The author of The Seasons was born at Ednam, a couple of miles or so from Kelso, on the 11th of September, 1700. His father was the minister of the parish, and it was intended to bring him up to the same profession. The early childhood only of Thomson was spent here, for his father removed to Southdean, near Jedburgh, having obtained the living of that place.
Ednam has nothing poetical about it. It lies in a rich farming country of ordinary features. The scenery is flat, and the village by no means picturesque. It consists of a few farmhouses, and long rows of hinds' cottages. David Macbeth Moir, the Delta of Blackwood's Magazine, described the place some years ago in these lines:—
A rural church; some scattered cottage roofs,
From whose secluded hearths the thin blue smoke
Silently wreathing through the breezeless air,
Ascended mingling with the summer sky;
A rustic bridge, mossy and weather-stained;
A fairy streamlet, singing to itself;
And here and there a venerable tree
In foliaged beauty; — of these elements,
And only these, the simple scene was formed.
Yet even this description is too favourable. It would induce its to believe that the spot had something of the picturesque — it has nothing of it. The streamlet sings little even to itself through that flat district; — the mossy bridge has given way to a good substantial but unpoetical stone one. The landscape is by no means over enriched by fine trees. There are some limes, I believe they are, in the churchyard. The old church has been pulled down since Thomson's time, and the new one now standing is a poor barnlike affair, with a belfry that would do for a pigeon cote. The manse in which the poet was born has also disappeared, and a new, square, unpicturesque one been built upon the site. Perhaps no class of people have less of the poetical or the picturesque in them than the Presbyterian clergy of Scotland. The hard, dry, stern Calvinism imparted by John Knox has effectually expelled all that. The country people of Scotland are generally intelligent, and have a taste for poetry and literature; but to a certainty they do not derive this from their clergy. In no country have I found the parish clergy so ignorant of general literature, or so unacquainted with anything that is going on in the world, except the polemics of their own church. The cargo of Geneva which Knox imported, has operated on the religious feeling of Scotland worse than any gin or whisky on its moral or physical condition. It is a spirit as unlike Christianity as possible. One is all love and tenderness; the other all bitterness and hardness: — the one is gentle and tolerant; the other fierce and intolerant: — the one careless of form, so that the life and soul of charity and piety are preserved; the other is all form and doctrine — doctrine, hard, metaphysical, rigid, and damnatory. On the borders too, in many places, the very people seem to me more ignorant and stupid than is the wont of Scotland; they would match the Surrey chopsticks or Essex calves of England.
I walked over from Kelso on the Sunday morning to Ednam. The people were collected about the church door, waiting for the time of service. I thought it a good opportunity to hear something of the traditions of the country about Thomson. Nobody could tell me anything. So little idea had they of a poet, that they informed me that another poet had been born there besides Thomson. I asked whom that might be? They said, "One White, a decrepit old man who used to write under the trees of the churchyard;" and this they thought having another poet! Such — as we are often obliged to exclaim — is fame!
An old woman, into whose cottage I stepped on returning, to avoid a shower, was more intelligent. She told me that her mother had lived at the old manse, and frequently heard what had been told to inquirers. The manse in which Thomson was born, she said, was of mud; and he was born in the parlour, which had a bed in a recess concealed by a curtain.
The present minister is the son of a saddler at Hawick. I staid the service, or at least nearly three hours of it. It is the odd custom of many country places in Scotland, where the people have too far to come to be able to do it twice in the day, to actually have two services performed all at one sitting. With that attention to mere rigid formality which this Calvinism has introduced, that task-work holiness which teaches that God's wrath will be aroused if they do not go through a certain number of prayers, sermons, and ceremonies in the day, they have the morning and afternoon services all at once. There were, therefore, two enormously long sermons, three prayers, three singings, and, to make worse of it, the sermons consisted of such a mass of doctrinal stubble as filled me with astonishment that such actual rubbish, and worse than rubbish, could at the present day be inflicted on any patient and unoffending people. What a gross perversion and misconception of Christianity is this! How my heart bled at the very idea that the State paid and upheld this system, by which the people were not blessed with the pure, simple and benign knowledge of that simplest, most beautiful, and love-inspiring of all systems, Christianity, but were actually cursed with the drawing of the horrid furze-bushes of school divinity and Calvinistic damnation across their naked consciences.
