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The laureate of pessimism: a sketch of the life and character of James Thomson (B.V.) online

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Author of "The City ok Dreadful Night."



Author of " Sidelights on Charles Lamb'' "Rosemary and Pansies,'

" .1 Century of Sonnets," ei< .


77 Charing Cross Road, W.C.
i 9 i o


When in 1884 I edited the posthumous volume of
Thomson's works, entitled "A Voice from the Nile,
and other Poems," I prefixed to it a brief memoir of
the author. This memoir, revised and enlarged, was
also prefixed to the complete edition of Thomson's
"Poetical Works," published in 1895. It has always
been my desire to write a full biography of the poet,
which should include as complete a collection of his
letters as can now be made. Many hindrances have
prevented me, up to the present time, from carrying
out my design ; and at the age at which I have now
arrived I must not too confidently rely upon my
ability to accomplish it. Meanwhile, as Mr. Salt's
excellent "Life of Thomson" is now out of print, it
seems desirable that some account of the poet, in an
inexpensive form, should be made available. That
must be my apology — if apology be needed — for the
publication of the present imperfect sketch. Of its
deficiencies no one can be more sensible than myself;
but it has seemed to me that in this case, as in so
many others, it is better that the thing should be done
imperfectly than not done at all.

The present sketch is founded on that which is pre-
fixed to the complete edition of Thomson's poems.
Some passages, however, which will be found in the
original essay have been omitted ; but, on the other
hand, a good many additions have been made to it.
Many matters which I should have liked to dwell
upon have perforce been passed over in the present

( iii )

iv Prefatory Note

essay : but I hope that enough has been said to make
the reader desire to acquaint himself more intimately,
through the study of Thomson's writings, with the
mental and moral nature of one of the finest and
rarest spirits of the last century. The essay is, in
short, published with the hope and expectation that it
will increase considerably the number of Thomson's
readers and admirers. Though he will, I suppose,
never be a " popular poet " — which means no more,
perhaps, than a poet whose works have an extensive
sale, though it may be doubted if more than a few of
those who buy them ever read them— his works, I
think, should be known to a far larger number of
readers and students than is now the case. If
anyone chooses to say that, in this case, I am
hardly an impartial judge, I shall not be particularly
anxious to rebut the accusation. That I was of some
use to the unfortunate poet in his lifetime is one of my
most cherished memories ; and it is now, as it always
has been, my earnest desire to keep alive and extend
the fame of " B. V." by all the means within my
power. I daresay there are many faults of omission
and commission in the present sketch ; but if it fulfils
the purpose which I have had in view in writing it, I
shall not complain of any severity of censure that may
be bestowed upon its shortcomings.


AS Thomson is one of the commonest of names
and James seems to sort peculiarly well with
it, it is no wonder that a good many James
Thomsons are recorded in bibliographies as having
written plays, poems, and other works ; but of these
it is safe to say that two only are likely to be
remembered in the future, namely, the authors of
"The Seasons" and "The City of Dreadful Night."
Excepting the name, the two poets had perhaps as
little in common as any two poets ever had. The
first James Thomson seems to have been in most
respects about as fortunate as it was possible for
him to be : the second could not well have been
more unfortunate than he was. Yet, save for the
inherited defects and peculiarities of his tempera-
ment, there was perhaps no reason why the latter
poet should not have had as prosperous a career as
his predecessor. He was — at any rate in my
opinion — far superior in genius and in general
mental power to the author of " The Seasons " ;
but while the one was able to make the utmost of
such talents as he possessed, because they were
such as appealed to the widest circle of readers, the
other had few or no gifts which could recommend
him to the uncultured or uncritical crowd. Since
even Matthew Arnold — who, in Thomson's place,
might very well have written " The City of Dreadful

( i ) b


Night," while Thomson, brought up as Arnold was,
might conceivably have been the author of "Litera-
ture and Dogma "—was unable to make a sufficient
income by his pen to supply his wants, it is no
wonder that "B.V.," suffering under the dis-
advantages of poverty and unpopular opinions, was
scarcely able to gain a bare subsistence by his
writings, and remained almost to the end of his
career unknown and unappreciated. He dared to
transgress that most stringent of all the command-
ments of the British Philistine, " Thou shalt, before
all else, be respectable," and he paid the due penalty
for his contumacy.

