This celebrated poet, from whom his country has derived the most distinguished honour, was son of the revd. Mr. Thomson, a minister of the church of Scotland, in the Presbytery of Jedburgh.
He was born in the place where his father was minister, about the beginning of the present century, and received the rudiments of his education at a private country school. Mr. Thomson, in the early part of his life, so far from appearing to possess a sprightly genius, was considered by his schoolmaster, and those which directed his education, as being really without a common share of parts.
While he was improving himself in the Latin and Greek tongues at this country school, he often visited a minister, whose charge lay in the fame presbytery with his father's, the revd. Mr. Rickerton, a man of such amazing powers, that many persons of genius, as well as Mr. Thomson, who conversed with him, have been astonished, that such great merit should be buried in an obscure part of the country, where he had no opportunity to display himself, and, except upon periodical meetings of the ministers, seldom an opportunity of conversing with men of learning.
Though Mr. Thomson's schoolmaster could not discover that he was endowed with a common portion of understanding, yet Mr. Rickerton was not so blind to his genius; he distinguished our author's early propension to poetry, and had once in his hands some of the first attempts Mr. Thomson ever made in that province.
It is not to be doubted but our young poet greatly improved while he continued to converse with Mr. Rickerton, who, as he was a philosophical man, inspired his mind with a love of the sciences, nor were the revd. gentleman's endeavours in vain, for Mr. Thomson has shewn in his works how well he was acquainted with natural and moral philosophy, a circumstance which, perhaps, is owing to the early impressions he received from Mr. Rickerton.
Nature, which delights in diversifying her gifts, does not bestow upon every one a power of displaying the abilities she herself has granted to the best advantage. Though Mr. Rickerton could discover that Mr. Thomson, so far from being without parts, really possessed a very fine genius, yet he never could have imagined, as he often declared, that there existed in his mind such powers, as even by the best cultivation could have raised him to so high a degree of eminence amongst the poets.
When Mr. Rickerton first saw Mr. Thomson's Winter, which was in a Bookseller's shop at Edinburgh, he stood amazed, and after he had read the lines quoted below, he dropt the poem from his hand in the extasy of admiration. The lines are his induction to Winter, than which few poets ever rose to a more sublime heights.
After spending the usual time at a country school in the acquisition of the dead languages, Mr. Thomson was removed to the university of Edinburgh, in order to finish his education, and be fitted for the ministry. Here, as at the country school, he made no great figure: his companions thought contemptuously of him, and the masters under whom he studied, had not a higher opinion of our poet's abilities, than their pupils. His course of attendance upon the classes of philosophy being finished, he was entered in the Divinity Hall, as one of the candidates for the ministry, where the students, before they are permitted to enter on their probation, must yield six years attendance.
It was in the second year of Mr. Thomson's attendance upon this school of divinity, whose professor at that time was the revd. and learned Mr. William Hamilton, a person whom he always mentioned with respect, that our author was appointed by the professor to write a discourse on the Power of the Supreme Being. When his companions heard their talk assigned him, they could not but arraign the professor's judgment, for assigning so copious a theme to a young man, from whom nothing equal to the subject could be expected. But when Mr. Thomson delivered the discourse, they had then reason to reproach themselves for want of discernment, and for indulging a contempt of one superior to the brightest genius amongst them. This discourse was so sublimely elevated, that both the professor and the students who heard it delivered, were astonished. It was written in blank verse, for which Mr. Hamilton rebuked him, as being improper upon that occasion. Such of his fellow-students as envied him the success of this discourse, and the admiration it procured him, employed their industry to trace him as a plagiary; for they could not be persuaded that a youth seemingly so much removed from the appearance of genius, could compose a declamation, in which learning, genius, and judgment had a very great share. Their search, however, proved fruitless, and Mr. Thomson continued, while he remained at the university, to possess the honour of that discourse, without any diminution.
We are not certain upon what account it was that Mr. Thomson dropt the notion of going into the ministry; perhaps he imagined it a way of life too severe for the freedom of his disposition: probably he declined becoming a presbyterian minister, from a consciousness of his own genius, which gave him a right to entertain more ambitious views; for it seldom happens, that a man of great parts can be content with obscurity, or the low income of sixty pounds a year, in some retired corner of a neglected country; which must have been the lot of Thomson, if he had not extended his views beyond the sphere of a minister of the established church of Scotland.