Imagine a company of hard-working and care-worn peasants, coming for five or ten miles on a Sunday to listen to such chopped-straw preaching as this. The sermons were to prove that the temptation of Christ in the wilderness was a bona fide and actual history. And first, the preacher told them what profound subtlety the temptations of Satan showed, such as advising Christ after forty days' fast to cause the stones to be made bread; as if Christ could not have done that if he needed, without the devil's suggestion. And then he told them that Christ was God himself, so that the devil knowing that, instead of showing such profound subtlety, must have been a very daft devil indeed to try to tempt him at all. Poor people! of all the beautiful sayings and doings in the life of our Saviour; of all the divine precepts which he peculiarly brought down from heaven for the especial consolation and invigoration of the poor; of all the deeds and the expressions of an infinite love; of all those teachings that "the Sabbath is made for man, and not man for the Sabbath;" of all the gracious declarations, that it was not by doctrine and cunningly devised fables, but by the great spirit of love — love to God and to one another, and by keeping his commandments, that we are to be saved, was there nothing that could be dealt out to you? Could your dry and thirsting spirits receive nothing but this dry and musty fodder of sectarian disquisition? Oh! how much better were one simple word of genuine feeling from the most unlettered preacher on a bare hill-side! My only wonder was to find anybody in the church at all, for I thought I must have met the whole village going to Kelso, where they have eight different sects, the most zealous of all being the Free Church. It is only by a passage through Scotland that you get a living idea of what a movement the movement of this Free Church has been. In every town, from the extremest south to the extremest north, you see free churches rising or arisen. Even in little Melrose there is a large one; and I observed that they built them as near on all occasions as possible to the established one, and, if compassable, exactly opposite. Indeed, I have been told that land has, in many instances, been offered gratuitously to build a free church upon, and has been refused because it was not opposite to the established one. Such is the fruit of an Establishment in Scotland, and such were the evidences of its teachings in Ednam. How different to the fine, genial, and genuine faith of James Thomson!
On a hill on the right hand of the road, proceeding from Kelso to Ednam, and about a quarter of a mile from that village, a plain obelisk has been erected to the memory of the poet, bearing this inscription: — "Erected in Memory of James Thomson, Author of the Seasons. Born at Ednam, 11th of September, A.D. 1700."
The Earl of Buchan, who erected a temple of the muses at Dryburgh, in the centre of which he placed Thomson, and who placed the brass tablet to his memory in the church at Richmond, also instituted an annual commemoration of his fame at Ednam, which has long fallen into desuetude. For the first meeting of this kind, Burns wrote his Address to the Shade of Thomson in crowning his bust at Ednam.
Of Thomson's sojourn at Southdean, nearly all that is now known, is comprehended in the following passage in Mr. Robert Chambers's Picture of Scotland: — "The father of James Thomson was removed from Ednam to this parish while the poet was a child; and here accordingly the author of the Seasons spent the days of his boyhood. In the churchyard may still be seen the humble monument of the father of the poet, though the inscription is nearly obliterated. The manse in which that individual reared his large family, of whom one was destined to become so illustrious, was what would now be described as a small thatched cottage. It is traditionally recollected that the poet was sent to the University of Edinburgh, seated behind his father's man on horseback, but was so reluctant to quit the country for a town life, that he had returned on foot before his conductor, declaring that he could study as well on the braes of Sou'den — so Southdean is generally pronounced — as in Edinburgh."
Here Thomson undoubtedly acquired that deep love for nature, and that intimate acquaintance with it, which enabled him to produce the poem of the Seasons, which, with considerable faults of style, is one of the richest compositions in the language, in the legitimate subject matter, in the grandeur of its scenery drawn from all regions of the earth, and in time broad and beautiful spirit of its religious philosophy. It has stood the test of more than a century, during which the great changes have taken place in the theory of versification, and in public taste. Compositions of great variety, and of the most splendid character, have since rendered fastidious the public judgment, yet the Seasons are and will continue to be read with pleasure.
