1762 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Thomson

Patrick Murdock, Account of the Life and Writings of James Thomson, in The Seasons (1762; 1842) 1-17.



It is commonly said, that the life of a good writer is best read in his works; which can scarce fail to receive a peculiar tincture from his temper, manners, and habits: the distinguishing character of his mind, his ruling passion, at least, will there appear undisguised. But however just this observation may be, and although we might safely rest Mr. Thomson's fame, as a good man,as well as a man of genius, on this sole footing; yet the desire which the public always show of being more particularly acquainted with the history of an eminent author, ought not to be disappointed; as it proceeds not from mere curiosity, but chiefly from affection and gratitude, to those by whom they have been entertained and instructed.

To give some account of a deceased friend is often a piece of justice likewise, which ought not to be refused to his memory; to prevent or efface the impertinent fictions which officious biographers are so apt to collect and propagate. And we may add, that the circumstances of an author's life will sometimes throw the best light upon his writings; instances whereof we shall meet with in the following pages.

Mr. Thomson was born at Ednam, in the shire of Roxburgh, on the eleventh of September, in the year 1700. His father, minister of that place, was but little known beyond the narrow circle of his co-presbyters, and to a few gentlemen in the neighbourhood; but highly respected by them, for his piety, and his diligence in the pastoral duty: as appeared afterwards, in their kind offices to his widow and orphan family.

The reverend Mssrs. Riccarton and Gusthart particularly took a most affectionate and friendly part in all their concerns. The former, a man of uncommon penetration and good taste, had very early discovered, through the rudeness of young Thomson's puerile essays, a fund of genius well deserving culture and encouragement. He undertook, therefore, with the father's approbation, the chief direction of his studies, furnished him with the proper books, corrected his performances; and was daily rewarded with the pleasure of seeing his labour so happily employed.

The other reverend gentleman, Mr. Gusthart, who is still living [1762] one of the ministers of Edinburgh, and senior of the Chapel Royal, was no less serviceable to Mrs. Thomson in the management of her little affairs; which, after the decease of her husband, burdened as she was with a family of nine children, required the prudent counsels and assistance of that faithful and generous friend.

Sir William Bennet likewise, well known for his gay humour and ready poetical wit, was highly delighted with our young poet, and used to invite him to pass the summer vacation at his country-seat: a scene of life which Mr. Thomson always remembered with particular pleasure. But what he wrote during that time, either to entertain Sir William and Mr. Riccarton, or for his own amusement, he destroyed every new-year's day; committing his little pieces to the flames, in their due order; and crowning the solemnity with a copy of verses, in which were humorously recited the several grounds of the condemnation.

After the usual course of school education, under an able master at Jedburgh, Mr. Thomson was sent to the university of Edinburgh. But in the second year of his admission, his studies were for some time interrupted by the death of his father; who was carried off so suddenly, that it was not possible for Mr. Thomson, with all the diligence he could use, to receive his last blessing. This affected him to an uncommon degree; and his relations still remember some extraordinary instances of his grief and filial duty on that occasion.

Mrs. Thomson, whose maiden name was Hume, and who was co-heiress of a small estate in the country, did not sink under this misfortune. She consulted the friend, Mr. Gusthart: and having, by his advice, mortgaged her moiety of the farm, repaired with her family to Edinburgh; where she lived in a decent frugal manner, till her favourite son had not only finished his academical course, but was even distinguished and patronised as a man of genius. She was, herself, a person of uncommon natural endowments; possessed of every social and domestic virtue; with an imagination, for vivacity and warmth, scarce inferior to her son's, and which raised her devotional exercises to a pitch bordering on enthusiasm.

But whatever advantage Mr. Thomson might derive from the complexion of a parent, it is certain he owed much to a religious education; and that his early acquaintance with the sacred writings contributed greatly to that sublime, by which his works will be for ever distinguished. In his first pieces, the Seasons, we see him at once assume the majestic freedom of an Eastern writer; seizing the grand images as they rise, clothing them in his own expressive language, and preserving throughout, the grace, the variety, and the dignity, which belong to a just composition; unhurt by the stiffness of formal method.

