The Poet of Pessimism

The Poet of Pessimism

AT first sight there would seem to be little relation between the pessimist and the reformer. What can we, who are struggling to convert chaos into cosmos, barbarism into humanity, have to learn from an ill-fated genius whose life was darkened and frustrated by an inherited melancholia, and whose philosophy, as expressed in “The City of Dreadful Night,” the most notable pessimist poem in the English language, was the very counterpart of his fortunes? “It is the men,” it has been said, “who in the midst of darkness preached hope, and whose voices in the hour of defeat and disaster rang out the cry of ‘forward,’ whom our descendants will delight to honour? To them the singer of ‘The City of Dreadful Night’ will form only a curious study in morbid psychology. He is not the singer to whom we go for refreshment and invigoration. With us are the heroes, the martyrs, the sages, but not the pessimists, charm they never so well.” And in this verdict Thomson himself seems, by anticipation, to acquiesce, when he thus speaks of the function of his despondent muse:—

“Surely I write not for the hopeful young,
Or those who deem their happiness of worth,
Or such as pasture and grow fat among
The shows of life, and feel nor doubt nor dearth,
Or pious spirits with a God above them
To sanctify and glorify and love them,
Or sages who foresee a heaven on earth.

“For none of these I write, and none of these
Could read the writing if they deigned to try:
So may they flourish, in their due degrees,
On our sweet earth and in their unplaced sky.
If any cares for the weak words here written
It must be some one desolate, Fate-smitten,
Whose faith and hope are dead, and who would die.”

Nevertheless, I think we optimists shall be ourselves the losers, if we turn away altogether from the pleadings of pessimism, for it is a fact that hopefulness, like despondency, has dangers and drawbacks of its own. In all reform-movements—and the vegetarian movement is no exception—there is a tendency to forget the extreme slowness with which social and national changes are brought about, a slowness which works more often by centuries than by years. We are apt to be over-sanguine in an expectation of immediate “results” from our work; and when no such results are visible, when things appear to be much the same in one generation as they were in the one before, there is a corresponding relapse, in some minds, towards disappointment and reaction. Looking back, who shall say that this narrowness of vision has not been a frequent weakness to Philanthropy in the past, and not a weakness only, but a positive cause of error both in thought and action? “Lives spent in doing good,” says Richard Jefferies, “have been lives nobly wasted;” and it is to be feared there is some truth in the remark. Much more is needed than faith, courage, and devotion, however indispensable these may be. Brain is needed, and humour, and large-mindedness, and that breadth of sympathy which enables us to see things from a standpoint other than our own. If we are to make sure progress, we must not limit our view to one direction, not even to that direction on which our hope are fixed.

I have often wondered, for example, what is the real belief of the typical vegetarian worker, as to the time that will have to pass before the general adoption of Vegetarianism in this country. If a census were taken of our individual forecasts, and an average were struck, what would the estimate be? Would it be a matter of a generation or two, or a century, or many centuries, in our outlook for the dietetic millennium? I am not going to hazard any conjecture on this point; but the point is an interesting one, and not without practical bearing on vegetarian propagandism, since much depends on the spirit in which such work is undertaken. This at least may be said, that if any of our friends are expecting to see in their own life-time the disappearance, or even the diminution of the Butcher, they will be well advised to take, by way of antidote, a little counsel of the pessimists.

Let us then glance briefly at the pessimistic philosophy contained in “B.V.’s” writings, a collected edition* of which, in verse and prose, is now in process of publication. The essay most appropriate to our purposes, though not in itself one of his best works, is the ironical “Proposals for the Speedy Extinction of Evil and Misery,” in which he humorously advocates two essential reforms, which are “simply a universal change to perfection of nature and human nature,” to be carried out by the agency of the “Universal Perfection Company, Unlimited.” Passing over such merely playful sallies, let me quote the passage in which his real conviction is expressed.

“This great river of human Time, which comes flowing down thick with filth and blood from the immemorial past, surely cannot be thoroughly cleansed by any purifying process applied to it here in the present; for the pollution, if not in its very source (supposing it has a source), or deriving from unimaginable remotenesses of eternity indefinitely beyond its source, at any rate interfused with it countless ages back, and is perennial as the river itself. This immense poison-tree of Life, with its leaves of illusion, blossoms of delirium, apples of destruction, surely cannot be made wholesome and sweet by anything we may do to the branchlets and twigs on which, poor insects, we find ourselves crawling, or to the leaves and fruit on which we must fain feed; for the venom is drawn up in the sap by the tap-roots plunged in abysmal depths of the past. In fine, to thoroughly reform the present and the future, we must thoroughly reform the past.

