James Thomson was a Scottish poet and playwright. He was born in Scotland. He attended the Royal Caledonian Asylum school when the family moved to London. He was trained as an army schoolmaster, in which capacity he was sent in 1851-2 to Ireland, where he met Charles Bradlaugh, who became his staunch friend, and also a young girl, Matilda Weller, who died in 1853 but who became an important symbolic figure in Thomson’s later poetry.
Between 1852 and 1862 he worked at army stations in England and Ireland and wrote much poetry, some of which was accepted by various journals, including Bradlaugh’s National Reformer. For his early work, he used the pseudonym B.V., representing his admiration for P. B. Shelley with “Bysshe’ and for the German poet Hardenberg (Novalis’) with ‘Vanolis’. Signs of growing alcoholism appeared in the late 1850s and in 1862. Thomson was discharged from the army, probably for drunkenness. He came to London, and until 1868 lodged with the Bradlaugh.
He took various jobs and wrote poems, essays, and translations for several magazines, publishing among other work Vane’s Story’, ‘Sunday up the River’, and ‘Sunday at Hampstead’. ‘Weddah”, a long poem relating to a tragic Arabian love story, appeared in 1871 and led to a friendship with W. M. Rossetti. For part of 1872 Thomson was with a gold company in Colorado, and in 1873 in Spain as a war reporter; on his return, he completed his best-known poem, ‘The City of Dreadful Night’, which appeared in the National Reformer in 1874, and received some favorable notice, including encouragement from George Eliot and later from George Meredith. This long poem, which much influenced the mood of fin-de-siècle poetic pessimism is a powerful evocation of a half-ruined city, a ‘Venice of the Black Sea’, through which flows the River of the Suicides; the narrator, in vain search of ‘dead Faith, dead Love, dead Hope’, encounters tormented shades wandering in a Dantesque hell, over which presides the sombre and sublime figure of Melancolia (based on Albrecht Dürer’s engraving of 1514).
In 1880 his first volume of verse, The City of Dreadful Night and Other Poems, and a second volume later in the same year, were well received. Essays and Phantasies appeared in 1881. But his alcoholism was by now out of control; Satires and Profanities was published posthumously in 1884.