About this time, the study of poetry was become general in Scotland, the best English authors being universally read, and imitations of them attempted. Addison had lately displayed the beauties of Milton's immortal work; and his remarks on it, together with Mr. Pope's celebrated Essay, had opened the way to an acquaintance with the best poets and critics.

But the most learned critic is not always the best judge of poetry; taste being a gift of nature, the want of which Aristotle and Bossu cannot supply; nor even the study of the best originals, when the reader's faculties are not tuned in a certain consonance to those of the poet; and this happened to be the case with certain learned gentlemen, into whose hands a few of Mr. Thomson's first essays had fallen. Some inaccuracies of style, and those luxuriancies which a young writer can hardly avoid, lay open to their cavils and censure: so far, indeed, they might be competent judges; but the fire and enthusiasm of the poet had entirely escaped their notice. Mr. Thomson, however, conscious of his own strength, was not discouraged by this treatment; especially as he had some friends on whose judgment he could better rely, and who thought very differently of his performances. Only form that time, he began to turn his views towards London; where works of genius may always expect a candid reception and due encouragement; and an accident soon after entirely determined him to try his fortune there.

The divinity chair at Edinburgh was then filled by the reverend and learned Mr. Hamilton; a gentleman universally respected and beloved; and who had particularly endeared himself to the young divines under his care, by his kind offices, his candour, and affability. Our author had attended his lectures for about a year, when there was prescribed to him, for the subject of an exercise, a psalm, in which the power and majesty of God are celebrated. Of this psalm he gave a paraphrase and illustration, as the nature of the exercise required; but in a style to highly poetical as surprised the whole audience. Mr. Hamilton, as his custom was, complimented the orator upon his performance, and pointed out to the students the most masterly striking parts of it; but at last, turning to Mr. Thomson, he told him, smiling, that if he thought of being useful to the ministry, he must keep a stricter reign upon his imagination, and express himself in language more intelligible to an ordinary congregation.

This gave Mr. Thomson to understand, that his expectations from the study of theology might be very precarious; even though the church had been more his free choice than probably it was. So that having, soon after, received some encouragement from a lady of quality, a friend of his mother's then in London, he quickly prepared himself for his journey. And although this encouragement ended in nothing beneficial, it served for the pretext, to cover the imprudence of committing himself to the wide world, unfriended and unpatronised, and with the slender stock of money he was then possessed of.

But his merit did not long lie concealed. Mr. Forbes, afterwards lord president of the session, then attending the service of parliament, having seen a specimen of Mr. Thomson's poetry in Scotland, received him very kindly, and recommended him to some of his friends: particularly Mr. Aikman, who lived in great intimacy with many persons of distinguished rank and worth. This gentleman, from a connoisseur in painting, was become a professed painter; and his tast being no less just and delicate in the kindred art of descriptive poetry, than in his own, no wonder that he soon conceived a friendship for our author. What a warm return he met with, and how Mr. Thomson was affected by his friend's premature death, appears in the copy of verses which he wrote on that occasion.

In the mean time, our author's reception, wherever he was introduced, emboldened him to risk the publication of his Winter: in which, as himself was a mere novice in such matters, he was kindly assisted by Mr. Mallet, then private tutor to his grace the Duke of Montrose, and his brother, the Lord George Graham, so well known afterwards as an able and gallant sea-officer. To Mr. Mallet he likewise owed his first acquaintance with several of the wits of that time; and exact information of their characters, personal and poetical, and how they stood affected to each other.

The poem of Winter, published in March 1726, was no sooner read than universally admired; those only excepted who had not been used to feel, or to look for, any thing in poetry, beyond a point of satirical or epigrammatic wit, a smart antithesis richly trimmed with rhyme, or the softness of an elegiac complaint. To such, his manly classical spirits could not easily recommend itself; till after a more attentive perusal they had to the better of their prejudices, and either acquired or affected a truer taste. A few others stood aloof, merely because they had long before fixed the articles of their poetical creed, and resigned themselves to an absolute despair of ever seeing anything new and original. These were somewhat mortified to find their notions disturbed by the appearance of a poet who seemed to owe nothing but to nature and his own genius. But in a short time, the applause became unanimous; every one wondering how so many pictures, and pictures so familiar, should have moved them but faintly to what they felt in his descriptions. His digression too, the overflowings of a tender, benevolent heart, charmed the reader no less; leaving him in doubt, whether he should more admire the poet, or love the man.

