James Thomson (1834-1882) Analysis
by James Thomson

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James Thomson (1834-1882) Analysis

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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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.

“Philosophy”

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 poem “Looked through and through the specious earth and skies,” making him akin to the “City of Dreadful Night” inhabitants who see that “all is vanity and nothingness.” The question he faces, “How could he vindicate himself?,” parallels the struggle to find solace and meaning in the longer poem of 1874.

“Philosophy” presents an optimistic vision, even in its rationality, and makes an argument for the importance of human love, echoing his earlier poem “The Deliverer” (1859). It ends with one of the most charming moments in Thomson’s works, a quatrain on an insect:

If Midge will pine and curse its hours awayBecause Midge is not Everything For-aye,Poor Midge thus loses its one summer day;Loses its all—and winneth what, I pray?

“In the Room”

A subdued yet powerful poem, “In the Room” (1867-1868) is a tour de force in which the objects of a room speak to one another, as though animate beings equipped with speech and memory. The object of their conversation is their sense of a change having occurred in the room, which is revealed to be the death of the room’s lone inhabitant, whose life had been quiet and unhappy. Remarkable not only for its conceit but also for its execution, “In the Room” is a focused and unsentimental exploration of the theme of isolation, found in many other Thomson poems.

“The City of Dreadful Night”

A long poem of unusual emotional strength, thematic consistency, and intellectual rigor, “The City of Dreadful Night” offers the tale of a man consigned to existence in a “City of the Night,” whose only dwellers are “melancholy Brothers.” Divided into twenty-one cantos, the poem alternates between sections of a descriptive and reflective nature, and of a narrative nature.

The unfortunate main character travels through a series of telling situations and incidents, first overhearing conversations alongside a darkened river, unveiling the nature of the city. He discovers a palace lighted as for a festival and finds inside a bier with a dead young girl, over whom a young man kneels in sorrow. He then approaches a cathedral, whose doorkeeper demands each entrant’s story. Each of these brief stories ends with what amounts to an invocation: “I wake from daydreams to this real night.”

Inside the cathedral, he listens to a “great sad voice” from the pulpit who raises the question of the search for meaning that propels the poem and speaks of the beckoning solace of oblivion, an idea introduced in the poem’s first canto as the “One anodyne for torture and despair.” The speaker at the pulpit leaves a message ringing in the ears of his listeners: “End it when you will,” he says, perhaps referring to the river in canto 19.

The poem ends with a series of striking tableaux. Canto 19 speaks of the “River of Suicides” and describes the ways different suffering souls enter its waters. Canto 20 describes a silent confrontation between an armed angel and an impassive sphinx, in which the latter, whose “vision seemed of infinite void space,” emerges the motionless victor. The final canto, 21, describes a great “bronze colossus of a winged Woman,” named Melancolia. It is to her the strong turn their eyes, “to drink new strength of iron endurance,” while the weak look to her for “new terrors.”

Like the much shorter “Philosophy,” “The City of Dreadful Night” both reaffirms and issues a challenge to the Deist rationalism and free thinking Thomson embraced in his own life. In the poem, God is a “dark delusion of a dream,” yet the poem warns both specifically and in its imagery against a way of thinking “most rational and yet insane” and embodies the search for meaning and solace in an indifferent universe found also in “Philosophy.”

“A Voice from the Nile”

Written in 1881, “A Voice from the Nile” (from A Voice from the Nile, and Other Poems) strikes a different chord from many of Thomson’s other works, the central conceit being that the river Nile itself is the poem’s speaker. The great river observes the various animal inhabitants on its shores and notes how they exist contentedly within their various spheres of existence. The river then observes the “children of an alien race,” the people who built great structures along its shores. “. . . Man, this alien in my family,/ Is alien most in this, to cherish dreams/ And brood on visions of eternity . . .” More than any other characteristic in humankind, the river Nile focuses on the “religions in his brooding brain” as the characteristic that estranges humankind from the rest of nature. “O admirable, pitiable Man,” the river says. The poem has unusual rhetorical impact, establishing a nearly pastoral tone before developing its rationalist theme with increasing incisiveness.