James Thomson was born at Port Glasgow on
November 23, 1834. He was thus a scion of the
Victorian period, and though he was during his
whole life at war with most of its tendencies, it was
not the less impossible for him to escape from being
influenced by the spirit of the time. Even the
revolter against convention, however he may strive
against its influence, cannot altogether eliminate
its virus from his veins. Had Thomson been born
a generation later he would, I think, have had a
happier life, and would have found a much more
sympathetic and appreciative audience.

The poet's father was a sailor in the merchant
service, in which he attained a good position and
prospered well, until, in 1840, when, acting as chief
officer of the ship Eliza Sttwart, of Greenock, he
was disabled by a paralytic stroke, the result, it is
said, of a week of terrible storm, during which
he was unable to change his drenched clothing.
Up to this time he had been of a cheerful dis-
position, and a delightful companion ; but now
a change for the worse took place, and his temper
became strange, moody, and uncertain. He lived


on till 1853, but in a state of weakness of mind
which prevented him from providing for his sons,
or from acting as a wise guardian towards them.
The poet's mother was a deeply religious woman,
and a devoted follower of Edward Irving. She
was of a highly emotional and imaginative tem-
perament, and it was from her, no doubt, that
her son inherited the deep vein of melancholy
in his disposition. It was a great misfortune for
him that she died when he was little more than
eight years old.

In December, 1842, James Thomson was ad-
mitted to that excellent institution, the Royal
Caledonian Asylum, through the kind exertions of
some friends of his parents. There he remained
for the next eight years. This was probably the
happiest period of his life. His lessons were
mastered quickly and easily ; he got on well with
his schoolfellows ; and he took his due share in
all the sports and pastimes that were going on.
Pessimism indeed rarely afflicts the young ; they
are far too busily occupied in living for " the
bitter, old, and wrinkled truth " of the hollowness
and hopelessness of human life to reveal itself to
them. Thomson's teachers and fellow-pupils saw
nothing uncommon in him, excepting that he was
much above the average in mental capacity.

Thomson quitted the Asylum in 1850 to become
a monitor in the "Model School" at the Royal
Military College, Chelsea. It had been decided
that his future profession should be that of an
army-schoolmaster, and it was necessary to qualify
for this post at the above-named college. This
was hardly the profession which Thomson would
have adopted had he been free to choose for him-
self ; but it was the only one which would put him


at once in the way of gaining a living, because any
other would have entailed a period of probation
during which he would have had no means of

After having gone through the prescribed course
of study at the college, Thomson left it in order to
take up the post of assistant-teacher in the garrison-
school at Ballincollig, a village near Cork. This
was in pursuance of the usual course, which required
that candidates for the post of army-schoolmaster
should act for a time in a subordinate capacity
before being appointed. Thomson's duty at Ballin-
collig was to teach in the regimental school under
the direction of Joseph Barnes, the garrison-master.
He became an inmate of the household of Mr. and
Mrs. Barnes, by both of whom he was much be-
loved, and who treated him with the utmost
kindness. With them he was for a brief period
entirely happy, or at least as much so as it was
possible for him to be. In a series of sonnets,
written some ten or twelve years later, the poet

The tender memories, the moonlight dreams,

Which make your home an ever-sacred shrine,
And show your features lit with heavenly gleams.

