David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

January Cheer from James Thomson

This little life is all we must endure,
The grave’s most holy peace is ever sure,
We fall asleep and never wake again;
Nothing is of us but the mouldering flesh,
Whose elements dissolve and merge afresh
In earth, air, water, plants, and other men.

We finish thus; and all our wretched race
Shall finish with its cycle, and give place
To other beings with their own time-doom:
Infinite aeons ere our kind began;
Infinite aeons after the last man
Has joined the mammoth in earth’s tomb and womb.

We bow down to the universal laws,
Which never had for man a special clause
Of cruelty or kindness, love or hate:
If toads and vultures are obscene to sight,
If tigers burn with beauty and with might,
Is it by favour or by wrath of Fate?

All substance lives and struggles evermore
Through countless shapes continually at war,
By countless interactions interknit:
If one is born a certain day on earth,
All times and forces tended to that birth,
Not all the world could change or hinder it.

I find no hint throughout the Universe
Of good or ill, of blessing or of curse;
I find alone Necessity Supreme;
With infinite Mystery, abysmal, dark,
Unlighted ever by the faintest spark
For us the flitting shadows of a dream.

James Thomson, “The City of Dreadful Night” (1873)

This makes me smile. It’s comically maudlin, partly because of the obtrusive rhymes and partly because of the inflated concepts. So it reads more like goth song lyrics than a Victorian poem.

This is also why Bolano does best when he sticks to specifics.


  1. MDR!! I think my favorite line is: “has joined the mammoth in earth’s tomb and womb.”

  2. Strangely smug and well-fed sounding pessimism

  3. By countless interactions internet.

  4. My favourite lines from the poem are:

    “He circled thus for ever tracing out
    The series of the fraction left of Life:
    Perpetual recurrence in the scope
    Of but three terms, dead Faith, dead Love, dead Hope.”

    Which Thomson footnotes, magnificently: “Life divided by that persistent three = LXX/333 = 0.210 (recurring)”. Put that in your Goth lyrics!

  5. Yeah, the math there went over my head….

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