The Works of James Thomson (“B.V.”).

From: Literary Sketches (1888)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Swan Sonnenschein Lowrey & Co. 1888 London

The Works of James Thomson (“B.V.”).1

THE conditions which underlie the appearance of poetic genius are proverbially mysterious and inscrutable. Seldom, however, has Fate indulged in a stranger and more whimsical freak than in assigning one and the same name to two writers of such widely diverse temperaments as the placid, contented, and mildly optimistic poet whose Castle of Indolence still remains the most perfect expression of a life of leisured quietude, and the unhappy pessimist who could write Mater Tenebrarum and the City of Dreadful Night. One cannot but fear that this incongruous identity of name may in future years be a cause of trouble and confusion to a bewildered posterity. It certainly seems a trifle hard on the elder poet, the respectability of whose name has hitherto been beyond question in the most orthodox quarters, that his reputation should now be compromised, if not eclipsed, by the brilliant but erratic genius of his namesake, the youngest member of the poetic brotherhood. Comparisons are odious, but sometimes unavoidable. The Castle of Indolence is indeed a splendid structure, which none but a master-hand could have reared; but hereafter there may tower beside it—for are not the names of the two architects identical?—a City of still more colossal and majestic proportions.

At present, however, there is little danger of any such untoward confusion or comparison, for the simple reason that the genius of the younger James Thomson is still a’most unknown to the mass of English readers. It is true that some first-rate critics have expressed strong interest and admiration for “B.V.’s”2 poems; George Eliot, W. M. Rossetti, George Meredith, and George Saintsbury being among the earliest to recognise the remarkable merits of the City of Dreadful Night; yet, in spite of many favourable notices from competent judges, there has never been any general appreciation of Thomson’s works. That he could ever become a popular poet was of course rendered impossible by the nature of his writings; but it is strange nevertheless that in this, the fourth year since his death, he should still be ignored or underrated in many literary circles where homage is often paid to men of far less distinguished genius.

  James Thomson was pre-eminently a subjective poet; his life is the key to a proper understanding of his writings; and those who read between the lines of his poems and essays will not fail to discover that most of them are more or less autobiographical. An interesting account of Thomson’s life may be found in Mr. Dobell’s Memoir, prefixed to A Voice from the Nile. It is a sad record of a talented and chivalrous spirit struggling in vain against overwhelming misfortunes and afflictions, which were aggravated partly by a constitutional melancholia, probably inherited from his father; partly by the life-sorrow that dated from the sudden death of a beautiful girl to whom he was betrothed; and partly, it must be admitted, by the deplorable intemperance that darkened his later years. There is a striking similarity in the profound sadness of Thomson’s career to some of the incidents in the life of Edgar Poe: the orphaned childhood; the drudgery of an uncongenial profession; the untimely death of one whose image thenceforth could never be banished from the mind or the writings; the poverty and privations of an unsuccessful literary life; the use of stimulants as a desperate escape from the tortures of memory; and, lastly, the sudden death, apart from all friends, in a strange hospital-all this is common to the story of both poets. But Thomson’s melancholy was deeper and more real than that of Poe: in lines such as the following, wherein he sums up the story of his life, there can be no suspicion of any poetic exaggeration for artistic purposes:—

“For there my own good angel took my hand,
And filled my soul with glory of her eyes,
And led me through the love-lit Faerie Land
Which joins our common world to Paradise.
How soon, how soon, God called her from my side,
Back to her own celestial sphere of day I
And ever since she ceased to be my guide,
I reel and stumble on life’s solemn way.
Ah, ever since her eyes withdrew their light,
I wander lost in blackest stormy night.”

  Every reader of Thomson’s poems must have noticed and wondered at the two different tones that are heard there; it seems almost incredible that the glad and exultant strains of A Happy Poet and Sunday up the River can have been written by the author of the City of Dreadful Night. Yet the discrepancy is perhaps more apparent than real; for the fact that Thomson was endowed with keen powers of enjoyment, and had tasted at times some of the sweets of life, only serves to enhance the central and final gloom. It may be said of him, as of Schopenhauer, that “to be on the whole a believer in the misery of life, and yet to be occasionally visited by a vivid sense of its gleaming gladness, is surely the worst of conceivable positions.”3 This was precisely the position in which Thomson’s lot was cast; and there can be no doubt that the general tenor of his writings is strongly and distinctly pessimistic, in spite of occasional intervals of hopefulness or enjoyment.

