The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Monday, 5 May 2008

13. Prostrated in mind, body, by sunstroke, and in the dust

Communications from the 9th Edition of Encyclopedia Britannica community of enthusiasts have enlightened me to usage of the extremely convenient EB9 abbreviation in reference to the object of our fascination, and I will henceforth endeavour to bandy the term liberally throughout these postings.

The author of the lyrics of the rousingly patriotic Rule Britannia, was the Scotsman James Thomson (1700-1748). Cheery national fervour notwithstanding, Thomson was no stranger to melancholy. EB9 informs us that it was
while he lingered in the neighbourhood of Barnet, without employment, without money, with few friends, saddened by the loss of his mother (his father had died when he was eighteen), that Thomson conceived the idea of his first poems on the season, Winter. The lines-

Welcome, kindred glooms,
Congenial horrors, hail!

came from the heart ; they expressed his own forlorn mood on the approach of the winter of 1725. Winter appeared in the spring of 1726. [...] The tradition is that it attracted no notice for a month, but that, at the end of that time, a literary clergyman, Whately, chanced to take it up from a bookseller's counter, and at once rushed off to the coffee-houses to proclaim the discovery of a new poet.

It is a sad reflection of our times that literary clergymen are rarely now to be seen rushing into coffee-houses to proclaim similar revelations, or that if they do, the modern Briton would hardly be roused from his mochaccino and sudoku to notice.

When it comes to the inspirational power of misery, THOMSON, James (1700-1748) is somewhat overshadowed by THOMSON, James (1834-1882), author of The City of Dreadful Night
born at Port Glasgow, in Renfrewshire, the eldest child of a mate in the shipping service. His mother was a deeply religious woman of the Irvingite sect, and it is not improbable that it was from her the son inherited his sombre and imaginative temperament. On her death, James, then in his seventh year, was procured admission into the Caledonian Orphan Asylum, from which he went out into the world as an assistant army schoolmaster. At the garrison at Ballincollig, near Cork, he encountered the one brief happiness of his life : he fell passionately in love with, and was in turn as ardently loved by, the daughter of the armourer-sergeant of a regiment in the garrison, a girl of very exceptional beauty and cultivated mind. Two years later, when Thomson was at the training college at Chelsea, he suddenly received news of her fatal illness and death. The blow prostrated him in mind and body ; and the former endured a hurt from which it never really recovered. Henceforth his life was one of gloom, disappointment, misery, and poverty, rarely alleviated by episodes of somewhat brighter fortune.

[...] In 1872 Thomson went to the Western States of America, as the agents of shareholders in what he ascertained to be a fraudulent silver mine ; and the following year he received a commission from The New York World to go to Spain as its special correspondent with the Carlists. During the two months of his stay in that distracted country he saw little real fighting, and was himself prostrated by a sunstroke.

[..] All his best work was produced between 1855 and 1875 ("The Doom of a City," 1857 ; "Our Ladies of Death," 1861 ; Weddah and Om-el-Bonain : "The Naked Goddess," 1866-7 ; The City of Dreadful Night, 1870 - 74). In his latter years Thomson too often sought refuge from his misery of mind and body in the Lethe of opium and alcohol. His mortal illness came upon him in the house of a poet friend ; and he was conveyed to University College hospital, in Gower Street, where shortly after he died (June 3, 1882). He was buried at Highgate cemetary, in the same grave, in unconsecrated ground, as his friend Austin Holyoake.

Anyone as unfamiliar as I was until today with the work of this unfortunate poet, will be richly rewarded by a reading of his great work, which these opening verses amply testify:

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.

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