It was in the home of these ever-dear and ever
tenderly remembered friends that he first met his
"Good Angel," the young girl who might, if she
had lived, have saved him from becoming an in-
habitant of that " City of Dreadful Night " in whose
sombre shades he was destined to wander for so
many mournful and joyless years, though he was
destined to find there the material most fit for his
genius to exert itself upon, and the inspiration
which he needed to spur him to the accomplish-
ment of his greatest work. I only say her influence


might have saved him from his life-long melan-
cholia, because the constitutional causes from which
it sprang were perhaps too deeply rooted to be
overcome even by the most favourable outward
circumstances. Nevertheless, it seems likely that
if she had lived he might so far have overcome the
fits of gloom and life- weariness from which he
suffered as to be afflicted by them only at intervals,
and then not to an intolerable degree. So at any
rate he thought himself: —

" You would have kept me from ihe burning sands

Bestrewn with bleaching bones,
And led me through the friendly fertile lands,

And changed my weary moans
To hymns of triumph and enraptured love,
And made our earth as rich as heaven above."

This young girl was the daughter of the armourer-
sergeant of a regiment which was then quartered at
Ballincollig. Her name was Matilda Weller, and
she was then about fourteen years of age. That
she was an attractive and beautiful creature seems
certain, however much the young poet's imagination
may have idealised or transfigured her.

At this time Thomson had not yet reached his
eighteenth year, and therefore, it may be thought,
was hardly old enough to conceive a serious and
lasting love-passion. It is true that such cases of
youthful affection are common, and that they
seldom outlast the period of boyhood and girlhood ;
but Thomson at eighteen was more advanced in all
manly qualities than most young men who have
reached their majority : and, as must needs be the
case with all true poets, there was in him an un-
usually early awakening of the passion of love. It
is certain that Thomson's affection for Matilda
Weller was no mere passing fancy, but was a deep


and abiding passion which affected his whole life,
upon which it had a greater influence than any
other event which happened to him.

It was at Ballincollig also that he first became
acquainted with Charles Bradlaugh, who was then a
private soldier in a dragoon regiment which was
stationed in the village. Of the friendship which
was formed between the two young men much
might be said were space available : here it can
only be noted that in spite of their very different
characters they at once became fast friends and
comrades, and remained so, not, unfortunately, to
the end, but for upwards of twenty eventful years.

After remaining at Ballincollig for rather more
than seventeen months, Thomson returned to the
"Normal School," Chelsea, in order to complete
the course of studies which it was necessary to
go through before being finally appointed to the
post of army-schoolmaster. At this time all things
were apparently going well with him, and a career,
not brilliant it might be, but yet somewhat better
than the common lot, seemed to be in store for
him. He had already resolved to gain distinction
as a poet, and meanwhile his position in the army
would secure him from that soul-destroying struggle
for the mere means of subsistence which has
exhausted the energies and destroyed the powers
of so many aspiring and finely-gifted spirits. But
soon the blow fell upon him which was to destroy
all his hopes of happiness. One morning in July,
1853, he received a letter containing the news that
Miss Weller was dangerously ill : the next morning
he heard that she was dead. That this was an
overwhelming blow to him, and that it affected his
whole after-life, can hardly be doubted. All his
hopes and all his plans for the future had been


bound up with her ; and with her death his chief
aim in life had been destroyed. Henceforth his
existence was that of one whose will was broken,
and who cared not whither he wandered, since
there was nowhere a Mecca or a Promised Land
wherein he might hope to find rest and peace. It
has indeed been doubted whether this event did
really affect him so deeply, and it has been argued
that it was rather the occasion than the cause of his
life-long unhappiness. Some other cause or causes,
it has been urged, would have produced the same
result even if Miss Weller had lived. As Carlyle
said, with regard to Novalis, whose case was some-
what similar to Thomson's —

"That the whole philosophical and moral existence
of such a man should have been shaped and deter-
mined by the death of a young girl, almost a child,
specially distinguished, so far as is shown, by nothing
save her beauty,* which at any rate must have been
very short-lived, will doubtless seem to everyone a
singular concatenation. We cannot but think that
some result precisely similar in moral effect might
have been attained by many different means ; nay,
that by one means or another it would not have failed
to be attained."

