Biography of James Thomson
James Thomson, who wrote under the pseudonym Bysshe Vanolis, was a Scottish Victorian-era poet famous primarily for the long poem The City of Dreadful Night (1874), an expression of bleak pessimism in a dehumanized, uncaring urban environment.
Thomson was born in Port Glasgow, Scotland, and, after his father suffered a stroke, he was sent to London where he was raised in an orphanage, the Royal Caledonian Asylum on Chalk (later Caledonian after the asylum) Road near Holloway. He spoke with a London accent. He received his education at the Caledonian Asylum and 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, who was already 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 now 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 came about from the struggle with insomnia, alcoholism and chronic depression which plagued Thomson's final decade. Increasingly isolated from friends and society in general, he even became hostile towards Bradlaugh. In 1880, nineteen months before his death, the publication of his volume of poetry, The City of Dreadful Night and Other Poems elicited encouraging and complimentary reviews from a number of critics, but came too late to prevent Thomson's downward slide.
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 admired and translated the works of the pessimistic Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837), but his own lack of hope was darker than that of Leopardi. He is considered by some students of the Victorian age as the bleakest of that era's poets. He died in London at the age of 47.
In 1889, four years after Thomson's death, Henry Stephens Salt wrote his first major biography, The Life of James Thomson (B.V.).
Thomson's pseudonym, Bysshe Vanolis, derives from the names of the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Novalis. He is often distinguished from the earlier Scottish poet James Thomson by the letters B.V. after the name.
James Thomson's Works:
The City of Dreadful Night and Other Poems (1880)
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James Thomson Poems
The City of Dreadful Night
Per me si va nella citta dolente. --Dante
He came to the desert of London town Gray miles long; He wandered up and he wandered down, Singing a quiet song.
The Fire That Filled My Heart of Old
The fire that filled my heart of old Gave luster while it burned; Now only ashes gray and cold Are in its silence urned.
Once in a Saintly Passion
Once in a saintly passion I cried with desperate grief, "O Lord, my heart is black with guile, Of sinners I am chief."
1 What precious thing are you making fast In all these silken lines?
Approach to St. Paul's
Eastwards through busy streets I lingered on; Jostled by anxious crowds, who, heart and brain, Were so absorbed in dreams of Mammon-gain, That they could spare no time to look upon
I "Why are your songs all wild and bitter sad As funeral dirges with the orphans' cries?
I His eyes found nothing beautiful and bright, Nor wealth nor honour, glory nor delight,
A Song of Sighing
Would some little joy to-day Visit us, heart! Could it but a moment stay, Then depart,
For I Must Sing of All I Feel and Know
For I must sing of all I feel and know, Waiting with Memnon passive near the palms, Until the heavenly light doth dawn and grow And thrill my silence into mystic psalms;
Their eyes met; flashed an instant like swift swords That leapt unparring to each other's heart, Jarring convulsion through the inmost chords; Then fell, for they had fully done their part.
The wine of Love is music, And the feast of Love is song: And when Love sits down to the banquet, Love sits long:
Waking one morning In a pleasant land, By a river flowing Over golden sand:--
Suggested by Matthew Arnold's Stanzas
That one long dirge-moan sad and deep, Low, muffled by the solemn stress Of such emotion as doth steep The soul in brooding quietness,
Their eyes met; flashed an instant like swift swords
That leapt unparring to each other's heart,
Jarring convulsion through the inmost chords;
Then fell, for they had fully done their part.
She, in the manner of her folk unveiled,
Might have been veiled for all he saw of her;
Those sudden eyes, from which he reeled and quailed;
The old life dead, no new life yet astir.