James Thomson (B.V.*)
The Laureate of Pessimism
‘The joy of grief.’ – Ossian
*B.V., the pen-name used by Thomson, is a contraction of Bysshe Vanolis. The ‘Bysshe’ was Shelley’s middle name; the ‘Vanolis’ is an anagram of Novalis, the pen-name of the German poet Fredrich von Hardenberg, whose life, like Thomson’s, was strongly affected by the death of a young girl to whom he was attached.
How vast the difference between the career and writings of the two James Thomsons! The poet of ‘The Seasons,’ as well as poor ‘B.V.,’ was a Scotsman; but the eighteenth-century Thomson was as fortunate as the other was the reverse. We need not grudge the earlier poet his comparatively prompt success. The man who first in his century turned the attention of poets from ethical gymnastics and society trifles to observation of nature, the country, and rural sights and scenes and sounds well deserved the sinecure post (as surveyor-general of the Leeward Islands, at £400 a-year) which enabled him to polish the stanzas of ‘The Castle of Indolence’ as he lounged and sucked the peaches in his garden at Richmond.
The one James Thomson was pretty much everything that the other was not. The author of ‘The Seasons’ was a son of the manse, had a university education, went to London at 25, found tutorial employment at once, and made a hit with his first poem ‘Winter’ the following year (1726).
The nineteenth-century Thomson was the son of a Greenock skipper, who died in ‘B.V.’s’ boyhood, and the orphaned lad, educated in a charity school (the Royal Caledonian Asylum), became an army schoolmaster. He disliked life in the army, and left it in 1862, to become in turn solicitor’s clerk, secretary of bubble companies, contributor to the National Reformer, contributor to ‘Cope’s Tobacco Plant,’ and finally miscellaneous journalist, but always having his mind occupied with unpopular themes and he himself showing even more than the usual traditional unskilfulness of the poet ‘to note the card of prudent lore.’
When all is said, the son of the Port Glasgow skipper is immeasurably the finer poet of the two. In power and passion, in brooding thought, in the quality of ‘heart,’ in the wedding of apt expression and sonorous music to the most intimate, fateful, and daring speculations of the human mind, the happy, indolent sinecurist was a child by comparison with the fate-buffeted poet of pessimism.
As a philosophy of life pessimism is probably anti-social; yet one is not quite sure. From at least the time of Job there have been pessimists, and it would be hard to say whether or not they have found less zest in life than the optimists. It is certain they have often been excellent citizens.
Broadly speaking, the optimist is one who hopes for the best and takes the world easily, often with excellent results to himself, or, as more often happens, to herself (for women are more optimistic than men). The results to society are a different matter.
The pessimist, on the other hand, full of a sense of the perversity of human affairs, lays himself out to play checkmate to Fate, to leave the fewest possible chances to Fortune to play him jade’s tricks. Thus, by guarding against the worst, he often secures the absolutely best.
The optimist believes that, all being for the best in this best of all possible worlds, given good intentions, he will contrive to muddle through.
The pessimist believes that man is his own providence; that nothing is but doing makes it so; that the choicest or most lavish gifts of Nature are useless unless turned to account by man the co-operator; that Nature has her own way of going forward with her work, and that while often she is kindly and beneficent, sometimes she can be appallingly cruel; in any case it is for man to look around and ahead, learning the law of her operations and co-operating with her kindness and exploiting it to the utmost, but guarding against her occasional caprice and cruelty.
An optimist will build and plant on the slope of a volcanic mountain, arguing, if he thinks about the matter at all, that the mountain has been quiet for generations and will surely last his time. The pessimist will labour elsewhere.
Of course there are degrees of both pessimism and optimism. Dr. Pangloss represents Voltaire’s satirical portrait of the unteachable optimist. The Brothers Cheeryble and Mark Tapley are among Dickens’s numerous attempts at the character of the optimist. Dickens’s cheerful characters must have exercised an exceedingly wholesome effect in checking mere grumbling and fostering a fashion of cheerfulness. Unfortunately his optimists are all minor characters, and the impression conveyed is that their outlook owes much of its roseate hue to comparative thoughtlessness and inexperience of life.
The moderate pessimism that makes men more careful is to the good; but excessive pessimism like that of James Thomson, instead of leading to the taking of extra care and pains, begets despair and the anticipation of failure half-way. The philosophy of the confirmed melancholiac is that ‘man was made to mourn,’ and that all attempts to combat Fate are foredoomed to failure. Others not so far gone have outfaced adversity with a heart for any fate. Samuel Johnson, Grimaldi the greatest and saddest of clowns, Heine chained to his mattress grave, all refused to be beaten. With a little luck, Thomson also might have done so. The descriptions of him as a young man are that he was ‘wonderfully clever, very nice-looking, and very gentle, grave, and kind.’ His portraits show the good looks, his writings prove all the rest and a good deal more. The man who conceived ‘Aquatics (Kew)’ and ‘Sunday up the River’ was witty and spirited and had a capacity for happy laughter.
