Aside from "The City of Dreadful Night," this
may be the quintessential Thomson poem. It appears here
for the first time on the Internet. G.M.
BY JAMES THOMSON
Sleepless himself to give to others sleep.
He giveth His beloved sleep.
I HEARD the sounding of the midnight hour;
The others one by one had
left the room,
In calm assurance that the gracious power
Of Sleep's fine alchemy
would bless the gloom,
Transmuting all its leaden weight to gold,
To treasures of rich virtues manifold,
New strength, new health, new life;
Just weary enough to nestle softly, sweetly,
Into divine unconsciousness, completely
Delivered from the world of toil and care and strife.
Just weary enough to feel assured of rest,
Of Sleep's divine oblivion
Renewing heart and brain for richer zest
Of waking life when golden
As young and pure and glad as if the first
That ever on the void of darkness burst
With ravishing warmth and light;
On dewy grass and flowers and blithe birds
And shining waters, all enraptured springing,
Fragrance and shine and song, out of the womb of night.
But I with infinite weariness outworn,
Haggard with endless nights
unblessed by sleep,
Ravaged by thoughts unutterably forlorn,
Plunged in despairs unfathomably
Went cold and pale and trembling with affright
Into the desert vastitude of Night,
Arid and wild and black;
Foreboding no oasis of sweet slumber,
Counting beforehand all the countless number
Of sands that are its minutes on my desolate track.
And so I went, the last, to my drear bed,
Aghast as one who should
go down to lie
Among the blissfully unconscious dead,
Assured that as the endless
years flowed by
Over the dreadful silence and deep gloom
And dense oppression of the stifling tomb,
He only of them all,
Nerveless and impotent to madness, never
Could hope oblivion's perfect trance for
An agony of life eternal in death's pall.
But that would be for ever, without cure!
And yet the agony be not
Supreme fatigue and pain, while they endure,
Into Eternity their time
Be it of hours and days or countless years,
And boundless aeons, it alike appears
To the crushed victim's soul;
Utter despair foresees no termination,
But feels itself of infinite duration;
The smallest fragment instant comprehends the whole.
The absolute of torture as of bliss
Is timeless, each transcending
time and space;
The one an infinite obscure abyss,
The other an eternal Heaven
Keeping a little lamp of glimmering light
Companion through the horror of the night,
I laid me down aghast
As he of all who pass death's quiet portal
Malignantly reserved alone immortal,
In consciousness of bale that must for ever last.
I laid me down, and closed my heavy eyes,
As if sleep's mockery might
win true sleep;
And grew aware, with awe but not surprise,
Blindly aware through all
the silence deep,
Of some dark Presence watching by my bed,
The awful image of a nameless dread;
But I lay still, fordone;
And felt its Shadow on me dark and solemn
And steadfast as a monumental column,
And thought drear thoughts of Doom, and heard the bells
And then I raised my weary eyes and saw,
By some slant moonlight
on the ceiling thrown
And faint lamp-gleam, that Image of my awe,
Still as a pillar of basaltic
But all enveloped in a sombre shroud
Except the wan face drooping heavy-browed,
With sad eyes fixed on
Sad weary yearning eyes, but fixed remorseless
Upon my eyes yet wearier, that were forceless
To bear the cruel pressure; cruel, unmalign.
Wherefore I asked for what I knew too well:
0 ominous midnight Presence,
What art Thou?
Whereto in tones that sounded like a knell:
'I am the Second Hour,
To watch beside thy slumberless unrest.'
Then I: Thus both, unlike, alike unblest;
For I should sleep, you fly:
Are not those wings beneath thy mantle moulded?
0 Hour! unfold those wings so straitly folded,
And urge thy natural flight beneath the moonlit sky.
'My wings shall open when your eyes shall
In real slumber from this
Your wild unrest is my enforced repose;
Ere I move hence you must
not know me here.
