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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.

Insomnia

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 and repose,
  Renewing heart and brain for richer zest
      Of waking life when golden morning glows
   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 singing
   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 deep,
   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 ever:
An agony of life eternal in death's pall.

   But that would be for ever, without cure! —
      And yet the agony be not more great;
   Supreme fatigue and pain, while they endure,
      Into Eternity their time translate;
   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 of grace. —
   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 chime
         One.

   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 stone,
   But all enveloped in a sombre shroud
   Except the wan face drooping heavy-browed,
      With sad eyes fixed on mine;
   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, appointed now
   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 close
      In real slumber from this waking drear;
   Your wild unrest is my enforced repose;
      Ere I move hence you must not know me here.
   Could not your wings fan slumber through my brain,
   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 sentinel
   Against your nature, as I feel and see
      Against my own your form immovable:
   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 most,
   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 sense,
      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 hither,
   And climb more painfully each steep side thither,
And so make one hour's span for years of travail last.

   Thus I went down into that first ravine,
      Wearily, slowly, blindly, and alone;
   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 stress
          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 feet;
          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 wall
          And corniced ceiling white
   Was slanting now; and in the midst stood solemn
   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 forlorn.
   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 brief:
      Ah yes, our bright eternities of bliss
   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, unseen,
   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 and regard,
   Black in the moonlight filling all the room
      The Image of the Fourth Hour evil-starred
   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 of harm;
   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 torrent whirled,
   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 fixed doom:
   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 now aslant
   Upon its left than on its shrouded right;
      And over and behind It, dominant,
   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 awful Shade,
   Supine in mockery of blissful sleep,
      Delirious with such fierce thirst unalloyed;
   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 hours,
      Accurst from rest because the hours stood still;
   Feeling the hands of the Infernal Powers
      Heavy upon me for enormous ill,
   Inscrutable intolerable pain,
   Against which mortal pleas and prayers are vain,
          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 gloom
          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 rack
   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 gusty,
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 front
   Another night of — what would be the brunt?
          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 days,
      And other nights; and all of evil doom
   The sun-hours in a sick bewildering haze,
      The star-hours in a thick enormous gloom
   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 smitten,
They are so weak and vain and infinitely inane....

   'How from those hideous Malebolges deep
      I ever could win back to upper earth,
   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 stress,
   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.

1882

Remembered Quote:

"My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is"

In Clym Yeobright's face could be dimly seen the typical countenance of the future. Should there be a classic period to art hereafter, its Pheidias may produce such faces. The view of life as a thing to be put up with, replacing that zest for existence which was so intense in early civilisations, must ultimately enter so thoroughly into the constitution of the advanced races that its facial expression will become accepted as a new artistic departure. People already feel that a man who lives without disturbing a curve of feature, or setting a mark of mental concern anywhere upon himself, is too far removed from modern perceptiveness to be a modern type. Physically beautiful men--the glory of the race when it was young--are almost an anachronism now; and we may wonder whether, at some time or other, physically beautiful women may not be an anachronism likewise.

The truth seems to be that a long line of disillusive centuries has permanently displaced the Hellenic idea of life, or whatever it may be called. What the Greeks only suspected we know well; what their Aeschylus imagined our nursery children feel. That old-fashioned revelling in the general situation grows less and less possible as we uncover the defects of natural laws, and see the quandary that man is in by their operation.

—Thomas Hardy, Return of the Native, Book 3, Chapter 1


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