James Thomson



James Thomson, poet and pessimist, was born at Port Glasgow on 23 November 1834,
the son of James Thomson, an officer in the merchant service, by his wife, Sarah Kennedy.
In 1840, the father became paralysed, and two years later the mother died. James, now
practically orphaned, was educated at the Royal Caledonian Asylum, London, England.

In 1850, he proceeded to the Military Asylum, a model school in Chelsea, London, to qualify as army schoolmaster, and a year later was sent to Ballincollig, near Cork, Ireland, as assistant teacher. Here he commenced his friendship with Charles Bradlaugh. Here, too, he won the love of, Matilda Weller, whose sudden death in 1853 was the cause of much of his later dejection. From 1854, he served as schoolmaster in Devonshire, Dublin, Aldershot, Jersey, and Portsmouth, until he was discharged from the army in 1862. During these years he undertook personal study in English, French, German, and Italian literature and wrote poetry, some of which was published.

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. However, he became more and more subject to periodic attacks of dipsomania aggravated by his poverty, loneliness, insomnia, and deeply pessimistic temperament. From 1866 until his death 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 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. 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.

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.' 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: 'The City of Dreadful Night, and other Poems' (1880); 'Vane's Story, Weddah and Om-el-Bonain, and other Poems' (1881);.'Essays and Phantasies' (1881); 'A Voice from the Nile, and other Poems' (1884);.'Satires and Profanities' (1884); 'Poems, Essays, and Fragments' (1892).

Source: Dictionary of National Biography

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