Though the old man-servant, who had jogged along to Edinburgh with little Jemmy Thomson behind him, was astonished on his return to find him at home again, yet another attempt must have been more successful, for at the University of Edinburgh he finished his education. The poetic nature, however, convinced him by that time that it was not his vocation to preach the arid notions of Knox, and palm them off as the grand heart-opening truths of Christianity. His father had died two years after his coming to Edinburgh, leaving his mother with a considerable family, who raised upon her little estate by mortgage what she could, and came to reside in Edinburgh. James resolved not to weigh upon her resources longer than needful; but set out for London with his poem of Winter in his pocket. He had introductions to several influential persons, and one of them to Mr. Mallet, then tutor to the sons of the Duke of Montrose. His great want, Dr. Johnson says, on reaching London, was a pair of shoes. To make his calls these were necessary, and his Winter was his sole resource. It was a wintry one, for he could find no purchaser for it for a long time, and when purchased it did not for a good while sell. At length it fell under the eye of a Mr. Whatley, who instantly perceived its merit, and zealously spread the information. Thomson was quickly a popular author, and from this time resided chiefly in the neighbourhood of London. He made one tour on the continent as companion to Mr. Talbot, the eldest son of the chancellor. The despotism which he saw abroad induced him to write his poem of Liberty, one of his very worst productions, and which lost him much government preferment; and when the public complained of this, a ministerial writer remarked that, "Thomson had taken a Liberty which was not agreeable to Britannia in any Season."
Government preferment, however, he did receive. The chancellor conferred on him the place of Secretary of the Briefs, which made him independent. On the death of the Chancellor Talbot, he lost this post, through being too indolent to make application to Lord Hardwicke for it, though Hardwicke kept it open for some time that he might. For a time he was again reduced by this circumstance to poverty and difficulty. Out of this he was, after a while, permanently raised through the influence of Lord Lyttleton, a pension of a hundred a year being conferred on him. This removed the pressure of utter necessity, but compelled him to work, without which compulsion perhaps no man would have worked less. About three years before his death, Lord Lyttleton, being then in power, made him Surveyor-General of the Leeward Islands. Those islands he surveyed from his elevation on Richmond-hill, and very general his survey of course must have been. The particular and actual survey was left to his deputy in the islands themselves, and Thomson netted a yearly balance, the deputy being paid, of three hundred a year; which, with his pension, left him most comfortably at ease in the castle of indolence. Besides his two principal poems he wrote several tragedies, as Sophonisba, in which the unfortunate line, "O Sophonisba, Sophonisba, O!" was parodied by a wag with — "O Jemmy Thomson, Jemmy Thomson, O!" and was echoed through the town everywhere and for a long time. Aganmemnon was another, Edward and Eleonora a third, and Tancred and Sigismunda his last and best; except a posthumous one — Coriolanus.
Amongst the haunts of Thomson were the country houses of many of the more literary or more tasteful noblemen of the time; as Hagley, the scat of Lord Lyttleton; Bub Doddington's seat in Dorsetshire; Stowe, then the seat of Lord Cobham; the seat of the Countess of Hertford, etc. The last place, however, it seems only received Thomson once. It was the practice, says Johnson, of the Countess of Hertford, to whom Thomson dedicated his poem of Spring, to invite some poet every summer into the country to hear her verses and assist her studies. This honour was once conferred on Thomson, who took more delight in carousing with Lord Hertford and his friends than assisting her ladyship's poetical operations, and never therefore received another summons.
Thomson was, in fact, the last person to hope for much literary and understrapper service from, though in the shape of a countess, where, on the one hand, bad verses had to be inflicted on him, and on the other there was a good table and good talk. Indolence and self-indulgence were his besetting sins. Every one has heard of the lady who said she had discovered three things concerning the author in reading the Seasons; — that he was a great lover, a great swimmer, and rigidly abstinent; at all which Savage, who lived much with him, laughed heartily, saying that he believed Thomson was never in cold water in his life, and that the other particulars were just as true. The anecdote of Quin, regarding Thomson's splendid description of sunrise, has been equally diffused. He, like Savage, asserted that he believed Thomson never saw the sun rise in his life, and related that going one day to see him at Richmond, he found him in bed at noon, and asking him why he did not get up earlier, he replied listlessly, that "he had nae motive."