  It is not, however, as a pessimist, but as a poet that Thomson is destined to be known. I will, therefore, begin by noticing his chief poetical characteristics. Of the three volumes of poetry now before the public, two were published during Thomson’s lifetime, and the third in 1884, two years after his death. But many of the poems had appeared at earlier periods in Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, the National Reformer, and other papers, while the author’s habit of prefixing to each poem the date at which it was composed shows us that some of his writings were kept in hand many years before being published at all; indeed, there was one period of nearly seven years (1875-1881) during which, in despair of obtaining any recognition of his work, he altogether ceased to write poetry. This fulness of deliberation and maturity of workmanship form one of the most salient features in Thomson’s style. He seldom indulges in unpremeditated lyric flights or irregularities of metre, and does not possess that supreme imaginative faculty which can create such poems as the odes of Coleridge or Shelley. His peculiarity consists in the rare combination of an exquisite harmony of tone, and an almost perfect sense of rhythmic melody, with a keen, strong, logical cast of mind. Contradictory as it may seem, his genius was at one and the same time both poetical and mathematical; he is the connecting link between Shelley on the one hand and Browning on the other; and it is curious to observe that certain of his poems-Vane’s Story, for example-have been described by some critics as an echo of Shelley, by others as an echo of Browning. In this respect his position is unique; he successfully combines two mental qualities which are usually found to be antagonistic. I do not know of any other English poet who has been able to express such stern logic of realistic thought in such wonderfully subtle melody of language.

  That Thomson’s poetry has also certain unfortunate mannerisms and blemishes of style will not be denied by his warmest admirers. Of the morbid tone that pervades most of his chief poems I shall have occasion to speak later on: his most conspicuous artistic faults are an excessive proneness to allegorical description, which sometimes involves the meaning in considerable obscurity; and a great inequality in the standard of his writing, which occasionally lapses into mediocrity and commonplace. In some of his poems his habit of coining double words is indulged almost to affectation; thus, in the first few stanzas of Bertram to the Lady Geraldine, we meet with the following: “vision-strange,” “full-credentialled,” “world-filled,” “dove-quick,” “calm-robed,” “dance-ready,” “ethereal-lightly,” “whirl-wanton,” “lightest-tender,” “dim-steadfast,” “drear-barren;” and many other equally strange combinations might be readily added to the list. The complaint made by some critics that Thomson’s muse is addicted to faulty rhymes seems hardly justifiable; at any rate, if he sins in treating column and solemn as rhymes, and in other similar instances, it may be pleaded that he sins in excellent company; though we could wish perhaps that he had not extended the same licence to war and more. It may be here remarked that Thomson’s mind seems to have been impressionable and receptive almost to a fault, for in reading his works we are constantly arrested by a reminiscence of Shelley, or the Brownings, or Blake, or De Quincey, or some other favourite author, though there is certainly no trace of anything like deliberate imitation.

  Thomson’s purely poetic powers, apart from his pessimistic teaching, may be studied in his lyric pieces and translations from Heine, or such narrative and artistic poems as Weddah and Om-El Bonain and The Naked Goddess. The former of these is a tragic story of Oriental love, told in eight-lined stanzas of wonderful beauty and vigour. Some of the more pathetic passages in this poem recall Keats’s Isabella; but the movement, as a rule, is more rapid; the end is kept steadily in view throughout, and there is little ornament or digression. It would be impossible to do justice to Weddah and Om-El Bonain by the quotation of any special stanzas; for its great merit consists in the consummate skill with which the different parts are welded together and the thread of the story preserved. It is a remarkable poem, and sufficient in itself to win a lasting reputation for its author: some readers will perhaps like it all the better because it is free from all elements of a personal and subjective nature. Shorter, and less ambitious in its scope, yet scarcely less delightful, is The Naked Goddess, a splendid allegory descriptive of the untameable wildness of the Goddess of Nature, whom the votaries of modern civilisation foolishly attempt to clothe. Vainly do the high-priest and the arch-sage, as the spokesmen of the assembled citizens, who have flocked out in crowds at the news of the shining apparition, urge upon the haughty goddess the desirability of conforming to the laws of society and assuming the religious or philosophic gown. She dismisses them with contempt, and asks that some child may be sent to her. Then follows a passage very suggestive of Blake’s style:—

“So two little children went,
Lingering up the green ascent,
Hand in hand, but grew the while
Bolder in her gentle smile.
‘Tell me, darlings, now,’ said she,
‘What they want to say to me.’
Boy and girl then, nothing loth,
Sometimes one and sometimes both,
Prattled to her sitting there
Fondling with their soft young hair.
‘Dear kind lady, do you stay
Here with always holiday?
Do you sleep among the trees?
People want you, if you please,
To put on your dress and come
With us to the City home.’”