After he had dropt all thoughts of the clerical profession, he began to be more sollicitous of distinguishing his genius, as he placed some dependence upon it, and hoped to acquire such patronage as would enable him to appear in life with advantage. But the part of the world where he then was, could not be very auspicious to such hopes; for which reason he began to turn his eyes towards the grand metropolis.
The first poem of Mr. Thomson's, which procured him any reputation from the public, was his Winter, of which mention is already made, and further notice will be taken; but he had private approbation for several of his pieces, long before his Winter was published, or before he quitted his native country. He wrote a Paraphrase on the 104th Psalm, which, after it had received the approbation of Mr. Rickerton, he permitted his friends to copy. By some means or other this Paraphrase fell into the hands of Mr. Auditor Benson, who, expressing his admiration of it, said, that he doubted not if the author was in London, but he would meet with encouragement equal to his merit. This observation of Benson's was communicated to Thomson by a letter, and, no doubt, had its natural influence in inflaming his heart, and hastening his journey to the metropolis. He soon set out for Newcastle, where he took shipping, and landed at Billinsgate. When he arrived, it was his immediate care to wait on Mr. Mallet, who then lived in Hanover-Square in the character of tutor to his grace the duke of Montrose, and his late brother lord G. Graham. Before Mr. Thomson reached Hanover-Square, an accident happened to him, which, as it may divert some of our readers, we shall here insert. He had received letters of recommendation from a gentleman of rank in Scotland, to some persons of distinction in London, which he had carefully tied up in his pocket-handkerchief. As he sauntered along the streets, he could not withhold his admiration of the magnitude, opulence, and various objects this great metropolis continually presented to his view. These must naturally have diverted the imagination of a man of less reflexion, and it is not greatly to be wondered at, if Mr. Thomson's mind was so ingrossed by these new presented scenes, as to be absent to the busy crowds around him. He often stopped to gratify his curiosity, the consequences of which he afterwards experienced. With an honest simplicity of heart, unsuspecting, as unknowing of guilt, he was ten times longer in reaching Hanover-Square, than one less sensible and curious would have been. When he arrived, he found he had paid for his curiosity; his pocket was picked of his handkerchief, and all the letters that were wrapped up in it. This accident would have proved very mortifying to a man less philosophical than Thomson; but he was of a temper never to be agitated he then smiled at it, and frequently made his companions laugh at the relation.
It is natural to suppose, that as soon as Mr. Thomson arrived in town, he shewed to some of his friends his poem on Winter. The approbation it might meet with from them, was not, however, a sufficient recommendation to introduce it to the world. He had the mortification of offering it to several Booksellers without success, who, perhaps, not being qualified themselves to judge of the merit of the performance, refused to risque the necessary expences, on the work of an obscure stranger, whose name could be no recommendation to it. These were severe repulses; but, at last, the difficulty was surmounted. Mr. Mallet offered it to Mr. Millan, now Bookseller at Charing-Cross, who, without making any scruples, printed it. For some time Mr. Millan had reason to believe, that he should be a loser by his frankness; for the impression lay like as paper on his hands, few copies being sold, 'till by an accident its merit was discovered. One Mr. Whatley, a man of some taste in letters, but perfectly enthusiastic in the admiration of any thing which pleased him, happened to call his eye upon it, and finding something which delighted him, perused the whole, not without growing astonishment, that the poem should be unknown, and the author obscure. He learned from the Bookseller the circumstances already mentioned, and, in the extasy of his admiration of this poem, he went from Coffee-house to Coffee house, pointing out its beauties, and calling upon all men of taste, to exert themselves in rescuing one of the greatest geniuses that ever appeared, from obscurity. This had a very happy effect, for, in a short time, the impression was bought up, and they who read the poem, had no reason to complain of Mr. Whatley's exaggeration; for they found it so compleatly beautiful, that they could not but think themselves happy in doing justice to a man of so much merit.
The poem of Winter is, perhaps, the most finished, as well as most picturesque, of any of the Four Seasons. The scenes are grand and lively. It is in that season that the creation appears in distress, and nature assumes a melancholy air; and an imagination so poetical as Thomson's, could not but furnish those awful and striking images, which fill the soul with a solemn dread of those Vapours, and Storms, and clouds, he has so well painted. Description is the peculiar talent of Thomson; we tremble at his thunder in summer, we shiver with his winter's cold, and we rejoice at the renovation of nature, by the sweet influence of spring. But the poem deserves a further illustration, and we shall take an opportunity of pointing out fame of its most striking beauties; but before we speak of these, we beg leave to relate the following anecdote.