Whether it does or does not indicate an excessive
weakness of character to be so profoundly affected
by the death of a beloved one I will not now stop
to consider. What is certain is that such cases of
deep and abiding sorrow for loved and lost ones
are by no means uncommon among ordinary
mortals who have no claim to the possession of

* it

By nothing save her beauty ! " Surely a very unhappy
remark : as if one should say of Hercules that he was dis-
tinguished by nothing save his strength ; or of Shakespeare
that his only gift was his imagination !


genius. It surely argued a certain insensibility of
feeling on Carlyle's part to reason from his own
consciousness that he would not have been so
influenced by a young girl's death, that therefore
Novalis, whose character differed altogether from
his, could not have been so affected !

Whether, even if Miss Weller had lived, Thomson
would not still have suffered from his constitutional
unhappiness, it is surely vain to enquire, since it
must at best be a matter of mere conjecture.
"What's done we partly may compute," but not
what might have happened if events had taken a
different turn. I am myself unable to conceive
of any other misfortune which would have affected
Thomson as he was affected by the death of Miss
Weller. For any other calamity he would, I
believe, have found " some drop of comfort " in
his soul, and would have endured it stoically
enough. Let anyone who doubts the reality of
Thomson's life-long sorrow and regret for his lost
love read through his works, noting the many
passages in which she is referred to, and doubt
will then, I believe, be no longer possible.

In " A Lady of Sorrow," Thomson has described
the successive phases through which his sorrow
for his lost love passed. After recovering from the
first stunning blow, Sorrow visited him as an
Angel, or (partly at least) as an influence for good :
then as a Siren, destroying for him all human
delights, making him an alien from his kind, and
afflicting hiin with distaste for "all the uses of
the world " : and finally as a Shadow, ever present
with him, ever weighing upon his spirits, ever
driving him to muse upon the insoluble mysteries
of life and death, and ever whispering that death is
better than life, that life indeed is but a disease


and a martyrdom, and that the grave only is man's
true goal. This was the history of his inner life :
outwardly he remained to his work-fellows and
friends, after the first paroxysm of grief was over,
much the same as he had been previously.
Though he scarcely made a secret of the cause
of his unhappiness, and most of his friends had an
inkling of it, he does not seem to have taken any
of them entirely into his confidence about it.
Usually indeed he was very reticent as to his
personal affairs, and only spoke about himself, or
his literary work, when specially asked to do so.

Thomson finally enlisted as an army-school-
master in August, 1854, his first appointment being
to serve with a Militia regiment in Devonshire.
Afterwards he joined the Rifle Brigade at Alder-
shot, where he remained during 1855 and part of
1856. He was an efficient and painstaking teacher
in spite of the fact that he had little or no liking
for his chosen profession. He was always very
methodical and exact in his ways, and his own
thorough mastery of his subjects made it easy
for him to impart his knowledge to his pupils. In
a letter to a friend, written in familiar verse, he
thus expressed his feelings with regard to his
profession —

" — if now and then a curse (too intense for this light verse)
Should be gathering in one's spirit when he thinks of how

he lives,
With a constant tug and strain, knowing well it's all in

vain —
Pumping muddy information into unretentive sieves,
Let him stifle back the curse which but makes the matter

And by tugging on in silence earn his wages if he can ;
For the blessed eve and night are his own yet, and he

Fit sound bottoms to those sieves too were he not so weak

a man."


From Aldershot Thomson was removed to Ire-
land in the summer of 1856, where he served with
the 55th Foot, with which regiment he remained
until he left the army. During the years 1856-60
he was stationed either at Dublin or the Curragh
Camp. Here his life seems to have passed in a
somewhat monotonous routine. He chafed against
its dulness, and had a great longing for a more
active and adventurous career. He even discussed
with his friend, John Grant, who was, like himself,
an army-schoolmaster, and at that time a great
chum of his, a plan of deserting the army and
going to sea. If he could have found an adequate
field for the exercise and display of his practical
abilities, the result would probably have been
beneficial to him in the highest degree. But it
would have been necessary that circumstances
should force him into action ; for he was one of
those in whom, as in Hamlet, the power of acting
is enfeebled or destroyed by much brooding over
the consequences of action. That he was quite
conscious of this failing in himself is apparent from
a poem which he wrote on his twenty-third
birthday, wherein he reflects

" With even less of grief than sharp self-scorn "
upon his wasted and misused early years, which
should have brought strength, wisdom, faith and
love, but have left him a prey to languor of spirit,
unavailing regret, and disillusion.