  The Naked Goddess is the best of Thomson’s artistic poems; but there are several others on general subjects which deserve high praise, especially In the Room, a dramatic study full of weird tragic force, and A Voice from the Nile, one of the few specimens of Thomson’s blank verse. The quiet dignity .and latent strength of the latter poem are well suited to the subject; in reading these slow and stately lines we seem to breathe the same calm air as in Landor’s Gebir, and to hear the majestic river “lapsing along,” as in Leigh Hunt’s famous sonnet. Unmistakable evidences of true poetic genius may also be found in many of Thomson’s songs and short poems, among which I would particularly mention the lines on William Blake, A Requiem, E. B. B.— memorial verses on the death of Mrs. Browning, and the two songs commencing The fire that filled my heart of old and The nightingale was not yet heard. In writing of Mrs. Browning, Thomson seems to have unconsciously caught an inspiration from the peculiar style of the poetess, as in the lines:—

“Italy, you hold in trust
Very sacred English dust.”

and the same extraordinary similarity of tone may be observed in the verses on Blake, which are apparently conceived in the very spirit of Blake himself. The translations from Heine, who, next to Shelley, was Thomson’s favourite author, have been approved by the best critics as admirable attempts in a kind of writing where complete success can scarcely be regarded as possible.

  But it is now time to turn to those more characteristic poems in which Thomson gives free play not only to his poetic genius but to his own feelings and emotions. It may be convenient to consider these under two heads: first, those which breathe a tone of hopefulness, or at any rate of pensive resignation; and, secondly, those of a decidedly gloomy and pessimistic cast. It will be found by those readers who care to examine the dates of the poems that the former belong mainly, though not exclusively, to the earlier portion of his life, and the latter rather to the dreary period of his London career.

  The two Idylls of Cockaigne, Sunday at Hampstead, and Sunday up the River, are perhaps the best known of Thomson’s writings next to the City of Dreadful Night. There is a rare charm in the complete abandon of these poems and their entire disregard of the social bugbear of respectability. They are conceived in a spirit of boisterous and irrepressible merriment, yet there is throughout an undertone or very true and deep feeling which redeems them from any taint of coarseness or vulgarity. Sunday up the River is decidedly the finer of the two, being, indeed, a rich mine of lyric poetry of a very high order, and the best contribution made for a very long time to the literature of the Thames. Less exuberant in tone than these two idylls, but nevertheless contrasting strangely with the usual despondency of Thomson’s writings, are A Happy Poet and The Lord of the Castle of Indolence, written in 1859. The former describes in lines of singular beauty the duties and functions of the ideal poet, while the latter depicts the character of one of those true-born monarchs, those “right royal kings,”

“Whom all the laws of Life conspire to love and bless.”

  In reading The Lord of the Castle of Indolence it is difficult to feel sure whether the writer is studying a purely ideal character, or glancing at the capabilities of his own youth, or, as the title of the poem seems to indicate, referring to his own namesake and predecessor in the poetic art “Jamie Thomson, of most peaceful and blessed memory,” as he calls him elsewhere. But however this may be, these two poems are certainly remarkable as coming from the pen of a confirmed pessimist. What could be more optimistic than the following stanzas from The Lord of the Castle of Indolence?

“While others fumed and schemed and toiled in vain
To mould the world according to their mood,
He did by might of perfect faith refrain
From any part in such disturbance rude.
The world, he said, indeed is very good,
Its Maker surely wiser far than we;
Feed soul and flesh upon its bounteous food,
Nor fret because of ill; All-good is He,
And worketh not in years but in eternity.”

  In the same catholic spirit he writes of the duties of A Happy Poet:—

“For I must sing: of mountains, deserts, seas,
Of rivers ever flowing, ever flowing;
Of beasts and birds, of grass and flowers and trees
For ever fading and for ever growing;
Of calm and storm, of night and eve and noon,
Of boundless space, and sun and stars and moon,
And most supremely of my human kin;
Their thoughts and deeds, their valours and their f Pars,
Their griefs and joys, their virtue and their sin,
Their feasts and wars, their cradles and their birth,
Their temples, prisons; homes, and ships and marts,
The subtlest windings of their brains and hearts.”

  But, alas! all poets are not happy poets; and as the years roll on and the troubles of life increase, the subjects of song are apt to become limited, as in James Thomson’s case, to the darker study of self. There is a noticeable stanza elsewhere in A Happy Poet, in which this seems to be foreseen:—

“Is it not strange? I could more amply tell
Such woes of men as I discern or dream,
Than this great happiness I know so well,
Which is in truth profounder than they seem;
And which abides for ever pure and deep,
Beneath all dreams of wakefulness and sleep.”

  We next come to a group of poems which are all inspired to some extent by the same idea—a soft and hallowed reminiscence of the lost love who was ever present to Thomson’s mind. Bertram to the Lady Geraldine is a poetic rhapsody, passionately conceived, and passionately executed, and worthy to be placed beside Mrs. Browning’s wonderful poem, to which it is akin in something more than name. The Fadeless Bower, on the other hand, is more distinctly narrative and autobiographical, perhaps the tenderest and most pathetic of all Thomson’s writings. Very simple yet very beautiful are the words in which he recalls that “vision of the Long ago,” “the dear old bower,” where he reached the crowning point of his life.

