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Thomson, James B.V.

Category: Poet

James "B.V." Thomson (23 November 1834 – 3 June 1882) was a Scottish Victorian-era poet.  Thomson, used the pseudonym "Bysshe Vanolis" — in honour of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Novalis [hence the BV] – in order to distinguish himself from the earlier Scottish poet James Thomson.

He is famous primarily for the long poem The City of Dreadful Night (1874), “an expression of bleak pessimism in a dehumanized, uncaring urban environment”.  Thomson's remaining poems rarely appear in modern anthologies, although the autobiographical Insomnia and Mater Tenebrarum are well-regarded and contain some striking passages.   “He is considered by some students of the Victorian age as the bleakest of that era's poets”.

Most of Thomson's poetry and literary output resulted from his struggle with insomnia, alcoholism and chronic depression. But Thomson is a fascinating character, in that it is as if he deliberately sought the bleak and hostile in order to give himself some sort of feeling of ‘being alive’.  He admired and translated the works of the pessimistic Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837), for example. He may have been a pessimist, but he revelled in it.

According to some sources, Thomson was ‘a despairing atheist who had lost his faith and found nothing but emptiness to replace it”.

Except that the resulting vision that he creates in the poem The City of Dreadful Night is of a symbolic  ‘city’ – a fabrication  - that represented how he perceived his environment and himself.  It is in a sense a representation of his state of mind.  So he may have lost his belief in the trappings of religion, but was being fed image after image reflecting the collection of demons that had become his mind.

And this is key, because it is as if Thomson was only able to get his inspiration from the dark side, from depression, from gloom and melancholy.  Depression provided him with poetry and with insight and produced an extraordinary vision of an essentially mind created world.  A painter, for example, often creates in paint images of his or her state of mind.  Thomson created word images of how he felt. 

The poem, despite its insistently bleak tone, won the praise of George Meredith, and also of George Sainsbury, who in A History of Nineteenth Century Literature wrote that ‘what saves Thomson is the perfection with which he expresses the negative and hopeless side of the sense of mystery’ ..."

Thomson was born in Port Glasgow, Scotland, and, after his father suffered a stroke, he was sent to London where he was raised and educated in an orphanage, the Royal Caledonian Asylum on Chalk Road near Holloway. He joined the Royal Military Academy and served in Ireland, where in 1851, at the age of 17, he made the acquaintance of the 18-year-old Charles Bradlaugh, and it was through Brandlaugh that Thompson lost any remaining faith he may have had.  Brandlaugh was “notorious as a freethinker, having published his first atheist pamphlet a year earlier”.

More than a decade later, Thomson left the military and moved to London, where he worked as a clerk. He remained in contact with Bradlaugh, who was by then issuing his own weekly National Reformer, a "publication for the working man". For the remaining 19 years of his life, starting in 1863, Thomson submitted stories, essays and poems to various publications, including the National Reformer, which published the sombre poem which remains his most famous work.

The City of Dreadful Night was written between 1870 and 1873, and published in the National Reformer in 1874, then in 1880 in a book entitled The City of Dreadful Night and Other Poems.  In 1880, nineteen months before his death, the publication of this volume of poetry, elicited encouraging and complimentary reviews from a number of critics, but did nothing to prevent Thomson's downward slide.

In his final decade, he became increasingly isolated from friends and society in general, he even became hostile towards his longtime friend and supporter Charles Bradlaugh. He died in London at the age of 47.

In 1889, seven years after Thomson's death, Henry Stephens Salt honoured him by writing a major biography, The Life of James Thomson (B.V.).

James Thomson – The City of Dreadful Night

Yet as in some necropolis you find
Perchance one mourner to a thousand dead
So there, worn faces that look deaf and blind
Like tragic masks of stone.  With weary tread
Each wrapt in his own doom, they wander, wander
Or sit forelorn and desolately ponder
Through sleepless hours with heavy drooping head
…… No time abates the first despair and awe
But wonder ceases soon; the weirdest thing
Is felt least strange beneath a lawless law
Where Death-in-Life is the eternal king;
Crushed impotent beneath this reign of terror
Dazed with such mysteries of woe and error
The soul is too outworn for wondering



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