Tom Leonard took many years to complete this book which began as a post graduate project. It turned out, in his words, to be ‘a shape, containing a biography, made slowly to the shape of the Art of another.’ Thomson, ‘B.V.’ is best known for his poem, The City of Dreadful Night which I reviewed last year. Leonard actually came across the ‘Proem’ (a prologue) to the poem in a Hugh MacDiarmid anthology of Scottish poetry some years before that. Interested readers should know that you can get the whole poem online, or buy it for a few pounds. Since the ‘Proem’ excludes almost everybody from being an interested reader you may care to look at it before we continue:
Per me si va nella citta dolente.
Poi di tanto adoprar, di tanti moti
D’ogni celeste, ogni terrena cosa,
Girando senza posa,
Per tornar sempre la donde son mosse;
Uso alcuno, alcun frutto
Indovinar non so.
Sola nel mondo eterna, a cui si volve
Ogni creata cosa,
In te, morte, si posa
Nostra ignuda natura;
Lieta no, ma sicura
Dell’ antico dolor . . .
Pero ch’ esser beato
Nega ai mortali e nega a’ morti il fato.
Lo, thus, as prostrate, “In the dust I write
My heart’s deep languor and my soul’s sad tears.”
Yet why evoke the spectres of black night
To blot the sunshine of exultant years?
Why disinter dead faith from mouldering hidden?
Why break the seals of mute despair unbidden,
And wail life’s discords into careless ears?
Because a cold rage seizes one at whiles
To show the bitter old and wrinkled truth
Stripped naked of all vesture that beguiles,
False dreams, false hopes, false masks and modes of youth;
Because it gives some sense of power and passion
In helpless innocence to try to fashion
Our woe in living words howe’er uncouth.
Surely I write not for the hopeful young,
Or those who deem their happiness of worth,
Or such as pasture and grow fat among
The shows of life and feel nor doubt nor dearth,
Or pious spirits with a God above them
To sanctify and glorify and love them,
Or sages who foresee a heaven on earth.
For none of these I write, and none of these
Could read the writing if they deigned to try;
So may they flourish in their due degrees,
On our sweet earth and in their unplaced sky.
If any cares for the weak words here written,
It must be some one desolate, Fate-smitten,
Whose faith and hopes are dead, and who would die.
Yes, here and there some weary wanderer
In that same city of tremendous night,
Will understand the speech and feel a stir
Of fellowship in all-disastrous fight;
“I suffer mute and lonely, yet another
Uplifts his voice to let me know a brother
Travels the same wild paths though out of sight.”
O sad Fraternity, do I unfold
Your dolorous mysteries shrouded from of yore?
Nay, be assured; no secret can be told
To any who divined it not before:
None uninitiate by many a presage
Will comprehend the language of the message,
Although proclaimed aloud for evermore.
Leonard’s is a well researched book, clearly presented and, very refreshingly, suggestive but not prescriptive: to the extent that any biography is partly an autobiography, we gain a certain insight into Leonard himself: the long project of writing, the “shape”, is his “response to the shape of the Art of another.” The subject of the book, Thomson, is, in one way a figure who wanders in and out of a wider landscape, this of very specific strands of nineteenth century history and its (understated, modest) cultural analysis. The book is stimulating , entertaining and complete, also providing directions outward for further study.
I’ll outline some of the content and aspects of the book that struck me, and conclude by refocusing on that lonely figure on the landscape, saying at the outset that I am moved with sympathy and respect for the James Thomson recreated here.
