This little life is all we must endure,
The grave’s most holy peace is ever sure,
We fall asleep and never wake again;
Nothing is of us but the mouldering flesh,
Whose elements dissolve and merge afresh
In earth, air, water, plants, and other men.
We finish thus; and all our wretched race
Shall finish with its cycle, and give place
To other beings with their own time-doom:
Infinite aeons ere our kind began;
Infinite aeons after the last man
Has joined the mammoth in earth’s tomb and womb.
from ‘The City of Dreadful Night’
Dubbed the ‘laureate of pessimism,’ Thomson was born in 1834 in Port Glasgow, Scotland.
His life was filled with disappointment and grief. But so are many lives. What made Thomson see the worst in things? He was raised mostly in institutions, was thrown out of the military and lost his job as a reporter in Spain due to ‘incompetence.’
His younger sister died of measles which Thomson believed he transmitted to her. His business efforts ended in failure.
He suffered chronic depression and was an alcoholic. Insomnia drove him out at night to the streets of London and his wanderings led to the The City of Dreadful Night. The entire narrative of the poem takes place in a large city at night. Though for Thomson it was not any particular city, the poem is surely based on his nocturnal walks in London and memories of where he lived in Scotland:
‘the great ruins of an unremembered past’
The severe pessimism of the poem shocked Victorian readers and it was not well received by the public. However, Rudyard Kipling read the poem as a young man and noted in his autobiography how it shocked him ‘to his uniformed core.’ Thomson’s poem was to play a big role in Kipling’s later life when the latter wandered the streets of Lahore at night and penned his story, ‘The City of Dreadful Night.’
Jack London was clearly influenced by Thomson’s title when he wrote, ‘The People of the Abyss,’ a first-hand account of the working poor and the slums of East London. London entitled one chapter: ‘The City of Dreadful Monotony.’
T.S. Eliot openly admitted Thomson’s influence when the former wrote ‘The Waste Land.’
Despite Thomson’s gloomy outlook everyone that met him reported a man who was a lively talker, loved children and enjoyed a variety of sports, loved dancing, concerts and operas.
He was an extremely cultured individual reading and translating from Italian, French and German.
Confirmed pessimists have a disposition to melancholia, but it takes more to see things as Thomson does in his poem.
It requires that one delves below the superficial that is adequate for common minds. His Dreadful City is actually the world:
‘I find no hint throughout the Universe
Of good or ill, of blessing or of curse;
I find alone Necessity Supreme;
With infinite Mystery, abysmal, dark,
Unlighted ever by the faintest spark
For us the flitting shadows of a dream.’
Thomson saw the Truth and wrote it down. A Truth most know but constantly push away.
His despair and insomnia, his chronic alcoholism and heavy smoking finally collapsed on Thomson. Dying, he dragged himself from the street to a friend’s couch and hemorrhaged. He was forty-seven years old.
Thomson’s last words, his friend said, were so ‘desperate and defiant’ that he dared not record them.