A Voice from the Nile, and Other Poems/James Thomson

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JAMES THOMSON.


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"You would have kept me from the Desert sands
    Bestrewn with bleaching bones,
 And led me through the friendly fertile lands,
    And changed my weary moans
 To hymns of triumph and enraptured love,
 And made our earth as rich as Heaven above."

A Poem, a Drama, or a Novel, the perusal of which has moved our admiration, or affected our feelings, can hardly fail to make us desire to know something of its creator. We feel that the powers developed by the author must correspond with the faculties inherent in the man, and that the man must be at least as interesting as his work. It is not by insignificant or commonplace natures that works of enduring merit can be produced. Only by virtue of possessing unusual depth of feeling, intensity of aspiration, or wealth of intellect, does an author produce a masterpiece; and his success is always in direct proportion to the fineness and richness of his own personality. Sometimes, indeed, the character of an author will impart a factitious importance to his works. How dim and shadowy a figure would Dr. Johnson now appear, had his reputation depended solely upon his writings! Our interest in the works of Burns, Byron, and Shelley is surely doubled, at least, by the knowledge we possess of the events of their lives. And if, in becoming acquainted with their aspirations and their achievements, their errors and their sins are also made known to us, even so we have to consider that their faults were such as belong to mankind in general, while their genius belonged to themselves alone. The faults of common men die with them because the men themselves are forgotten, whereas the sins of a Burns or a Byron are remembered because he has himself immortalised them.

Mr. Thomson's works are excellent enough to stand upon their own merits; yet there is much in them that may seem obscure to those who know nothing of his life. His poems have this in common with those of Burns and Byron, that their interest is intensely personal. Most of them are reflections of his own individuality, and their interest depends upon the skill with which he has rendered his personal feelings interesting to the reader, rather than to his having dramatically expressed the thoughts and feelings of others. The key to his writings is to be found in the events of his life, and it is this key that I have endeavoured to supply in the following pages.

James Thomson was born at Port Glasgow, on the 23d of November, 1834. Both of his parents were Scotch, and James was their first child. The father had attained a good position in the merchant navy, and at one time occupied the post of chief officer in a ship trading to China. His mother was a zealous Irvingite, and it seems probable that it was to her he owed his deeply emotional and imaginative temperament. About five years after the birth of James a second son was born, and in little more than a year afterwards the mother died. The father had by this time fallen somewhat in the social scale, owing, it is said, to habits of intemperance. I cannot give any other particulars respecting him, save a somewhat vague report that he became imbecile and died a few years afterwards. On the mother's death, the infant child was taken charge of by relatives living at Port Glasgow. Some friends of the father exerted themselves in favour of James, and through their interest he was admitted into that excellent institution, the Caledonian Orphan Asylum. Here he proved himself a quick and intelligent scholar, and his rapid progress in acquiring knowledge gave the greatest satisfaction to his tutors.

When the time came for him to quit the Asylum, the question arose of what was to be his future profession. What he himself desired was to obtain a clerkship in a bank or a city merchant's office. But no such place was to be obtained except on condition of his serving for a time without pay, and this he could not do, for he was entirely without resources. He had, it is true, well-to-do relatives in London, but they gave him no assistance. No choice was left to him but to take the advice of some of the masters at the Asylum, who advised him to qualify for the post of a schoolmaster in the army. He did so, although he much disliked the idea, and he was allowed to join the service as assistant-schoolmaster. In this capacity he was sent to Ireland, the garrison which he joined being stationed at Ballincollig, near Cork. It may be remarked here, that his position in the army, however distasteful it may have been to him, was not an altogether unenviable one. The usual routine of school duty consists, I am told, in teaching the children for three hours in the forenoon, an equal time being devoted to the instruction of the adults in the afternoon. This leaves a good deal of time free for study or recreation, and there is plenty of evidence to show that Thomson made the best use possible of his leisure hours at this period.