Leonard deals briskly with the bare bones of Thomson’s biography. Born in 1834 in Port Glasgow, his father a seafarer and his mother a dressmaker, the family moved to London in 1840. His father returned seriously ill from a stroke at sea, his behaviour and personality thereafter demonstrating anger and religiosity with gross mood swings; shortly before she died, Mrs Thompson arranged for young James to enter a London Scottish Asylum. He trained as an army teacher and worked as such between 1854 and 1862: the early chapters of the book describe and examine his time at school and as a teacher, portraying him here as a popular, cheerful and with a genuine love of learning and music and the arts; at school he had been an exemplary pupil and was already becoming well read. He became associated after the army with the freethinker, Charles Bradlaugh, and a regular contributer with verse, critical studies and other prose to the secularist weekly, National Reformer. He used the pseudonym “B.V.”, Bysshe after his adored Shelley, and “V” being from an anagram, Vanolis for Novalis whom he also admired.
Leonard’s bare bones biography, it should be noted, is completed in one paragraph! There’s a very important, if barely whispered, point here – that is especially relevant in our day of wikiquotes and ‘brief histories’ of an individual or a generation (and although this is more evident in the present day, the neatly potted view of the world with its consequence of relating to that world and its people via fragmentary abstractions is certainly not new. And often those pots have been very large and tended by worthies of considerable stature).
Entering generously, sympathetically and delicately into the life of another – as Leonard does – enlarges attention, slows down apprehension, and attenuates the crude categorisation of others that exemplifies an attribute of our urgent tendency to ‘put people in their place’. Leonard’s bare bones outline of Thomson’s life is the contrast to the slow unfolding that moves our encounter from that with a minor, Scottish, alcoholic writer to a full human being. Incidentally, I’m reminded here of Arthur Miller’s attention to the Low Man, and Linda’s eulogy to her husband in Death of a Salesman: “Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”
Significantly, the death of the young Thomson’s younger sister from measles which she caught from him is not mentioned in the skeletal sketch : we’ll see below how such an event may have had a crucial formative impact upon Thomson’s time on earth.
Thomson taught himself Italian so he could read Dante, also French and German, translating Novalis and Heine (Karl Marx remarking positively on the latter). He was unenthusiastic in his mercantile clerical work at home and when he spent time in Colarado negotiating mining contracts. He proved an unreliable reporter covering the Carlian War in Spain, and from here earned an inconsistent income contributing to various secularist journals. He became acquainted with William Michael Rossetti, George Meredith and several other ‘names’, including Marx’s daughter who attended his funeral. Two volumes of his poetry and one of prose were published in 1881. “He died in poverty and alcoholism the following year.”
Leonard’s book begins its unfolding by looking at the intense religious involvement of his mother with Millennianism (a movement which included ‘speaking in tongues’). Here, as through the backgrounding of the rise of secularist movements by specific reference to various movements, publications and events, the reader gains an insight to one strand of the cultural and intellectual milieu of Thomson’s time (and unremarkably, the intense rifts within secularist and religious movements). Thomson’s biting attacks on superstitious religion in print seem matched by his disdain for progressivism – largely through disinterest or cynicism. In the Proem shown above, he isolates himself and any potential reader from “pious spirits with a God above them/ To sanctify and glorify and love them,/ Or sages who forsee a heaven on earth.” Somewhat a dandy, a flaneur who enjoyed regular strolls, an enjoyer of musical concerts and billiards, an habituee where finances and circumstances permitted at social gatherings, it seems that Thomson possessed the ability to enact his considerable literary skills and social charm, outwardly for much of his life ‘happy’, while concealing, perhaps from himself in large part, an inner absence and suffering. While he wrote ‘light’ poetry such as Sunday up the River from early days, a theme that recurred was of the death of love or innocence or youth in the form of a young woman who he would long to be reunited with. It is possible that such a longing was for an ‘innocence’ contaminated by the surface cultural life on the one hand, and the deepening descent (initially hidden from public view) into alcoholism. Certainly, without security of spiritual or secular vision, Thomson was in one ‘place’ an isolated figure.