That no man ever lived more completely in a castle of indolence there can be little question, and perhaps as little that it cut his life short. He died at forty-eight, of cold taken on the Thames between Kew and Richmond. He used, it seems, to be in the habit of walking from town to his house at Richmond, and crossed at a boat-house, somewhere here about, which being also a public-house, he there took a rest and refreshment. The place is still shown. Here, it would seem, he came warm from his walk, and crossing in a damp wind took cold; but this susceptibility to cold was the direct result of his indolent, self-indulgent, and effeminate habits. Had he followed those practices of healthy activity so finely described in his poem, how much longer and more useful might his life have been! Yet it must be a fact unquestionable, that Thomson as a boy rose early, saw both sunrises and all the glories of nature, plunged into the summer flood, and braved the severity of winter. No man could so vividly or so accurately describe what he had not experienced, and they who know best the country know how exact is his knowledge of it. Every one can feel how masterly are his descriptions of the grandest phenomena of nature in every region of the world, when such descriptions are deducible from books. In those, however, which came under his own eye, there is a life, and there are beauties that attest that personal knowledge. The faults of his Seasons, are those of style. His blank verse is peculiar; you can never mistake it for that of any other poet, but it has not the charm of that of Milton, of Wordsworth, or of various other poets. It is often turgid, and still more often prosaic. There are strange inversions used; and with his adverbs and adjectives he plays the most terrible havoc. Frequently the adjective is tossed behind the substantive, just for the sake of the metre, and regardless of all other effect, as,—
Deform the day delightless;
instead of the delightless day. His adverbs are continually lopped of their last syllable, and stand like wretched adjectives out of place; as, — the sower "liberal throws the grain," instead of liberally: — clouds, "cheerless, drown the crude unripened year," instead of cheerlessly — the herb dies though with vital power: — "it is copious blest," instead of copiously. These barbarisms, which greatly deface this poem, abound; but especially in the Spring, which was not published first in its native position, but third, the routine of appearance being Winter, Summer, Spring, and Autumn.
But, above its faults, how far ascend the beauties and excellences of this poem; the finest of which spring out of that firm, glowing, and noble spirit of patriotism and religion, which animated James Thomson. His patriotism bursts forth on all occasions, but more especially in that elaborate description of England, her deeds and worthies, in the Summer, commencing—
Heavens what a goodly prospect spreads around,
Of hills and dales, of woods and lawns, and spires
And glittering towns, and gilded streams, till all
The stretching landscape into smoke decays.
Happy Britannia! etc.
His piety, — the piety of love and wonder, of that profound admiration which the contemplation of the works of the Divine Creator had inspired him with, and of that grateful love and trust which the manifestations of parental goodness everywhere had impressed upon his heart, — these are, as it were, the living soul of the poem, and the principles of imperishable vitality. These sentiments, diffused throughout the poem itself, concentrate themselves at its conclusion as predominant over all others, and burst forth in that magnificent hymn, which has no rival in the language, except the glorious one of Milton, the morning hymn of our first parents, beginning,—
These are thy glorious works, Parent of good,
Almighty! Thine this universal frame,
This wondrous fair; Thyself how wondrous then," etc.
The religion, too, of Thomson, was the religion not of creeds and crabbed doctrines of humanity. He had studied nature in the spirit of its Maker, and the fruit of that study was an enlarged and tender sympathy for his fellow-men. This sentiment is everywhere conspicuous as his piety; and in the passage following the fine account of the man perishing in the snow, rises to the power and descriptive eloquence of Shakspeare.
Ah! little think the gay licentious proud,
Whom pleasure, power, and affluence surround;
They who their thoughtless hours in giddy mirth,
And wanton, often cruel, riot waste;
Ah! little think they, while they dance along,
How many feel, this very moment, death,
And all the sad variety of pain:
How many sink in the devouring flood,
Or more devouring flame: how many bleed,
By shameful variance betwixt man and man;
How many pine in want, and dungeon glooms;
Shut from the common air, and common use
Of their own limbs: how many drink the cup
Of baneful grief, or eat the bitter bread
Of misery: sore pierced by wintry winds,
How many shrink into the sordid hut
Of cheerless poverty! How many shake
With all the fiercer tortures of the mind,
Unbounded passion, madness, guilt, remorse;
Whence tumbled headlong from the height of life,
They furnish matter for the tragic Muse.
Even in the vale where Wisdom loves to dwell,
With Friendship, Peace, and Contemplation joined,
How many, racked with honest passions, droop
In deep retired distress. How many stand
Around the death-bed of their dearest friends,
And point the parting anguish. Thought fond man
Of these, and all the thousand nameless ills,
That one incessant struggle render life,
One scene of toil, of suffering, and of fate,
Vice in his high career would stand appalled,
And heedless rambling Impulse learn to think
The conscious heart of Charity would warm,
And her wide wish Benevolence dilate
The social tear would rise, the social sigh
And into clear perfection, gradual bliss,
Refining still, the social passions work. — Winter, p. 147.