During the time that he remained at the Asylum he spent his holidays at the home of a kind and liberal gentleman, an old friend of his father. From one of the daughters of this gentleman much of the information here embodied has been derived; and I will now quote from her account of him a very interesting passage:— "Being several years younger than James, I cannot recollect much about him as a boy, but I remember we always thought him wonderfully clever, very nice-looking, and very gentle, grave and kind. He was always most willing to attend to our whims, but my eldest sister was his especial favourite. Her will seemed always law to him. She was gay, as he was grave, but whatever Helen said or did won appreciation from him. . . . Previous to going (to Ireland) he earnestly requested that my sister might be allowed to correspond with him, a request which my parents thought it wiser to refuse. I was allowed, however, to do so, and although his letters came few and far between, I always welcomed and appreciated them. He used to endeavour to guide my tastes, and gave me good advice as to the books I should read, sending me Charlotte Bronte's 'Life and Letters,' Mrs. Browning's 'Aurora Leigh,' some poems by Robert Browning, and a few other books."

"Wonderfully clever, very nice-looking, and very gentle, grave and kind "—such is the happy and expressive phrase in which this lady sums up the impression which James Thomson made upon her and her sister in his youth. Nor was there any degree of partiality in their judgment, which was only that which any one coming in contact with him must have formed. Quick in acquiring knowledge, he had a memory that retained his acquirements firmly and tenaciously. Languages he mastered easily and thoroughly; and I am assured that he might have won a foremost place as a mathematician, had he persevered with his studies in that science. In literature his taste was at once catholic and unerring: he could relish Swift as well as Shelley, Fielding as well as Mrs. Browning. He had his special literary favourites of course, but I do not think he ever failed to recognise the merits of a really great work, or ever valued a poor or feeble one beyond its deserts. In short, it is hardly possible to imagine a youth of more promise than his was, and none who knew him then could have supposed that he was doomed to a hopeless and joyless existence, which was, in his own words, "a long defeat."

The army cannot be considered as a good school of morals or manners; and it is easy to conceive that the coarse and prosaic life of the camp and the barrack-room was very distasteful to the young student; for he had in full measure the fine sensibility and highly-strung nervous organisation that usually accompany poetic gifts. But it seems likely that what made his situation most irksome was that he saw little prospect of escaping from it, and of attaining a position more congenial to his disposition, and offering more scope to the abilities which he felt himself to possess. To be gifted with fine feelings and to nurse great aspirations, yet to be compelled to labour at uncongenial or repulsive tasks is a sufficiently unfortunate fate; and the victim of such circumstances either sinks eventually to the level of his surroundings, or suffers cruelly in the endeavour to escape from them.

It was a noticeable trait in Thomson's character that he hardly ever failed to make warm friends of those with whom he came in familiar contact. He had not long entered the army before he had won the devoted friendship of Joseph Barnes, who was the Garrison-Master of the station to which he was attached. This gentleman was a self-educated man, who had attained his position entirely by the force of his own abilities. In befriending Thomson he was seconded by his wife, a most excellent and kind-hearted woman. In some Sonnets, written in 1862, but not intended for publication, Thomson delineates with an affectionate pen the characters of these two friends of his youth. Mr. Barnes he describes as—

"A man of genial heart and liberal mind,
    A man most rich in that rare common-sense
 Whose common absence in its name we find;
    A man of nature scorning all pretence,
 And honest to the core, yet void of pride,
    Whose vice upon that virtue most attends;
 A man of joyous humour unallied
    With malice, never making foes but friends."

Mrs. Barnes, whom he addresses as the "second Mother of my orphaned youth," is thus delineated :—

"Thou patient heart to suffer and endure,
Thou placid soul to mirror heavenly truth,
 Thou gracious presence wheresoever you go
To gladden pleasure or to chasten strife.
 Thou gentlest friend to sympathise with woe,
Thou perfect Mother and most perfect Wife."

In another Sonnet he says :—

"My dear dear friends, my heart yearns forth to you
In very many of its lonely hours;
 Nor sweetlier comes the balm of evening dew
To all-day-drooping in fierce sunlight flowers.
 Than to this weary withered heart of mine
The tender memories, the moonlight dreams
 Which make your home an ever-sacred shrine.
And show your features lit with heavenly gleams."

Another of these Sonnets is of such interest and importance that I need make no apology for quoting it in full :—

"Indeed you set me in a happy place.
Dear for itself, and dearer much for you,
 And dearest still for one life-crowning grace—
Dearest, though infinitely saddest too:
 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!
 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."

This Sonnet sums up in brief the sad story of his life.


"Tasso to Leonora," "The Lord of the Castle of Indolence," and "A Festival of Life " were among the poems which he contributed to its pages. That at the time of their publication they did not attract much, if any attention may perhaps be accounted, for by considering that Tait at that time had sunk very low both in circulation and influence.

