Under the Sphinx

Alasdair Gray

  • Places of the Mind: The Life and Work of James Thomson (‘B.V.’) by Tom Leonard
    Cape, 407 pp, £25.00, February 1993, ISBN 0 224 03118 X

This is the first full-length study of James Thomson’s life and work since Henry Salt’s in 1889. Thomson’s poem The City of Dreadful Night is known by name to many but has seldom been reprinted or discussed. Histories of literature say more about an earlier James Thomson (1700-48) who wrote The Seasons and ‘Rule Britannia’ and got into Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, though Johnson says his diction was ‘florid and luxuriant ... and sometimes may be charged with filling the ear more than the mind.’ Without comparing the two Thomsons, Leonard shows by quotation that the Victorian (1834-82) is the greater poet. He shows, too, that the later Thomson’s life reflects the state of Britain more fully than other poets of his age excepting G. M. Hopkins and Hardy. Before describing how Places of the Mind retrieves his best work from the margin of literature I will suggest why The City of Dreadful Night was mislaid there.

Its settled gloom is only part of the explanation. Dante’s Inferno, though gloomier than the Purgatorio and Paradiso, is more popular. Thomson’s inferno is a modern city where the sun never rises and sleepless people wander the dark streets without love, faith or hope. They are kept from suicide by memories of these. Their god is endurance who, like Dürer’s Melancholia, broods on a mountain above the city with her feet among unemployed tools of trade and science. Shakespeare described a meaningless universe long before Thomson did, and in more memorable words, but his usual mouthpieces are half-crazed kings – important folk. Even Parolles – the exposed cheat and coward who says ‘Simply the things I am shall make me live’ – has a name and distinct character. The people of the City are anonymous and, apart from a cripple trying to revert to infancy, all grimly stoical. Macbeth and Lear have earned their hell by wrong actions. In Thomson’s hell nobody has been notably wicked. Some remember an existence in which they tried to fight injustice or do good things, but having wakened ‘to this real night’ they know memory is an illusion. This is the hell most modern folk enter when they feel worthless; it is not dull to read about because negation is enacted through a surprising wealth of images. In one episode the poet shelters in the porch of a deserted church. It contains a sculpture of a sphinx menacing an angel holding an upright sword. Dozing, the poet is wakened by a crash. The angel’s wings have fallen off. Dozing again, another sharp noise rouses him. The sword has broken off. The sphinx now menaces an unarmed man. Again the doze, the crash. The man’s head has fallen and rolled between the sphinx’s paws.

On those who have known depression the poem can act as a tonic. We feel brought into a club of rare souls strong enough to face the worst. If we read further we find that Leopardi, Schopenhauer, Baudelaire, Melville, Thomas Hardy and the author of Ecclesiastes are also members.

Edmund Blunden thought The City of Dreadful Night a great anticipation of The Waste Land. If Pope’s Dunciad, Johnson’s ‘London’, Blake’s Songs of Experience and Shelley’s ‘Peter Bell’ are set before it. Thomson takes his place in a tradition linking the Augustans and Romantics with the Moderns: a metropolitan tradition reflecting the state of Britain. This was not noticed because Tennyson, Browning and Arnold provided a greater variety of enjoyment, in verses which hardly reflected the state of their nation at all. It pained and embarrassed them. An explanation of why will not be a detour. It also explains why Thomson’s religious and political despair was not a hypochondriac’s obsession, but a consequence of the 19th-century state – to which we have returned.

England’s great period of religious poetry was not a time of unquestioning faith but was one in which faith was publicly argued and fought about. Milton, Vaughan, Herbert, Traherne, Dryden wrote when the English Church was decapitated, or headed by an atheist or Roman Catholic king. By 1700, however, the land was governed by a union of big property-owners who used the Church as it used the monarchy: to stay in power. Archbishops were appointed by the dominant parliamentary clique. Landlords chose the local clergy from among their relatives or parasites. This made the Established Church so politically stable that Dean Swift suggested it might survive the political abolition of Christianity. (It did.) Swift, Pope and Dr Johnson, all sincere Christians, kept religion out of their conversation and writings in case it provoked dissent. They believed the main purpose of literature was to improve the understanding and manners of educated people, and religious ideas, they thought, would distract from this. Christianity as a publicly shared, enthusiastic faith had become the property of Dissenters or Wesleyans who were of, or mingled with, lowbred people possessing no greater property – people for whom Christianity was still a winged angel.

