ames Thomson was born in 1834 in Port Glasgow in Scotland. His early life was hard; his father, a sailor, was semi-paralysed by a stroke when he was four, his baby sister died from measles which she caught from him, and his mother died of dropsy when he was nine. He was placed in an orphanage in London and then sent to a military academy. (He spoke with an English, even a London, accent). Later he joined the Army as a schoolmaster. One lucky break was meeting the teenage Charles Bradlaugh, then a trooper in a regiment of Dragoons, in barracks in Ireland. (Bradlaugh was already the atheist republican who later founded The National Reformer.) In Ireland, some claimed, Thomson fell in love with the daughter of a regimental armourer; she was only thirteen, and was dead within eighteen months. Her loss destroyed his whole life. Not so, says Bradlaugh; Thomson romanticised a memory after many years of very heavy drinking. He also suggested that Thomson made a habit of idealising women, without being close to them, throughout his short life.
In 1862 Thomson was dishonourably discharged from the Army. Why is not all that clear. At his court-martial he was charged with disobeying an order and disrespectful conduct. For this he was reduced in rank. Soon after, however, his Commanding Officer asked to have to him discharged. This may have been related to Thomson's history of drunkenness. Meanwhile, back in London, he moved in with Bradlaugh and his family and also went to work for him as secretary in the offices of the The National Reformer. In 1869 he destroyed all his private papers. I don't think we know why, but it has made writing his life in full very much harder. In 1872, after Bradlaugh had been made bankrupt, Thomson was sent to Colorado by a company interested in buying gold and silver mines. He stayed six months and seems to have achieved very little, though he did discover a case of embezzlement (the embezzler fled). He lasted six weeks in his next job, as a war correspondent in Spain for the New York World. Thomson was with the Carlist army (Don Carlos VII was trying to regain the throne) but was recalled for failing to file a single proper story. He did get sunstroke, however. Back in England he began to make a meagre living as a freelance journalist, writing not only for Bradlaugh's National Reformer but also (when he'd fallen out with him) for Cope's Tobacco Plant, a publication devoted to the pleasures and benefits of nicotine and smoking. He also provided a few articles for The Secularist. Usually he wrote under the initials BV: from Bysshe (Shelley) and Vanolis, an anagram of the German poet and writer Novalis. He translated Heine (Karl Marx said his translation was what Heine himself would have written had he known English) and Leopardi.
In spite of his bad beginning, Thomson had more chances than most but was, through some psychological flaw, unable to grasp them. William Michael Rossetti, for example, asked him to dinner: he said he had no evening wear: he was told it didn't matter: he accepted — and then failed to turn up. And even in his last chaotic few months he was able to place work with the Gentlemen's Magazine and the Athenaeum, although by then he was hopelessly in debt and very poor and shabby. One biographer thought he might have been a manic-depressive given to binge drinking. Friends contrasted his personal wit and good company with the misery of much of his verse.
He was both a heavy smoker and an alcoholic. Oddly for a heavy drinker, he was also an insomniac who spent entire nights till dawn pacing the dark streets of London. His last couple of years passed in a frenzy of drink and bad behaviour. He had made friends in Leicester through the local Secularist Society but abused their hospitality until the lady of the house could stand it no longer and asked him to leave (he'd been hiding brandy bottles in odd places including a tree stump in the garden). On one occasion, back in his London lodgings, he locked himself in the lavatory for six hours: even the police couldn't get him out. Later his landlord brought a charge of arson against him when he set fire to the back-kitchen in the small hours of the morning. Even worse, he robbed an elderly women who kept a small shop. She knew him (and obviously he knew her) and declined to press charges. On another occasion three policemen couldn't subdue him (and he was a small man of under five feet six). Once, when he was on a drunk and disorderly charge, the magistrate saw through the false name he had given and was lenient with him, but even so Thomson soon owed the Bow Street police court fifty shillings in unpaid fines. He served fourteen days in jail.
Nicotine or alcohol might have killed him in the end, but before they could he died of a burst blood vessel. Not a good death, either, it seems. A friend found him lying on a bed in the dark. He struck a match and saw the blood soaked pillow. 'I'm dying,' Thomson told him. He was taken by cab to University College hospital. The lesion seems to have been in the bowel (of which little was left, according to one report) and the bleeding couldn't be staunched. He died a day or so later, conscious almost to the end. It was June 1882. Thomson was forty-seven.
Edwin Adams, a journalist and a friend of Bradlaugh's, said Thomson was "a man of gloomy aspect, manners, and ideas. Even his smile was sad. It seemed as if he was suffering from an irrepressible sorrow. Life to him was not a mission, but a mistake." His own life Thomson once called 'a long defeat'.
Thomson wrote essays, polemics, literary criticism, and poems. He was an atheist and a republican but his arguments against religion and the Monarchy — often expressed in callow sarcasm — are neither profound nor original [To see if you agree with this criticism, follow the links above to some of his satires, which some of us find quite effective. GPL] . Swinburne said he wrote "some of the silliest and most offensive rubbish whether regarded from the point of view of a poet, a critic, or a free thinker." He is remembered now, almost entirely, for his long poem The City of Dreadful Night. And his problem? Immaturity, perhaps, and the insecurity, arrogance, bitterness and self-absorption it brings. I think, too, he had an introverted temperament; his inner world was what mattered most to him, but it was fogged and sickly and he felt disconnected from it. (He seemed aware of this, in fact, and said something not too dissimilar about himself.) His prose, arguably, was better than his verse but only in The City of Dreadful Night did he really find himself and write seriously and deeply about something he knew intimately and at first hand — his own inner being.
Adams, Edwin William. Memoirs of a Social Atom. Hutchinson. London 1903.
Leonard, Tom. Places of the Mind: the Life and Works of James Thomson (BV). Jonathan Cape. London 1993.
Ridler, Anne. Poems and Some Letters of James Thomson.Southern Illinois University Press. Carbondale 1963.
Salt, H S. The Life of James Thomson (BV). Reeves and Turner. London 1889
Last modified 20 February 2007