Victorian Literature James Thomson (B.V.)
Amy Huseby
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0192


James Thomson (B. V.) (b. 1834–d. 1882), who frequently published under the pseudonym Bysshe Vanolis, is a notable figure of fin-de-siécle poetry and the freethought movements in 19th-century England. Thomson wrote more than a dozen books of poetry, satire, biography, and essays, but he is best known for his poem The City of Dreadful Night (1874, 1880). As for his pseudonym, Bysshe he took from the poet Shelley, and Vanolis is an anagram of the German novalis, meaning “new ground.” Born in Port Glasgow, Scotland, he was orphaned by the age of eight, suffering the loss of both parents, a sister, and his sweetheart all in his early life. Thomson trained as an army schoolmaster and served in Ireland until almost the age of thirty, after which he moved to London and became a clerk. He struggled with chronic alcoholism (he was jailed several times and hospitalized repeatedly), depression, hypochondria, and insomnia, often relying on friends for housing, food, and legal assistance. Ultimately, he suffered a painful, lonely, likely alcoholism-related death. Despite such miseries, Thomson managed to establish a reputation as a poet, literary critic, and radical prose author of some merit, garnering the admiration of literati including George Eliot, William Michael Rossetti, George Meredith, and Amy Levy. His childhood at the Royal Caledonian Asylum was an experience that would shape references in City. Specifically, his early religious education from the Rev. John Cumming (b. 1807–d. 1881), a member of the asylum court (akin to a board of directors) who, in 1849, became the minister of the Caledonian Church associated with the asylum, made a distinct and lasting impression. Cumming formed in the young Thomson a lifelong distrust and animosity toward organized religion. It is little surprise, then, that when Thomson met the well-known freethinker and publisher Charles Bradlaugh (b. 1833–d. 1891), the two formed a friendship. Thomson also befriended the Holyoake brothers, Austin and George Jacob—printers, publishers, editors, freethinkers. During Thomson’s final days, Austin’s son, Percy Holyoake, together with the poet Bertram Dobell, worked to remove Thomson’s liquor stashes, get him out of jail, find him housing, and retrieve him repeatedly from the hospital. Both men corresponded regularly about the author’s whereabouts and condition. Thomson was so close to Austin Holyoake that he would eventually be buried in the same grave at Highgate Cemetery.

General Overviews, Biographies, and Editions

Note: Those interested in working on or teaching about Thomson should be aware that James Thomson (B. V.) (b. 1834–d. 1882) is a different writer from the (also Scottish) poet and playwright James Thomson (b. 1700–d. 1748). This bibliographer discovered a number of inaccuracies in databases searches (such as EBSCO host) in which these two writers are confused or listed on each other’s work or for articles about one rather than the other. Additional vigilance is in order when working on James Thomson (B. V.), as a result, to ensure that the scholarship you are conducting is accurate.

James Thomson (B. V.) has never been in want of biographers, the first of which appeared seven years after his death. To his contemporaries as well as to later critics, Thomson has offered something of a cypher, one that, from time to time, scholars want to decode. As John Addington Symonds said, there was “something incalculable, sphinx-like, daemonic about Thomson” (Schaefer 1965). The best engagements with Thomson’s life can be found in the two initial biographies, Salt 1889 and Dobell 1910, followed by Meeker 1917 (which offers little more than a rehearsal of Salt and Dobell), and most recently, Leonard 1993. These are largely glossed and repeated in all subsequent scholarship. Leonard 1993 is really the most thorough account of Thomson’s work, thought, and life to date. At mid-century, Vachot 1964 made what appears to be the first shift away from a strict biography toward an explication of Thomson’s poetry and prose. Later biographers moved away from historical detail to focus on his philosophical positions (Walker 1950) and intellectual development (Schaefer 1965). Unfortunately, neither his creative output nor his life have generated sustained scholarly interest, and so there are no more concise collections of his work. To date there is no introductory or companion volume to Thomson. None of Thomson’s poetry has appeared in enhanced editions deploying supplemental critical or cultural material, nor is his work the sole subject of entire reference works, textbooks, or anthologies. Only Schaefer has produced a critical edition of Thomson’s selected prose (see Schaefer 1967, cited under Thomson’s Prose). A volume of poems, edited by A. J. Spatz, was published in 2012 (see Thomson 2012), and The City of Dreadful Night and Other Writings was issued by Seattle publisher Sublunary Editions in 2022.

  • Byron, Kenneth Hugh. The Pessimism of James Thomson (B. V.) in Relation to His Times. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2015.

