Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics

By Isobel Armstrong | Go to book overview

16

JAMES THOMSON: ATHEIST, BLASPHEMER AND ANARCHIST

The Grotesque sublime

One of Thomson’s earliest published poems was a celebration of Shelley, a visionary poem in Shelley’s mode. To declare an interest in Shelley at this time was to align oneself with revolutionary politics and anti-Christian thought, and this Thomson unequivocally did. 1 ‘Finding a vast Statechurch, based upon politico-theology, everywhere in the ascendent’, he comments, Shelley sought to defeat the negativity of its ideology. 2 And yet his approving account of Shelley’s energising, non-theistic ‘Pantheism’ adds a corporeal and materialist element which is more characteristic of Thomson than Shelley: he took out the nervous, platonised, spiritualising properties of Shelley’s account of the soul and replaced them with Saturnian body. ‘Prometheus’ is an apotheosis of ‘One infinite Soul, self-subsisting, informing all things; one and the same in all masks of man, and beast, and worm, and plant, and slime’. 3 The almost syllogistically worked-out atheistic thought to which Thomson adhered did not in fact admit that matter possessed intelligence. ‘Substance’, Charles Bradlaugh, Thomson’s freethinking associate, wrote in ‘A plea for atheism’, is not regarded by the atheist as either essentially intelligent or non-intelligent: like the brightness of steel, ‘Intelligence is the result of certain conditions of existence…. Alter the condition, and the characteristic of the condition no longer exists’. 4 To turn to Thomson’s defence of Shelley is actually to find a poem which celebrates a poet working within conceptual and imaginative limits; ‘I could not understand men [Thomson’s Shelley says]; all their hearts/ Had secrets which I could not ever guess’. Then follows a rigorous litany of abuses.


Their greed for dross upon the daily marts,
Their pride and fawning in the palaces,
Their solemn church-attending worldliness,
Their servile fear of Custom’s lawless law
Filled me with sad perplexity and awe. 5

When such gods were repudiated as ‘hideous monsters’ and God was redefined as ‘infinite love for all things that exist’, Shelley’s voice continues,

-460-

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