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NIGHTMARES DREAMS


In 1852 the exile Victo Hugo came to London for the first time: "London Bridge. –night. Mist. No sky. A ceiling of rain and darkness. Black vanishing planes lost in smoke; spiky silhouettes, misshapen domes. A big red circle glows on top of something which resembles a steeple or a giant: the eye of a Cyclops or possibly a clockface…..in the darkness, four stars-two red, two blue- pierce the gloom and form a square. Suddenly they start to move. The blue stars rise, the red descend. Then a fifth star, or burning embers, comes into view and rushes across the intervening space.A terrifying noise. It seems to be passing over a terrible bridge. Large trucks go lumbering after it in the sky. Underneath pallid clouds drop and disperse. A ghost, a woman, bare-breasted in an icy wind, passes close by me; she smiles and offers her cheek for a kiss. Is it Hell?
No. it is London."

The City of course had always been seen as evil. As the nineteenth century progressed this critique became increasingly specific and statistical, by social reformers such as Mayhew or Octavia Hill or Charles Booth; by nostalgic socialists such as William Morris; by Marx and Engels (for the modern industrial city was seen to represent capitalism itself, the industrial cities of the Midlands and the North seen as particularly culpable).

During the same period it embodied more modern concepts: Anomie. Angst etc. James Thomson wrote The City of Dreadful Night in 1874; it is a good example of late-Victorian gloom; the same kind of spirit to be found in Dover Beach, obsessively concerned with doubt, with faith. In tone it is attitudinising, excessive; in style it is ornate, ostentatiously sonorous, (bordering on kitsch). The best line, and it is an excellent one, is the title itself: City of Dreadful Night. While there is built (or rather delapidating) environment in the poem the city is largely a state of mind. There are few features of commercial or social life though we do, memorably visit a bar, where we find ourselves:

"drinking fiery poison in a den
crowded with tawdry girls and squalid men,
Who hoarsely laugh and curse and brawl and fight;"

   
 

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