About the same time he contributed some prose essays to the London Investigator, a periodical edited by Charles Bradlaugh. Amongst these were "Notes on Emerson" and "A Few Words about Burns." Both articles are written in a spirit of warm admiration and appreciation of the great qualities of the subjects of them; and I venture to think that the Burns celebration which produced such floods of prose and verse about him, brought forth nothing superior to Thomson's essay as a vindication of his life and genius.

We obtain an interesting glimpse of Thomson as he was in 1860 from the lady whose picture of him as a youth I have already quoted. I give the account nearly in her own words, as I could hardly hope to improve upon her artless and unaffected story. After stating that they had had no personal intercourse with him for some years, she proceeds thus:—

"At last he wrote saying that he was to have a fortnight's holiday, and would pay us a visit. We were all excitement at his coming. I had previously informed him in one of my letters that Helen had become a Ragged School teacher, and in reply he said he could not imagine a creature so bright and in his remembrance so beautiful, being arrayed in sombre habiliments and acting such a character. When he arrived Helen met him in the most demure manner possible, and kept up the deception, or rather tried to do so, for he was not to be deceived. Two days after his arrival, when he was sitting reading, she suddenly sent something flying at his head, at which he started up saying 'Ah! I have just been quietly waiting for this! you have been acting a part which does not become you, but you have now resumed your true character, and are the Helen of old.' During this visit we thought him much altered in appearance and manners; indeed, we were somewhat disappointed. He was by no means so manly-looking as when he left London, and was painfully silent and depressed. He went from us with the intention of again going to Aldershot, but from that day until Mr. Maccall[1] mentioned him to us, we never once heard of him. Ever since we have felt greatly puzzled to account for his singular conduct."

It is no wonder that these ladies, knowing nothing of the story of his lost love, were puzzled to account for his silence and depression. He was always singularly reticent, in speech at least, about his private feelings, and only to those who had known him long, and whose friendship he had put to the proof, did he even hint at the cause of his unhappiness. I say "cause" because there cannot be a doubt that the death of his "only love" was the root of his misery: yet along with this there was another circumstance which contributed to his unhappiness. He had much in him, in fact, of the "self-torturing" spirit which afflicted Rousseau, and which drove Cowper into insanity. These moods of self-dissatisfaction he has well depicted in "Vane's Story," which is, in fact, when rightly read, as candid and complete an autobiography as was ever written.

"I half remember, years ago,
fits of despair that maddened woe,
Frantic remorse, intense self-scorn,
And yearnings harder to be borne
Of utter loneliness forlorn;
What passionate secret prayers I prayed!
What futile firm resolves I made!
As well a thorn might pray to be
Transformed into an olive-tree;
As well a weevil might determine
To grow a farmer hating vermin;
The I am that I am of God
Defines no less a worm or clod.
My penitence was honest guile;
My inmost being all the while
Was laughing in a patient mood
At this exteme solicitude,
Was waiting laughing till once more
I should be sane as heretofore;
And in the pauses of the fits,
That rent my heart and scared my wits,
Its pleasant mockery whispered through,
Oh, what can Saadi have to do
With penitence? and what can you?
Are Shiraz roses wreathed with rue?"

It will be seen that the above extract not only depicts the moods I have spoken of, but also records his final deliverance from them. But he was afflicted by them for a good many years, and they contributed to bring about the state of nervelessness and want of self-command into which he fell during the last three or four years of his life.

The reader may perhaps ask whether there was not some reason for these fits of self-scorn and remorse? I answer that there was probably as much reason for them in Thomson's case as there was in Cowper's. The good man suffers more from remorse for the commission of some microscopic offence, than the bad man who commits some atrocious crime. Thomson saw this clearly in after-years; and he has well satirised the mood in which we accuse ourselves of being desperate sinners (which yet it is probable that no really good man is altogether a stranger to) in the following epigram:—

"Once in a saintly passion
   I cried with desperate grief,
O Lord, my heart is black with guile,
   Of sinners I am chief.
Then stooped my guardian angel
   And whispered from behind,
'Vanity, my little man,
   You're nothing of the kind.'"

