Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. IV. The Nineteenth Century: Wordsworth to Rossetti
Critical Introduction by Philip Bourke Marston
James Thomson (18341882)
[James Thomson, whose father was a seafaring man, was born at Port Glasgow on the 23rd November, 1834. His early career had many vicissitudes. Educated at the Royal Caledonian Asylum, he subsequently entered the Training School, Chelsea, for the purpose of eventually becoming an army schoolmaster. We next find him in a solicitors office in London; then in America as secretary to a silver mine company; then in Spain as correspondent of the New York World. His first volume, The City of Dreadful Night, and other Poems, some parts of which had previously appeared in The National Reformer, was published in 1880. This was succeeded, in 1881, by Vanes Story, and other Poems. In the same year a volume of prose essays proceeded from his pen; and besides these he has left behind him many posthumous poems and translations. He died June 3rd, 1882.]
JAMES THOMSON, though his works were few and his death comparatively early, was still one of the remarkable poets of this century. Most of the poets of our time have flirted with pessimism, but through their beautifully expressed sorrow we cannot help seeing that on the whole they are less sad than they seem, or that, like Mr. Matthew Arnold, they have laid hold of a stern kind of philosophic consolation. It was reserved for Thomson to write the real poem of despair; it was for him to say the ultimate word about melancholia: for, of course, it is the result of that disorder which is depicted in The City of Dreadful Night. It was for him to gauge its horrible shapes, to understand its revelations of darkness, as Shelley and others have understood revelations of light. As soon as we have read the opening pages of The City of Dreadful Night, we feel transported to a land of infinite tragedy. It has been contended that because life itself is so tragic, such poems as Thomsons are worse than needless; but the true reason for the existence of this particular poem is given by its author in the following lines:
Yes, here and there some weary wanderer
In that same city of tremendous night,
Will understand the speech, and feel a stir
Of fellowship in all-disastrous fight;
I suffer mute and lonely, yet another
Uplifts his voice to let me know a brother
Travels the same wild paths though out of sight.
Happily all men have not walked in Thomsons City of Despair, but too many have done so, and they must feel a bitter kind of comfort, such comfort as comes of tears, in having all its horrors so faithfully and sympathetically recorded.
In the gloomy delineation of life Thomson has had of course many predecessors, but perhaps none of them have equalled him in the intense spirit of desolation revealed in The City of Dreadful Night, not only in direct utterance, but in imagery large and terribly majestic, and in the thorough keeping of the illustrations of the poem with its general sentiment. The colossal imagination of both idea and symbol show the influence of no other writer. Equally graphic and equally earnest, though in a distinctly different vein, are two poems in the same volume called Sunday at Hampstead, and Sunday up the River. They are genuine idyls of the people, yet without any trace of vulgarity. They are charged with brightness and healthy joy in living, as fully as the leading poem of the book is fraught with darkness and despair.
In these days of poetic schools, to some one of which a man must generally be relegated, if his work is to be considered at all, there is something remarkable in the solitariness of this poet, who can be classed in no poetic fraternity. It is not likely that The City of Dreadful Night, through the awful blackness of which no ray of light penetrates, will ever be a popular poem, but amid the uncertainties of modern speculation, the hesitating lights which still too often discover no sure track, the poem will stand out as a monument of solemn and uncompromising gloom. Intense sincerity, joined to a vivid imagination, constitute Thomsons claims to be remembered. Whether he speaks to us from the fastnesses of his Dreadful City, or in a happier mood breaks into snatches of song as he drifts down stream in his boat, one feels brought in contact with a strong personal individuality. This strong individuality, whether expressing itself in life or poetry, is not welcome to all persons, but those on whom it seizes find in it a fascination which it is difficult for any other quality to substitute.