Yes, if the great sentiment of this passage were but firmly imprinted on the hearts of all men and all women, but especially the rich and powerful, how soon would the face of this earth be changed, and the vale of tears be converted into a lesser heaven! It is the grand defect of our systems of education, for rich and for poor, but preeminently for the former, that it is not taught that no man can live innocently who lives only for his own enjoyment; that to live, merely to enjoy ourselves is the highest treason against God and man; that God does not live merely for himself, his eternal existence is one constant work of beneficence; and that it is the social duty of every rational being to live like God, his Creator, for the good of others. Were this law of duty taught faithfully in all our schools, with all its responsibilities, the penalties of its neglect, the ineffable delight of its due discharge, there would be no longer seen that moral monster, the man or woman who lives alone for the mere purpose of selfish enjoyment. That host of gay and idle creatures, who pass through life only to glitter in the circles of fashion; to seek admiration for personal attractions and accomplishments — for dressing, playing, dancing or riding — whose life is but the life of a butterfly when it should be the life of a man, would speedily disperse, and be no more seen. That life would be shrunk from as a thing odious and criminal, because useless; when faculties, wealth, and fame are put into their hands, and a world is laid before them in which men are to be saved and exalted; misery, crime, shame, despair, and death prevented; and all the hopes and capacities for good in the human soul are to be made easy to the multitude. To live for these objects is to be a hero or a heroine, and any man or woman may be that; to live through this world of opportunities given but once, and to neglect them, is the most fearful fate that can befal a creature of eternal responsibilities. But poets and preachers have proclaimed this great truth for ages; the charge now lies at the door of the educators, and they alone can impress effectually on the world its highest and most inalienable duty, that of living for the good of others.
Amongst those who have used the voice of poetry given them of God to rouse their fellow-men to a life of beneficence, none have done it more zealously or more eloquently than Thomson. For this we pass over here the mere charms of his poetic achievements; over those great pictures which he has painted of the world, and its elements of forests, tempests, plagues, earthquakes; of the views of active life at home and abroad; the hunter's perils and the hunter's carouse, "In ghostly halls of grey renown;" of man roaming the forests of the tropics, or climbing the cliffs of the lonely Hebrides; to notice in this brief article those bursts of eloquent fire in which he calls to godlike deeds, — those of mercy and of goodness. In this respect, as well as in that of mere poetical beauty, his poem of the Castle of Indolence is preeminent. Thomson suffered from the seductions of the vile wizard of Indolence, and in his first canto he paints most effectively the horrors of that vice; in the second canto he shows that though he had fallen into the net of sloth, it had not entirely conquered, and it could not corrupt him. He calls with the energy of a martyr on his fellow-men to assume the privileges and glories of men. The Castle of Indolence is as felicitous in its versification as in its sentiments; it is full of harmony, and the spirit of picturesque beauty pervades every line; there is a manliness of sentiment about it that is worthy of true genius. Such a stanza as this is the seed of independence to the minds of thousands:
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 shows her brightning face;
You cannot bar my constant feet to trace
The woods and lawns, by living streams, 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.
The address of the bard of active virtue is worthy of being listened to in every age.
—Ye hapless race!
Dire labouring here to smother Reason's ray,
That lights our Maker's image in our face,
And gives us wide o'er earth unquestioned sway:
What is the adored Supreme Perfection, say
What but eternal, never-resting soul,
Almighty power, and all-directing day;
By whom each atom stirs, the planets roll:
Who fills, surrounds, informs, and agitates the whole.
Come to the beaming God your hearts unfold
Draw from its fountain life? 'Tis thence alone
We can excel. Up from unfeeling mould
To seraphs horning round the ALMIGHTY'S throne,
Life rising still on life, in brighter tone,
Perfection forms, and with perfection bliss.
In universal nature this clear shown
Not needeth proof; to prove it were, I wis,
To prove the beauteous world excels the brute abyss.
It was not by vile loitering in ease,
That Greece obtained the brighter palm of art
That soft, yet ardent Athens learned to please,
To keen the wit, and to sublime the heart,
In all supreme, complete in every part
It was not thence majestic Rome arose,
And o'er the nations shook her conquering dart:
For sluggard's brow the laurel never grows;
Renown is not the child of indolent repose.
