The Life of James Thomson (B.V.), by H. S. Salt; Reeves and Turner, London, 1889
If we were the orthodox and ordinary reviewer we should intersperse this notice of Mr. Salt’s book with copious extracts from Schopeahauer (culled from Miss Zimmern’s life, not from his own great book which of course we should never have seen), with references to Leopardi (got from an encyclopædia) and with asinine remarks about heredity evolved from our own silly brain. But as we emphatically are not the orthodox and ordinary reviewer, and as we have a deep contempt for that preposterous person we shall leave severely alone the great German philosopher, the whining Italian poet and the little understood problems of psycho-physiology. In his preface Mr. Salt modestly expresses the wish that the life had been undertaken by some one who had “enjoyed the advantage of personal acquaintance” with their subject with James Thomson.” Having read to the end of the last page we congratulate ourselves and the reading public upon the fact that the pious wish has not been fulfilled. Biographers who have had “personal acquaintance” with their subjects (how gruesome that sounds!), have an unpleasant way of forgetting the true end of their task and telling us a great deal about themselves and as little as possible about the biographee. We once found in the library of our friend the late rector of Orlestone, a very beautiful specimen of this sort of literary work. It purported to be the life of a dead incumbent of a neighbouring parish—Snargate-in-the-Marsh we believe—written by his greatest friend. It was without exception the very cleverest book we have ever read. When we had finished it we knew pretty well every detail of the writer’s life, but scarcely anything at all of the deceased clergyman. A few days later we were strolling through a little country churchyard a few miles from Orlestone and noticed a tombstone of vast proportions and of lustrous whiteness: it was raised to the memory of the hero of the biography by his friend and biographer. The former’s name and virtues were graved (please note the singular felicity of the word) in type of almost vanishing minuteness, the name of the erector of the tombstone was in letters several inches long. That memorial stone is a fair symbol of the ordinary biography.
Now we mean no disrespect to Mr. Salt, when we thank the Fates for having saved him from a temptation to which, being human, although Socialist and vegetarian, he might have fallen a victim. As it is he has told us all that anyone can possibly want to know about James Thomson, and nothing at all about himself. He has put hard and honest work into the book and the result is the usual effect of such causes. It says much for the author’s liberality of appreciation that he can write so sympathetically of two such wildly different poets as Shelley and Thomson; of the prince of crude optimists and of the sweetest singer of logical and thought-out pessimism; of the man who looked with yearning eyes towards the “far off divine event,” and of him whose last word on life and its problems was “despair.”
And it must be difficult to be at once a Socialist and an admirer of any thing of Thomson’s but his technique. He was assuredly a poet with a creed—
“I find no hint throughout the Universe,
Of good or ill, of blessing or of sin;
I find alone necessity supreme.”
he says, and Mr. Salt tells us, “He was so far consistent in his belief as to accept the conclusion that it is useless and irrational to confide in any scheme for the improvements of the human race; and he laughs at the incongruity of those necessitarians who, after premising that man is the creature of circumstances, proceed to lay down the strange corollary that circumstances may in their turn be improved by man.”
A belief of this sort is as many worlds removed from the vague, formless discontent with the human lot in general and their own in particular of the common melancholy poetasters of the magazines, as is the masculine beauty of Thomson’s verse from the feeble bleating of the modern Bunthorne. But just so far as the “City of Dreadful Night” is the Athanasian hymn of Pessimism, and is not the expression of a merely passing mood, so far is it from giving any real abiding pleasure to one whose Socialism is founded on a rock. He whose face is set towards the City of Gold marches each day of his life further and further away from the dread metropolis whose “silent and deserted streets” James Thomson paced with
“Hair dishevelled dank with dews at night.”
For this reason, because the coming time is ours, we cannot agree with Mr. Salt that posterity will regard Thomson as “one of the true and sacred poets of his own generation.” It is the men who in the midst of darkness preached hope, and whose voices in the hour of defeat and disaster rang out the cry of “forward,” whom our descendants will delight to honour. To them the teller of “Vane’s Story” will form only a curious study in morbid psychology.
However, it is unfair to Thomson to write of him though he were a singer of the darkness and of nothing else, and Mr. Salt has done his memory good service by drawing due attention to those of his poems which speak the language of life and love. “Sunday up the River” is quite the best of Thames poetry and in “Sunday at Hampstead” a miracle has been done, for ‘Arry has been made poetic. These two “pieces,” as our friend the orthodox and ordinary reviewer would call them, suffice to prove how much finer than his masterpieces Thomson’s work would have been had he, in his maturity, been granted the inspiration which comes from a vision of the future or from the light in the eyes of a loved and worshipped woman. But he was not, and so though he is a head and shoulders taller than anyone in the second, the critic cannot place him in the first rank of Victorian poets. He is not the singer to whom Socialists must go for refreshment and invigoration with which to carry on the war. With us are the heroes, the martyrs, the sages, but not the pessimists charm they never so well.