1834 - 1882
Born in Port Glasgow in 1834, James Thomson was the son of a merchant seaman who suffered a paralytic stroke in 1840. His sister died from the measles caught from Thomson when a small child and his mother died two years after they moved to London. Thomson was then sent to the Royal Caledonian Asylum for the children of Scottish servicemen where he was educated. His education continued at the Royal Military Asylum in Chelsea and from there he joined the army as a schoolmaster. When he was posted to Ireland, he met Charles Bradlaugh, the owner and editor of the National Reformer, which Thomson would soon contribute to. After he was expelled from the army for his incessant sessions of drinking, he returned to London and began his career in journalism and writing. For a short time he was a war correspondent in Spain for The Secularist until the lack of newsworthy material meant he was recalled home.
Thomson wrote under the pseudonym ‘B.V.’ (Bysshe Vanolis) out of his respect and admiration for Shelley and the German romantic writer Novalis. Writing for the National Reformer, Thomson translated Leopardi and Heine, as well as contributing his own poetry. His major work, The City of the Dreadful Night, was first published in instalments in the National Reformer in 1874 and in book form in 1880. It received some critical praise from George Eliot and George Meredith, and Herman Melville described it as ‘a modern Book of Job’, but generally, reviewers found its strong strand of atheism too pessimistic.
Later writings included Essays and Phantasies (1881) and Satires and Profanities (1884) but it was The City of Dreadful Night which was to be his most important and lasting work. Thomson is unique in his representation of the alienation of the individual and the isolation caused by loss of faith in industrial society.
The addiction to alcohol that had plagued Thomson all his life finally sent him to hospital where he died of an internal haemorrhage, homeless and in poverty in 1882. It is only posthumously that Thomson has been recognised as one of the most important and rebellious voices in the nineteenth century.
The City of Dreadful Night is a precursor to both T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and Alasdair Gray’s Lanark (1981). The city appears as a projection of the unconscious mind, a mental landscape. It is not to be identified as any specific city and even the past is a void described as ‘great ruins of unremembered past.’ The de-humanised society which populates the city 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’. The narrator, who is our guide (perhaps a projection of Thomson), is both an inhabitant familiar with the city’s sufferings and yet a critical observer.
The poem is structured in twenty-one sections in which the even-numbered sections are written in present tense, while the narrator is within the city, contrasting to the odd-numbered sections which are written as past tense accounts of the narrator’s visit to the city. The journey is circular with the last stanza recalling the first, indicating the eternal journey which will continue for the wanderer long after the poem has ended. He is trapped in a place which can never move forward, like the symbolic broken clock without any hands.
The wanderer overhears a conversation of a man who describes his attempt to enter Hell. The option of a ‘positive eternity of pain’ is preferable to the City’s ‘insufferable inane’. But, the man is refused at Hell’s gate, which bears Dante’s aphorism ‘Leave hope behind all ye who enter here’, because he has no hope left to pay the toll. He watches as the other lost souls place the last of their hope into the inverted Pandora’s Box and crawl into Hell. Thus he must exist in tortuous purgatory for he has neither enough hope to reach Heaven, nor little enough to make the sacrifice to Hell.
There is no divine inspiration, no blessings or curses in this land, only the necessity of living. People must endure life until death finally brings a blessed oblivion, without fear of waking. The poem is filled with blasphemous images such as the atheist preacher who brings the news that there is no God. This is followed by the invocation of the ultimate sin of suicide: ‘End it when you will’.
In a poem filled with paradoxes, the final equivocation is that despite the despair of the poem and its negative vision, the poem is still, in its own way, a celebration of the imagination. Regardless of a world in which faith, hope and love are dead, the beautiful images and craftsmanship of the poem linger. The poem makes a claim for itself as a testimony to idealism and creative ability, and ultimately it is this which resonates and transcends ultimate despair.
Some of Thomson’s other poetry shares strong similarities in theme and outlook to The City. ‘A Lady of Sorrow’ depicts a vast and desolate city, filled with imagery of death. The image of a young girl who has died appears at other times in Thomson’s work, perhaps drawing from the death of Thomson’s own sister. ‘The Doom of a City’ written in 1857 was a precursor to the speculative thought found in The City. It provides a vision of a city of the dead whose inhabitants are petrified and whose sea is frozen. ‘Insomnia’ is a remarkable attempt to convey a state of mind through imagery and physical action as the speaker wanders around a city in a state between wakefulness and sleep for a night. Elements from all three of these poems are found in The City and each build on the unholy trinity of ‘Dead Hope, Dead Love and Dead Faith’.
Other poems such ‘Sunday up the River’ and ‘Sunday at Hampstead’ celebrate picnics and other such relaxing pursuits. They are a sharp contrast to poetry such as The City but are equally representative of Thomson’s work. This is a fact that is often overlooked in the dominant depiction of Thomson as gloomy and depressed. These poems display a sense of satisfaction in the simple pleasures of life such as a pipe and a book. It is perhaps reflective of their content that they were published when many other of the poems were rejected.
City of Dreadful Night (1880)
Essays and phantasies (1881)
A Voice from the Nile (1884)
Shelley, a poem (1885)
Tom Leonard, Places of the Mind: The Life and Works of James Thomson (1993)