six glasgow poems

Places of the Mind (update)

Places of the Mind  The Life and Works of James Thomson (B.V.), Jonathan Cape 1993 is a critical biography of the poet born in Port Glasgow in 1834 who died in London in 1882. Thomson is remembered mainly for his lengthy pessimistic masterpiece "The City of Dreadful Night" of 1874, a poem at odds both with religious belief and progressive political optimism:

Surely I write not for the hopeful young,
Or those who deem their happiness of worth,
Or such as pasture and grow fat among
The shows of life and feel nor doubt nor dearth,
Or pious spirits with a God above them
To sanctify and glorify and love them,
Or sages who foresee a heaven on earth.

For none of these I write, and none of these
Could read the writing if they deigned to try:
So may they flourish, in their due degrees,
On our sweet earth and in their unplaced sky.
If any cares for the weak words here written,
It must be some one desolate, Fate-smitten,
Whose faith and hope are dead, and who would die.

Yes, here and there some weary wanderer
In that same city of tremendous night,
Will understand the speech, and feel a stir
Of fellowship in all-disastrous fight;
"I suffer mute and lonely, yet another
Uplifts his voice to let me know a brother
Travels the same wild paths though out of sight."

This is from the opening of James Thomson's "The City of Dreadful Night", which appeared for the first time in the atheistic, republican weekly The National Reformer in 1874.

A mass of information relevant to Thomson's life and work is published for the first time: the millenialist fervour in the West of Scotland into which he was born (including the first printing of a letter written by his mother then); the world of the Royal Caledonian Asylum in London into which he was placed when he was eight years old; the British Army Corps of Schoolmasters, which he entered as one of the early recruits of this new institution; Ireland in the 1850's, where he served - and where he briefly befriended Matilda Weller, whose gravestone inscription is recorded; Charles Bradlaugh, the leading freethinker whom Thomson first met in Ireland and with whom he lived in London after his discharge from the Army in 1862; London and the freethought movement, including the periodicals for which Thomson wrote much of his subsequent life; his break with Bradlaugh, and the power struggle in the freethought movement that led to splits and rival newspapers; Thomson's nine months in Colorado, and his six weeks in Spain; "The City of Dreadful Night" and its reception; Thomson's struggle for money to survive, and the difficulties caused by his alcoholism; his freethought friends in Leicester; his death, and the letters of friends that chronicle the poet's last days as they try to keep in touch with him.

The manuscripts and copies of research material used in the writing of Places of the Mind are held in the University of Glasgow Library. For a guide to the contents of this material see

Places of the Mind - a guide to the manuscripts held by Glasgow University