A few short notices in Dodsley's Poems, in the Biographica Dramatica, and in the notes on his poems, corrected or confirmed by subsequent research, afford the only information that is now procurable respecting this writer.
He is said to have been the second son of the rev. Francis Thompson, B.D. of Queen's College, Oxford, and vicar of Brough in Westmoreland thirty-two years, who died August 31, 1735, aged seventy. His mother, who died two years after, in the sixty-fifth year of her age, was the widow of the rev. Joseph Fisher, M.A. fellow of Queen's College, Oxford, vicar of Brough, and archdeacon of Carlisle, by whom she had no children. Our author was born probably in the early part of the last century, but the year cannot be ascertained. He was young when in 1734 and 1736, he wrote Stella, sive Amores, Tres Libri, and six pastorals; none of which he thought it proper to include in his published works. In his poem, entitled Sickness, he laments the want of a mother's tenderness, and a father's care; but as they died in advanced age, he could not have lost them before he had attained at least he twentieth year.
It was on the banks of Eden, which runs near Brough, that his "prattling Muse was first provoked to numbers," and where, we may suppose, he wrote most of those smaller pieces which he thought worthy of preservation. In these he frequently addresses an Ianthe, who was probably a real mistress. At the usual age he went to Queen's College, Oxford; and on February 26th, 1738, took the degree of master of arts. He afterwards became a fellow of his college, and succeeded to the livings of South Weston and Hampton Poyle, in Oxfordshire. It was, I suspect, during his residence on his living that he published Sickness, in 1746. The origin of this poem may be found in a note subjoined to the fifth book; but much of it must have been written just before publication, as he pays tribute to the memory of Pope and Swift, who died about that time.
In 1751, he is said to have been an unsuccessful candidate for the poetry professorship, against Hawkins. In 1756 he published Gratitude, a poem, on an occasion which certainly required it from every true son of Oxford. In the preceding year, Henrietta Louisa, countess Dowager of Pomfret, daughter of John, baron Jeffrys of Wemm, and relict of Thomas, first earl of Pomfret, presented to the university more than one hundred and thirty statues, &c. which the earl's father, William, baron of Lempster, had purchased from the Arundel collection, and preserved at his seat at Eston Neston in Northamptonshire. On the 25th February, 1756, this lady received the thanks of the university; and the year following the university celebrated a public Encoenia, on which occasion, in an oration by Mr. Thomas Warton, professor of poetry, she was again complimented in the most public manner for her noble and generous benefaction. Besides Thompson, an anonymous Oxonian offered a poetical tribute to her liberality; and, in 1760, Mr. Vivian, afterwards King's Professor of Modern History, published a poem on the Pomfret statues. Thompson's poem is added to the present collection, without, it will perhaps be thought, adding much to his poetical reputation.
In 1757, he published two volumes, or, as he quaintly terms them, two tomes of poems, by subscription, with prefaces and notes, which give us a very high idea of the author's modesty, piety, and learning. He became afterwards dean of Raphoe in Ireland, where, it is presumed, he died sometime before the year 1766 or 1767.
It has already been mentioned, in the life of bishop Hall, that in 1753 Thompson superintended the publication of an edition of the Virgidemiarum.
To his volumes of poems are added, Gondibert and Birtha, a tragedy, the subject taken from Davenant's poem of Gondibert. This tragedy was written, he informs us, when "he was an under graduate in the university, as an innocent relaxation from those severer and more useful studies for which the college, where he had the benefit of his education, is so deservedly distinguished." He reprinted it with all its juvenile imperfections; but, although it is not without individual passages of poetical beauty, it has not dramatic form and consistency to entitle it to higher praise.
Of Thompson's person character a very high opinion may be deduced from the general tenour of his acknowledged works. He appears to have been a man of warm affections in the relative duties of life, an ardent admirer of merit, with an humble consciousness of his own defects; a man of real piety, and of various learning. His studies lay among the ancient English poets, in whose history and writings he was critically skilled.
