The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

IV. Matthew Arnold, Arthur Hugh Clough, James Thomson

§ 12. James Thomson

Although James Thomson, second poet of the name, belongs to no school, and defies classification with any poetic fraternity, his place in literary history is, perhaps, most appropriately fixed in proximity to the poets of doubt and of “the sceptical reaction.” But he stands quite apart from his companions both in personal character and temperament and in the life-long struggle which he was condemned to wage with what might well seem to him a malign fate. In the poetry of the others, even the depths of their despair are not without gleams of something divine. But all that is most authentic and arresting in the poetry of James Thomson is absolutely “without hope, and without God in the world.” It is the poetry of sheer, overmastering, inexorable despair—a passionate, and almost fierce, declaration of faith in pessimism as the only true philosophy of life. Here we have one who unequivocally affirms

  • that every struggle brings defeat
  • Because Fate holds no prize to crown success;
  • That all the oracles are dumb or cheat
  • Because they have no secret to express;
  • That none can pierce the vast black veil uncertain
  • Because there is no light behind the curtain;
  • That all is vanity and nothingness.
  • The City of Dreadful Night, from which these lines are taken, is far from being all that is of account in the poetry of Thomson; he could strike other, and more cheerful, chords. But this poem is so distinctively individual and sincere an utterance springing from the depths of the poet’s own feelings and experience, and is so powerful and original a thing in itself, as to make it the one supreme achievement in verse by which Thomson is, and probably will be, remembered.

    James Thomson was the son of a sailor and was born at Port Glasgow in November, 1834. While he was quite a small boy, a sudden breakdown in his father’s health brought the family into very low circumstances, and forced them to seek better fortune in London. At the age of nine, he was admitted to the Royal Caledonian Asylum, where he spent probably the happiest eight years of his life. In 1850, he entered the military training school at Chelsea, with a view to qualifying as an army schoolmaster. In 1851, he was appointed teacher in a garrison station at Ballincollig, a village near Cork, and here he met two persons who had no small influence upon his subsequent career. One was a young girl, Matilda Weller by name, for whom the poet formed a passionate attachment, and whose early death appears to have left him wandering, on his own testimony, in

  • a waste of arid woe
  • Never refreshed by tears.
  • At Ballincollig, he also met Charles Bradlaugh, then a trooper in a regiment of dragoons, and it was mainly under his tuition that Thomson became an atheist, and, subsequently, cast in his lot with a small but intrepid London band of free-thinking journalists. For several years during his chequered career as a journalist in London, Thomson found in Bradlaugh a stead-fast friend and benefactor. He was for some length of time an inmate of Bradlaugh’s household, and a constant contributor of prose and verse to The National Reformer, in the columns of which The City of Dreadful Night made its first appearance in 1874. Thomson’s career in the army ceased in 1862, when he was dismissed because of a somewhat trivial act of insubordination. He afterwards became a solicitor’s clerk, then secretary to a mining company in America, a war correspondent in Spain, and, finally, a journalistic free-lance in London. His later years, darkened by poverty and ill-health, largely due to insomnia and intemperate habits, were spent in London, and he died at University college hospital, under distressing circumstances, in June, 1882.