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James Thomson and His City of Dreadful Night

Updated on June 9, 2013

I’m sure I was not the only one intrigued by Romola Garai’s character in The Crimson Petal and the White reciting a brief quotation from James Thomson’s The City of Dreadful Night:

The world rolls round forever like a mill;

It grinds out death and life and good and ill;

It has no purpose, heart or mind or will.

- The City of Dreadful Night, Part 8

Notice Garai does not have the quotation exactly right. I don’t know if this was done intentionally or if it was just an honest flub. The City of Dreadful Night is the magnum opus of Scottish poet James Thomson. Not surprisingly the rest of his poem is about as bleak and miserable as its title and this quotation.

Thomson was not a stereotypical mad artist: instead he was more like the archetype for the depressed poet. There is little doubt that Thomson was bipolar. His nature was divided by what Henry Stephens Salt, his biographer, described as a lighthearted gaiety and rich sensuous capacity for enjoyment, being set side by side with a constitutional and ever-deepening melancholia. The City of Dreadful Night is Thomson’s masterwork not only as far as structure and grammar, but also because it truly told the tale of his outlook on life.

Portrait of James Thomson
Portrait of James Thomson | Source

Thomson’s Life

James Thomson was born in Scotland on November 23, 1834. What could have been a perfectly happy childhood was marred by the death of his sister, then of his mother, and finally his father – and all by the time Thomson was eight years of age. He finished his childhood in an orphanage and later moved to Ireland where he planned to be a schoolteacher in the army. Thomson was taken under the wing of his garrison master, Joseph Barnes, and was allowed to find a surrogate family at last. He also fell in love with a 14 year old girl named Matilda Weller. He was making enough money to seriously consider marriage. Thomson, full of hope, returned briefly to England to finish his studies. During July of 1853, however, he received news that Matilda had suddenly become sick. She died in Tipperary before Thomson even had a chance to say goodbye. He was now only 18 years old.

The death of Matilda Weller sent James Thomson into the depths of despair. He suffered a breakdown and managed to finish his studies and return to his work only by suppressing his feelings of loss. Matilda was his one great love, and her death left an indelible mark on Thomson’s life and work.

Squalid London street scene from around the time Thomson was writing The City of Dreadful Night
Squalid London street scene from around the time Thomson was writing The City of Dreadful Night | Source

The City of Dreadful Night

Thomson left the service sometime around 1863. By this time he was a pessimistic atheist. He made enough money writing poems for various magazines to get by, but he never exactly became a national celebrity. As he closed himself off from his few friends he began wandering aimlessly across both Britain and America. He started writing The City of Dreadful Night in 1870 during a bout of insomnia which left Thomson wandering around the streets of London witnessing the darkest parts of city life.

The poem is a combination of elements from Dante’s Inferno, the disgust and distrust of urbanity that was common in many people at that period, and above all, the deepest despair that can be felt by humankind. It is perhaps ironical that Thomson never reached such depths of agony as he did when writing The City of Dreadful Night; at the same time, he never reached such an artistic height. The poem may seem to dark for the majority of people. However, Thomson seemed to expect this when he wrote:

If any cares for the weak words here written,

It must be someone desolate

James Thomson essentially drank himself to death and died in a London alley on June 3, 1882. He was 47 years old.

B.V. – James Thomson’s Penname

Throughout most of his literary life, James Thomson was known as Bysshe Vanolis, or simply as B.V. He chose his penname from Percy Bysshe Shelley and Novalis, two of his idols. Thomson would have considered Shelley a kindred spirit because of their similar views on atheism. Novalis was the penname of Georg Philipp Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772-1801), a German poet whose most famous work, Hymnen an die Nacht or Hymns to the Night, was an obvious influence on Thomson’s The City of Dreadful Night.

Even after his death his name is often written as “James Thomson (B.V.)”. This is done mainly to distinguish him from another Scottish poet, also named James Thomson, who lived from 1700 to 1748.

While we’re on the subject of distinguishing between similar names, Thomson’s The City of Dreadful Night should not be confused with an 1891 short story of the same name by Kipling. Although the similar title was without a doubt meant as a tribute to Thomson, Kipling’s story is on a completely different subject and is more along the lines of a satire.

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    • SilentReed profile image

      SilentReed 3 years ago from Philippines

      Poets suffering from depression seem to create works of greater depth and sensitivity.:) This article has me intrigued to know more about James Thomson and his poetry. Thank you for the introduction.

    • LastRoseofSummer2 profile image
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      LastRoseofSummer2 3 years ago from Arizona

      SilentReed - Thank you so much! If you feel that way it means I must have written the hub properly :)

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