BOOK REVIEW / Sad days in the City of Dreadful Night: 'Places of the Mind: The Life and Work of James Thomson ('B V') - Tom Leonard: Cape, 25 pounds

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THE mid-Victorian imagination built dream cities on either side of the religious divide. Prophesying that the New Jerusalem would be established in the year 1867, the millennialist John Cumming spoke with an architect's passion of its revolutionary lighting: 'Darkness shall flee away . . . no night shall draw its sable curtains over head.' When this failed to materialise, the poet and free-thinker James Thomson constructed its opposite, 'The City of Dreadful Night', where 'none can pierce the vast black veil uncertain/ Because there is no light behind the curtain.'

Finished in 1873, this is the most resolutely pessimistic long poem of its time, anticipating by 50 years the setting (urban) and mood (dismal) of The Waste Land. Drawing on Shelleyan diction and Spenserian rhythm, and importing its central image (the figure of 'Melencolia') from an engraving by Durer, it may not have the essential originality of great poetry, but that it should stand so far above the rest of Thomson's verses says something about the power of a great title.

It is a miserable poem all right, but its miseries are generalised and philosophical. The verse gives no clue to the particular horror of the poet's life, the degrading alcoholism which aggravated his personal and vocational solitude. Though he knew William Rossetti and George Meredith (who innocently commended 'The City . . .' for its 'utmost sobriety'), Thomson's exclusion from the supportive network of Victorian letters is suggested by J A Symonds, who found him 'too far from the average Englishman (eg, from the ordinary public schoolboy, Oxonian and litterateur such as I am) to be approached familiarly'.

For a start, he was a Scotsman, from Port Glasgow, though all but the first six years of his life were spent in London. After an unprivileged but apparently happy education in an Islington 'asylum' for the children of dead or disabled Scottish soldiers and seamen, he worked as an army schoolmaster until 'discharged with disgrace' in 1862. Though the reason for his expulsion remains obscure, it seems likely that his binges had begun, the violent exeats which are marked in his later diaries by clusters of black days.

Thereafter he lived alone as a lodger in various single rooms, depending on the secularist Charles Bradlaugh for employment (it was for his contributions to Bradlaugh's Investigator that he coined the pseudonym 'B V' - Bysshe Vanolis - in honour of Shelley and the German poet Novalis). When he blew this arrangement in his habitual way, he got what money he could freelancing for magazines like Cope's Tobacco Plant, but was constantly in debt. Against the grain of his

decline, he had books of verse published in 1880 and 1881. But in 1882, aged 47, he died, in a stupor, from a broken blood vessel in his bowel (the bowel was found to be 'nearly non-existent', which suggests cancer, but since his last months were smeared over with alcohol the standard account is that drink killed him).

Short, dingy, crapulous, solitary lives in bedsits need their biographies, too, but they generate fewer sources than others. And Thomson made his biographer's task all the harder by destroying his private papers as he approached his 35th birthday. Anyway, Tom Leonard has found a conventional 'life' beyond or beneath his ambitions, and has created instead what he describes as 'a shape, containing a biography, made slowly in response to the shape of the art of another'. Extracts from Thomson's surviving notebooks are suspended without commentary in the midst of a narrative that is queerly reticent on matters of real importance to the subject, such as whether or not he had sex, or cancer.

There are some unrewarding flourishes of experiment. Observing that Thomson's diary entries usually begin with a note on the weather, Leonard supplies two pages of examples: 'Cold, dull, dry', 'Dull, cold, dry' and so on. Then there is an exercise called 'Stone on Stone', a random selection, made by computer, of 100 entries from four years of diaries, with chronology cast to the winds and 79 blanks stripped in for good measure; rather than responding to any 'shape' in Thomson's art, and contrary to the usual aim of biography, this turns an untidy life into total chaos.

The book works best when the sources dictate the shaping, as they do for the tragi-comedy of Thomson's last few weeks. These are vividly documented - not by the poet - in 10 pages of letters and reminiscence more interesting than anything that has come before. In February 1882, Thomson, staying with friends in the Leicestershire countryside and writing good, cheerless poetry again, squanders his chance of rehabilitation by disappearing to drink himself sick in a local pub. Returning to the city he embarks, broken- nosed and black-eyed, on a last long dreadful debauch ('on the warpath', as one letter has it, 'in very full paint'), to the exasperation of his long- suffering landlord, the characterful Gibson, who makes the mistake of demanding the rent:

It appears that about 5 in the morning G(ibson) awoke with a distinct idea of fire hovering about, so he descended and found the rubbish well alight and our hero calmly surveying the scene from his arm-chair, refusing any word of explanation.

Summarily evicted, with nowhere to go, Thomson's life-force makes its last groggy protest:

This morning Gibson was saying how relieved he felt at being rid of such a nightmare, and crowing that, if ever B V did turn up there again tight, he'd get a warm reception. Now listen, the whole time G was thus yarning, B V was upstairs in one of his unlet rooms]] . . . he had slipped in upstairs while they were at breakfast. About 10 he was bundled out again - he had left his mark in the room - saying he should go and see some friends in the Park, and since then no one seems to have seen him.

So perished the one Victorian poet for whom life really was (in Matthew Arnold's phrase) a 'long disease'. These riveting pages apart, the effect of Tom Leonard's study is to suppress that distinction. Scholars will appreciate Leonard's quirky, patient reconstruction of the background to the work; but the general reader, the social drinker, would be dismayed at how little curiosity is shown about the nature of the disease.