1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Thomson, James (poet, 1834-1882)

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THOMSON, JAMES (1834-1882), British poet, best known by his signature "B.V.", was born at Port-Glasgow, in Renfrewshire, on the 23rd of November 1834, the eldest child of a mate in the merchant shipping service. His mother was a deeply religious woman of the Irvingite sect. On her death, James, then in his seventh year, was procured admission into the Caledonian Orphan Asylum. In 1850 he entered the model school of the Military Asylum, Chelsea, from which he went out into the world as an assistant army schoolmaster. At the garrison at Ballincollig, near Cork, he encountered the one brief happiness of his life: he fell passionately in love with, and was in turn as ardently loved by, the daughter of the armourer-sergeant of a regiment in the garrison, a girl of very exceptional beauty and cultivated mind. Two years later he suddenly received news of her fatal illness and death. The blow prostrated him in mind and body. Henceforth his life was one of gloom, disappointment, misery and poverty, rarely alleviated by episodes of somewhat brighter fortune. While in Ireland he had made the acquaintance of Charles Bradlaugh, then a soldier stationed at Ballincollig, and it was under his auspices (as editor of the London Investigator) that Thomson first appealed to the public as an author, though actually his earliest publication was in Tait's Edinburgh Magazine for July 1858, under the signature "Crepusculus." In 1860 was established the paper with which Bradlaugh was so long identified, the National Reformer, and it was here, among other productions by James Thomson, that appeared (1863) the powerful and sonorous verses "To our Ladies of Death," and (1874) his chief work, the sombre and imaginative City of Dreadful Night. In October 1862 Thomson was dismissed the army, in company with other teachers, for some slight breach of discipline. Through Bradlaugh, with whom for some subsequent years he lived, he gained employment as a solicitor's clerk. From 1866 to the end of his life, except for two short absences from England, Thomson lived in a single room, first in Pimlico and then in Bloomsbury. He contracted habits of intemperance, aggravated by his pessimistic turn of mind to dipsomania, which made a successful career impossible for him. In IS6Q he enjoyed what has been described as his "only reputable appearance in respectable literary society," in the acceptance of his long poem, "Sunday up the River," for Fraser's Magazine, on the advice, it is said, of Charles Kingsley. In 1872 Thomson went to the western states of America, as the agent of the shareholders in what he ascertained to be a fraudulent silver mine; and the following year he received a commission from the New York World to go to Spain as its special correspondent with the Carlists. During the two months of his stay in that distracted country he saw little real fighting, and was himself prostrated by a sunstroke. On his return to England he continued to write in the Secularist and the National Reformer, under the initials "B.V."[1] In 1875 he severed his connexion with the National Reformer, owing to a disagreement with its editor; henceforth his chief source of income (1875-1881) was from the monthly periodical known as Cope's Tobacco Plant. Chiefly through the exertions of his friend and admirer, Bertram Dobell, Thomson's best-known book, The City of Dreadful Night, and other Poems, was published in April 1880, and at once attracted wide attention; it was succeeded in the autumn by Vane's Story, and other Poems, and in the following year by Essays and Phantasies. All his best work was produced between 1855 and 1875 ("The Doom of a City," 1857; "Our Ladies of Death," 1861; Weddah and Om-el-Bonain; "The Naked Goddess," 1866-1867; The City of Dreadful Night, 1870-1874). He died at University College Hospital, in Gower Street, on the 3rd of June 1882, and was buried at Highgate cemetery, in the same grave, in unconsecrated ground, as his friend Austin Holyoake.

To the productions of James Thomson already mentioned may be added the posthumous volume entitled A Voice from the Nile, and other Poems (1884), to which was prefixed a memoir by Bertram Dobell. This volume contained much that is interesting, but nothing to increase Thomson's reputation. If an attempt be made to point to the most apparent literary relationship of the author of The City of Dreadful Night, one might venture the suggestion that James Thomson was a younger brother of De Quincey. If he has distinct affinity to any writer it is to the author of Suspiria de profundis; if we look further afield, we might perhaps discern shadowy prototypes in Leopardi, Heine and Baudelaire. But, after all, Thomson holds so unique a place as a poet that the effort at classification may well be dispensed with. His was no literary pessimism, no assumed gloom. The poem "Insomnia" is a distinct chapter of biography; and in "Mater Tenebrarum" and elsewhere among his writings passages of self-revelation are frequent. The merits of Thomson's poetry are its imaginative power, its sombre intensity, its sonorous music; to these characteristics may be added, in his lighter pieces, a Heine-like admixture of .strange gaiety, pathos and caustic irony. Much the same may be said of his best prose. His faults are a monotony of epithet, the not infrequent use of mere rhetoric and verbiage, and perhaps a prevailing lack of the sense of form; besides an occasional vulgar recklessness of expression, as in parts of Vane's Story and in some of his prose writings.

See the Life, by H. S. Salt (1905 edition).

  1. Bysshe Vanolis: "Bysshe," as the commonly used Christian name of Shelley, Thomson's favourite writer; and "Vanolis," an anagram of Novalis—(F. von Hardenberg).