As soon as Winter was published, Mr. Thomson sent a copy of it as a present to Mr. Joseph Mitchell, his countryman, and brother poet, who, not liking many parts of it, inclosed to him the following couplet;
Beauties and faults so thick lye scattered here,
Those I could read, if these were not so near.
To this Mr. Thomson answered extempore.
Why all not faults, injurious Mitchell; why
Appears one beauty to thy blasted eye;
Damnation worse than thine, if worse can be,
Is all I ask, and all I want from thee.
Upon a friend's remonstrating to Mr. Thomson, that the expression of blasted eye would look like a personal reflexion, as Mr. Mitchell had really that misfortune, he changed the epithet blasted, into blasting. But to return:
After our poet has represented the influence of Winter upon the face of nature, and particularly described the severities of the frost, he has the following beautiful transition;
—Our infant winter sinks,
Divested of its grandeur; should our eye
Astonish'd shoot into the frigid zone;
Where, for relentless months, continual night
Holds o'er the glitt'ring waste her starry reign;
There thro' the prison of unbounded wilds
Barr'd by the hand of nature from escape,
Wide roams the Russian exile. Nought around
Strikes his sad eye, but desarts lost in snow;
And heavy loaded groves; and solid floods,
That stretch athwart the solitary waste,
Their icy horrors to the frozen main;
And chearless towns far distant, never bless'd
Save when its annual course, the caravan
Bends to the golden coast of rich Cathay
With news of human-kind. Yet there life glows;
Yet cherished there, beneath the shining waste,
The furry nations harbour: tipt with jet
Fair ermines, spotless as the snows they press;
Sables of glossy black; and dark embrown'd
Or beauteous, streak'd with many a mingled hue,
Thousands besides, the costly pride of courts.
The description of a thaw is equally picturesque. The following lines consequent upon it are excellent.
—Those sullen seas
That wash th' ungenial pole, will rest no more
Beneath the shackles of the mighty North;
But rousing all their waves resistless heave.—
And hark! the lengthen'd roar continuous runs
Athwart the refted deep at once it bursts
And piles a thousand mountains to the clouds.
Ill fares the bark, with trembling wretches charg'd,
That tost amid the floating fragments, moors
Beneath the shelter of an icy isle,
While night o'erwhelms the sea, and horror looks
More horrible. Can human force endure
Th' assembled mischiefs that besiege 'em round!
Heart-gnawing hunger, fainting weariness,
The roar of winds and waves, the crush of ice,
Now ceasing, now renew'd with louder rage.
And in dire ecchoes bellowing round the main.
As the induction of Mr. Thomson's Winter has been celebrated for its sublimity to the conclusion has likewise a claim to praise, for the tenderness of the sentiments, and the pathetic force of the expession.
—Dread winter spreads her latest glooms,
And reigns tremendous o'er the conquer'd year.
How dead the vegetable kingdom lies!
How dumb the tunefull horror wide extends
Her desolate domain. Behold, fond man!
See here thy pictur'd life; pass some few years,
Thy flow'ring spring, thy summer's ardent strength,
Thy sober autumn fading into age,
And pale concluding winter comes at last,
And shuts the scene.—
He concludes the poem by enforcing a reliance on providence, which will in proper time compensate for all those seeming severities, with which good men are often oppressed.
—Ye good distrest!
Ye noble few who here unbending stand
Beneath life's pressure, yet bear up awhile,
And what your bounded view which only saw
A little past, deemed evil, is no more
The storms of Wintry time will quickly pass,
And one unbounded Spring encircle all.
The poem of Winter meeting with such general applause, Mr. Thomson was induced to write the other three seasons, which he finished with equal success. His Autumn was next given to the public, and is the most unfinished of the four; it is not however without its beauties, of which many have considered the story of Lavinia, naturally and artfully introduced, as the most affecting. The story is in itself moving and tender. It is perhaps no diminution to the merit of this beautiful tale, that the hint of it is taken from the book of Ruth in the Old Testament.
The author next published the Spring, the induction to which is very poetical and beautiful.
Come gentle Spring, etherial mildness come,
And from the bosom of yon dropping cloud,
While music wakes around, veil'd in a show'r
Of shadowing roses, on our plains descend.