Had unambitious mortals minded nought,
But in loose joy their time to wear away
Had they alone the lap of dalliance sought,
Pleased on her pillow their dull heads to lay;
Rude Nature's state had been our state to-day;
No cities here their towery fronts had raised,
No arts had made us opulent and gay;
With brother brutes the human race had grazed
None o'er had soared to fame, none honoured been, none praised.
Great Homer's song had never fired the breast
To thirst of glory and heroic deeds
Sweet Maro's Muse, sunk in inglorious rest,
Had silent slept amid the Mincian reeds
The wits of modern times had told their beads,
And monkish legends been their only strains
Our Milton's Eden had lain wrapped in weeds;
Our Shakspeare strolled and laughed with Warwick swains;
Ne had my master, Spenser, charmed his Mulla's plains.
Dumb, too, had been the sage historic muse,
And perished all the sons of ancient fame;
Those starry lights of virtue that diffuse
Through the dark depths of time their vivid flame,
Had all been lost with such as have no name.
Who then had scorned his care for others' good
Who then had toiled rapacious men to tame?
Who in the public breach devoted stood,
And for his country's cause been prodigal of blood?...
Heavens can you then thus waste in shameful wise
Your few important days of trial here?
Heirs of eternity yborn to rise
Through endless states of being, still more near
To bliss approaching and perfection clear;
Can you renounce a fortune so sublime,—
Such glorious hopes, your backward steps to steer,
And roll with vilest brutes through mud and slime?
No! no! — your heaven-touched hearts disdain the sordid crime!
It is a pleasure to find that the spot where these noble sentiments were penned is still preserved sacred to the memory of the poet of truth and virtue. As far as the restless and rapid change of property would permit so near London, the residence of Thomson has been kept from destruction: changed it is, it is true, but that change has been made with a veneration for the muse in the heart of the new inhabitant. The house of Thomson, in what is called Kew-foot-lane at Richmond, as shown in the woodcut at the head of this article, was a simple cottage; behind this lay his garden, and in front he looked down to the Thames, and on the fine landscape beyond. The cottage now appears to be gone, and in the place stands the goodly villa of the Earl of Shaftesbury; the cottage, however, is not really gone, it is only swallowed up in the larger house of the present time. After Thomson's death his cottage was purchased by George Ross, Esq., who, out of veneration for his memory, forbore to pull it down, but enlarged and improved it at the expense of £9,000. The walls of the cottage were left, though its roof was taken off, and the walls continued upwards to their present height. Thus, what was Thomson's cottage forms now the entrance hall to Lord Shaftesbury's house. The part of the hall on the left hand was the room where Thomson used to sit, and here is preserved a plain mahogany Pembroke table of his, with a scroll of white wood let into its surface, on which are inlaid in black letters, this piece of information:—
"On this table James Thomson constantly wrote. It was therefore purchased of his servant, who also gave these brass hooks, on which his hat and cane were hung in this his sitting room. F. B."
These initials, F. B., are those of the Hon. Frances Boscawen, the widow of Admiral Boscawen, who came into possession of the property after the death of Mr. Ross, whose name, however, still attaches to it, being called Rossdale, or more commonly, Rosedale, House. Mrs. Boscawen it was who repaired the poet's favourite seat in the garden, and placed in it the table on which he wrote his poems there; she it was too, no doubt, who hung the inscriptions there, her initials being again found appended to one of them. Her son, Lord Falmouth, sold the place. No brass hooks are now to be seen, that I could discover, or learn anything of.