But Thomson had sheer bad luck from the start. He was unlucky in being made an army schoolmaster. No branch of work in connection with the army could have suited one of his ideas and temperament, and as it happened, he was first sent to teach the rough and uncultivated men of a militia regiment. He was even more unlucky in the circumstances of his discharge from the army, which took place because of the minor fault of a brother schoolmaster. He lost his sweetheart by death at an early age, and mourned for her all his life. He was unlucky in the opinions he espoused and the associates with whom he consorted. A man who knew Latin, French, German, and Italian was worthy of a better change than Thomson made when he left the army to become a solicitor’s clerk. He was unlucky in his friendship with Mr. Bradlaugh and the fact that some of his best poetry appeared in The National Reformer, which could not give him the audience he deserved. His friends are of opinion that Mr. Bradlaugh, despite his kindness to the poet, did not appreciate his poetry, especially the best of it. Certain it is that readers of the National Reformer protested against the appearance in it of some of Thomson’s finest verse - that is to say, the greatest pieces of literature that ever did appear in the Reformer.
Thomson is said to have inherited a taste for drink. In any case the convivial habits of the army had taught him to drink, and his lonely life as a bachelor in London lodgings, his lifelong sorrow for the loss of his early love, and the precarious nature of the living he earned would all combine to foster irregular habits.
When in October, 1809, the poem ‘Sunday up the River’ appeared in Fraser’s Magazine, James Anthony Froude was so charmed with it that he conferred with Charles Kingsley on the subject, and Kingsley being of the same mind, Froude invited the poet to breakfast with him. They got on very well together, and it might have been hoped that something would come of the meeting. But if Froude and Kingsley admired ‘Sunday up the River,’ not many besides appear to have been struck with it. The critics did not ‘discover’ the new poet, and when he afterwards submitted the splendid ‘Weddah and Om-el-Bonain’ to Froude it was not accepted. Poor Thomson sent nothing further to that quarter. ‘Weddah’ finally appeared in the National Reformer. Thomson sent a copy to Mr. William Michael Rossetti, who recognised the beauty and power of the poem at once, and both the Rossetti brothers remained Thomson’s friends. ‘A Voice from the Nile’ appeared in the Fortnightly Review; but the bulk of Thomson’s work, and all the best of it, appeared in the National Reformer, and was almost, of course, as good as buried there.
When Thomson’s greatest poem, ‘The City of Dreadful Night,’ first appeared in the Bradlaughite sheet some notice was taken of it by The Academy and The Spectator, and the numbers containing it were in great demand. Among those who congratulated Thomson was George Eliot, whose letter was more esteemed by him than it deserved to be. The successful novelist had herself coveted success as a poet, and did not achieve it; but that does not prevent her from adopting a slight air of patronage in the following letter which she sent:
Dear Poet, - I cannot rest satisfied without telling you that my mind responds with admiration to the distinct vision and grand utterance in the poem which you have been so good as to send me.
Also, I trust that an intellect informed by so much passionate energy as yours will soon give us more heroic strains, with a wider embrace of human fellowship in them - such as will be to the labourers of the world what odes of Tyrtæus were to the Spartans, thrilling them with the sublimity of the social order and the courage of resistance to all that would dissolve it. To accept life and write much fine poetry is to take a very large share in the quantum of human good, and seems to draw with it necessarily some recognition, affectionate and even joyful, of the many willing labours which have made such a lot possible. - Yours sincerely, M. E. LEWIS.
An invitation to visit her home and some human fellowship extended to the poet would have been better than a stilted letter; and to an ordinary kind woman this would have seemed the natural and proper salve to apply to a spirit which could find expression in language like the opening stanzas of ‘The City’:-
Lo, thus, as prostrate, ‘In the dust I write
My heart’s deep languor and my soul’s sad tears.’
Yet why evoke the spectres of black night
To blot the sunshine of exultant years?
Why disinter dead faith from mouldering hidden?
Why break the seals of mute despair unbidden.
And wail life’s discords into careless ears?
Because a cold rage seizes one at whiles
To show the bitter old and wrinkled truth
Stripped naked of all vesture that beguiles,
False dreams, false hopes, false masks and modes of youth;
Because it gives some sense of power and passion
In helpless impotence to try to fashion
Our woes in living words howe’er uncouth.
Surely I write not for the hopeful young,
Or those who deem their happiness of worth,
Or such as pasture and grow fat among
The shows of life and feel nor doubt nor dearth,
Or pious spirits with a God above them
To sanctify and glorify and love them,
Or sages who foresee a heaven on earth.