“I have this moment told my love;
Kneeling, I clasp her hands in mine:
She does not speak, she does not move;
The silent answer is divine.
The flood of rapture swells till breath
Is almost tranced in deathless death.
The simple folds of white invest
Her noble form, as purest snow
Some far and lovely mountain-crest,
Faint-flushed with all the dawn’s first glow;
Alone, resplendent, lifted high
Into the clear vast breathless sky.”

  Vane’s Story, which gives its name to the second volume of poems, is also a record of a vision of the same lost love, but told in a more fantastic and imaginative style. It does not seem to have left a very favourable impression on the mind of most of its critics, some of whom have not unnaturally taken offence at the religious speculations which have rather unnecessarily been imported into the poem, while others have been puzzled by the odd mixture of the supernatural and commonplace, which often remind the reader of Mr. Browning’s Christmas Eve and Easter Day. Yet Vane’s Story contains passages of extraordinary beauty; where, for instance, since the days of Shelley, could we discern anything more perfectly melodious than this?—

“And thou shalt kneel and make thy prayer,
A childish prayer for simple boon;
That soon and soon and very soon
Our lady of Oblivious Death
May come and hush my painful breath
And bear me thorough Lethe-stream,
Sleeping sweet sleep without a dream;
And bring you also from that sphere
Where you grow sad without me, Dear;
And bear us to her deepest cave
Under the Sea without a wave,
Where the eternal shadows brood
In the Eternal Solitude.
Stirring never, breathing never,
Silent for ever and for ever;
And side by side, and face to face,
And linked as in a death-embrace,
Leave us absorbing thus the balm
Of most divinely perfect calm.”

  Equally beautiful is the allegory of the fountain, apparently typical of Thomson’s own life, and comparable in many ways with Shelley’s Sensitive Plant, by which it seems to have been suggested. Vane’s Story is especially interesting as throwing much light on the peculiar feelings and idiosyncrasies of its author; it is, as Mr. Dobell remarks, “when rightly read, as candid and complete an autobiography as was ever written,” for it shows Thomson in the familiar mood in which he was known to his friends. But it does not carry us into that last and saddest period of his life, when he seems to have lost even those glimpses of consolatory hope, shadowy and uncertain from the first, of meeting his betrothed in some future existence. The transition to this final phase of thought and feeling may be best understood by reference to his essay, entitled A Lady of Sorrow, which is, in fact, the prose counterpart of The City of Dreadful Night. We find there a description of three successive stages of grief, which we cannot doubt to be in some measure a record of Thomson’s own experiences. First comes the “Lady of Sorrow,” typical of a pure and hallowed grief, “the image in beatitude of her who died so young;” secondly, “the Siren,” the period of less blameless sorrow, when the “ignoble heart found ignobler companionship,” being no longer worthy “to be comforted with angelic communion;” and last, “the Shadow,” the spirit of total gloom; “never more an Angel, seldom more a Siren, but now a formless Shadow, pervading my soul as the darkness of night pervades the air.” In this dreary region of desolation and despair the poet can find only one consolatory thought, and that is the prospect of death, that “Lady of Oblivion” whom he invokes with such solemnity and earnestness in his singularly beautiful poem To our Ladies of Death.

“O sweetest Sister, and sole Patron Saint
Of all the humble eremites who flee
From out life’s crowded tumult, stunned and faint,
To seek a stern and lone tranquillity
In Libyan wastes of time: my hopeless life.
With famished yearning craveth rest from strife;
Therefore, thou Restful One, I call on Thee!
Take me and lull me into perfect sleep;
Down, down, far-hidden in thy duskiest cave;
While all the clamorous years above me sweep
Unheard, or like the voice of seas that rave
On far-off coasts, but murmuring o’er my trance
A dim vast monotone, that shall enhance
The restful rapture of the inviolate grave.”

