The poet James Thomson died on the 3rd of June, 1882.
James Thomson was a Scottish poet who was known as the ‘poet of doom’ and may have been the man who coined the phrase, “We’re doomed!” Of course, that expression was made popular, very much later, by Private Fraser of ‘Dad’s Army’ fame. James Thomson wrote under the pen-name ‘Bysshe Vanolis’ or ‘BV’. The pseudonym ‘BV’ was used to distinguish him from another James Thomson; the fellow Scot who wrote ‘Rule Britannia’. Thomson’s short life can be loosely compared to that of Edgar Allan Poe. There are similarities in that Thomson is most remembered for his scenes of horror and, like Poe, he suffered from a melancholy resulting from the early death of a lover, and he also died in middle age as a result of substance abuse.
Thomson’s most famous work is the somberly intense epic, ‘The City of Dreadful Night’, which is very much an expression of bleak pessimism in a de-humanised, uncaring, urban environment. ‘The City of Dreadful Night’ was inspired by Thomson’s own experiences whilst living in London, where he was raised as an orphan in an asylum. It was fuelled by his melancholy and driven by his insomnia as Thomson wandered the fog-bound streets at night, lonely as a shadow. Apart from the fog, London hasn’t changed much.
James Thomson was born in Port-Glasgow, Renfrewshire, on the 23rd of November, 1834. On the death of his mother when he was seven James was sent to the Caledonian Orphan Asylum. Then, in 1850, he went to the model school of the Military Asylum, in Chelsea. From there, he became an assistant army schoolmaster at the garrison in Ballincollig, near Cork, in Ireland. It was whilst there that he encountered the one brief happiness of his life, when he met the armourer’s daughter, who was a girl of exceptional beauty and a cultivated mind. They fell in love. Two years later he received the tragic news of her fatal illness and death; in truth, a blow from which he never recovered. Thereafter, his life was one of gloom and doom, misery and disappointment.
Thomson’s earliest publication was in Tait’s ‘Edinburgh Magazine’ of July, 1858, under the signature ‘Crepusculus’. Later his work appeared in the ‘National Reformer’, including, in 1863, the powerful and sonorous verses of ‘To our Ladies of Death’ and, in 1874, after four years in gestation, his chief work, the sombre and ultra-imaginative ‘City of Dreadful Night’. That can be considered a precursor to both T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ and to some extent, the more recent ‘Lanark’, by another Scot, Alasdair Gray. The landscape of the ‘City’ in Thomson’s poem, which is not identified, appears as a projection of the unconscious mind. Its de-humanised population consists of phantoms and outcasts, such as drunks and tramps who wear “tragic masks of stone.” The only thing offered in this existence is “the certitude of Death.” In Thomson’s imaginary realm, there are no joys or blessings, only the stark reality and grim necessity of living, before the arrival of death brings a blessed oblivion, without fear of waking.
The poem is filled with wonderfully dark images and characters, such as the atheist preacher who brings the news that there is no God…
“The man speaks sooth, alas! The man speaks sooth:
We have no personal life beyond the grave;
There is no God; Fate knows nor wrath nor ruth:
Can I find here the comfort which I crave?”
From 1866, to the end of his life, except for two short trips abroad, Thomson lived in a single room, first in Pimlico and then in Bloomsbury. He became an alchoholic, which was aggravated by his gloomy nature, but perhaps the attacks of delirium tremens helped create his most vivid poetic imagery. In 1869, ‘Fraser’s Magazine’ published his long poem (most of them were long – check out the ‘City of Dreadful Night’), ‘Sunday up the River’, on the advice of Charles Kingsley.
In 1872, Thomson went to America and in the following year he ended up in Spain, for a couple of months, under a commission from the ‘New York World’ as its special correspondent with the ‘Carlists’, during which he saw little real fighting. His best-known book, ‘The City of Dreadful Night, and other Poems’, was published in April, 1880, and at once attracted wide attention. He then produced ‘Vane’s Story, and other Poems’, and ‘Essays and Phantasies’. All of his best work was produced between the years of 1855 and 1875.
According to poetry snobs, Thomson holds such a unique position as a poet that any effort at classification is difficult. He did produce some lighter work, such as ‘Sunday up the River’ and ‘Sunday at Hampstead’, but these are considered “less interesting.” Perhaps, his major poems can be compared to those of Thomas De Quincey, the author of ‘Suspiria de Profundis’, which is a collection of short essays in psychological or prose fantasy. The pessimistic nature of Thomson’s output wasn’t a literary affectation, nor was it assumed, it stemmed from the man and much of his revelations were, like the poem ‘Insomnia’, distinctly biographical.
James Thomson died at University College Hospital, in Gower Street, on the 3rd of June, 1882, and he was buried in unconsecrated ground at Highgate cemetery.
As another example of Thomson’s work, here’s a verse I like from ‘A Polish Insurgent’…
“They do not know us, my Mother!
They know not our love, our hate!
And how we would die with each other,
Embracing proud and elate,
Rather than live apart
In peace with shame in the heart.”