From that time, Mr. Thomson's acquaintance was courted by all men of taste; and several ladies of high rank and distinction became his declared patronesses: the Countess of Hertford, Miss Drelincourt, afterwards Viscountess Primrose, Mrs. Stanley, and others. But the chief happiness which his Winter procured him was, that it brought him acquainted with Dr. Rundle, afterwards Lord Bishop of Derry: who, upon conversing with Mr. Thomson, and finding in him qualities greater still, and of more value, than those of poet, received him into his intimate confidence and friendship; promoted his character every where; introduced him to his great friend the Lord Chancellor Talbot; and, some years after, when the oldest son of that nobleman was to make his tour of travelling, recommended Mr. Thomson as a proper companion for him. His affection and gratitude to Dr. Rundle, and his indignation at the treatment that worthy prelate had met with, are finely expressed in his poem to the memory of Lord Talbot. The true cause of that undeserved treatment has been secreted from the public, as well as the dark manoeuvres that were employed: but Mr. Thomson, who had access to the best information, places it to the account of

Slanderous zeal, and politics infirm,
Jealous of worth.

Meanwhile our poet's chief care had been, in return for the public favour, to finish the plan which their wishes laid out for him; and the expectations which his Winter had raised, were fully satisfied by the successive publication of the other Seasons: of Summer, in the year 1727; of Spring, in the beginning of the following year; and of Autumn, in a quarto edition of his works, printed in 1730.

In that edition, the Seasons are placed in their natural order; and crowned with that inimitable Hymn, in which we view them in their beautiful succession, as one whole, the immediate effect of infinite Power and Goodness. In imitation of the Hebrew bard, all nature is called forth to do homage to the Creator, and the reader is left enraptured in silent adoration and praise.

Besides these, and his tragedy of Sophonisba, written and acted with applause, in the year 1729, Mr. Thomson had in 1727, published his poem to the memory of Sir Isaac Newton, then lately deceased; containing a deserved encomium of that incomparable man, with an account of his chief discoveries; sublimely poetical; and yet so just, that an ingenious foreigner, the Count Algarotti, takes a line of it for the text of his philosophical dialogues, Il Neutonianismo per le dame: that was in part owing to the assistance he had of his friend Mr. Gray, a gentleman well versed in the Newtonian philosophy, who, on that occasion, gave him a very exact, though general, abstract of its principles.

That same year, the resentment of our merchants, for the interruption of their trade by the Spaniards in America, running very high, Mr. Thomson zealously took part in it; and wrote his poem Britannia, to rouse the nation to revenge. And although this piece is the less read that its subject was but accidental and temporary, the spirited and generous sentiments that enrich it, can never be out of season: they will at least remain a monument of that love of his country, that devotion to the public, which he is ever inculcating as the perfection of virtue, and which none ever felt more pure, or more intense, than himself.

Our author's poetical studies were now to be interrupted, or rather improved, by his attendance on the honourable Mr. Charles Talbot in his travels. A delightful task indeed! endowed as that young nobleman was by nature, and accomplished by the care and example of the best of fathers, in whatever could adorn humanity: graceful of person, elegant in manners and address; pious, humane, generous, with an exquisite taste in all the finer arts.

With this amiable companion and friend, Mr. Thomson visited most of the courts and capital cities of Europe; and returned with his views greatly enlarged not of exterior nature only, and the works of art, but of human life and manners, of the constitution and policy of the several states, their connexions, and their religious institutions. How particular and judicious his observations were, we see in his poem of Liberty, begun soon after his return to England. We see, at the same time, to what a high pitch his love of his country was raised, by the comparison he had all along been making of our happy well-poised government with those of other nations. To inspire his fellow-subjects with the like sentiments, and to who them by what means the precious freedom we enjoy may be preserved and how it may be abused or lost, he employed two years of his life in composing that noble work: upon which, conscious of the importance and dignity of the subject, he valued himself more than upon all his other writings.