  There are several minor poems that prefigure the advent of The City of Dreadful Night. Of these, the earliest is The Doom of a City, written in 1857, which contains several fine passages, but fails somewhat in its general effect, through being too discursive and allegorical. Mater Tenebrarum (1859) is one of the saddest and bitterest of all Thomson’s outbusts of grief, a cry of anguish from a soul torn asunder between hope and despair, at one moment almost venturing to believe in its own immortality, and then again relapsing to the creed of “a blind and stony doom.” It is almost a relief to turn from this poem to The City of Dreadful Night, in which we feel at once that we have reached Thomson’s masterpiece, the work by which, more than any other, he will be judged by posterity. We here see the poetry of pessimism in its most attractive garb; for the reasoning which inspires the poem, sad though it be, is calm and consistent throughout, and is expressed in language of consummate grace and tenderness. The City of Dreadful Night is an allegorical description of the dark side of human life, the “sad fraternity “ who inhabit the city being those whose hope and faith is dead, since they have ventured to stand face to face with the stern facts of existence. How they have arrived there they cannot themselves determine, but, once being citizens, they must “ dree their weird “ to the bitter end; for their case is more desperate than that of Bunyan’s pilgrims who were taken captives by Giant Despair, there being no “Key of Promise” which can open the gates of this “dolent city.” The imagery under which the city is depicted was obviously suggested by the poet’s reminiscences of his own London life, and the best clue to a right understanding of the whole poem will be found in the third part of A Lady of Sorrow, the prose essay already mentioned. “And I wandered about the city,” he there writes, “the vast Metropolis which was become as a vast Necropolis. Desolate indeed I was, although ever- and anon, here and therein wan haggard faces, in wrinkled brows, in thin compressed lips, in drooping frames, in tremulous gestures, in glassy hopeless eyes, I detected the tokens of brotherhood, I recognised my brethren, in the great Freemasonry of Sorrow.” It is to these brethren, as he tells us in the Proem, that the writer appeals.

“Yes, here and there some weary wanderer
In that same city of tremendous night
Will understand the speech, and feel a stir
Of fellowship in all-disastrous fight;
I suffer mute and lonely, yet another
Uplifts his voice to let me know a brother
Travels the same wild paths though out of sight.”

  The City of Dreadful Night is arranged in a series of short cantos where two metres are used alternately, the first consisting of seven-lined stanzas, of which the fifth and sixth lines always end in a dissyllable, as in the example just quoted; the second consisting of stanzas of six lines, broken from time to time by the interposition, for dramatic purposes, of other metres. The seven-lined stanzas, into which no variation is introduced, are devoted to describing the appearance of the city and moralising on the darker mysteries of its life. The dense atmosphere, the baleful glooms dimly lit by the struggling lamps, the somber mansions looming through the murky air, the dreary streets where the inhabitants wander like ghosts; where the eye learns a new power of vision, and the accustomed ear catches muffled throbs of suffering, or the jar of phantom wheels-all this is described with reality of lurid word-painting, unequalled since the time of Coleridge and De Quincey. The “English opium-eater” has himself recorded that the chief “virtue” of opium lies in “the faculty of mental vision, the increased power of dealing with the shadowy and the dark.” This power was undoubtedly possessed in an eminent degree by the author of The City of Dreadful Night, though it may be that it was acquired by the use of some less romantic but not less potent drug than that which De Quincey has immortalised. There is a dreadful and vivid reality about Thomson’s dream-pictures, which makes it difficult to suspect him for a moment of cultivating a taste for this “night-side of human nature” by a voluptuous indulgence in stimulants; a charge which Coleridge advanced against De Quincey, and which De Quincey angrily retorts.4 However that may be, there can be no question about the poetic excellence of Thomson’s work. Here is an instance of a short canto full of weird imagery which suggests still more than it describes:—

“It is full strange to him who hears and feels,
When wandering there in some deserted street,
The booming and the jar of ponderous wheels,
The trampling clash of heavy ironshod feet:
Who in this Venice of the Black Sea rideth?
Who in this city of the stars abideth
To buy or sell as those in daylight sweet?

The rolling thunder seems to fill the sky
As it comes on; the horses snort and strain,
The harness jingles, as it passes by;
The hugeness of an overburthened wain:
A man sits nodding on the shaft or trudges
Three-parts asleep beside his fellow-drudges;
And so it rolls into the night again.

What merchandise? Whence, whither, and for whom?
Perchance it is a Fate-appointed hearse,
Bearing away to some mysterious tomb
Or Limbo of the scornful universe
The joy, the peace, the life-hope, the abortions
Of all things good which should have been our portions
But have been strangled by that City’s curse.”

