James Thomson (poet, born 1834)

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The Poetical Works of James Thomson frontpiece (from a photograph taken in 1869).png
Born(1834-11-23)23 November 1834
Port Glasgow, Scotland
Died3 June 1882(1882-06-03) (aged 47)
London, England
Pen nameBysshe Vanolis
EducationRoyal Military Academy
Notable worksThe City of Dreadful Night


James Thomson (23 November 1834 – 3 June 1882), who wrote 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's pseudonym derives from the names of the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Novalis.[1] He is often distinguished from the earlier Scottish poet James Thomson by the letters B.V. after his name.[2]

Thomson's 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),[3] but his pessimism is considered to have been stronger than that of Leopardi.[4] He is regarded as one of the bleakest Victorian poets,[4][5] being described as "The Laureate of Pessimism" since 1882, the year of his death.[6]


Thomson was born in Port Glasgow, Scotland, and, at the age of eight (after his sister died and his father suffered a stroke), he was sent to London where he was raised in an orphanage, the Royal Caledonian Asylum on Chalk (later Caledonian after the asylum) Road near Holloway. Soon after this his mother died. He spoke with a London accent. He trained as an army schoolmaster at the Royal Military Asylum in Chelsea 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.[7]

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 insomnia, 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.

He died, in London, at the age of 47, from a broken blood vessel in his bowel.[8][9]


In 1889, seven years after Thomson's death, Henry Stephens Salt published a biography of Thomson, with a selection of writings, The Life of James Thomson ("B.V.").[1] This was followed by a second biography, by Bertram Dobell, in 1910.[6]

Selected publications[edit]


  1. ^ a b "James Thomson ('B.V.')". Henry S. Salt Society. Retrieved 22 May 2020.
  2. ^ Room, Adrian (2014). Dictionary of Pseudonyms: 13,000 Assumed Names and Their Origins, 5th ed. McFarland. p. 474. ISBN 978-0-7864-5763-2.
  3. ^ Byron, Kenneth Hugh (2015). The Pessimism of James Thomson (B. V.) in Relation to His Times. Walter de Gruyter. p. 106. ISBN 978-3-11-165603-8.
  4. ^ a b Tikkanen, Amy. "James Thomson | Scottish poet [1834–1882]". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 22 May 2020.
  5. ^ Moore, Bryan L. (2017). Ecological Literature and the Critique of Anthropocentrism. 107: Springer. ISBN 978-3-319-60738-2.CS1 maint: location (link)
  6. ^ a b Miller, John (2017), Mazzeno, Laurence W.; Morrison, Ronald D. (eds.), "Creatures on the "Night-Side of Nature": James Thomson's Melancholy Ethics", Animals in Victorian Literature and Culture: Contexts for Criticism, Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature, London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, pp. 189–211, doi:10.1057/978-1-137-60219-0_10, ISBN 978-1-137-60219-0, retrieved 20 February 2021
  7. ^ American Heritage Dictionary (2004). The Riverside Dictionary of Biography. Houghton Mifflin Reference Books. p. 785. ISBN 978-0-618-49337-1.
  8. ^ Imlah, Mick (14 February 1993). "BOOK REVIEW / Sad days in the City of Dreadful Night: 'Places of the Mind: The Life and Work of James Thomson ('B V') - Tom Leonard: Cape, 25 pounds". The Independent. Retrieved 22 May 2020.
  9. ^ Saintsbury, George (1906). A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1780-1895). London: The Macmillan Company. p. 297.

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