While Mr. Thomson was writing his first part of Liberty, he received a severe shock, by the death of his noble friend and fellow-traveller: which was soon followed by another that was severer still, and of more general concern; the death of Lord Talbot himself; which Mr. Thomson so pathetically and so justly laments in the poem dedicated to his memory. In him the nation saw itself deprived of an uncorrupted patriot, the faithful guardian of their rights, on whose wisdom and integrity they had founded their hopes of relief from many tedious vexations: and Mr. Thomson, besides his share in the general mourning, had to bear all the affliction which a heart like his could feel, for the person whom, of all mankind, he most revered and loved. At the same time, he found himself, from an easy competency, reduced to a state of precarious dependence, in which he passed the remainder of his life; excepting only the two last years of it, during which he enjoyed the place of surveyor-general of the Leeward Islands, procured for him by the generous friendship of Lord Lyttelton.

Immediately upon his return to England with Mr. Talbot, the chancellor had made him his secretary of briefs; a place of little attendance, suiting his retired indolent way of life, and equal to all his wants. This place fell with his patron; and although the noble lord who succeeded to Lord Talbot in office, kept it vacant for some time, probably till Mr. Thomson should apply for it, he was so dispirited, and so listless to every concern of that kind, that he never took one step in the affair; a neglect which his best friends greatly blamed in him.

Yet could not his genius be depressed, or his temper hurt, by this reverse of fortune. He resumed, with time, his usual cheerfulness, and never abated on article in his way of living; which, though simple, was genial and elegant. The profits arising from his works were not inconsiderable: his tragedy of Agamemnon, acted in 1738, yielded a good sum: Mr. Millar was always at hand, to answer, or even to prevent, his demands; and he had a friend or two besides, whose hearts he knew, were not contracted by the ample fortunes they had acquired; who would, of themselves, interpose, if they saw any occasion for it.

But his chief dependence, during this long interval, was on the protection and bounty of his royal highness Frederic Prince of Wales; who, upon the recommendation of Lord Lyttelton, then his chief favourite, settled on him a handsome allowance. And afterwards, when he was introduced to his royal highness, that excellent prince, who truly was what Mr. Thomson paints him, the friend of mankind and of merit, received him very graciously, and ever after honoured him with many marks of particular favour and confidence. A circumstance, which does equal honour to the patron and the poet, ought not here to be omitted; that my Lord Lyttelton's recommendation came altogether unsolicited, and long before Mr. Thomson was personally known to him.

It happened, however, that the favour of his royal highness was in one instance of some prejudice to our author; in the refusal of a license for his tragedy of Edward and Elenora, which he had prepared for the stage in the year 1739. The reader may see that this play contains not a line which could justly give offence; but the ministry still sore from certain pasquinades, which had lately produced the stage-act; and as little satisfied with some part of the prince's political conduct, as he was with their management of the public affairs; would not risk the representation of a piece written under his eye, and they might probably think, by his command.

This refusal drew after it another; and in a way which, as it is related, was rather ludicrous. Mr. Paterson, a companion of Mr. Thomson, afterwards his deputy and then his successor, in the general-surveyorship, used to write out fair copies for his friend, when such were wanted for the press or for the stage. This gentleman likewise courted the tragic muse; and had taken for his subject the story of Arminius the German hero. But his play, guiltless as it was, being presented for a license; no sooner had the censor cast his eyes on the hand-writing in which he had seen Edward and Elenora, than he cried out, "Away with it!" and the author's profits were reduced to what his bookseller could afford for a tragedy in distress.

Mr. Thomson's next dramatic performance was the masque of Alfred; written, jointly with Mr. Mallet, by command of the Prince of Wales, for the entertainment of his royal highness's court, at his summer-residence. This piece, with some alterations, and the music new, has been since brought upon the stage by Mr. Mallet: it was originally acted at Clifden, in the year 1740, on the birth-day of her royal highness the Princess Augusta.