As a poet, although his works have not been popular, he may be allowed to rank above some whose writings have been more anxiously preserved. Having been in early life an admirer of Spenser, he became a studied imitator of that father of English poetry; but, like most of his imitators, while he adopted his measure, he thought his imitation incomplete without borrowing a greater number of antiquated words and phrases than can be either ornamental or useful. "I have," he says in his preface, "been very sparing of the antiquated words, which are too frequent in most imitations of this author: however, I have introduced a few here and there, which are explained at the bottom of each page where they occur." But surely it may be asked, why introduce words at all that require explanation; or why are a few unintelligible words, purposely introduced, less blamable than many used by persons of less judgment?
But while our author is censurable on this account, it must be allowed that, in his Nativity, he has not only imitated but rivalled Spenser in the sweetness and solemnity which belong to his canto. His imagery is, in general, striking and appropriate to the elevated subject; nor is he less happy in his personifications.
His Hymn to May has received more praise than any of his other pieces. It is certainly more finished, but there are many luxuriances which sober judgment would have removed, and many glittering epithets, and verbal conceits, which proceeded from a memory stored with the ancient poets, and not yet chastened into simplicity by the example and encouragement of the moderns.
The poem on Sickness is the longest, and altogether, perhaps, the most successful effort of his muse. Particular lines, indeed, may be censured; and of what poem may not this be said? His ardent imagination and strength of feeling sometimes produce swelling words approaching to bombast; his phraseology, too, is sometimes laboured and pedantic; and he seems in various instances more ambitious of the rapturous and animated, than of the mild and simple graces of expression. But on the other hand, he abounds in original, or at least uncommon thoughts, clothed in vigorous language; he evinces real feeling, the consequence of having suffered what he describes, and having been alternately depressed or elevated by the vicissitudes of a long and dangerous illness. Most of his reflections are natural, and solemnly impressive. In borrowing the language of scripture, he has employed it with less change of its original beauty than might have been expected. The poetical beauties of the Palace of Disease, the Delirious Dreams, and the greater part of the fourth book on the Recovery, are such as prove that he had much of the fire and enthusiasm of true genius. Were this poem printed by itself, it could scarcely fail of popularity among the admirers of Young.
Young's Night Thoughts were, at this time, but just published, and perhaps it would be wrong to suppose that Thompson intended to rival him; yet there are passages which strongly remind us of Young's peculiar phraseology: Thompson had read much, and perhaps was unconscious of applying to his own use what he owed to his memory only. Every one may recollect the origin of—
How many Somersets are lost in thee?—
Forbid it reason and forbid it heaven.—
Soft pow'r of slumbers, dewy-feather'd sleep,
Kind nurse of nature— &c.
The lines expressive of the burning heat of fever, whether he did or did not recollect a similar passage in Shakspeare, do honour to his judgment, for what other exclamation could have been suitable?
O! ye rivers, roll
Your cooling crystal o'er my burning breast,
For Etna rages here! Ye snows, descend;
Bind me in icy chains, ye northern winds,
And mitigate the furies of the fire.—
We think of coolness, says an excellent critic, when panting under the heat of a summer sun; but in extreme heat we should probably think of extreme cold. When king John is tortured with the burning heat of a mortal poison, Shakspeare does not make him think of coolness, for that was not the proper contrast to his feelings, but puts in his mouth the following exclamation.—
Poison'd, ill fare! dead, and forsook, cast off,
And none of you will bid the Winter come,
To thrust his icy fingers in my maw:
Nor let my kingdom's rivers take their course
Through my burn'd bosom: nor entreat the North
To make his bleak winds kiss my parched lips,
And comfort me with cold.
Thompson appears to have been enthusiastically fond of Pope; but the lines in which he characterizes that author are deformed by extravagant expressions for which no fondness can atone, and are, upon that account, inferior to the poem addressed to Glover. His shorter pieces require little notice; they were mostly juvenile productions, and the wonder is, that the author of The Despairing Maiden, and The Milkmaid, could have reached such strains as The Nativity, The Hymn to May, and Sickness. In a few of them, however, are simple touches of nature, and an easy vein of epigrammatic humour; but it is on serious and pathetic subjects that his muse rises to dignity, and it is a praise beyond all others, that sacred topics seem to elevate him beyond his usual powers.