Could not your wings fan slumber through
Soothing away its weariness and pain?
'Your Sleep must stir my wings:
Sleep, and I bear you gently on my pinions
Athwart my span of hollow night's dominions,
Whence hour on hour shall bear to morning's golden springs.'
That which I ask of you, you ask of me,
0 weary Hour, thus standing
Against your nature, as I feel and see
Against my own your form
Could I bring Sleep to set you on the wing,
What other thing so gladly would I bring?
Truly the Poet saith:
If that is best whose absence we deplore
Whose presence in our longings is the foremost,
What blessings equal Sleep save only love and death?
I let my lids fall, sick of thought and
But felt that Shadow heavy
on my heart;
And saw the night before me an immense
Black waste of ridge-walls,
hour by hour apart,
Dividing deep ravines: from ridge to ridge
Sleep's flying hour was an aerial bridge;
But I, whose hours stood fast,
Must climb down painfully each steep side
And climb more painfully each steep side
And so make one hour's span for years of travail last.
Thus I went down into that first ravine,
Wearily, slowly, blindly,
Staggering, stumbling, sinking depths unseen,
Shaken and bruised and
gashed by stub and stone;
And at the bottom paven with slipperiness,
A torrent-brook rushed headlong with such
Against my feeble limbs,
Such fury of wave and foam and icy bleakness
Buffeting insupportably my weakness
That when I would recall, dazed memory swirls and swims.
How I got through I know not, faint as death;
And then I had to climb
the awful scarp,
Creeping with many a pause for panting breath,
Clinging to tangled root
and rock-jut sharp;
Perspiring with faint chills instead of heat,
Trembling, and bleeding hands and knees and
Falling, to rise anew;
Until, with lamentable toil and travel
Upon the ridge of and sand and gravel
I lay supine half-dead and heard the bells chime Two;
And knew a change of Watchers in the room
Without a stir or sound
beside my bed;
Only the tingling silence of the gloom,
The muffled pulsing of
the night's deep dread;
And felt an Image mightier to appal,
And looked; the moonlight on the bed-foot
And corniced ceiling white
Was slanting now; and in the midst stood
And hopeless as a black sepulchral column
A steadfast shrouded Form, the Third Hour of the night.
The fixed regard implacably austere,
Yet none the less ineffably
Something transcending all my former fear
Came jarring through my
shattered frame outworn:
I knew that crushing rock could not be stirred;
I had no heart to say a single word,
But closed my eyes again;
And set me shuddering to the task stupendous
Of climbing down and up that gulf tremendous
Unto the next hour-ridge beyond hope's farthest ken.
Men sigh and plain and wail how life is
Ah yes, our bright eternities
Are transient, rare, minute beyond belief,
Mere star-dust meteors
in Time's Night-abyss;
Ah no, our black eternities intense
Of bale are lasting, dominant, immense,
As Time which is their breath;
The memory of the bliss is yearning sorrow,
The memory of the bale clouds every morrow
Darkening through nights and days into the night of Death.
No human words could paint my travail sore
In the thick darkness of
the next ravine,
Deeper immeasurably than that before;
When hideous agonies, unheard,
In overwhelming floods of torture roll,
And horrors of great darkness drown the soul,
To be is not to be
In memory save as ghastliest impression,
And chaos of demoniacal possession....
I shuddered on the ridge, and heard the bells chime Three.
And like a pillar of essential gloom,
Most terrible in stature
Black in the moonlight filling all the room
The Image of the Fourth
Stood over me; but there was Something more,
Something behind It undiscerned before,
More dreadful than Its dread,
Which overshadowed It as with a fateful
Inexorable fascination hateful,
A wan and formless Shade from regions of the dead.
I shut my eyes against that spectral Shade,
Which yet allured them
with a deadly charm,
And that black Image of the Hour, dismayed
By such tremendous menacing
And so into the gulf as into Hell;
Where what immeasurable depths I fell,
With seizures of the heart
Whose each clutch seemed the end of all pulsation,
And tremors of exanimate prostration,
Are horrors in my soul that never can depart.