For none of these I write, and none of these
Could read the writing if they deigned to try;
So may they flourish, in their due degrees,
On our sweet earth and in their unplaced sky.
If any cares for the weak words here written,
It must be someone desolate, Fate-smitten,
Whose faith and hope are dead, and who would die.
Yes, here and there some weary wanderer
In that same city of tremendous night
Will understand the speech and feel a stir
Of fellowship in all-disastrous fight;
‘I suffer mute and lonely, yet another
Uplifts his voice to let me know a brother
Travels the same wild paths, though out of sight.’
O sad Fraternity, do I unfold
Your dolorous mysteries shrouded from of yore?
Nay, be assured; no secret can be told
To any who divined it not before;
None uninitiate by many a presage
Will comprehend the language of the message,
Although proclaimed aloud for evermore.
The title of this great but unspeakably sad poem would doubtless be suggested by the insomnia to which Thomson was a victim. Several of his chief poems, such as ‘In the Room,’ ‘Mater Tenebrarum,’ and ‘Vane’s Story,’ suggest habits of midnight work and a mental activity in the night time which would be an affliction if the creative mood was not upon the poet. The Dantean gloom of ‘The City of Dreadful Night’ is unrelieved by the highly specific details in which the Italian poet indulges himself. Description, indeed, there is; but it is shadowy, tending to create an atmosphere rather than giving concrete details. It is bodeful, argumentative, compassionate with a glowing ineffable pity that has nothing to match it in literature. Thomson can be picturesque in many different styles of graphic delineation, but in ‘The City’ he has a message to deliver and is so full of it that he forgets the artifices of the picturesque. Argument, infinite pity, infinite passion are the staples of the poem, and there is not a weak or a slovenly line in it.
The way in which the phantoms of misery crowd upon the wakeful is reflected, as said, in much of Thomson’s work. In fact he has a poem with the title of ‘Insomnia,’ in which the bane of the actively minded is depicted with a power more simple and direct than in ‘The City of Dreadful Night.’ He says:-
I heard the sounding of the midnight hour;
The others one by one had left the room,
In calm assurance that the gracious power
Of sleep’s fine alchemy would bless the gloom,
Transmuting all its leaden weight to gold,
To treasures of rich virtues manifold.
New strength, new health, new life;
Just weary enough to nestle softly, sweetly,
Into divine unconsciousness, completely
Delivered from the world of toil and care and strife.
Just weary enough to feel assured of rest,
Of sleep’s divine oblivion and repose,
Renewing heart and brain for richer zest
Of waking life when golden morning glows,
As young and pure and glad as if the first
That ever on the void of darkness burst
With ravishing warmth and light;
On dewy grass and flowers and blithe birds singing,
And shining waters, all enraptured springing,
Fragrance and shine and song, out of the womb of night
But I with infinite weariness outworn,
Haggard with endless nights unblessed by sleep,
Ravaged by thoughts unutterably forlorn,
Plunged in despairs unfathomably deep,
Went cold and pale and trembling with affright
Into the desert vastitude of night,
Arid and wild and black;
Foreboding no oasis of sweet slumber,
Counting beforehand all the countless number
Of sands that are its minutes on my desolate track.
And so I went the last to my drear bed,
Aghast as one who should go down to lie
Among the blissfully unconscious dead,
Assured that as the endless years flowed by
Over the dreadful silence and deep gloom
And dense oppression of the stifling tomb,
He only of them all,
Nerveless and impotent to madness, never
Could hope oblivion’s perfect trance for ever:
An agony of life eternal in death’s pall.
The philosophy of this unhappy man did not in its main principles necessitate that he should be a pessimist at all. He sees in the Universe, he says, neither Good nor Evil; only Necessity.
I find no hint throughout the Universe
Of good or ill, of blessing or of curse;
I find alone Necessity Supreme;
With infinite Mystery, abysmal, dark,
Unlightened ever by the faintest spark,
For us the flitting shadows of a dream.
And again -
The world rolls round for ever like a mill;
It grinds out life and death and good and ill;
It has no purpose, heart, or mind, or will.
What we are here for is a question which many have asked and no one has answered. Walt Whitman was as optimistic a poet as Thomson was the reverse; yet while he says he does not know what anyone is here for he also says he will go on trying to find out. Meanwhile he sings the love of comrades, the lifelong love of comrades.
Is it not possible to be happy if we will master so much of the laws of life, learn enough of how the world-mill does its grinding and adapt ourselves to the requirements with as much of wisdom and courage and kindness to others as possible? If the universe is a grinding mill it is the business of philosophy to teach us how to avoid the wheels that would hurt us while making them do our offices, as already said.
Part two next month.
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