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portrait of Thomson from A Voice from the Nile, and Other Poems,

James Thomson (November 23, 1834 – June 3, 1882), published under the pseudonym Bysshe Vanolis, was a Scottish Victorian-era poet famous primarily for the long poem The City of Dreadful Night (1874), an expression of bleak pessimism in a dehumanized, uncaring urban environment.


Thomson was born in Port Glasgow, Scotland, and, after his father suffered a stroke, raised in an orphanage. He received his education at the Caledonian Asylum and the Royal Military Academy and served in Ireland, where in 1851, at the age of 17, he made the acquaintance of the 18-year-old Charles Bradlaugh who was already notorious as a freethinker, having published his first atheist pamphlet a year earlier.[1]

More than a decade later, Thomson left the military and moved to London, where he worked as a clerk. He remained in contact with Bradlaugh, who was by now issuing his own weekly National Reformer, a "publication for the working man". For the remaining 19 years of his life, starting in 1863, Thomson submitted stories, essays and poems to various publications, including the National Reformer, which published the sombre poem which remains his most famous work.

The City of Dreadful Night came about from the struggle with alcoholism and chronic depression which plagued Thomson's final decade. Increasingly isolated from friends and society in general, he even became hostile towards Bradlaugh. In 1880, nineteen months before his death, the publication of his volume of poetry, The City of Dreadful Night and Other Poems elicited encouraging and complimentary reviews from a number of critics, but came too late to prevent Thomson's downward slide.

Thomson's remaining poems rarely appear in modern anthologies, although the autobiographical Insomnia and Mater Tenebrarum are well-regarded and contain some striking passages. He admired and translated the works of the pessimistic Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), but his own lack of hope was darker than that of Leopardi. He is considered by some students of the Victorian age as the bleakest of that era's poets. He died in London at the age of 47.

Thomson's pseudonym Bysshe Vanolis derives from the names of the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Novalis. He is often distinguished from the earlier Scottish poet James Thomson by the letters B.V. after the name.

External links


  1. ^ American Heritage Dictionary (2004). The Riverside Dictionary of Biography. Houghton Mifflin Reference Books. p. 785. ISBN 9780618493371.  


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

James Thomson, né James Thompson (1834-11-231882-06-03), was a Scottish poet and essayist, best known for his The City of Dreadful Night. His pseudonyms B.V. and Bysshe Vanolis were chosen in tribute to Percy Bysshe Shelley and Novalis.

See also James Thomson (poet) (1700–1748).



  • As we rush, as we rush in the train,
    The trees and the houses go wheeling back,
    But the starry heavens above that plain
    Come flying on our track.
    • Sunday at Hampstead (1863–65), part X
  • We will rush ever on without fear;
    Let the goal be far, the flight be fleet!
    For we carry the Heavens with us, dear,
    While the Earth slips from our feet!
    • Sunday at Hampstead, part X

Sunday Up the River (1865)

  • Give a man a horse he can ride,
    Give a man a boat he can sail;
    And his rank and wealth, his strength and health,
    On sea nor shore shall fail.
    • Part XV
  • Give a man a girl he can love,
    As I, O my love, love thee;
    And his heart is great with the pulse of Fate,
    At home, on land, on sea.
    • Part XV
  • The wine of Love is music,
    And the feast of Love is song:
    And when Love sits down to the banquet,
    Love sits long:

    Sits long and rises drunken,
    But not with the feast and the wine;
    He reeleth with his own heart,
    That great, rich Vine.

    • Part XVIII

The City of Dreadful Night (1870–74)

  • Yet why evoke the spectres of black night
    To blot the sunshine of exultant years?
    • Proem
  • The City is of Night; perchance of Death,
    But certainly of Night; for never there
    Can come the lucid morning's fragrant breath
    After the dewy dawning's cold grey air.
    • Part I
  • For life is but a dream whose shapes return,
    Some frequently, some seldom, some by night
    And some by day.
    • Part I
  • The street-lamps burn amidst the baleful glooms,
    Amidst the soundless solitudes immense
    Of ranged mansions dark and still as tombs.
    • Part I
  • The City is of Night, but not of Sleep;
    There sweet sleep is not for the weary brain;
    The pitiless hours like years and ages creep,
    A night seems termless hell.
    • Part I
  • As I came through the desert thus it was,
    As I came through the desert: All was black,
    In heaven no single star, on earth no track;
    A brooding hush without a stir or note;
    The air so thick it clotted in my throat.
    • Part VI
  • Yet I strode on austere;
    No hope could have no fear.
    • Part VI
  • The world rolls round for ever like a mill;
    It grinds out death and life and good and ill;
    It has no purpose, heart or mind or will.
    • Part VIII
  • The mighty river flowing dark and deep,
    With ebb and flood from the remote sea-tides,
    Vague-sounding through the City’s sleepless sleep,
    Is named the River of the Suicides.
    • Part XIX
  • And all sad scenes and thoughts and feelings vanish
    In that sweet sleep no power can ever banish,
    That one best sleep which never wakes again.
    • Part XIX

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