James Thomson (1834-1882) Critical Essays

James Thomson


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

While Dobell dubbed James Thomson the “laureate of pessimism,” a title that accurately captures the initial impression given by some of his works, the appellation has the unfortunate effect of leading readers to ignore one of Thomson’s major concerns. The poet spoke of despair, undoubtedly, but he did so to seek a way past the pessimism that pure rationalism had a tendency to produce.

While “The City of Dreadful Night” seems outwardly about despair, it pointedly concerns itself with questions about the meaning and purpose of life in an indifferent universe. The narrator of the poem and many of its other shadowy characters persist with their lives despite the prevailing despair, a fact in keeping with the conclusion stated in the poem’s final lines: while the weak despair, the strong endure. Facing the mystery central to existence, “The strong . . . drink new strength of iron endurance,/ The weak new terrors.”

Perceiving the oppositions at work within the human mind as well as within the larger universe, Thomson embraced rationalism without dismissing the simple joys possible in life. In both shorter and longer works, he concerned himself with topics born of rationalism, in terms that are deeply emotional. His attitude is most clearly summed up in “Philosophy” (1866).

Thomson’s poetry is marked by a measured clarity of image and language, guided by a strong narrative instinct. The poems are largely stanzaic, often structured with repeating motifs or phrases to help emphasize their dramatic movement.

“The Doom of a City”

Subtitled “A Fantasia,” the early long poem “The Doom of a City” (1857) anticipated “The City of Dreadful Night” in its imagery and thematic elements. Divided into the three sections, “The Voyage,” “The City,” and “The Judgments,” the poem offers a journey across a strange, storm-tossed sea to a darkness-shrouded city whose inhabitants have been frozen into stonelike stillness. The tragedy the traveler discovers, which the reader takes to be the source of the city’s doom, is the motionless funeral procession for a beautiful young girl.

The traumatic experience of having a loved one die too young and too soon, Thomson would later address directly in his short poem “Indeed You Set Me in a Happy Place” (1862), which ends with the lines, “Ah, ever since her eyes withdrew their light,/ I wander lost in blackest stormy night.” In the earlier “The Doom of a City,” the vision of the dead girl evokes the transitory nature of beauty and youth, and the fleeting pleasures of life. The early date of this poem’s composition reveals the lifelong nature of Thomson’s struggle to deal with the opposition between a relentlessly changing universe and the ephemeral possibility of personal joy.


The four-canto poem “Philosophy” presents in capsule form Thomson’s concern with the implications of rational or scientific thought and embodies many of his major thematic concerns. The unidentified central character of the...

(The entire section is 1268 words.)