If I were to write a scholarly paper on Archibald Lampman’s remarkable poem, “The City of the End of Things“, I would probably spend weeks or month in the Rutherford Library at the U of A reading everything written by Lampman and everything written about Lampman’s life and works. I would definitely mention Shelly and I might mention Wells, Teasdale and Bradbury. I would avoid mentioning Lewis and Ellison, although I might bring in Star Trek for fun. I would meticulously footnote and be sure to add passages in Latin and possibly Greek. I might throw in bits of Old English from “The Ruin” which so exquisitely descends into fragments as it progresses, and maybe a bit of Czech and Polish.
On the other hand, if I were writing a blog post about “The City of the End of Things” I would probably sit down in a hospital room — like the detective in that Tey novel — with a print-out of the poem, a notebook and pen, a smart phone with a failing battery, and my memory. I would certainly mention Ellison and Star Trek, I might even bring in Robert Bloch. I would probably not do anything like meticulous research (that might come another day) and I’d probably let the structure of the poem structure my post to a certain extent.
In fact, if I were to write a blog post about “The City of the End of Things”, I would probably write something unlike a scholarly article and quite like what you’ll find below.
Some of my most vivid memories of childhood are images of dying worlds, for example, the skittering giant crab-creatures under the red sky in Well’s The Time Machine, or Jadis’ empty city of Charn in Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew. Long ago I met Shelley’s traveller from an antique land and Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” is an old friend, although it was only relatively recently that I found Bradbury’s inspiration in Sara Teasdale’s poem of the same name.
I’ve always been playing catch-up with Canadian Literature — something of an embarrassment — so it was only late in life that I came across a quite startling end of the world in what might seem an unlikely place. Archibald Lampman lived a short life, beginning shortly before the Confederation of the Canadas and living to see only the first three decades of the new Dominion. Well known in life, he is, perhaps less remembered today except in CanLit circles. Lampman was known as one of the “Confederation Poets”, along with Duncan Campbell Scott, now infamous as the author of Canada’s “Final Solution to the Indian problem.” In 1895, four years before his death, Edmund Stedman placed Lampman’s short, unusual poem of alternate rhymed tetrameters, “The City of the End of Things” in his A Victorian Anthology, 1837-1895.
I can’t help but feel an echo of Lampman’s title in the title of Harlan Ellison’s “The City at the Edge of Forever,” perhaps the finest original Star Trek episode. Indeed, Ellison’s almost empty City bears more than a passing resemblance to Lampman’s. Ellison seems to have an affinity for titles of this structure: vis. “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World” in his anthology Dangerous Visions.
But, back to “The City at the End of Things. What a fascinating, intriguing, mysterious and allusive thing it is!
Lampman begins by describing the location of the City in “the Valleys huge of Tartarus” seemingly quite clearly placing the City in the Classical underworld. The eighth line is the title, in position to become a refrain, although that never happens.
The second section (20 lines) expands on the description of the fiery, Hellish City. In line 16 are mentioned the “thousand furnace doors” which bring to my mind the “aditus centum, ostia centum” of the Cumaean Sibyl’s cave in Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid. Inhuman music is heard, no man is there, only fire and night. Continuous noise, no cessation, no change.
The third section, twice the length of the first, begins with a description of the surprising robotic mechanical men who keep the City going. While inhuman creatures may seem startlingly prophetic (and marvellously steampunk) for Victorian Canada, it strikes me that Lampman may be looking back to the bronze man Talos of Apollonius’ Argonautica and earlier, rather than ahead to Čapek, Asimov and Lem. The second half of this section clarifies that not only are there not any humans like us in the City, but Death would shrivel our souls and snap “each thread of memory.”
The fourth section, twenty lines again, begins with a description of the City’s origin as the work of human hands. But the builders have withered until only three remain in a room in a tall tower facing each other, “masters of [the City’s] power.” And one other remains standing unmoving and immovable at the Northern Gate. Of this one Lampman says:
In his pale body dwells no more
Or mind or soul, — an idiot!
In the final 24 line section Lampman lets us know that the three shall perish, the wheels will slack, the fires die, the sound fall to silence, and the buildings fall to rust and dust. No tree or grass will grow in the dead City. And then, the final four lines:
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!
Well. What to make of this?
Certainly interesting is the line count structure of two twenty line stanzas separating stanzas of 8, 2×8, and 3×8 lines.
Very interesting as well is the vision of an empty dead world at such an early date in a land itself politically new and so filled with “untamed” wilderness.
But something of a conundrum is the figure of the deathless, eternal, mindless and soulless Idiot. Why is he eternal while the City and its builders must decay and fade? The Idiot has no soul, no mind, no memories, no motion. He is nothing but a shell, like the “empty nut” of line 44, the remnants of the hypothetical Man meeting Death in the City of the End of Things.
What is the Idiot except eternal meaninglessness? Is Lampman suggesting that all meaning must decay? Or is he suggesting that Eternity, continuance without decay or change, would be a meaningless existence? Perhaps he is just asking the question, “What are some implications of Eternity? And is eternal, unchanging existence desirable?” Perhaps this is the insight of The City of the End of Things: there is only life where there is change and decay.
And, perhaps the Idiot, the one Eternal of the poem, is Death, the one Eternal of our world.