If I for hope or wish had any force,
It was that I might rush
down sharply hurled
From rock to rock until a mangled corse
Down with the fury of the
The fury of black waters and white foam,
To where the homeless find their only home,
In the immense void Sea,
Whose isles are worlds, surrounding, unsurrounded,
Whose depths no mortal plummet ever sounded,
Beneath all surface storms calm in Eternity.
Such hope or wish was as a feeble spark,
A little lamp's pale glimmer
in a tomb,
To just reveal the hopeless deadly dark
And wordless horrors of my soul's
Yet some mysterious instinct obstinate,
Blindly unconscious as a law of Fate,
Still urged me on and bore
My shattered being through the unfeared peril
Of death less hateful than the life as sterile:
I shuddered on the ridge, and heard the bells chime Four.
The Image of that Fifth Hour of the night
Was blacker in the moonlight
Upon its left than on its shrouded right;
And over and behind It,
The shadow not Its shadow cast its spell,
Most vague and dim and wan and terrible,
Death's ghastly aureole,
Pregnant with overpowering fascination,
Commanding by repulsive instigation,
Despair's envenomed anodyne to tempt the Soul.
I closed my eyes, but could not longer keep
Under that Image and most
Supine in mockery of blissful sleep,
Delirious with such fierce
Of all worst agonies the most unblest
Is passive agony of wild unrest:
Trembling and faint I rose,
And dressed with painful efforts, and descended
With furtive footsteps and with breath suspended,
And left the slumbering house with my unslumbering woes.
Constrained to move through the unmoving
Accurst from rest because
the hours stood still;
Feeling the hands of the Infernal Powers
Heavy upon me for enormous
Inscrutable intolerable pain,
Against which mortal pleas and prayers are
Gaspings of dying breath,
And human struggles, dying spasms yet vainer:
Renounce defence when Doom is the Arraigner;
Let impotence of Life subside appeased in Death.
I paced the silent and deserted streets
In cold dark shade and
chillier moonlight grey;
Pondering a dolorous series of defeats
And black disasters from
life's opening day,
Invested with the shadow of a doom
That filled the Spring and Summer with a
Most wintry bleak and drear;
Gloom from within as from a sulphurous censer
Making the glooms without for ever denser,
To blight the buds and flowers and fruitage of my year.
Against a bridge's stony parapet
I leaned, and gazed into
the waters black;
And marked an angry morning red and wet
Beneath a livid and enormous
Glare out confronting the belated moon,
Huddled and wan and feeble as the swoon
Of featureless despair:
When some stray workmen half-asleep but lusty
Passed urgent through the rainpour wild and
I felt a ghost already, planted watching there.
As phantom to its grave, or to its den
Some wild beast of the
night when night is sped,
I turned unto my homeless home again
To front a day only less
charged with dread
Than that dread night; and after day, to
Another night of what would be the
I put the thought aside,
To be resumed when common life unfolded
In common daylight had my brain remoulded;
Meanwhile the flaws of rain refreshed and fortified.
The day passed, and the night; and other
And other nights; and all
of evil doom
The sun-hours in a sick bewildering haze,
The star-hours in a thick
With rending lightnings and with thunder-knells;
The ghastly hours of all the timeless Hells:-
Bury them with their bane!
I look back on the words already written,
And writhe by cold rage stung, by self-scorn
They are so weak and vain and infinitely inane....
'How from those hideous Malebolges deep
I ever could win back to
Restored to human nights of blessed sleep
And healthy waking with
the new day's birth?'-
How do men climb back from a swoon whose
Crushing far deeper than all consciousness,
Is deep as deep death seems?
Who can the steps and stages mete and number
By which we re-emerge from nightly slumber?
Our poor vast petty life is one dark maze of dreams.