In the year 1745, his Tancred and Sigismonda, taken from the novel in Gil Blas, was performed with applause; and from the deep romantic distress of the lovers, continues to draw crowded houses. The success of this piece was indeed insured from the first by Mr. Garrick and Mrs. Cibber, they appearing in the principle characters; which they heightened and adorned with all the magic of their never-failing art.

He had, in the mean time, been finishing his Castle of Indolence, in two cantos. It was, at first, little more than a few detached stanzas, in the way of raillery on himself, and on some of his friends, who would reproach him with indolence, while he thought them at least, as indolent as himself. But he saw very soon, that the subject deserved to be treated more seriously, and in a form fitted to convey one of the most important moral lessons.

The stanza which he uses in this work is that of Spencer, borrowed from the Italian poets; in which he thought rhymes had their proper place, and were even graceful: the compass of the stanza admitting an agreeable variety of final sounds: while the sense of the poet is not cramped or cut short, nor yet too much dilated; as must often happen, when it is parceled out into rhymed couplets; the usual measure indeed of our elegy and satire, but which always weakens the higher poetry, and, to a true ear, will sometimes give it an air of the burlesque.

This was the last piece Mr. Thomson himself published; his tragedy of Coriolanus being only prepared for the theatre, when a fatal accident robbed the world of one of the best of men, and best poets, that lived in it.

He had always been a timorous horseman; and more so, in a road where numbers of giddy or unskillful riders are continually passing; so that, when the weather did not invite him to go by water, he would commonly walk the distance between London and Richmond, with any acquaintance that offered; with whom he might chat and rest himself, or perhaps dine, by the way. One summer evening, being alone, in his walk from town to Hammersmith, he had overheated himself, and in that condition, imprudently took a boat to carry him to Kew; apprehending no bad consequence from the chill air on the river, which his walk to his house, at the upper end of Kew-lane, had always hitherto prevented. But now the cold had so seized him, that next day he found himself in a high fever, so much the more to be dreaded that he was of a full habit. This however, by the use of proper medicines, was removed, so that he was thought to be out of danger: till the fine weather having tempted him to expose himself once more to the evening dews, his fever returned with violence, and with such symptoms as left no hopes of a cure. Two days had passed before his relapse was known in town; at last, Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Reid, with Dr. Armstrong, being informed of it, posted out at midnight to his assistance: but alas! came only to endure a sight of all others most shocking to nature, the last agonies of their beloved friend. This lamented death happened on the 27th day of August, 1748.

His testamentary executors were, the Lord Lyttelton, whose care of our poet's fortune and fame ceased not with his life; and Mr. Mitchell, a gentleman equally noted for the truth and constancy of his private friendships, and for his address and spirit as a public minister. By their united interest, the orphan play of Coriolanus was brought to the stage, to the best advantage: from the profits of which, and the sale of manuscripts, and other effects, all demands were satisfied, and a handsome sum remitted to his sisters. My Lord Lyttelton's prologue to this piece was admired as one of the best that had ever been written; the best spoken it certainly was. The sympathising audience saw that then, indeed, Mr. Quin was no actor; that the tears he shed were those of real friendship and grief.

Mr. Thomson's remains were deposited in the church of Richmond, under a plain stone, without any inscription; nor did his brother-poets, at all exert themselves on the occasion, as they had lately done for one who had been the terror of of poets all his lifetime. This silence furnished matter to one of his friends for an excellent satirical epigram, which we are sorry we cannot give the reader. Only one gentleman, Mr. Collins, who had lived some time at Richmond, but forsook it when Mr. Thomson died, wrote an ode to his memory. This for the dirge-like melancholy it breathes, and the warmth of affection that seems to have dictated it, we shall subjoin to the present account.

Our author himself hints, somewhere in his works, that his exterior was not the most promising: his make being rather robust than graceful; though it is known that in his youth he had been thought handsome. His worst appearance was, when you saw him walking alone, in a thoughtful mood: but let a friend accost him, and enter into conversation, he would instantly brighten into a most amiable aspect, his features no longer the same, and his eye darting a peculiar animated fire. The case was much alike in company; where it if was mixed, or very numerous, he made but an indifferent figure: but with a few select friends, he was open, sprightly, and entertaining. His wit flowed freely, but pertinently, and at due intervals, leaving room for every one to contribute his share. Such was his extreme sensibility, so perfect the harmony of his organs with the sentiments of his mind, that his looks always announced, and half expressed, what he was about to say; and his voice corresponded exactly to the manner and degree in which he was affected. This sensibility had one inconvenience attending it: a sonnet or a copy of tame verses, he could manage pretty well; or even improve them in the reading: but a passage of Virgil, Milton, or Shakspeare, would sometimes quite oppress him, that you could hear little else than some ill-articulated sounds, rising from the bottom of his breast.

