Poem: The City of the End of Things


This poem, by Archibald Lampman (1861–99), turned up as the preface to a book of  lectures by the same name (taken from Lampman by Northrop Frye). I loved it immediately, and then read about how it was written to express trepidation at the rise of the modern century in Canada. I haven’t read any Lampman before, odd considering he was a Canadian poet – but then again, we didn’t read almost any Canadian writers in school. I hope that’s changed since I was in English Literature twenty-two years ago, but I somehow doubt it.

The City of the End of Things

BESIDE the pounding cataracts
Of midnight streams unknown to us,
’T is builded in the dismal tracts
And valleys huge of Tartarus.
Lurid and lofty and vast it seems;
It hath no rounded name that rings,
But I have heard it called in dreams
The City of the End of Things.

Its roofs and iron towers have grown
None knoweth how high within the night,
But in its murky streets far down
A flaming terrible and bright
Shakes all the stalking shadows there,
Across the walls, across the floors,
And shifts upon the upper air
From out a thousand furnace doors;
And all the while an awful sound
Keeps roaring on continually,
And crashes in the ceaseless round
Of a gigantic harmony.
Through its grim depths reëchoing,
And all its weary height of walls,
With measured roar and iron ring,
The inhuman music lifts and falls.
Where no thing rests and no man is,
And only fire and night hold sway,
The beat, the thunder, and the hiss
Cease not, and change not, night nor day.

And moving at unheard commands,
The abysses and vast fires between,
Flit figures that, with clanking hands,
Obey a hideous routine.
They are not flesh, they are not bone,
They see not with the human eye,
And from their iron lips is blown
A dreadful and monotonous cry.
And whoso of our mortal race
Should find that city unaware,
Lean Death would smite him face to face,
And blanch him with its venomed air;
Or, caught by the terrific spell,
Each thread of memory snapped and cut,
His soul would shrivel, and its shell
Go rattling like an empty nut.

It was not always so, but once,
In days that no man thinks upon,
Fair voices echoed from its stones,
The light above it leaped and shone.
Once there were multitudes of men
That built that city in their pride,
Until its might was made, and then
They withered, age by age, and died;
And now of that prodigious race
Three only in an iron tower,
Set like carved idols face to face,
Remain the masters of its power;
And at the city gate a fourth,
Gigantic and with dreadful eyes,
Sits looking toward the lightless north,
Beyond the reach of memories:
Fast-rooted to the lurid floor,
A bulk that never moves a jot,
In his pale body dwells no more
Or mind or soul,—an idiot!

But some time in the end those three
Shall perish and their hands be still,
And with the masters’ touch shall flee
Their incommunicable skill.
A stillness, absolute as death,
Along the slacking wheels shall lie,
And, flagging at a single breath,
The fires shall smoulder out and die.
The roar shall vanish at its height,
And over that tremendous town
The silence of eternal night
Shall gather close and settle down.
All its grim grandeur, tower and hall,
Shall be abandoned utterly,
And into rust and dust shall fall
From century to century.
Nor ever living thing shall grow,
Or trunk of tree or blade of grass;
No drop shall fall, no wind shall blow,
Nor sound of any foot shall pass.
Alone of its accurséd state
One thing the hand of Time shall spare,
For the grim Idiot at the gate
Is deathless and eternal there!

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