Home  »  A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895  »  Melencolia

Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. (1833–1908). A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895. 1895.

James Thomson 1834–82



ANEAR the centre of that northern crest

Stands out level upland bleak and bare,

From which the city east and south and west

Sinks gently in long waves; and throned there

An Image sits, stupendous, superhuman,

The bronze colossus of a winged Woman,

Upon a graded granite base foursquare.

Low-seated she leans forward massively.

With cheek on clench’d left hand, the forearm’s might

Erect, its elbow on her rounded knee;

Across a clasp’d book in her lap the right

Upholds a pair of compasses; she gazes

With full set eyes, but wandering in thick mazes

Of sombre thought beholds no outward sight.

Words cannot picture her; but all men know

That solemn sketch the pure and artist wrought

Three centuries and three score years ago,

With fantasies of his peculiar thought:

The instruments of carpentry and science

Scatte’d about her feet, in strange alliance

With the keen wolf-hound sleeping undistraught;

Scales, hour-glass, bell, and magic-square above;

The grave and solid infant perch’d beside,

With open winglets that might bear a dove,

Intent upon its tablets, heavy-eyed;

Her folded wings as of a mighty eagle

But all too impotent to lift the regal

Robustness of her earth-born strength and pride;

And with those wings, and that light

Wreath which seems

To mock her grand head and the knotted frown

Of forehead charged with baleful thoughts and dreams,

The household bunch of keys, the house-wife’s gown

Voluminous, indented, and yet rigid

As if a shell of burnish’d metal frigid,

The feet thick-shod to tread all weakness down;

The comet hanging o’er the waste dark seas,

The massy rainbow curv’d in front of it

Beyond the village with the masts and trees;

The snaky imp, dog-headed, from the Pit,

Bearing upon its batlike leathern pinions

Her name unfolded in the sun’s dominions,

The “MELENCOLIA” 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,

Unvanquish’d 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,

Sustain’d by her indomitable will:

The hands shall fashion and the brain shall pore,

And all her sorrow shall be turn’d to labor,

Till Death the friend-foe piercing with his sabre

That mighty heart of ends bitter war.

But as if blacker night could dawn on night,

With tenfold gloom on moonless night unstarr’d,

A sense more tragic than defeat and blight,

More desperate than strife with hope debarr’d,

More fatal than the adamantine Never

Encompassing her passionate endeavor,

Dawn glooming in her tenebrous regard:

The sense that every struggle brings defeat

Because Fate holds no prize to crown success;

That all the oracles are dumb or cheat

Because they have no secret to expresses;

That none can pierce the vast black veil uncertain

Because there is no light beyond the curtain;

That all is vanity and nothingness.

Titanic from her high throne in the north,

That City’s sombre Patroness and Queen,

In bronze sublimity she gazes forth

Over her Capital of teen and threne,

Over the river with its isles and bridges,

The marsh and moorland, to the stern rock-ridges,

Confronting them with a coeval mien.

The moving moon and stars from east to west

Circle before her in the sea of air;

Shadows and gleams glide round her solemn rest.

Her subjects often gaze up to her there:

The strong to drink new strength of iron endurance,

The weak new terrors; all, renew’d assurance

And confirmation of the old despair.