It is addressed to the countess of Hertford, with the following elegant compliment,
O Hertford! fitted, or to shine in courts
With unaffected grace, or walk the plains,
With innocence and meditation joined,
In soft assemblage; listen to the song,
Which thy own season paints; while nature all
Is blooming, and benevolent like thee.—
The descriptions in this poem are mild, like the season they paint; but towards the end of it, the poet takes occasion to warn his countrymen against indulging the wild and irregular passion of love. This digression is one of the most affecting in the whole piece, and while he paints the language of a lover's breast agitated with the pangs of strong desire, and jealous transports, he at the same time dissuades the ladies from being too credulous in the affairs of gallantry. He represents the natural influence of spring, in giving a new glow to the beauties of the fair creation, and firing their beasts with the passion of love.
The shining moisture swells into her eyes,
In brighter flow; her wishing bosom heaves,
With palpitations wild; kind tumults seize
Her veins; and all her yielding soul is love.
From the keen gaze her lover turns away,
Full of the dear extatic power, and sick
With sighing languishment. Ah then, ye fair!
Be greatly cautious of your sliding hearts:
Dare not th' infectious sigh the pleading look,
Down-cast, and low, in meek submission drest,
But full of guile. Let not the fervent tongue,
Prompt to deceive, with adulation smooth,
Gain on your purpos'd will. Nor in the bower,
Where woodbines flaunt, and roses shed a couch,
While evening draws her crimson curtains round,
Trust your soft minutes with betraying man.
Summer has many manly and striking beauties, of which the Hymn to the Sun, is one of the sublimest and most masterly efforts of genius we have ever seen. — There are some hints taken from Cowley's beautiful Hymn to Light. — Mr. Thomson has subjoined a Hymn to the Seasons, which is not inferior to the foregoing in poetical merit.
The Four Seasons considered separately, each Season as a distinct poem has been judged defective in point of plan. There appears no particular design; the parts are not subservient to one another; nor is there any dependence or connection throughout; but this perhaps is a fault almost inseparable from a subject in itself so diversified, as not to admit of such limitation. He has not indeed been guilty of any incongruity; the scenes described in Spring, are all peculiar to that season, and the digressions, which make up a fourth part of the poem, flow naturally. He has observed the same regard to the appearances of nature in the other seasons; but then what he has described in the beginning of any of the seasons, might as well be placed in the middle, and that in the middle, as naturally towards the close. So that each season may rather be called an assemblage of poetical ideas, than a poem, as it seems written without a plan.
Mr. Thomson's poetical diction in the Seasons is very peculiar to him: His manner of writing is entirely his own: He has introduced a number of compound words; converted substantives into verbs, and in short has created a kind of new language for himself. His stile has been blamed for its singularity and stiffness; but with submission to superior judges, we cannot but be of opinion, that though this observation is true, yet is it admirably fitted for description. The object he paints stands full before the eye, we admire it in all its lustre, and who would not rather enjoy a perfect inspection into a natural curiosity through a microscope capable of discovering all the minute beauties, though its exterior form should not be comely, than perceive an object but faintly, through a microscope ill adapted for the purpose, however its outside may be decorated. Thomson has a stiffness in his manner, but then his manner is new; and there never yet arose a distinguished genius, who had not an air peculiarly his own. 'Tis true indeed, the tow'ring sublimity of Mr. Thomson's stile is ill adapted for the tender passions, which will appear more fully when we consider him as a dramatic writer, a sphere in which be is not so excellent as in other species of poetry.
The merit of these poems introduced our author to the acquaintance and esteem of several persons distinguished by their rank, or eminent for their talents: — Among the latter Dr. Rundle, afterwards bishop of Derry, was so pleased with the spirit of benevolence and piety, which breathes throughout the Seasons, that he recommended him to the friendship of the late lord chancellor Talbot, who committed to him the care of his eldest son, then preparing to set out on his travels into France and Italy.
With this young nobleman, Mr. Thomson performed (what is commonly called) The Tour of Europe, and stay'd abroad about three years, where no doubt he inriched his mind with the noble monuments of antiquity, and the conversation of ingenious foreigners. 'Twas by comparing modern Italy with the idea he had of the antient Romans, which furnished him with the hint of writing his Liberty, in three parts. The first is Antient and Modern Italy compared. The Second Greece, and the third Britain. The whole is addressed to the eldest son of lord Talbot, who died in the year 1734, upon his travels.
