Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thomson, James (1834-1882)

THOMSON, JAMES (1834–1882), poet and pessimist, born at Port Glasgow on 23 Nov. 1834, was the son of James Thomson, an officer in the merchant service, by his wife, Sarah Kennedy, a deeply religious Irvingite. In 1840 the father became paralysed, and two years later the mother died. The boy, now practically orphaned, was educated at the Royal Caledonian Asylum.

In 1850 he proceeded to the model school, Military Asylum, Chelsea, to qualify as army schoolmaster, and a year later was sent to Ballincollig, near Cork, as assistant teacher. Here commenced his friendship with Charles Bradlaugh. Here, too, he won the love of a beautiful young girl, Matilda Weller, whose sudden death in 1853, the heaviest calamity of his life, was the cause of much of his later dejection. From 7 Aug. 1854 he served as schoolmaster in Devonshire, Dublin, Aldershot, Jersey, and Portsmouth, until, in company with some fellow-teachers, he was discharged from the army for a trifling breach of discipline, on 30 Oct. 1862. During these years he had made some good friends, seen not a little of nature and open-air life, and done a vast amount of self-imposed study in English, French, German, and Italian literature. He had also written a good deal of poetry, some of which was published in Tait's 'Edinburgh Magazine.'

By the friendly aid of Bradlaugh work was now found for Thomson as clerk and journalist. Under the signature 'B.V.' or 'Bysshe Vanolis' (in memory of Shelley and Novalis) he wrote frequently in the 'National Reformer,' and took an active part in the propaganda of freethought; and thus his poetical genius became known to secularist readers and to a few discerning critics like Mr. W. M. Rossetti. But a fatal weakness, inherited or self-induced, marred his best efforts. He became more and more subject to periodic attacks of dipsomania, a veritable disease in his case, aggravated by his poverty, loneliness, insomnia, and deeply pessimistic temperament. From 1866 until his death, with the exception of a few months in Colorado in 1872 as agent of a mining company, and a visit to Spain as war correspondent in 1873, his home was a one-roomed lodging, first in the Pimlico district, afterwards near Gower Street; and thus the sad and sombre elements of London life were woven into the imagery of his poems. Under these circumstances he contributed to the 'National Reformer' in March-May 1874 his 'City of Dreadful Night,' which brought him the appreciation of George Eliot, George Meredith, Philip Bourke Marston, and other distinguished authors.

After 1875, owing to an estrangement which had arisen between himself and Bradlaugh, Thomson ceased to write for the 'National Reformer,' and transferred his services to the 'Secularist' and 'Cope's Tobacco Plant.' He had made a friend of Mr. Bertram Dobell, by whose help he at length obtained publication for his first volume, 'The City of Dreadful Night, with some other poems,' in 1880, followed a few months later by a second volume of verse, and by a volume of essays in 1881. During 1881-2 he spent some happy weeks at a friend's house near Leicester, but this revival of hope and poetic impulse proved illusory. After a period of homeless wandering in London, during which he abandoned himself to drink and despair, he died on 3 June 1882 in University College Hospital, and was buried without any religious ceremony in Highgate cemetery.

The striking contrast in 'B. V.'s' character—a courageous genial spirit, coupled with an intolerable melancholia; spiritual aspiration with realistic grasp of fact; ardent zeal for democracy and freethought with stubborn disbelief in human progress—is clearly marked in his writings, which are lit up here and there with flashes of brilliant joyousness, but blackly pessimistic in the main. His masterpiece is the 'City of Dreadful Night,' a great poem, of massive structure and profound symbolism; next to this are 'Vane's Story,' an autobiographic fantasia, and the oriental narrative, 'Weddah and Om-el-Bonain.' Many of the lyrics, grave or gay, are poignantly beautiful, and the prose essays, satires, criticisms, and translations have great qualities that deserve to be better known. Shelley, Dante, Heine, and Leopardi were his chief literary models; his mature style, in its stern conciseness, is less Shelleyan than Dantesque. His chief works are:

  1. 'The City of Dreadful Night, and other Poems,' 1880; 2nd edit. 1888; American edit. 1892.
  2. 'Vane's Story, Weddah and Om-el-Bonain, and other Poems,' 1881.
  3. 'Essays and Phantasies,' 1881.
  4. 'A Voice from the Nile, and other Poems,' 1884.
  5. 'Satires and Profanities,' 1884.
  6. 'Poems, Essays, and Fragments,' 1892.

Collective editions: 'Poetical Works,' 2 vols. 1895; 'Biographical and Critical Studies,' 1st vol. of 'Prose Works,' 1896.

Portraits of Thomson appear in 'A Voice from the Nile,' 1884, in the 'Life' of Thomson by the present writer, 1889, and in the 'Poetical Works,' 1895.

[Memoir by Bertram Dobell, prefixed (a) to A Voice from the Nile, (b) revised and amplified to Poetical Works; articles in Progress, April and June 1884, by G. W. Foote, and Our Corner, August and September 1886, by Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner; Salt's Life, 1889, revised edition, 1898.]

H. S. S.