He had improved his taste upon the best originals, ancient and modern: but could not bear to write what was not strictly his own, what had not more immediately struck his imagination, or touched his heart: so that he is not in the least concerned in that question about the merit or demerit of imitators. What he borrows from the ancients, he gives us an avowed faithful paraphrase or translation; as we see in a few passages taken from Virgil, and in that beautiful picture from Pliny the elder, where the course and gradual increase of the Nile are figured by the stages of a man's life.

The autumn was his favourite season for poetical composition, and the deep silence of the night, the time he commonly chose for such matters; so that he would often be heard walking in his library, till near morning, humming over, in his way, what he was to correct and write out next day.

The amusements of his leisure hours were civil and natural history, voyages, and the relations of travellers, the most authentic he could procure: and, had his situation favoured it, he would certainly have excelled in gardening, agriculture, and every rural improvement and exercise. Although he performed on no instrument, he was passionately fond of music, and would sometimes listen a full hour at his window to the nightingales in Richmond Gardens. While abroad he had been greatly delighted with the regular Italian drama, such as Metastasio writes; as it is there heightened by the charms of the best voices and instruments; and looked upon our theatrical entertainments, as in one respect, naked and imperfect when compared with the ancient, or with those of Italy; wishing sometimes that a chorus, at least, and a better recitative, could be introduced.

Nor was his taste less exquisite in the arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture. In his travels he had seen all the most celebrated monuments of antiquity, and the best productions of modern art; and studied them so minutely, and with so true a judgment, that in some of his descriptions, in the poem of Liberty, we have the master-pieces there mentioned placed in a stronger light perhaps than if we saw them with our eyes; at least more justly delineated than in any other account extant: so superior is a natural taste of the grand and beautiful, to the traditional lessons of a common virtuoso. His collection of prints, and some drawings form the antique, are now in the possession of his friend Mr. Gray, of Richmond Hill.

As for his more distinguished qualities of mind and heart, they are better represented in his writings than they can be by the pen of any biographer. There, his love of mankind, of his country and friends, his devotion to the Supreme Being, founded on the most elevated and just conceptions of his operations and providence, shine out in every page. So unbounded was his tenderness of heart, that it took in even the brute creation: judge what it must have been towards his own species. He is not indeed known, through his whole life, to have given any person one moment's pain, by his writings or otherwise. He took no part in the poetical squabbles which happened in his time; and was respected and left undisturbed by both sides. He would even refuse to take offence when he justly might; by interrupting any personal story that was brought him, with some jest, or some humorous apology for the offender. Nor was he ever seen ruffled or discomposed, but when he read or heard of some flagrant instance of injustice, oppression, or cruelty: then indeed the strongest marks of horror and indignation were visible in his countenance.

These amiable virtues, this divine temper of mind, did not fail of their due reward. His friends loved him with an enthusiastic ardour, and lamented his untimely fate in the manner that is still fresh in every one's memory; the best and greatest men of his time honoured him with their friendship and protection; the applause of the public attended every appearance he made; the actors, of whom the more eminent were his friends and admirers, grudging no pains to do justice to his tragedies. At present, indeed, if we except Tancred, they are seldom called for; the simplicity of his plots, and the models he worked after, not suiting the reigning taste, nor the impatience of an English theatre. They may hereafter come to be in vogue; but we hazard no conjecture upon them, or upon any part of Mr. Thomson's works; neither need they any defence or apology, after the reception they have had at home, and the foreign languages into which they have been translated. We shall only say, that, to judge from the imitations of his manner, which have been following him close from the very first publication of Winter, he seems to have fixed no inconsiderable era of the English poetry.