Amongst Mr. Thomson's poems, is one to the memory of Sir Isaac Newton, of which we shall say no more than this, that if he had never wrote any thing besides, he deserved to enjoy a distinguished reputation amongst the poets. Speaking of the amazing genius of Newton, he says,
Th' aerial flow of sound was known to him,
From whence it first in wavy circles breaks.
Nor could the darting beam of speed immense,
Escape his swift pursuit, and measuring eye.
Ev'n light itself, which every thing displays,
Shone undiscover'd, till his brighter mind
Untwisted all the shining robe of day;
And from the whitening undistinguished blaze,
Collecting every separated ray,
To the charm'd eye educ'd the gorgeous train
Of parent colours. First, the flaming red,
Sprung vivid forth, the tawny orange next,
And next refulgent yellow; by whose side
Fell the kind beams of all-refreshing green.
Then the pure blue, that swells autumnal skies,
Aetherial play'd; and then of sadder hue,
Emerg'd the deepen'd indico, as when
The heavy skirted evening droops with frost,
While the last gleamings of refracted light,
Died in the fainting violet away.
These when the clouds distil the rosy shower,
Shine out distinct along the watr'y bow;
While o'er our heads the dewy vision bends,
Delightful melting in the fields beneath.
Myriads of mingling dyes from these result,
And myriads still remain — Infinite source
Of beauty ever-flushing, ever new.
About the year 1728 Mr. Thomson wrote a piece called Britannia, the purport of which was to rouse the nation to arms, and excite in the spirit of the people a generous disposition to revenge the injuries done them by the Spaniards: This is far from being one of his best poems.
Upon the death of his generous patron, lord chancellor Talbot, for whom the nation joined with Mr. Thomson in the most sincere inward sorrow, he wrote an elegiac poem, which does honour to the author, and to the memory of that great man he meant to celebrate. He enjoyed, during lord Talbot's life, a very profitable place, which that worthy patriot had conferred upon him, in recompence of the care he had taken in forming the mind of his son. Upon his death, his lordship's successor reserved the place for Mr. Thomson, and always expected when he should wait upon him, and by performing tome formalities enter into the possession of it. This, however, by an unaccountable indolence he neglected, and at last the place, which he might have enjoyed with so little trouble, was bestowed upon another.
Amongst the latest of Mr. Thomson's productions is his Castle of Indolence, a poem of extraordinary merit, that perhaps we are not extravagant, when we declare, that this single performance discovers more genius and poetical judgment, than all his other work put together. We cannot here complain of want of plan, for it is artfully laid, naturally conducted, and the descriptions rise in a beautiful succession: It is written in imitation of Spenser's stile; and the obsolete words, with the simplicity of diction in some of the lines, which borders on the ludicrous, have been thought necessary to make the imitation more perfect.
"The stile (says Mr. Thomson) of that admirable poet, as well as the measure in which he wrote, are, as it were, appropriated by custom to all allegorical poems written in our language; just as in French, the stile of Marot, who lived under Francis the 1st, has been used in Tales and familiar Epistles, by the politest writers of the age of Louis the XIVth."
We shall not at the present enquire how far Mr. Thomson is justifiable in using the obsolete words of Spenser: As Sir Roger de Coverley observed on another occasion, much may be said on both sides. One thing is certain, Mr. Thomson's imitation is excellent, and he must have no poetry in his imagination, who can read the picturesque descriptions in his Castle of Indolence, without emotion. In his LXXIst Stanza he has the following picture of beauty:
Here languid beauty kept her pale-fac'd court:
Bevies of dainty dames, of high degree,
From every quarter hither made resort;
Where, from gross mortal care and business free,
They lay, pour'd out in ease and luxury.
Or should they a vain shew of work assume,
Alas! and well-a-day! what can it be?
To knot, to twist, to range the vernal bloom;
But far is cast the distaff, spinning-wheel, and loom.
He pursues the description in the subsequent Stanza.
Their only labour was to kill the time;
And labour dire it is, and weary woe.
They sit, they loll, turn o'er some idle rhyme;
Then, rising sudden, to the glass they go,
Or saunter forth, with tottering step and slow:
This soon too rude an exercise they find;
Strait on the couch their limbs again they throw,
Where hours on hours they sighing lie reclin'd,
And court the vapoury God soft-breathing in the wind.
In the two following Stanzas, the dropsy and hypochondria are beautifully described.
Of limbs enormous, but withal unsound,
Soft-swoln and pale. here lay the Hydropsy:
Unwieldly man! with belly monstrous round,
For ever fed with watery supply;
For still he drank, and yet he still was dry.
