James Thomson Centenary

James Thomson Centenary

The Poet and His Life - A “Modern Book of Job”

The Sad-Eyed Author

We publish below an article on James Thomson, author of “The City of Dreadful Night,” who was born a hundred years ago last Friday.

Except in his early youth, before the loss of his first love, the girl of fifteen who was to have married him, it would never have occurred to the contemporaries of James Thomson, sad-eyed author of “The Modern Book of Job,” as someone described his most famous poem, to call him happy. He thought of himself, save at fleeting moments of social intercourse—when, indeed, everyone voted him a delightful companion—as among the most miserable of mortals; and his death, after one of those bouts of intemperance which were his besetting weakness, was tragic in the extreme.

But one likes to reflect that there is another side to the picture. May we not now, half a century later, form a more just estimate of Thomson’s share of human bliss? He was endowed with splendid gifts, and he exulted in their possession; his genius was recognised and generally acclaimed by the men and women of his time whose opinion he most valued—above all, by Swinburne and Meredith and George Eliot; and he had many close and devoted friends. A thoroughgoing agnostic, he was troubled by no fears that any shortcomings of his in this world would entail punishment on him in another world to come. The “poet’s passion for creative work” made life worth living for him to the very end. These things have to be balanced against the periods of poverty and remorse into which he was so often plunged by drink. In his last conscious hours, on his death-bed in University Hospital, attended by his brother-poets, William Sharp and Philip Bourke-Marston, he cannot but have been comforted by the assurance that he would be remembered for ever, that he had not laboured in vain.


One wishes that during those last hours he could have had a presentiment of the good fortune awaiting his literary repute in the near future. To [sic] few authors has it been given to be made the subject of a biography so wise and understanding, so sympathetic and so well balanced, as the book devoted to Thomson in 1889 by Mr. Henry S. Salt. It is the work of a recording angel—a recording angel gifted, moreover, with a talent for satire, in which Thomson himself would have delighted. What impressed Mr. Salt most when engaged on his task was the warm regard shown for the poet’s memory by all those who knew him. There was only one single exception—a sour old landlady in a mean street; he tells this tale in another of his books:—

She could give me no information about her impecunious lodger, except that he had “passed away”; but she added that if I wished to write the Life of a good man, a real Christian, and a total abstainer—here she looked at me dubiously, as if questioning my ability to carry out her suggestion—there was her dear departed husband!

Although it went into a second edition in due course, Mr. Salt’s biography of Thomson is not widely known even now. In it may be found, admirably narrated, all the facts of his career from his early days as an Army schoolmaster to his journalistic experiences on the “National Reformer” under Bradlaugh, and on the “Secularist.” Nearly half the book is taken up with a masterly analysis of Thomson’s writings, notably of “The City of Dreadful Night,” a shilling edition of which, by the way, with some of the poet’s lighter efforts, Mr. Salt has recently edited for Watts and Co. Another edition of the poem, with an illuminated introduction by Mr. Edmund Blunden, was published in 1932 by Methuen and Co.

Frederic Whyte

The Observer, 25 November 1934