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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By James Thomson (1834–1882)

THE STRANGE somber genius of the second James Thomson found its ultimate and most perfect utterance in that remarkable poem ‘The City of Dreadful Night,’ likely to remain long the litany of pessimism in English verse. It is a work of gloomy but splendid imagination, with a rhythmical mastery and sonorous beauty of diction which declare its author plainly a man of rare poetic gift. ‘The City of Dreadful Night’ stands as one of the unique productions of nineteenth-century poetry. It is Thomson’s letter of credit on posterity. His other poems shrink into insignificance beside it; yet they too, while lacking the technical perfection and sustained power of his masterpiece, have touches of the same high quality.

Thomson’s life was that of a roving bohemian journalist and literary hack. He was born in Port Glasgow, Scotland, on November 24th, 1834; was educated in the Caledonian Orphan Asylum, and entered the British army as regimental schoolmaster. His acquaintance there with Charles Bradlaugh, whose agnostic views were acceptable to him, led to his becoming a contributor to the National Reformer, when the former established it in 1860. After leaving the military service, Thomson gave himself up to literature, writing much for radical papers. His earliest work appeared in Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, and his best poems in Bradlaugh’s periodical,—‘To Our Ladies of Death’ in 1863, and ‘The City of Dreadful Night’ in 1874. He came to America in 1872 on a mining speculation of unsuccessful issue; and while in this country, was commissioned by the New York World to go to Spain as special correspondent. In this newspaper work he used the pen-name Bysshe Vanolis, which he shortened to B. V.,—the one name indicating his passion for Shelley, the other being an anagram on the German romantic poet Novalis. When Thomson was a young man in the Army, stationed in Ireland, he won the love of a girl whose premature death affected him deeply,—intensifying what seems to have been a natal tendency towards hypochondria. Irregular habits in later life developed this; and he became a victim of alcohol and opium in the desire to escape insomnia and drown melancholy. He died miserably before his time, in the London University Hospital, June 3d, 1882, aged 48. His poems were published in collected form in 1880. There is a biography of him by Salt.

Thomson’s spirit brooded on the night side of things, and there is a weird, mystic quality to his imaginings. He is, in his greatest poem, a master of the gloomy, the phantasmal, and the irremediably sad, expressed in statuesque form and stately, mournful music. He is of the school of Poe in the command of the awful; metrically, he suggests comparison with Swinburne; and his creed is that of the Italian poet-pessimist Leopardi, to whom his book of verse is dedicated. But his note is entirely distinctive: there is nothing imitative about ‘The City of Dreadful Night.’ It stands like a colossal image hewn out of black marble, to be admired as wonderful art in the same breath that it is deplored as the morbid outcome of genius. Of its decided merit there can be no question. Negation and despair have seldom found a sincerer, a more poignant, and a more majestic utterance.