And moping here did Hypochondria sit,
Mother of spleen, in robes of various dye,
Who vexed was full oft with ugly fit;
And some her frantic deem'd, and some her deem'd a wit.
A lady proud she was, of ancient blood,
Yet oft her fear her pride made crouchen low:
She felt, or fancy'd in her fluttering mood,
All the diseases which the spittles know,
And sought all physic which the shops bestow.
And still new leaches and new drugs would try,
Her humour ever wavering to and fro;
For sometimes she would laugh, and sometimes cry,
Then sudden waxed wroth, and all she knew not why.
The speech of Sir Industry in the second Canto, when he enumerates the various blessings which flow from action, is surely one of the highest instances of genius which can be produced in poetry. In the second stanza, before he enters upon the subject, the poet complains of the decay of patronage, and the general depravity of taste; and in the third breaks out into the following exclamation, which is so perfectly beautiful, that it would be the greatest mortification not to transcribe it,
I care not, fortune, what you me deny:
You cannot rob me of free nature's grace;
You cannot shut the windows of the sky,
Through which Aurora shews her brightening face:
You cannot bar my constant feet to trace
The woods and lawns, by living stream, at eve:
Let health my nerves and finer fibres brace,
And I their toys to the great children leave;
Of fancy, reason, virtue, nought can me bereave.
Before we quit this poem, permit us, reader, to give you two more stanzas from it: the first shews Mr. Thomson's opinion of Mr. Quin as an actor; of their friendship we may say more hereafter.
OF THE CASTLE OF INDOLENCE.
Here whilom ligg'd th' Aesopus of the age;
But call'd by fame, in soul ypricked deep,
A noble pride restor'd him to the stage,
And rous'd him like a gyant from his sleep.
Even from his slumbers we advantage reap:
With double force th' enliven'd scene he wakes,
Yet quits not nature's bounds. He knows to keep
Each due decorum: now the heart he shakes,
And now with well-urg'd sense th' enlighten'd judgment takes.
The next stanza (wrote by a friend of the author's, as the note mentions) is a friendly, though familiar, compliment; it gives us an image of our bard himself, at once entertaining, striking, and just.
A bard here dwelt, more fat than bard beseems;
Who void of envy, guile, and lust of gain,
On virtue still, and nature's pleasing themes,
Pour'd forth his unpremeditated strain,
The world forsaking with a calm disdain:
Here laugh'd he careless in his easy seat,
Here quaff'd encircled with the joyous train;
Oft moralizing sage; his ditty sweet
He loathed much to write, ne cared to repeat.
We shall now confider Mr. Thomson as a dramatic writer.
In the year 1730, about six years after he had been in London, he brought a Tragedy upon the stage, called Sophonisba, built upon the Carthaginian history of that princess, and upon which the famous Nathaniel Lee has likewise written a Tragedy. This play met with a favourable reception from the public. Mrs. Oldfleld greatly distinguished herself in the character of Sophonisba, which Mr. Thomson acknowledges in his preface. — "I cannot conclude, says he, without owning my obligations to thofe concerned in the representation. They have indeed done me more than justice: Whatever was designed as amiable and engaging in Masinessa shines out in Mr. Wilks's action. Mrs. Oldfield, in the character of Sophonisba, has excelled what even in the fondness of an author I could either wish or imagine. The grace, dignity and happy variety of her action, have been universally applauded, and are truly admirable."
Before we quit this play, we must not omit two anecdotes which happened the first night of the representation. Mr. Thomson makes one of his characters address Sophonisba in a line, which some critics reckoned the false pathetic. "O! Sophonisba, Sophonisba Oh!" Upon which a (mart from the pit cried out, "Oh! Jamey Thomson, Jamey Thomson Oh!" However ill-natured this critic might be in interrupting the action of the play for sake of a joke yet it is certain that the line ridiculed does partake of the false pathetic, and should be a warning to tragic pacts to guard against the swelling stile; for by aiming at the sublime, they are often betrayed into the bombast. — Mr. Thomson who could not but feel all the emotions and solicitudes of a young author the first night of his play, wanted to place himself in fame obscure part of the house, in order to see the representation to the best advantage, without being known as the poet. — He accordingly placed himself in the upper gallery; but such was the power of nature in him, that he could not help repeating the parts along with the players, and would Sometimes whisper to himself, "now Such a scene is to open," by which he was soon discovered to be the author, by some gentlemen who could not, on account of the great crowd, be situated in any other part of the house.
