James Thomson was born to Scottish parents whose chief characteristics became some of his own. His father, an officer of the merchant marine, was known for his geniality and love of drink, while his mother was known for her melancholy.
Thomson’s father was a chief officer in a ship out of Greenock, Scotland, when he was disabled by a paralytic stroke in 1840. He moved the family to London, where within two years the young Thomson was admitted to the Royal Caledonian Asylum, an institution for the children of indigent Scottish servicemen. His ailing mother died soon thereafter, in 1842.
Thomson’s relatives determined his future as an army schoolmaster and in 1850 enrolled him in the military normal school of the Royal Military College at Chelsea. Successful in his studies, Thomson was posted in 1851 as assistant teacher in a regimental school in Ballincollig, near Cork, Ireland. His nearly year-and-a-half stay there proved pivotal. He made friends with a trooper in the dragoons, Charles Bradlaugh, who later would become an editor and leading proponent of the Free Thought movement in England. He also fell in love with the young Matilda Weller. To Thomson’s great despair, she died soon after his duties took him back to Chelsea. To his dying day, he kept a curl of her hair in a locket.
Made an army schoolmaster in 1854, for the next eight years he served in Devonshire, Dublin, Aldershot, Jersey, and Portsmouth. He also began his career as a poet. His works appeared in periodicals including the Edinburgh Magazine above the signature “B. V.” The first initial represented “Bysshe,” to invoke Percy Bysshe Shelley, while the second represented “Vanolis,” an anagram on Novalis, pseudonym of German Romantic poet Friedrich von Hardenberg. Thomson’s identification with the latter was strengthened by the fact that Hardenberg’s one love had also died in childhood.
In 1862, Thomson was court-martialed and dismissed from the army along with several companions, ostensibly for a minor rules infraction. Thomson’s dismissal also may have been due to his increasing suffering from melancholy and bouts of drunkenness.
Bradlaugh came to his aid, taking him in and helping him locate work, initially as a clerk and later as a journalist. Thomson wrote for the freethinker journal London Investigator and subsequently for National Reformer, which eventually came under Bradlaugh’s sole editorship. In these journals Thomson, as “B. V.,” enjoyed a growing, if still small, reputation as both poet and dedicated proponent of rationalism. Conversant in several languages, he also translated the works of Giacomo Leopardi, Heinrich Heine, and Novalis, among others.
Earning only a meager living through these writings, Thomson was forced to live in single-room apartments in the London slums. He briefly held two promising positions in the early 1870’s. In 1872-1873, he served as secretary for London’s Champion Gold and Silver Mines Company, which sent him to Central City, Colorado, for nine months to inspect its holdings. These being worthless, the company went into bankruptcy soon after Thomson’s return.
Later in 1873, Bradlaugh helped Thomson obtain a post with the New York World to report on the Spanish civil conflict between Royalists and Republicans, a conflict that proved of such low intensity it provided inadequate material for coverage, leading to his recall after six weeks.
The following year brought Thomson new recognition, however. His masterwork, The City of Dreadful Night, and Other Poems, appeared in serial form in the weekly National Reformer , in issues from March 22 through May 17, 1874. Among those taking notice was Dobell, who met the poet and arranged for the publication of Thomson’s first book in 1880. By then, however, Thomson and Bradlaugh had broken off their friendship, in part due to the influence of Bradlaugh’s new associate and future theosophist, Annie Besant. Thereafter Thomson’s writings appeared in another Free...
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