  The alternate cantos of six-lined stanzas are employed for the dramatic introduction of certain scenes and characters, which serve to illustrate and enforce the hopeless condition of the wanderers in the city. One citizen, “shadow-like and frail,” is described as perpetually revisiting the spots which had witnessed successively the death of Faith, of Love, of Hope. Another narrates how he “strode on austere” through a desert filled with phantom shapes and unimaginable horrors. A third has reached the welcome portal of death, where those who enter must leave all hope behind, but, alas! having no hope to leave, he is rejected until he can pay the fated toll. In another scene a bereaved lover kneels beside the body of his mistress, which lies in state in a gloomy mausoleum. Elsewhere, in a mighty cathedral, a preacher, with “voice of solemn stress,” urges on his hearers the lesson that “the grave’s most holy peace” is the sure consolation for the ills of existence; but even this comfort is rejected as a mockery by “a vehement voice” which rises from the northern aisle and narrates the brief story of a blank and inconsolable life. In these and other similar scenes the same moral, though viewed from different standpoints, is again and again stated and reiterated: life is a cheat and delusion, and the only comfort—if comfort it be—is the certainty of death. Not even Keats could have described the blissfulness of “easeful death” with more softness of rhyme and unfeigned yearning of heart than Thomson has done in passage after passage of The City of Dreadful Night. Even suicide is several times referred to as a justifiable and praiseworthy escape from intolerable misery; one of the most splendid cantos in the poem being that which describes the “River of the Suicides,” where night by night some wanderer finds relief:—

They perish from their suffering surely thus,
For none beholding them attempts to save,
The while each thinks how soon, solicitous,
He may seek refuge in the self-same wave;
Some hour when tired of ever-vain endurance
Impatience will forerun the sweet assurance
Of perfect peace eventual in the grave.

  The closing canto is devoted to a wonderfully vivid description of Albert Durer’s “Melencolia,” here identified with the goddess whose bronze image presides over the city.

  The most noticeable of Thomson’s latest poems are placed together at the beginning of the volume entitled A Voice from the Nile. Several of these are very good, especially Richard Forest’s Midsummer Night, He heard her Sing, and Insomnia. The last-mentioned is in many ways akin to, The City of Dreadful Night, but, if possible, is still more painful and harrowing. It narrates, with terrible vividness and all that sombre imagery of which Thomson was so great a master, the horrors of the sleepless night, every hour of which is as a deep ravine which must be crossed from ridge to ridge by the staggering, stumbling, foot-sore sufferer. This poem was written in March 1882. Three months afterwards the poet died.

  To attempt to estimate Thomson’s future place among English writers would be a hopeless and unprofitable task. That he was in the truest sense a great poet will not, I think, be denied by those who give his poems the attention they deserve, and who are not prejudiced against him at the outset, on account of his heterodox teaching and unpopular connections. Time is needed to remove these and similar obstacles, which at present bar the way to a right understanding and appreciation of his genius. The thanks of all those who have become acquainted with these wonderful poems are due to Thomson’s friend and biographer, Mr. Dobell, by whose exertions the publication of the three volumes was fortunately secured, and who will do yet another service to English literature if he can hereafter arrange for the production of a complete edition of Thomson’s writings.

  As a prose writer Thomson is at present almost unknown. Yet ample evidence of his power may be gathered from every page of the two volumes already published,5 and it is understood that there are also many uncollected articles of great merit. His style is admirably clear and forcible, at times reminding one strongly of De Quincey, as when he gives free play to his imaginative powers in A Lady of Sorrow, of which I have already spoken, The Fair of St. Sylvester, In our Forest of the Past, and other essays. Perhaps the best of all his prose writings are the articles on Open Secret Societies, and Indolence, which, though inspired by sincere feeling and conviction, are pervaded by a subtle and lambent humour which lend them a peculiar charm. In satire also Thomson could wield a keen and trenchant pen, as may readily be seen by a study of his inimitable essay on The Speedy Extinction of Evil and Misery, a splendid piece of ironical writing, something in the style of Swift and of which even Swift himself might have been proud. In the collection of articles reprinted after Thomson’s death by the Progressive Publishing Company, under the title of Satires and Profanities, there are many other instances of rare satirical power; but the cause in which the satirist’s genius was enlisted is not one which would commend itself to the majority of readers. Of Thomson’s abilities as a literary critic we find several examples in Essays and Phantasies, especially his Evening with Spenser and Note on Forster’s Life of Swift, in the latter of which he severely censures Lord Macaulay for his exaggerated and distorted portrait of the famous Dean. “This is really very fine,” he exclaims, “in the way of the dreadful, my rhetorical lord: but if we could only have, to hang beside it, Swift’s portrait of you!” Among contemporary prose writers Thomson had a profound admiration for Ruskin, George Eliot, and George Meredith; while he regarded Browning as the greatest of living English poets. He speaks in depreciating terms of the Poet Laureate’s “hysterics and commonplace philosophy;” and words can hardly express his contempt for Longfellow, the demi-god of popular mediocrity. “The sublime Excelsior!” he says, “is very popular at present, but I doubt whether any man (soft curates, Sunday-school teachers, and tea-meeting muffs, who think beer and tobacco certain perdition, are of course not included) ever read the adventures of its lofty hero without ejaculating: The ineffable ass! The infernal idiot! What possible good could he do himself, or anybody else, by planting that banner with the very strange device on the top of that mountain? Well, he perished, and I trust that the coroner’s jury found a verdict of, Serve him right.”