" All lost for ever ! and the hours to come,

Poor refuse ! but our sole remaining wealth,

So much the likelier thence to share their doom !
The brain unused to mark insidious stealth,

Short-sighted eyes long filled with mist and gloom,
Lax hands uncustomed to the grasp of health,

That lost the fight in their best youth, — shall these

Victorious prove in languor and disease ? "


It must be confessed that this poem shows the
existence in its author of a somewhat morbid strain
of mind, and of a spirit of self-accusation some-
what similar to that exhibited at religious revivals
by the penitents who are anxious to show that they
have been great sinners in the past in order to
enhance the merit of their present state of grace.
In Thomson it was probably the outcome of
his mother's deep vein of piety ; or rather perhaps
a legacy derived from a long line of Calvinistic
forefathers. It is certain that there was no real
ground for the mood of penitence and self-reproach
which this poem displays. At twenty-three it is far
too early to despair, because one has not yet
performed any great deeds or attained to a settled
philosophy of life. That Thomson eventually
got the better of this mood, and came at length
to see that he was what he was by the law
of his nature, and that by no conceivable means
could he make himself otherwise, will be seen
further on.

Unlike most poets, Thomson did not make a
too-early appearance in print. It was in 1858,
when he was twenty-four years of age, that his first
verses were published. Much had been written
before then, but he was wise enough in after-life to
destroy the greater part of it. Therefore in his
case there is no " Hours of Idleness," no
" Wandering Jew," nor any other youthful folly to
rise up in judgment against him. Those early
poems of his which have been preserved — let us
say roughly all those written before 1862, two or
three only excepted — cannot be compared indeed
for power, artistry, or concentration of thought
with those written afterwards ; but they are not to
be dismissed as mere 'prentice work. They are all


worth studying for their own sake, and not merely
because they are the early effusions of a great
writer. In all of them there is that " fundamental
brainwork " which Dante Rossetti considered to be
the most essential quality in any work of art. Pie
was never content, as Browning often was, to leave
his conceptions .only half-realised, or imperfectly
welded into shape, but always laboured upon
them until he had clearly worked out his designs,
and had used his best of art in putting them into

Thomson's first published poem appeared in
February, 1858, in a small Freethought paper,
entitled, the London Lnvestigator. It was entitled
"Mr. Save-his-Soul-Alive-O," and was signed
'Bysshe Vanolis." This was the only occasion
upon which he used the full signature : afterwards
his poems and prose articles were signed " B. V."
only. "Bysshe," it seems, was adopted out of his
reverence for Shelley ; " Vanolis " appears to be an
anagram of " Novalis," the pen-name of the
German poet and mystic, Hardenberg, whose fate,
like Thomson's, was largely influenced by the
untimely death of a young girl to whom he was
devotedly attached.

During 1858- 1860 a good many of Thomson's
early poems appeared in Taifs Magazine, over the
signature of " Crepusculus." "Bertram to the
Lady Geraldine," "Tasso to Leonora," "The Lord
of the Castle of Indolence," and "A Festival of
Life," were among the poems which he contributed
to that periodical.

In 1858 Mr. Bradlaugh, who had left the army
in the previous year, and was then fairly started on
his career as a freethought writer and lecturer,
became the editor of the before- mentioned


periodical, the London Investigator. To this
Thomson contributed essays on Burns and
Emerson, and a prose allegory entitled " The
King's Friends."

In June i860, the regiment to which Thomson
was attached was transferred from the Curragh
Camp to Aldershot. This was a welcome change
to Thomson, who had long been weary of his
residence in Ireland. After his return to England
he took the opportunity of renewing his friendship
with some old friends of his parents and himself.
These were Mr. and Mrs. Gray and their daughters.
With one of the latter he had kept up a corre-

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Online LibraryBertram DobellThe laureate of pessimism: a sketch of the life and character of James Thomson (B.V.) → online text (page 1 of 6)