James Thomson’s Deserts

  • John MillerEmail author


The poetry of James Thomson B. V. (1834–1882) is haunted by deserts. As a Scotsman by birth and a resident in London for most of his life, Thomson had little personal experience of such environments; rather, his interest in the desert emerges from a bleak poetic orientation towards exposure, vulnerability, and purposelessness. Thomson was notoriously scathing of Victorian orthodoxies: not for him the pieties of the church, faith in technological and economic progress or love of Queen and country. Desert functions for Thomson as the exemplary sign of a world shorn of such grand narratives; in Thomson’s deserts meaning and consolation are quickly exhausted. Against the background of Thomson’s heterodox worldview, this essay examines the way in which a radical and problematic environmental politics emerges from Thomson’s deserts of the imagination, concerned ultimately with the world after human extinction. The argument draws principally on apocalyptic motifs and on Thomson’s engagement with Victorian Egyptology in his melancholic masterpiece The City of Dreadful Night (1874). These tropes illustrate a progressive marginalization of the human that culminate in the curious late poem “A Voice from the Nile” (1881) which, narrated from the river’s perspective, eventually finds consolation in a literally post-human world.

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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of EnglishUniversity of SheffieldSheffieldUK

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