After an interval of four years, Mr. Thomson exhibited to the public his second Tragedy called Agamemnon. Mr. Pope gave an instance of his great affection to Mr. Thomson on this occasion: he wrote two letters in its favour to the managers, and honoured the representation on the first night with his presence. As he had not been for some time at a play, this was considered as a very great instance of esteem. Mr. Thomson submitted to have this play considerably shortened in the action, as some parts were too long, others unnecessary, in which not the character but the poet spoke; and though not brought on the stage till the month of April, it continued to be acted with applause for several nights.
Many have remark'd that his characters in his plays are more frequently descriptive, than expressive, of the passions; but they all abound with uncommon beauties, with fire, and depth of thought, with noble sentiments and nervous writing. His speeches are often too long, especially for an English audience; perhaps Sometimes they are unnaturally lengthened: and 'tis certainly a greater relief to the ear to have the dialogue more broken; yet our attention is well rewarded, and in no passages, perhaps, in his tragedies, more so, than in the affecting account Melisander gives of his being betrayed, and left on the desolate island.
—'Tis thus my friend.
Whilst sunk in unsuspecting sleep I lay,
Some midnight ruffians rush'd into my chamber,
Sent by Egisthus, who my presence deem'd
Obstructive (so I solve it) to his views,
Black views, I fear, as you perhaps may know,
Sudden they seiz'd, and muffled up in darkness,
Strait bore me to the sea, whose instant prey
I did conclude my self, when first around
The ship unmoor'd I heard the chiding wave.
But these fell tools of cruel power, it seems,
Had orders in a desart isle to leave me;
There hopeless, helpless, comfortless, to prove
The utmost gall and bitterness of death.
Thus malice often overshoots itself,
And some unguarded accident betrays
The man of blood. — Next night — a dreary night!
Cast on the wildest of the Cyclad Isles,
Where never human foot had mark'd the shore,
These ruffians left me. — Yet believe me, Arcas,
Such is the rooted love we bear mankind,
All ruffians as they were, I never heard
A sound so dismal as their parting oars.—
Then horrid silence follow'd, broke alone
By the low murmurs of the restless deep,
Mixt with the doubtful breeze that now and then
Sigh'd thro' the mournful woods. Beneath a shade
I sat me down, more heavily oppress'd,
More desolate at heart, than e'er I felt
Before. When, Philomela, o'er my head
Began to tune her melancholy strain,
As piteous of my woes, 'till, by degrees,
Composing sleep on wounded nature shed
A kind but short relief. At early morn,
Wak'd by the chant of birds, I look'd around
For usual objects: objects found I none,
Except before me stretch'd the toiling main.
And rocks and woods in savage view behind.
Wrapt for a moment in amaz'd confusion,
My thought turn'd giddy round; when all at once,
To memory full my dire condition rush'd—
In the year 1736 Mr. Thomson offered to the stage a Tragedy called Edward and Eleonora, which was forbid to be acted, for some political reason, which it is not in our power to guess. The play of Tancred and Sigismunda was acted in the year 1744; this succeeded beyond any other of Thomson's plays, and is now in possession of the stage. The plot is borrowed from a story in the celebrated romance of Gil Blas: The fable is very interesting, the characters are few, but active; and the attention in this play is never suffered to wander. The character of Seffredi has been justly censured as inconsistent, forced, and unnatural.
By the command of his royal highness the prince of Wales, Mr. Thomson, in conjunction with Mr. Mallet, wrote the Masque of Alfred, which was performed twice in his royal highness's gardens at Cliffden. Since Mr. Thomson's death, this piece has been almost entirely new modelled by Mr. Mallet, and brought on the stage in the year 1755, its success being fresh in the memory of its frequent auditors, 'tis needless to say more concerning it.
Mr. Thomson's last Tragedy, called Coriolanus, was not acted till after his death; the profits of it were given to his sisters in Scotland, one of whom is married to a minister there, and the other to a man of low circumstances in the city of Edinburgh. This play, which is certainly the least excellent of any of Thomson's, was first offered to Mr. Garrick, but he did not think proper to accept it. The prologue was written by Sir George Lyttleton, and spoken by Mr. Quin, which had a very happy efffect upon the audience. Mr. Quin was the particular friend of Thomson, and when he spoke the following lines, which are in themselves very tender, all the endearments of along acquaintance, rose at once to his imagination, while the tears gushed from his eyes.
