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.

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