  One cannot help being struck by the reflection that the recognition of Thomson’s literary genius was absurdly inadequate (in the case of his prose, perhaps, even more than his poetry) to the actual merits of the writings. The legend of the god Apollo doing menial service for the mortal Admetus in this instance received a fresh and signal illustration. For many years he contributed almost exclusively to the The National Reformer, and when that engagement failed him the author of The City of Dreadful Night thankfully accepted the chance of transferring his services to Cope’s Tobacco Plant, a periodical devoted to advertising the business of a well-known Liverpool firm. In some ways, however, this connection proved a very useful one to Thomson; for as he could not, or would not, write to order, he was glad of a medium through which he could publish his writings without restraint. This he found in Cope’s Tobacco Plant, in which he accordingly published a number of reviews of new books, with essays on Rabelais, Ben Jonson, Walt Whitman, Baudelaire, Flaubert, and other authors.

  When we come to sum up the leading points of Thomson’s life and character, we are naturally met by the consideration how far his morbid despondency, which we call pessimism, was due to his misfortunes, and how far to physical causes. Coleridge, in his ode on Dejection, to which, by-the-bye, many of Thomson’s poems bear a strong resemblance, gives it as his opinion that outward forms and circumstances can in no way affect “the passion and the life whose fountains are within.” Sydney Smith, too, has somewhere remarked, in his inimitably matter-of-fact fashion, that morbid melancholy is usually the result of a bad digestion, and may be best cured by a suitable dose of medicine. The disease in Thomson’s case hardly admitted of so expeditious a remedy. It is the opinion of one of his biographers that Thomson inherited a constitutional melancholia, and that his early bereavement was “not the cause of his life-long misery, but merely the peg on which he hung his raiment of sorrow.”6 Mr. Dobell, however, is inclined to believe that “no other affliction could have affected him as he was affected by this.” One would probably be safe in concluding that the truth lies somewhere between these two theories, and that Thomson’s pessimistic bent of mind was brought about partly by an inherited disposition to melancholia, and partly by the crushing misfortune of his early life. It must not be supposed, however, that, pessimist as he was, he was accustomed to make a profession and parade of his sufferings: on the contrary, all accounts agree in representing him as a singularly cheerful companion, and one of the most brilliant of talkers. Neither did his pessimism take a cynical and misanthropic turn, as in the case of Schopenhauer, who regarded, or affected to regard, his fellow-creatures and fellow-sufferers (synonymous terms, as he thought) with aversion and dislike. Thomson’s disposition, on the other hand, was always benevolent and kindly, in which respect he resembles Shelley, for whom he again and again expresses the warmest feelings of reverence and admiration,7 and to whom, as “the poet of poets and purest of men,” Vane’s Story, with its accompanying poems, is dedicated. But, unfortunately, he could not share in the more hopeful side of Shelley’s philosophy, his Proposals for the Speedy Extinction of Evil and Misery being a proof of his total lack of belief in the perfectibility of mankind and much else that Shelley held dear. The influence of Leopardi, to whom he appropriately dedicated The City of Dreadful Night, was a strong counter-attraction in the direction of pessimism, from which nothing would have been more likely to rescue him than his love for Shelley, who, in spite of his “wail for the world’s wrong,” was anything rather than a pessimist. So while Shelley’s philanthropy took the form of a life-protest against injustice and tyranny. Thomson’s message of glad tidings to his fellow-sufferers is little more than a gospel of despair.

  Yet, after all, Thomson was wen aware that in thus laying stress on the gloomy aspects of existence he was stating less the absolute fact than his own opinion, a half-view true as far as it went, yet by no means the complete truth. In the introductory note to A Lady of Sorrow he speaks of himself under the title of “my friend Vane,” and volunteers a criticism of his own pessimistic philosophy. “That this composition,” he says, “is true in relation to the author that it is genuine, I have no doubt, for the poor fell ow had large gifts for being unhappy. But is it true in relation to the world and general life? I think true, but not the whole truth. There is truth of winter and black night, there is truth of summer and dazzling noonday. On the one side of the great medal are stamped the glory and triumph of life, on the other side are stamped the glory and triumph of death; but which is the obverse and which the reverse none of us surely knows.” One could hardly desire a better piece of insight and self-criticism than this. We may well regret that Thomson’s genius was not of wide enough scope to depict both aspects of life; but we cannot deny that he has painted “the glory and triumph of death” as it has seldom been painted before. There is a spirituality of tone pervading even his most desponding poems which at once lifts him from the class of ordinary materialists; while, side by side with the scathing satire which he launched at the orthodox theology, there are many indications in his writings of deep tenderness and sympathy with true religious feeling.8

