1808 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Thomson

Samuel Jackson Pratt, in Cabinet of Poetry (1808) 4:1-2.



JAMES THOMSON, the poet of nature, was the son of a Scotch clergyman, and born at Ednam, Rosburghshire, in 1700. His mother, a sensible and excellent woman, being left a widow, paid great attention to his education; and as he was intended for the church, she sent him to the University of Edinburgh, where the Splendid diction of his exercises procured him censure instead of applause from the dry and formal professors of divinity.

Disgusted with this treatment, and feeling all the enthusiasm of genius, he produced his WINTER, and with the manuscript copy, his only treasure, came up to London, determined to court his fortune; not unaided, however, by several introductions to persons of rank and consequence. Strange to relate, it was sometime, nevertheless, before he could find a bookseller to purchase his poem; and, stranger still, it was much longer before the bookseller could find readers for his copies. But superior merit will at last make its way, in spite of obstacles; and no sooner did the public begin to perceive the beauties of his composition, than it became loud in the author's praise. The other Seasons appeared at intervals; and fixed his fame on an immutable base. He likewise succeeded, though not equally, in dramatic composition; and if his tragedies do not materially add to his reputation, excepting Tancred and Sigismunda, they improved his finances: and all discover the virtue and genius of the author.

Having the good fortune to be appointed travelling tutor to the honourable Charles Talbot, son of the Lord Chancellor of that name, he had an opportunity of contemplating the scenes of ancient freedom, and on his return, produced Liberty, a Poem; which though replete with brilliant passages, is now seldom read and less quoted. It is extinguish'd in the blaze of the Seasons.

After the loss of his pupil and his father, Thomson attracted the notice of the Prince of Wales, the patron of English literature, and was received on terms of intimacy by Lyttelton, and other ornaments of the court of Frederick.

The Castle of Indolence, one of the last of his productions, is a most capital performance. It is not surpassed even by the Seasons. Some of his minor pieces, likewise, breathe all the tenderness of friendship, and all the inspirations of genius.

Thomson died in 1748, and was buried at Richmond, where he had resided for some time, in a philosophical independence. As a man he was universally beloved; he never made an enemy, and it is believed that he never lost a friend!

By the united interest of Lord Lyttelton and Mr. Mitchell, the orphan play of Coriolanus was brought on the stage to the best advantage. Lord L.'s prologue to this piece was admired as one of the best that ever had been written: the best spoken it certainly was. Mr. Quin, was the particular friend of Mr. Thomson, and when he recited the following lines, which are in themselves very tender, all the endearments of a long acquaintance, rose at once to his imagination, while the tears of his heart flowed from his eyes.

He lov'd his friends — forgive this gushing tear,—
Alas! I feel I am no actor here—
He Iov'd his friends with such a warmth of heart,
So clear of interest, so devoid of art;
Such gen'rous freedom, such unshaken zeal,
No words can speak it — but our tears may tell.

The beautiful break in the first, second, and last lines had a fine effect in speaking; Mr. Quin here excelled himself, nor did he ever appear so great an actor as at the instant, when he declared himself none.

The noble Lord abovementioned has observed, that of all our poets, Thomson is the farthest removed from whatever has even the appearance of indecency;

His chasten'd muse employ'd her heaven-taught lyre,
None but the noblest passions to inspire;
Not one immoral, one corrupted thought,
One line which dying he would wish to blot.