Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

James Thomson wrote criticism, journalism, essays, and imaginative prose works from the early 1860’s through his last years, primarily for magazines dedicated to the Free Thought movement, including the London Investigator and National Reformer. His subjects were often literary, as in his essays on Walt Whitman and fellow atheist poet George Meredith. One selection of Thomson’s essays, Essays and Phantasies (1881), appeared in book form in the poet’s lifetime. Several posthumous volumes followed, including one volume of his translations.

James Thomson (1834-1882) Achievements

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

James Thomson’s long narrative poem “The City of Dreadful Night” established the poet’s reputation, although many critics were slow to recognize its qualities. In its monumental depiction of a lone soul’s journey through a city bathed in darkness, it communicated a melancholy yet beautiful vision of the human condition, a vision distinctively different from those offered by Thomson’s contemporaries. The poem earned him the appellation “laureate of pessimism,” given him by Bertram Dobell.

The poem’s impact was acknowledged by such contemporaries as George Eliot and George Meredith, and by such later figures as Rudyard Kipling and T. S. Eliot, the latter whose The Waste Land (1922) is considered by some critics a direct literary descendent. In this and others of his works, in both subject and literary tone, Thomson expressed a sensibility more akin to that found in the poetry of the twentieth century than in that of the nineteenth.

James Thomson (1834-1882) Bibliography

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Dobell, Bertram. The Laureate of Pessimism: A Sketch of the Life and Character of James Thomson (“B. V.”), Author of “The City of Dreadful Night.” 1910. Reprint. Charleston, S.C.: BiblioLife, 2009. Dobell was the editor of some of Thomson’s work and helped him in his career. His biography provides an interesting perspective on Thomson.

Gerould, Gordon Hall. Poems of James Thomson “B. V.” New York: Henry Holt, 1927. Gerould’s early evaluation of Thomson’s poetry remains valuable for its balanced defense and consideration of poems beyond the most frequently considered works. He observes that Thomson pursued his art for twenty-five years. Thomson’s finest work, he also argues, was not the product of bursts of inspiration. “It was the work of a man whose capacity for steady effort was as marked as his imaginative power,” a fact made more striking in that it “continued without the stimulus of an audience.” Gerould notes the “austere but melodic dignity” found in Thomson’s works.

Leonard, Tom. Places of the Mind: The Life and Work of James Thomson (“B. V.”). London: Cape, 1993. Leonard’s carefully researched, documentary account gives factual depth to the story of Thomson and his times, shedding light on the poet’s surroundings, friends, and writings. The book includes extensive writings and letters...

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