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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

§ 13. The City of Dreadful Night

Thomson was a man of genius who, in the blunt common phrase, “went wrong.” Weakness of will, and some insidious inherited malady, accounted much more for his misfortunes than any vicious propensity or deliberately perverse conduct. All his friends bear testimony to the genial and sunny side of his character; kind, courteous and chivalrous in his ways, he won the love and the esteem of those who came into closest contact with him. “A man,” writes his editor and biographer, Bertram Dobell, “could hardly wish for a better companion than he was; while as regards women there was a charm about him which invariably made them his friends and admirers.” But “Melancholy, of … blackest midnight born,” marked him for her own, and, under her baleful influence, he fell a helpless victom to intemperance and disease. This is the first consideration to be taken into account in any judgment of Thomson’s poetry. The City of Dreadful Night, he wrote to George Eliot, “was the outcome of much sleepless hypochondria.” It is not the utterance of a sane mind; but, whatever one may think about the sanity of the poem, nobody can fail to recognise, and feel, its sincerity. Human life, on Thomson’s experience and interpretation of it, was one long “all-disastrous fight” against a blind destiny. The infinite pathos and the pain of the self-sacrificing souls who, throughout the ages, had “striven to alleviate our lot,” did not seem to him to have “availed much against the primal curse of our existence.”

It is strange to find that, of all English poets, the one who influenced this latter-day prophet of despair most was he who sang of the indomitable hope that

  • creates
  • From its own wreck the thing it contemplates.
  • Next to him, among his literary favourites, came, perhaps, Heine, many of whose lyrics he has finely translated, and the arch-optimist Browning. Thomson’s admiration for Shelley is indicated by the pseudonym “Bysshe Vanolis”—the latter part being an anagram of Novalis, another of his chosen authors—under which, using generally only the initials B. V., he wrote many of his contributions to The National Reformer and other periodicals. Of both Browning and Shelley he wrote some admirable prose critiques, which, with other things of the kind, attest not only Thomson’s catholicity of literary taste and sympathy but his acute insight and sound judgment as a critic. His studies of Ben Jonson, Blake, John Wilson, James Hogg, Walt Whitman, Heine and others—many of them originally written for The Secularist, and for that most intellectual of tobacconists’ advertising journals, Cope’s Tobacco Plant—constitute a budget of prose criticism which even the leading lights of the greater reviews might have been proud to own. Nor is it fair to judge the range and variety of his poetical powers by The City of Dreadful Night alone. His collected poems form, in mere substance and extent, a very considerable literary legacy, and prove that he could sing in many a key. The two separate volumes of poetry published just before his death—The City of Dreadful Night and other Poems (1880) and Vane’s Story and other Poems (1881 [1880])—contain nearly all his best work. In these volumes, poems like To Our Ladies of Death, a finely conceived little phantasy “suggested,” in the author’s words, “by the sublime sisterhood of Our Ladies of Sorrow” in the Suspiria de Profundis of De Quincey; an oriental tale called Weddah and Om-el-Bonain; Vane’s Story, a personal confession, well exhibit his range of interests and his skill as a versifier. Among poems otherwise published should be noted his tribute to Shelley (1861), and Insomnia (1882)—a fitting pendant, in its terror and gloom, to The City of Dreadful Night. As a lyric poet, Thomson ranks high, and every thoughtful reader of his lighter verse will have little patience with those who assert that the most depressing of his poems is his only title to literary distinction. Two poems, in particular, have often, and deservedly, been singled out as delightful examples of his lighter vein—Sunday up the River and Sunday at Hampstead, both “genuine idyls of the people,” as his friend, Philip Bourke Marston called them, “charged with brightness and healthy joy in living.” The weakness of most of Thomson’s verse, with all his metrical skill and his astonishing command of rime, lies in its carelessness, not to say slovenliness, of execution, and in a constant tendency to fall into a hard and glittering rhetoric, reminiscent of Byron at his worst. When all is told, however, The City of Dreadful Night, with its “inspissated gloom,” inevitably remains his most haunting and powerful production—a poetical monument well nigh unique in its sombre and awe-inspiring splendour. It is a poem that takes no account of such pleasant theories as Matthew Arnold’s, that “the right art is that alone which creates the highest enjoyment.” But he would be a bold man who denied the right of utterance, even in poetry, to feelings so intense and real as those which tore and tortured the heart of James Thomson.