If a community’s shared faith is its religion then the religion of 18th-century Britain was rational improvement. Manners, trade, agriculture, communications improved rapidly until the Americans showed that further improvement needed political reform. They got rid of an expensive monarchy, peerage and established church and ruled themselves with out. They even dispensed with an army and navy strong enough to fight the French all over India and Canada. The next British improvement would have to he an extension of democracy, or so Burns, Blake. Shelley, Byron, Keats, the early Coleridge and Wordsworth thought. They welcomed the French Revolution, believed in Tom Paine’s Age of Reason and Rights of Man, for these poets – not Pitt or Burke – were the culminating voices of 18th-century rationalism. They were later labelled Romantics (meaning exotic sensationists) by Victorians who thought it irrational to want political rights for all, who luxuriated in Byron and Shelley’s sensational language but ignored their radical ideas. Throughout the 19th century the British establishment (nicknamed Old Corruption by Blake and The Thing by Cobbett) gradually gave more commoners the vote but at nicely-judged intervals which ensured that the monarchy, peerage, Established Church and Imperial Armed Forces lost none of their wealth, power and privileges.

Prosperous Georgians had pondered the Nature of Mankind. Prosperous Victorians worried about The Poor. The enclosure of common lands and the new steam-powered, gas-lit factories were pushing and pulling hordes of families into cities of dreadful night. The profits were as huge as the poverty generating them and the established clergy approved. Bishop Watson preached – and published! – a sermon on ‘The Wisdom and Goodness of God, in having made both Rich and Poor’ to the Poor Relief officers of Westminster. Such an angel as Watson was obviously wingless. Phoney Christianity was later reinforced by a phoney appeal to science. High profits at the cost of working-class poverty were supposed to prove the survival of the fittest. Intelligent Victorians could not swallow these half-baked faiths, but they feared democracy threatened their unearned incomes, so the poetry of Tennyson, Browning and Arnold hardly ever reflect their nation and their most personal writings (In Memoriam and ‘Dover Beach’) are as melancholy, though more sweetly so, as anything by Thomson. Only Whitman, who gloried in democracy and earned his living as a printer, could look his nation boldly in the face and write great optimistic verse.

Some think British life did not worsen between 1750 and 1850; that the use of Australia as a jail, the creation of a police force, the polemics of Cobbett Carlyle Ruskin Marx Engels and General Booth mainly prove a benign new upper-class care for the condition of the lower. But many felt unfairly oppressed. They joined religious sects who thought God must come down to destroy oppressors and make the world better, or supported socialists, reformers and republicans like Owens and Holyoake, or Bradlaugh, the muscular atheist whose election into the Commons stopped the Government pretending it was Christian. Most of this is in Tom Leonard’s Places of the Mind. It is a 19th-century encyclopedia giving what Shakespeare called ‘the very form and pressure of the time’, besides resistance to the pressure. It is also an emblem book of the titans, veiled figures, angels and sphinxes used by thinkers and poets to embody God, Nature, Time and Fate and Tyranny.

It is alive with voices. We hear many kinds of poet, priest, teacher and reformer speaking. A British soldier tells how he was commanded to do a landlord’s dirty work by evicting a sick Irishman and leaving him to die in the rain while his cottage was demolished. An adjacent landlord explains that the potato failure has been good for Ireland by making evictions easier. A Yankee goldminer tells of a poker game between Father, Son, Holy Ghost and St Peter, which Christ nearly wins by producing five aces before Peter leaves in disgust. Conventional etiquette lays down tiny laws (‘Religion, politics and personal matters should never be matters of conversation’) from the cover of a pocket diary.

Tom Leonard’s use of many voices is de liberate. They give evidence from which readers will form their own conclusions. When Thomson was eight his family moved to a London slum, where his mother supported her children and crippled husband by dressmaking before dying of overwork – or so it seems to me. Leonard avoids emotive words like ‘slum’ and ‘overwork’. He describes where the Thomsons lived by quoting from a Statistical Society report of the time. It says the street exhibited ‘the average condition of the poorer classes’ – meaning that each family had one room instead of occupying a corner, and that the water company allowed the houses two hours of water three days a week. From similar sources he shows that the average weekly rent for such a room was 3s 7d, that a needlewoman’s usual wage was 5s 7d, that Mrs Thomson may have earned three times that because she had trained to make dresses for the nobility. Quotations from a government report, from Nicholas Nickleby and Hood’s ‘Song of the Shirt’ are used to show how exhausting such work was. Mrs Thomson may have been well paid by kindly employers. So her death two years later (and six months after placing her eight-year-old son in an orphanage) may not have been due to overwork. At that time any illness in a bread-winner of ‘the average poorer class’ could be deadly. Leonard has said all that can be proved, nothing which can be doubted.

