid deep
Dividing that most perfect sphere,
A vault above it glowing steep,
A vault beneath it no less clear;
Within whose burning sapphire-round
The clouds, the air, the land, the sea,
Lay thrilled with quivering glory, drowned
In calm as of Eternity.

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