His journals, with many gaps of weeks in them, demonstrate no reflective condition. His utter cutting himself from erstwhile friends who had given him much support elicit no considered remarks. What is consistent in the entries is an almost meteorological exactitude in recording the weather, particularly attention given to clouds and various attributes of moisture; it becomes difficult to know whether Thomson is referring to the weather his own mood “Mild sloppy night”, “Stroll at dusk; greasy or sloppy.”). Leonard somewhat playfully provides us with a sequence of Thomson’s diaries based on a computer-generated random number sequence and providing 100 written entries from that period (1877 – 1881). I’d suggest that to a large extent, no matter what documentation or evidence of a person’s life we have is to a large extent fragmentary and random notwithstanding our propensity to make of what we have represent a full, transparent image of a person. And that includes people we know well too; so much more, therefore, the historical biographical subject.
These late diary entries note explicitly his deterioration physically: “accident”, “bilious”. His general decline is marked in several ways. As noted, his cutting old friends, his now more frequent ‘disappearances’, his increasingly vituperative critical articles, and his palous income with unstable accommodation. Earlier, upon publication of The City of Dreadful Night in 1874 he had sent a copy to George Eliot who replied somewhat cooly, suggesting that he take into account too the moral light side of life. He replied then a few days later added a postscript even more apologetic than his initial response, placatory in tone: this seems to suggest as elsewhere a genuine lack of confidence, self-worth and ‘goodness’.
Here was a man open to all the happier good things in life, a man capable of great friendships. Yet he was at the same time consumed with an inner darkness, seemingly never finding the foundation of true intimacy with another. Leonard suggests in passing that he may in modern parlance be termed manic-depressive (but, of course, the correct categorisation today is bipolar!). Thomson’s life as a created narrative, ultimately all lives are so constructed, specifically in biographies, does seem to follow the narratives of other lives we may be familiar with, and we do find ourselves always making sense of everything, stories included, by locating them in the context s of the familiar. Thus Thomson was ‘depressed’, lonely, alcoholic and so forth. Or he was a tormented, too-sensitive creative artist. Or, and I think the achievement of Leonard’s book is this, he was, whoever he was, James Tomson, the one and only.
Leonard gives two references to times in 1878 when Thomson did reflect and draw a line between an inner and outer life. “I often now write, as I wonder whether others ever write, conscious of a sort of dim veil separating the inner from the dictating mind. Reading over such exterior writing, I may judge: It is correct; it will do; but my inner self disclaims all responsibility for it, and simply refuses to be concerned in or about it.” His sense of alienation is expressed again later that year: “Of old I was conscious of an inpenetrable veil between my inner and my outer self; I have to live, think and work with the latter, and cannot get at the former, cold and vague and dim and aloof. This is a painful puzzle, to be shut out and cut off from one’s very own self, and conscious of the disabling separation.”
This mode of thinking, of separating mind into spatially realised inner and outer anticipates the rise of existentialism generally, psychological existentialism particularly, and specifically the Divided Self described by that other depressive, alcoholic, Scottish genius, R.D. Laing. The spatial representation of the mind into surface and depth concurs with the psychoanalytic vision, and repeats the Miltonic tropes of his masterpiece on human psychology (Paradise Lost) wherein the mind is “its own place”, capable of creating its own world, inverting the conventions, walking in “darkness visible”. Thomson’s gloomy vision is the memorable one. It places him in what’s been called the Inhumanist tradition, spreading from Ecclesiastes to Robinson Jeffers and beyond: such artists as Thomson bring us to a place that many of us have to stay in for a long time, for ever until the sweet release of kind death perhaps, or which may accentuate the lightness of the world, and reinforce the ultimate value of the things that Thomson seemed to lack: friendship, comradeship and love.
Yet there’s a coda. Despite his hard disbelief, he asked to be buried with a lock of hair in a purse. Speculation may continue as to whose hair it was. Leonard considers the candidates, and concludes it was that of his young sister who died from the measles she contracted from him; the young beauty and innocence and joy that was once so real and extinguished for ever leaving nothing but sorrow and loneliness.