In this way he presents an orphan who, loving literature, becomes an army schoolteacher. Through reading poetry (especially Shelley and Dante) he starts writing verse, also literary pieces for a radical newspaper. Discharged with disgrace from the Army for something unspecified (insubordination or drunkenness seem likeliest), only clerking and journalism remain to keep him from destitution. For a while they do so, helped by his friendship with Bradlaugh, editor of the National Reformer. He learns Italian, German, French; translates Leopardi, Heine and Gautier. Women and children like him, but unable to afford a home, he often shifts lodgings and is sometimes behind with the rent. His poetry is melancholy, except when a spell of well-paid office work allows him a cheerful sense of identity with the London mob expressed in his verse sequence ‘Sunday up the River’. He fails as an office clerk, fails, too, as a war correspondent. Drinking bouts grow frequent though he is still a dependable journalist. The City of Dreadful Night is serialised in the National Reformer, but he soon (and with some justification) quarrels with Bradlaugh. A book of poems is published and brings the acquaintance of Rossetti and Meredith, but lacking a dinner suit he cannot meet such people as an equal. He suffers insomnia and stomach pains. The only journals which pay him cease publication. Six weeks of heavy drinking, shop-lifting, jail, homelessness, lead to a sudden death. The charity hospital which examines his corpse says that ‘his bowels were nearly non-existent.’ Through cancer or hunger? Leonard refuses to speculate.

This impersonal style becomes more and more effective as the story advances. Chapter 19, for instance, gives extracts from the diaries Thomson kept in the penultimate years of his life: notes on his reading and writing, lectures attended, a musical evening in the parlour of friends, the state of his health and the weather – ‘Moisture seems exuded from the stones, not fallen from the clouds.’ Nearly half the entries are blank, for as everyone who keeps a diary knows, we have no time to write it up during busy or distracted days. Leonard has selected these entries at random by computer: I suppose because he doesn’t want to be suspected of a prejudiced selection. The resulting entries, not all of whose blank days can correspond with drinking bouts, are the unpretentious record of a hard-working literary man with friends and correspondents but no margin for luxuries. The next chapter, using letters, verses and more diary notes, shows Thomson a guest in the country house of rich admirers. One of them fears that Thomson loves his sister, another says there is nothing in it. They worry about his drinking and at last send him away – he has become ‘impossible’. This leads to, but does not prepare the reader for, the horror of Chapter 21, where a collage of letters, memoirs and telegrams shows six weeks in the death of someone who has lost all hold on Victorian gentility.

The last chapter (‘Postscript’) quotes the words of those who praised or condemned him when he was dead. Only Swinburne expresses outright detestation, Karl Marx says Thomson’s translations of Heine are ‘no translations, but a reproduction of the original, such as Heine himself, if master of the English language, would have done’. The most thorough understanding is voiced by Herman Melville in a private letter, and is the more poignant for being written when Melville (though engaged on Billy Budd which would not appear till long after his death) was an almost forgotten writer, having published nothing for thirty years. Leonard also quotes and analyses tut-tutting post-mortems by various friends on the cause of Thomson’s ‘weakness’. Some diagnosed it as disappointed love in early youth, some as an inherited constitutional defect. Only George Meredith suggested that a good income and a home of his own might have cured it. Leonard quotes a letter written by Thomson a few months before he died, saying his mother’s ‘cloud of melancholy’ (which he must have shared) had been ‘deepened by the death of my little sister, of whom I remember being devotedly fond, when she was about three and myself five, of measles caught from me. Had she or someone else lived I might have been worth something.’

The book does not end with this self-pitying note, however. On the last page (before appendices and index) Leonard places Thomson’s translation of ‘Childhood’, a poem dedicated by Heine to his own sister. It recalls himself and her as children playing at being old, worn-out people and thinking it just a funny game, then growing old and discovering it is a funny game. Places of the Mind is a work of art as well as scholarship.