  Thomson was a firm democrat and revolutionist, as may be seen from such poems as L’Ancien Régime, A Polish Insurgent, Garibaldi Revisiting England, and Despotism tempered by Dynamite. His compassion for all victims of social injustice was also very keen, and finds expression in the verses on Low Life, and the essay entitled In Our Forest of the Past. He took a gloomy view, however, of most kinds of philanthropic enterprises and endeavours to redress the wrongs of society, being of opinion that “all proselytism is useless and absurd.” He several times inveighs against the restlessness of the present age. “In our time and country we have a plague of busy-bodyism, certainly more annoying and perhaps more noxious than the plague of idleness. One comes across many earnest and energetic characters who are no longer men but simple machines for working out their ‘missions.’”9 How far this feeling of Thomson’s was due to his pessimistic creed, which, like fatalism, must tend to some extent to paralyse action, we need not pause to inquire, but it should in justice be noted that the “indolence” of which he speaks with approbation in several of his essays is very far from meaning a culpable neglect of duty, but is simply an equivalent for that philosophic love of leisure the value of which is too apt to be forgotten in the excitement of a busy world.

  What, then, will be the final impression left on our minds by the study of James Thomson’s character and writings? That, I think, will depend mainly on the reader’s individual bias of thought, and will vary accordingly. Some will see the cause of Thomson’s errors and misery in his agnostic philosophy, which cut him off from the hopes and consolation of religious faith. Others will deplore the moral weakness which could allow a whole life to be blighted on account of an early sorrow, and will point to cases where a similar affliction has not only been borne with resignation but has even stimulated heroic service in the cause of mankind. Such criticism is natural and inevitable; yet it can scarcely be accepted as satisfactory or conclusive, for a character such as Thomson’s is too complex and many-sided to be thus summarily estimated. That he erred grievously in the excesses of his later years is unfortunately undeniable; yet it may be, that if we could realise the full history of his life, and the many difficulties under which he laboured, we should feel impelled to express pity rather than blame. For my part, I should find it impossible to regret that he followed to the last that line of thought which his own conscience told him was the true one, although it could not lead him to the hopes which his heart desired; or that he faithfully cherished the memory of his early love, even at the cost of a life-long unhappiness. There are plenty of men in the world who have philosophy enough to enable them to forget such bereavements; it is refreshing now and again to meet a man of a more passionate and constant temperament. Whatever his faults may have been, it seems that Thomson’s character was one that endeared him to all his acquaintances; all alike bear testimony to the gentleness and chivalry of his nature, and to the extraordinary charm of his manner and conversation. Very striking and very pathetic is the account of his personal appearance, as given by one who knew him.10 “He looked like a veteran scarred in the fierce affrays of life’s war, and worn by the strain of forced marches . . . . You could see the shadow that ‘tremendous fate’ had cast over that naturally buoyant nature. It had eaten great furrows into his broad brow, and cut tear-tracks downward, from his wistful eyes, so plaintive and brimful of unspeakable tenderness as they opened wide when in serious talk.” Such was James Thomson, the author of The City of Dreadful Night, a poet who, in spite of his present obscurity, is perhaps destined some day to take a high place in English literature. He lies buried in a humble grave in Highgate Cemetery; and we may speak of him, in conclusion, in the words of his own Requiem:—

Thou hast lived in pain and woe,
Thou hast lived in grief and fear;
Now thine heart can dread no blow,
Now thine eye can shed no tear:
Storms round us shall beat and rave;
Thou art sheltered in the grave.

1 The City of Dreadful Night, and other poems, 1880. Vane’s Story, and other poems, 1881. Essays and Phantasies, 1881. A Voice from the Nile, and other poems. With a memoir, by Bertram Dobell, 1884. (Messrs. Reeves & Turner.) Satires and Profanities, 1884. (Progressive Publishing Company.) Shelley, a poem, with other writings relating to Shelley. (Printed for private circulation, 1884.)
2 Bysshe Vanolis, a nom de plume, said to have been adopted in memory of Shelley and Novalis.
3 Sully’s Pessimism, p. 81.
4 “Ay, indeed! Where did he learn that?” . . . Coleridge began in rheumatic pains. What then? This is no proof that he did not end in voluptuousness.”—De Quincey, xi. 109.
5 Essays and Phantasies, 1881. Satires and Profanities, 1884.
6 Vide Mr. Foote’s Preface to Satires and Profanities.
7 Vide especially the splendid poem on Shelley, by far the noblest of the many tributes offered to Shelley’s memory by later writers.
8 Vide the Sonnet on A Recusant, and Open Secret Societies, pp. 200-203.
9 Indolence—A Moral Essay, p. 160.
10 Essay in Secular Review, by Mr. Flaws.

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