    Byron’s study positions Thomson in a longer 19th-century discourse of pessimism. Like many others, Byron emphasizes Thomson’s atheistic pessimism, but Byron goes beyond this conclusion and argues that Thomson’s pessimism is a symptom of anxious and confused reactions to modernity. Although Byron provides some biographical detail, his project is less “about” Thomson than it is about the writer in the context of historical types of pessimism, such as freethought.

  • Dobell, Bertram. The Laureate of Pessimism: A Sketch of the Life and Character of James Thomson (B.V.). London: Dobell, 1910.

    As Thomson’s close friend, Dobell was well positioned to write one of his first detailed biographies. He also assigns Thomson the epithet “the laureate of pessimism,” which many scholars since have either accepted without question (Boyiopoulos 2017, Paolucci 2000, Tew 2007, all cited under The City of Dreadful Night) or resisted based on more generous readings of his work (Schaefer 1965 and Sharpe 1984, also under The City of Dreadful Night).

  • Leonard, Tom. Places of the Mind: The Life and Works of James Thomson (B.V.). London: J. Cape, 1993.

    Leonard remains the most useful, reliable, and extensive biography of James Thomson (B. V.). Leonard’s thoroughly researched project improves on prior studies, offering a more complete picture of the religious atmosphere in which Thomson was reared and the subsequent debates among the freethought secularists whom he befriended. Leonard’s discussions of Thomson’s genres (poetry, essays, reviews, letters, translations) reveal the range of his intellectual endeavors and abilities.

  • Meeker, James Edward. The Life and Poetry of James Thomson (B. V.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1917.

    Acknowledging his debt to Salt 1889 and Dobell 1910, Meeker adds to those prior studies by using Thomson’s prose and poetry to give a fuller account of the poet’s inner life. Given its publication in 1917, one suspects that this early psychological approach to Thomson was new ground at the time. For scholars researching Thomson now, it is not critical reading.

  • Salt, Henry Stephens. The Life of James Thomson (B. V.). London: Reeves and Turner with Bertram Dobell, 1889.

    Published seven years following Thomson’s death, this empathetic memoir was written by someone who did not personally know Thomson. Salt says in preface that “no such biographer was forthcoming,” which is interesting given that Dobell was one of this book’s publishers and knew Thomson well. Salt’s account includes quotes from apparent interviews with friends, as well as Thomson’s correspondence and his writing. Salt’s biography was republished in several editions.

  • Schaefer, William David. James Thomson, B.V., Beyond “The City.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965.

    Less a standard biography than a history of Thomson’s intellectual development, Schaefer’s method employs three categories: religion, socioeconomic and political issues, and poetry and literary criticism. Schaefer identified a number of previously unknown articles and essays by Thomson and worked with unpublished manuscript material for this project. Schaefer is refreshing for his recognition that Thomson was “charming, pleasant, merry, witty, and thoroughly agreeable” (p. 2), rather than only pessimistic.

  • Thomson, James (B. V.) The City of Dreadful Night and Other Poems. London: Reeves & Turner, 1880.

    Although Thomson’s City was initially serialized in The National Reformer (1874), it was later published in this book form edition with Thomson’s other poetry. Subsequent editions appeared every few years, including a 2022 edition from Sublunary Editions. This first edition has been widely digitized and is available open access online.

  • Thomson, James (B. V.). The Complete Poems. Edited by Aaron Jacob Spatz. Arlington, VA: Charles & Wonder, 2012.

    This edition offers the most comprehensive volume of Thomson’s poems, translations, and epigrams to date, but it lacks any of his prose. Essentially, this is a reprint of the poetry volumes Thomson published in his lifetime, such as Vane’s Story and Other Poems (1881), but which a researcher might not have access to in their home library.

  • Vachot, Charles. James Thomson (1834–1882). Paris: Didier Érudition, 1964.

    Vachot’s critical analysis of Thomson’s poetry and prose devotes fewer pages to biographical detail. Vachot’s interest is in Thomson’s development as a poet and he gives more attention to lesser-known poems. Vachot also delves into the prose that provided Thomson with an income for much of his life, positioning the author’s thinking within strands of wider European discourses.

  • Walker, Imogene B. James Thomson (B. V.), a Critical Study. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1950.

    Walker desired a fuller understanding of Thomson’s life in relationship to his literary output than had previously been offered in Salt 1889, Dobell 1910, and Meeker 1917. She focuses on several influential strands in Thomson’s writing: his analytical and philosophical mind; his temperament; the times in which he lived; his later, and more fully developed, thinking on secularism. Her close readings might be of interest to some.

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