He lov'd his friends (forgive this gushing tear:
Alas! I feel I am no actor here)
He lov'd his friends with such a warmth of heart,
So clear of int'rest, so devoid of art,
Such generous freedom, such unshaken zeal,
No words can speak it, but our tears may tell.
The beautiful break in these lines had a fine effect in speaking. Mr. Quin here excelled himself; he never appeared a greater actor than at this instant, when he declared himself more: 'twas an exquisite stroke to nature; art alone could hardly reach it. Pardon the digression, reader, but, we feel a desire to say somewhat more on this head. The poet and the actor were friends, it cannot then be quite foreign to the purpose to proceed. A deep fetch'd sigh filled up the heart felt pause; grief spread o'er all the countenance; the tear started to the eye, the muscles fell, and,
The whiteness of his cheek
Was apter than his tongue to speak his tale.
They all expressed the tender feelings of a manly heart, becoming a Thomson's friend. His pause, his recovery were masterly; and he delivered the whole with an emphasis and pathos, worthy the excellent lines he spoke; worthy the great poet and good man, whose merits they painted, and whose loss they deplored.
The epilogue too, which was spoken by Mrs. Woffington, with an exquisite humour, greatly pleaded. These circumstances, added to the consideration of the author's being no more, procured this play a run of nine nights, which without these assistances 'tis likely it could not have had; for, without playing the critic, it is not a piece of equal merit to many other of his works. It was his misfortune as a dramatist, that he never knew when to have done; he makes every character speak while there is any thing to be said; and during these long interviews, the action too stands still, and the story languishes. His Tancred and Sigismunda may be excepted from this general censure: But his characters are too little distinguished; they seldom vary from one another in their manner of Speaking. In short, Thomson was born a descriptive poet; he only wrote for the stage, from a motive too obvious to he mentioned, and too strong to be resisted. He is indeed the eldest born of Spenser, and he has often confessed that if he had any thing excellent in poetry, he owed it to the inspiration he first received from reading the Fairy Queen, in the very early part of his life.
In August 1748 the world was deprived of this great ornament of poetry and genius, by a violent fever, which carried him off in the 48th year of his age. Before his death he was provided for by Sir George Littleton, in the profitable place of comptroller of America, which he lived not long to enjoy. Mr. Thomson was extremely beloved by his acquaintance. He was of an open generous disposition; and was sometimes tempted to an excessive indulgence of the social pleasures: A failing too frequently inseparable from men of genius. His exterior appearance was not very engaging, but he grew more and more agreeable, as he entered into conversation He had a grateful heart, ready to acknowledge every favour he received, and he never forgot his old benefactors, notwithstanding a long absence, new acquaintance, and additional eminence; of which the following instance cannot be unacceptable to the reader.
Some time before Mr. Thomson's fatal illness, a gentleman enquired for him at his house in Kew-Lane, near Richmond, where he then lived. This gentleman had been his acquaintance when very young, and proved to be Dr. Gustard, the son of a revd. minister in the city of Edinburgh. Mr. Gustard had been Mr. Thomson's patron in the early part of his life, and contributed from his own purse (Mr. Thomson's father not being in very affluent circumstances) to enable him to prosecute his studies. The visitor sent not in his name, but only intimated to the servant that an old acquaintance desired to see Mr. Thomson. Mr. Thomson came forward to receive him, and looking stedfastly at him (for they had not seen one another for many years) said, Troth Sir, I cannot say I ken your countenance well — Let me therefore crave your name. Which the gentleman no sooner mentioned but the tears gushed from Mr. Thomson's eyes. He could only reply, good God! are you the son of my dear friend, my old benefactor; and then rushing to his arms, he tenderly embraced him; rejoicing at so unexpected a meeting.
It is a true observation, that whenever gratitude is absent from a heart, it is generally capable of the most consummate baseness; and on the other hand, where that generous virtue has a powerful prevalence in the soul, the heart of such a man is fraught with all those other endearing and tender qualities, which constitute goodness. Such was the heart of this amiable poet, whose life was as inoffensive as his page was moral: For of all our poets he is the farthest removed from whatever has the appearance of indecency; and, as Sir George Lyttleton happily expresses it, in the prologue to Mr. Thomson's Coriolanus,
—His chaste muse employ'd her heav'n-taught lyre
None but the noblest passions to inspire,
Not one immoral, one corrupted thought,
One line, which dying he could wish to blot.