The pessimism of James Thomson (B. V.) in relation to his times (Studies in English Literature)
Englishmen of that portion of later nineteenth century calledthe Victorian Period from about 1832 to about 1895 gave widecredence to the belief that there was a preponderance of evil overgood in the world. Slightly earlier in Germany (about 1818) aphilosophy was systematized called pessimism, in which the will toexist is the cause of all evil in the world; and, because man isbound to lose the struggle for existence, this is the worst ofpossible worlds and death must conquer all. During this period,too, English poets and philosophers, who had come under theinfluence of Rousseau's romantic melancholy, were questioning thevalue of life; for although belief in Divinity was being weakenedby the critical attacks on the infallibility of the Bible, manlooked to the great progress which should follow the advances ofthe industrial revolution. Turning from a weakened faith in divineauthority, he was confronted with a spectacle of human sufferingand a quantity of evil never before realized. The alternatives werereawakening a belief in the old doctrines, reaffirming a faith inGod, or finding an entirely new set of standards. Thomson could notdo any of these; other writers of the period who had expressedpessimistic views, reconcile their doubts and attain at least ameasure of belief in God, the benevolence of nature, or in absolutereality.James Thomson was unable to find even a partially satisfactoryabsolute, and as a result felt that he was an outcast from humanitywith no road back for him. He gave us the ultimate expression ofatheistic pessimism in his masterpiece, The City of Dreadful Night.Its development can be traced throughout his creative life, and wecan see its beginnings sometime after the death of his sweetheart,Matilda Weiler.As early as 1837 he wrote an (unpublished) poem about histwenty-third year which gives the first recognizable forecast ofhis final pessimism. "The Fadeless Bower" of 1858 bewails the lossof Matilda, and "The Dead Year" of 1860 expresses his inability toforesee any good for the future of mankind. There were a number ofcontributory factors leading to the final pessimism hinted at inthese early works. His early religious doubts, given root in theoverly emotional religious atmosphere of his childhood, can betraced through his works by a set of successive stages from fear ofdisbelief, through disbelief in the divinity of Christ, in God, andfinally in the soul and immortality; there was no substitute.His philosophy paralleled Schopenhauer's conception of the worldas will and idea; Thomson saw a futility in life and desiredannihilation, but was restrained from suicide by two conditions;suicide implied a value of life he did not recognize, and hepossessed in the Schopenhaurian sense the all-powerful will to be.He found fellow-wanderers in the City of Night in Giacomo Leopardiand his pessimistic philosophy of ennui, and in the German poetHeine and his sufferings. Heine's wretchedness, he felt, resembledhis own following the death of his sweetheart; the resulting lossof his love prevented him from realizing an ordered emotionalexistence, a loss further complicated by the effects of aheightened dipsomania. Thomson sought a resolution to his dilemmain reason and necessity, neither of which sufficed; and, as aconsequence, his masterpiece reveals his inability to realizeexistential freedom or existence. Nor could he equate his loss offaith in nature with the teachings of evolution which made man aminute particle in a vast and cruel universe.