Thursday, January 28, 2010

The truth of midnight does not exclude the truth of noonday - George Eliot does her best for Bysshe Vanolis

James Thomson sent George Eliot a copy of The City of Dreadful Night.  He sent it to Carlyle, too.  M. E. Lewes, as she signed the letter, was a big figure at this time, with Middlemarch three year behind her.

Eliot admires the poem's "distinct vision and grand utterance" but hopes that Vanolis will produce something with "a wider embrace of human fellowship."  Eliot concluded what I concluded yesterday, that the quality of the poem vitiated its message:

To accept life and write much fine poetry, is to take a very large share in the quantum of human good, and seems to draw with it necessarily some recognition, affectionate and even joyful, of the manifold willing labours which have made such a lot possible.  (May 30, 1874, p. 53)

Thomson's replies (two to the same letter) are hilarious, or perhaps sad, or both.  He tells Eliot that he has "no Byronic quarrel with my fellows" but sees "all alike crushed under the iron yoke of Fate."  He says he admires a physician who saves a life, even though it were better if the patient had died.  "But it is not for me to introduce such thoughts to you."  Good one, Bysshe.

Thomson writes that he sent his poem to Eliot because her works suggest to him a "character and intellectual destiny akin to those of that grand and awful Melancholy of Albrecht Dürer."  I have no idea what he means by that.

Two days later, Thomson decided his bizarre "no, I really mean it" letter to Eliot was either too weird or not weird enough, because he sent a short followup, saying that:

the poem in question was the outcome of much sleepless hypochondria.  I am aware that the truth of midnight does not exclude the truth of noonday, though one's nature may lead him to dwell in the former rather than in the latter.

For some reason, Eliot did not reply to these letters.  You become a famous writer, this is what you get to deal with.

Thomson's letters are from June 18 and 20, 1874, pp. 60-1.

All references are to Haight, Gordon S., ed., The George Eliot Letters: Volume VI 1874-1877, 1955.  Yale University Press.


  1. Heh, poor Eliot. If she knew what sort of response her original letter was going to get I wonder if she would have re-thought sending it? I love that Vanolis blames "sleepless hypochondria" for his dark view of things.

  2. That's great. I suppose she brought it on herself by sounding so wise and compassionate (he probably screened out the biting sarcastic parts of the novels).

  3. I thought everyone would enjoy Eliot's calm, reasoned response to this marvellous but unreasonable poem. Thomson's responses are eveidence of his sense of humor, or his nuttiness.

    I mean, is he baiting Eliot? Can he mean that whole "you remind me of Melancholia" business, or is he taking a poke at her for some reason? Perhaps, as Rohan says, reacting badly, perversely, to her genuine interest and support, which damages his view of the emptiness of the world, which he can't quite really believe anyway (otherwise, why send Eliot your poem?).