In 1860 the National Reformer was established, and Thomson became one of its contributors. His articles, however, only appeared at rather long intervals in the early volumes of that paper. His first important contribution to its pages was an essay on "Shelley." It is a most eloquent tribute to the genius and essential greatness of the "poet of poets." Early in 1861 appeared a poem entitled "The Dead Year." It reviews in an interesting and forcible manner the chief events of the year 1860. The two stanzas descriptive of Mazzini and Garibaldi may be quoted as fairly representative of the spirit of the poem :—

        "She[2] has two noble sons; by these she is.
           The Thinker; who inspired from earliest youth,
         In want and pain, in exile's miseries,
           'Mid alien scorn, 'mid foes that knew not ruth,
           Has ever preached his spirit's inmost truth;
         Though friends waxed cold, or turned their love to hate.
         Though even now his country is ingrate.

         The Doer, whose high fame as purely shines
           As his,[3] who heretofore Sicilia won
         With victories flowing free as Homer's lines,
           Sublime in action when the strife is on.
           Sublime in pity when the strife is done;
         A pure and lofty spirit, blessed from sight
         Of meaner natures' selfishness and spite."

In 1863 the beautiful poem "To our Ladies of Death" appeared in the National Reformer and after that date his contributions to it, both in prose and verse, became more frequent. It is unnecessary to enumerate his various writings in it; but it may be stated that most of the poems included in the two volumes already issued, and a large proportion of the prose writings contained in "Essays and Phantasies," first appeared in the Reformer, It is hardly necessary to say that their appearance in such a quarter scarcely tended to advance his reputation. But in it he could publish without restraint his most heterodox productions, and his writings, it must be recollected, were often as heterodox from the Secularist as from the Christian standpoint. I do not know of any other paper or magazine in which "Vane's Story," or " The City of Dreadful Night " would have been allowed to appear.

Thomson left the army in October, 1862. He had long been weary of his position in it ; but the immediate cause of his leaving was that an accusation of a breach of military discipline was made against him. The story is not worth telling at length: but it may be stated that whether the accusation was true or false, it was one that reflected no moral blame upon him whatever. On leaving the army he applied to Mr. Bradlaugh, who was then acting as managing clerk to a solicitor named Levison, to know whether he could find employment for him. Bradlaugh at once engaged him as a clerk in his office, and also offered him a home with his own family. Thomson accepted this offer, and for some years there- after the most intimate relations existed between them. I do not find anything specially worthy of record during the next nine or ten years of Thomson's life, although, in a literary point of view, these years were perhaps his best and most productive period. In 1869 Mr. Froude accepted his poem called "Sunday up the River" for Fraser's Magazine of which he was then the editor. Before inserting it, he asked Charles Kingsley's opinion upon it, whose judgment was warmly in its favour. This was almost the only instance (before the publication of "The City of Dreadful Night" in 1880) in which he was enabled to get one of his productions published, apart from the Secular papers. It may be worth mentioning that at one time he wrote two or three articles for the Daily Telegraphy and he might perhaps have been regularly engaged upon that paper; but leader-writing to order was by no means to his taste.

In 1872 he became secretary to a company which was formed to work an American silver mine. In this capacity he was sent out to America by the shareholders to report upon the prospects of their speculation. There he discovered that the shareholders had been deluded into purchasing an utterly unsound concern, so that his mission and his situation as secretary came to an end together. His general verdict upon the Americans is well expressed in the following extract from a letter to a friend which he wrote while there:—

"I think we must forgive the Americans a good deal of vulgarity and arrogance for some generations yet. They are intoxicated with their vast country and its vaster prospects. Besides, we of the old country have sent them for years past, and are still sending them, our half-starved and ignorant millions. The Americans of the War of Independence were really a British race, and related to the old country as a Greek colony to its mother city or state. But the Americans of to-day are only a nation in that they instinctively adore their union. All the heterogeneous ingredients are seething in the cauldron with plenty of scum and air bubbles atop. In a century or two they may get stewed down into homogeneity—a really wholesome and dainty dish, not to be set before a king though, I fancy. I resisted the impression of the mere material vastitude as long as possible, but found its influence growing on me week by week: for it implies such vast possibilities of moral and intellectual expansion. They are starting over here

  1. William Maccall, author of "Elements of Individualism," and of many other remarkable, but unappreciated works.
  2. Italy.
  3. Timoleon's. See Plutarch's Lives; whence the simile in the following line.