BOOK REVIEW / Satellite from the apocalypse that never happened: 'Places of the Mind. The Life and Work of James Thomson' - Tom Leonard: Jonathan Cape, 25 pounds

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VICTORIAN millennialists envisaged a fiery apocalypse of destruction and resurrection, one that would portend a New Jerusalem: 'The very dust shall be of diamond, and the meanest thing where all is magnificent shall be gold,' proclaimed one zealot, John Cumming, in about 1850. When the end of the world failed to keep its appointment (in 1867), James Thomson, a child of the faith but by then a secularist poet, built a vision of urban bleakness, terror and doom, which has long outlived him and on which his reputation duly sits. Through The City of Dreadful Night coils oblivion's River of Suicides, which marks out the stations of the deaths of Faith, Love and Hope. Its presiding figure is 'Melencolia', from the etching by Albrecht Durer, and Thomson's metropolis festers under her wingbeat.

Completed in 1873, the poem is a classic of its genre and of its time. During its conception and execution Thomson travelled on journalistic assignments to North America and Spain; his letters to friends (including one to William Rossetti) betray no signals of his solitary intellectual state, his gothic-heroic incubation, his bouts of drinking, or his own melancholic disorders. Tom Leonard's Places Of The Mind seems concerned to place the work in the sharpened foreground of Thomson's life.

Thomson destroyed most of his documents in 1869, in an attempt to 'consume the past'; but Leonard seems stoically incurious as to the genesis of Thomson's complexities. Instead, he describes his book as 'a shape, containing a biography, made slowly in response to the shape of the art of another'. Within this curious form there is little room for biography; Leonard relies more on anthology, as well as extracts from Thomson's diaries, which run in a random sequence and are preceded with a reference by Leonard to 'the underlying structural argument of the book'.

An astringent reviewer, Thomson himself might well have wondered at how deeply buried this 'argument' is. The book is only logical in so far as it is chronological. Leonard traces Thomson's life from his birth and early childhood in Port Glasgow, where the millennialist hosannas resounded in his simple home, through his education and work as an army schoolmaster ('discharged with disgrace' in 1862) and into the hinterland of literary London.

Despite his recruitment by Charles Bradlaugh into the fold of republican secularism, and regular publication of his essays, articles and reviews in the National Reformer, he seems to have been a man poised on the edge of an inner abyss. Still, as a freelance critic he was witty, sharp and bracing: 'As a nation we import corn and cotton, not literature and ideas.' He followed Shelley (his pseudonym 'B V' - Bysshe Vanolis - was a homage to Shelley and Novalis, the German poet), and he thought highly of Borrow, Meredith and Browning, though Dickens was 'shallow' and Tennyson 'petty'.

Thomson's best poetry has been validated by time. Approbation was forthcoming from William Rossetti and George Eliot, the latter praising its 'distinct vision and grand utterance'. Thomson entered the outer orbit of literary society, a strange satellite who brightened the soirees held by Ford Maddox Brown and Rossetti. The latter recalled a pleasant 'minor man of business with literary tastes' on whose face rested 'something of a permanently pained expression, along with a settled half- smile, caustic but not cynical . . . adopted as part of his attitude towards the world.'

The roots of his restlessness and melancholia seem in part to have been transplanted from his childhood; his solitude of mind engendered by his mother's entanglement with religion, and a carapace of emotional reserve by his much-loved sister's early death. But the relationship between his mother's theology and Thomson's own fraught psychology remains unexplored.

Paradoxically, this book brims over with life when pursuing Thomson's death. Leonard depicts a sad disintegration into a mess of booze, depression, petty theft, a short spell in jail and ultimate homelessness before a rotted, haemorrhaging bowel took its toll in June 1882.

Leonard's sensitive, shrewd arrangement of these disclosures, and his sense of narrative and drama join to tantalise and suggest the scale and scope of the tale untold. Perhaps he is anxious not to read into Thomson's life - and rightly so - what may not be there; but one is left puzzling over the pieces, seeking the heart of Thomson's existence. This puzzle echoes Thomson's avowal that making art was a compensatory activity, but the corners of his mind lie unfathomed still.