This obviously is sheer fatalism, and raises organic points of difference between pessimist and reformer which need not here be discussed. We cannot reform the past; that is admitted. But does it therefore follow that we cannot, in part, reform the present—the present which will itself be the past to a future generation? Herein, it seems, Richard Jefferies, a pessimist as regards the past but an optimist as regards the future, is wiser than Thomson, for while holding that “the whole and the worst the worst pessimist can say, is far beneath the least particle of the truth, so immense is the misery of man,” he nevertheless can feel the hope of gradual future reformation. “Full well aware,” he says, “that all has failed, yet, side by side with the sadness of that knowledge, there lives on in me an unquenchable belief, thought burning like the sun, that there is yet something to be found, something real, something to give each separate personality sunshine and flowers in its own existence now.” We do not, then, assent to the pessimist’s contention that we are the product of a past which has foredoomed all effort to failure; but I think we may at times profit by what may be called the mood of pessimism, a phase of feeling which, if it served no other purpose, would still be valuable as saving us from that narrow fanatical optimism to which allusion has been made. †

I do not of course mean that we should foster the so-called pessimism common in fashionable society, the dregs of the poisonous cup of selfish and idle gratification, which makes so many comfortable persons doubt whether life is worth living, when beyond a doubt it is they who are not worthy of life. But quite apart from this spurious melancholy, there is a genuine mood of sadness found in all literatures, and felt at times by all thoughtful people, which, in its due place and proportion, is as real as the contrary mood of joy. It is, in a vast majority of cases, a matter of mood rather than of fixed belief; for every one has his dark mood as well as his bright. Why then should the dark mood be so sedulously discountenanced, as if it came direct from the source of all evil? So long as it be genuine, we shall do well to pay heed to it. It stands for something, it is part of us; and it is not to be arbitrarily set aside.

It is this recurrent spirit of sadness, rather than any reasoned philosophy of pessimism, that inspires the finer portion of James Thomson’s writings, more especially the sublime melancholy of his verse; and it is this that I think is not without interest even for those whose social creed is entirely the reverse of pessimistic. It is this spirit that animates the presiding deity of his poetical masterpiece, the “Melancolia that transcends all wit.”

“Thus has the artist copied her and thus
Surrounded to expound her form sublime,
Her fate heroic and calamitous;
Fronting the dreadful mysteries of Time.
Unvanquished in defeat and desolation,
Undaunted in the hopeless conflagration
Of the day setting on her baffled prime.

“Baffled and beaten back she works on still,
Weary and sick of soul she works the more,
Sustained by her indomitable will:
The hand shall fashion and the brain shall pore,
And all her sorrow shall be turned to labour,
Till Death, the friend-foe, piercing with his sabre
That mighty heart of hearts, ends bitter war.”

Should poetry such as this be depressing in its effect on the mind? To me it seems that it ought not to be so, but rather (in its right sphere and relation) a means of enlightenment and strength. For whatever the subject and moral of a poem may be, there is nothing saddening in Art, provided the form and treatment be adequate; we are not weakened, but strengthened, by any genuine revelation of feeling, so long as it be worthily expressed.

And, after all, the humane spirit, which is the motive power of all true schemes of reform, is, by its very essence, independent of belief in what is commonly called “success.” We work for an ideal, not because we believe the ideal is destined to be triumphant, but because we are impelled so to work, and cannot, without violence to our best instincts, act otherwise. We protest against cruelty and injustice for the same reason, not merely because we feel that the dawn of a better day is at hand, but because such a protest has to be made, and we know intuitively that we must help to make it. Of the event we can have no absolute assurance—it rests for other minds and other hands than our—but we can at least be assured that we have done what was natural and inevitable to us, and that, whether successful or unsuccessful, there was no other course for a thoughtful man to take. This is not pessimism; but it is a philosophy which is indebted in some measure to the “pessimistic” school of thought, of which the author of “The City of Dreadful Night” is leading example.


* “The Poetical Works of James Thomson” (“Bysshe Vanolis”), 2 vols., 1895. “Biographical and Critical Studies,” By James Thomson, 1896 (Reeves & Turner, and Bertram Dobell.)

† “As to pessimism,” wrote Herman Melville, with reference to Thomson’s poetry, “although neither pessimist nor optimist myself, nevertheless I relish it in the verse, if for nothing else than as a counterpoise to the exorbitant hopefulness, juvenile and shallow, that makes such a muster in these days.”

Henry S. Salt

Vegetarian Review, August 1896