James Thomson (poet, born 1834)

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James Thomson
James Thomson (B. V.), photo portrait, 1860.jpg
Born(1834-11-23)23 November 1834
Port Glasgow, Scotland
Died3 June 1882(1882-06-03) (aged 47)
London, England
Pen nameB. V.
EducationRoyal Military Asylum
Notable worksThe City of Dreadful Night
Signature of James Thomson (B.V.).svg

James Thomson (23 November 1834 – 3 June 1882), pen name B. V., was a Scottish journalist, poet, and translator. He is most often remembered for The City of Dreadful Night (1874; 1880), a poetic allegory of urban suffering and despair. Thomson's pen name derives from the names of the poets Shelley and Novalis, both strong influences on him as a writer.[1] Thomson's essays were written mainly for National Reformer, Secular Review, and Cope's Tobacco Plant. His longer poems include "The Doom of a City" (1854), "Vane's Story" (1865), and the Orientalist ballad "Weddah and Om-El-Bonain". He admired and translated the works of the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi and Heinrich Heine.[2] In the title of his biography of Thomson, Bertram Dobell dubbed him "the Laureate of Pessimism".[3][4][5]


Sketch portrait of Thomson

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 Road (later Caledonian Road after the asylum) near Holloway. At around this time, his mother died.

He was 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 18-year-old Charles Bradlaugh, who was already known as a freethinker, having published his first atheist pamphlet a year earlier.[6]

James Thomson, photo portrait, c. 1881

More than a decade later, Thomson quit the military and related to London, where he worked as a clerk. He remained in communication 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 the National Reformer and other periodicals.

Portrait, taken in 1869

Thomson's most famous literary work, the poem The City of Dreadful Night, was composed from January 1870 to October 1873.[7] It was first published in serial form in the National Reformer in the spring of 1874. The poem was reprinted in The City of Dreadful Night and Other Poems (1880) and elicited encouraging and complimentary reviews from a number of critics.

Thomson died in London at the age of 47, from a broken blood vessel in his bowel,[8][9] and was buried in the east side of Highgate Cemetery in the grave of his friend, the freethinker, Austin Holyoake. The inscription on his grave states that he was born in 1831, not 1834.

Thomson's grave in Highgate Cemetery


During 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] In 1910, Bertram Dobell published a second biography, The Laureate of Pessimism: a Sketch of the Life of James Thomson.[5] In 1993, Tom Leonard's biographical study Places of the Mind: The Life and Work of James Thomson ('B. V.') of Thomson was published by the London publisher Jonathan Cape.[10] In recent years, Thomson's poems have rarely been anthologised, although the autobiographical "Insomnia" and "Sunday at Hampstead" have been well-regarded and include some striking passages.

Selected publications[edit]


  1. ^ a b "James Thomson ('B.V.')". Henry S. Salt Society. Retrieved 22 May 2020.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Tikkanen, Amy. "James Thomson | Scottish poet [1834–1882]". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 22 May 2020.
  4. ^ Moore, Bryan L. (2017). Ecological Literature and the Critique of Anthropocentrism. 107: Springer. ISBN 978-3-319-60738-2.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location (link)
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ American Heritage Dictionary (2004). The Riverside Dictionary of Biography. Houghton Mifflin Reference Books. p. 785. ISBN 978-0-618-49337-1.
  7. ^ Schaefer, William David (1965). James Thomson, B.V., beyond "The city." --. Internet Archive. Berkeley : University of California Press.
  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.
  10. ^ Leonard, Tom (1993). Places of the Mind: Life and Work of James Thomson. Cape. ISBN 978-0-224-03118-9. OCLC 953042819.
  11. ^ Thomson, James (1963). Poems and Some Letters. Southern Illinois University Press.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]