The garden of Thomson, which lay behind the house, has been preserved, in the same manner and to the same extent as his house; the garden and its trees remain, but these now form only part of the present grounds, as the cottage forms only part of the present house. Mr. Ross, when he purchased the cottage and some adjoining grounds, and came to live here after Thomson, not only enlarged the house, but threw down the partition fence, and enlarged the grounds to their present extent. A pleasanter lawn and shrubberie is rarely to be seen; the turf, old and mossy, speaks of long duration and great care; the trees, dispersed beautifully upon it, are of the finest growth and of the greatest beauty. In no part of England are there so many foreign trees as in the grounds of gentlemen's villas near London; in many of them the cedars of Lebanon are of a growth and majesty which probably Lebanon itself cannot now show. In these grounds there are some fine ones, but there is one of especial and surpassing loveliness; it is the pinus picea, or silver cedar. The growth is broad, like that of the cedar of Lebanon, but its boughs do not throw themselves out in that exact horizontal direction that those of the cedar of Lebanon do; they sweep down to the ground in a style of exquisite grace. Heavy, full of life, rich in hue as masses of chased silver, their effect, with their young cones sitting birdlike on them, is like that of some tree of heaven, or of some garden of poetic romance. Besides this superb tree, standing on its ample portion of lawn, there are here the evergreen ilex, hickory, white sassafras, scarlet and Ragland oaks, the tulip tree, the catalpa, the tupelo, the black American ash, &c. The effect of their fine growth, their varied hues and foliage, their fine sweeping branches, over the soft velvet turf, is charming, for trees display the effects of breeding and culture quite as much as horses, dogs, or men.
A large elm not far from the house is pointed out as the one under which Thomson's alcove stood; this alcove has, however, been removed to the extremity of the grounds, and stands now under a large Spanish chestnut tree in the shrubbery. It is a simple wooden construction, with a plain back and two outward sloping sides, a bench running round it within, a roof and boarded floor, so as to be readily removable altogether. It is kept well painted of a dark green, and in it stands an old small walnut table with a drawer, which belonged to Thomson. On the front of the alcove overhead, is painted on a white oval tablet—
Here Thomson sang
and their change.
Within the alcove hang three loose boards, on which are painted the following inscriptions:—
Hail, Nature's Poet, whom she taught alone
To sing her works in numbers like her own.
Sweet as the thrush that warbles in the dale,
And soft as Philomela's tender tale;
She lent her pencil, too, of wondrous power,
To catch the rainbow, and to form the flower
Of many mingling hues; and, smiling, said—
But first with laurels crowned her favourite's head—
These beauteous children, though so fair they shine,
Fade in my Seasons, let them live in Thine.
And live they shall; the charm of every eye,
Till Nature sickens, and the Seasons die.
Within this pleasing retirement,
Allured by the music of the nightingale,
Which warbled in soft unison to the melody of his soul,
In unaffected cheerfulness,
And general though simple elegance,
Sensitively alive to the beauties of Nature,
He painted their images as they rose in review,
And poured the whole profusion of them
Into his inimitable Seasons.
Warmed with intense devotion
To the Sovereign of the Universe,
Its flame glowed through all his compositions.
Animated with unbounded benevolence,
With the tenderest social sensibility,
He never gave one moment's pain
To any of his fellow-creatures,
Save only by his death, which happened
At this place on the 27th day of August,
Here Thomson dwelt.
He, curious bard, examined every drop
That glistens on the thorn; each leaf surveyed
That Autumn from the rustling forest shakes,
And marked its shape; and traced in the rude wind
Its eddying motion. Nature in his hand
A pencil, dipped in her own colours, placed,
With which he ever faithful copies drew,
Each feature in proportion just.
On a brass tablet in the top of the table in the alcove is inscribed — "This table was the property of James Thomson, and always stood in this seat."
Such is the state of the former residence of James Thomson at Richmond. Here, no doubt, he was visited by many of his literary cotemporaries, though it does not appear that he ever was by Pope, who was so near a neighbour. Old poets grow exclusive. As Wordsworth now-a-days says he reads no new poets, he leaves them to their cotemporaries — it is enough for him to stick to his old loves; so, in the correspondence of Pope, you find no further mention of Thomson, than that "Thomson and some other young men have published lately some creditable things;" and Gray, writing to one of his friends, says — "Thomson has just published a poem called The Castle of Indolence, which contains some good stanzas."
The view down to the Thames, and over the country beyond, which he enjoyed, is now much obstructed by the walls, including part of the royal property, on which the queen has erected her laundry — sending, it seems, all the royal linen, from Windsor, the Isle of Wight, and elsewhere, to be washed and got up here, sufficiently, as one would think, near enough to the smoke of London. The vicinity of the royal washhouse certainly does not improve Lord Shaftesbury's residence here, especially as a tall, square, and most unsightly tower, most probably intended to carry the soot from the drying fires pretty high, overlooks his grounds. But it will not disturb the remains of the poet; and let us hope that the queen's linen will enjoy the benefit of all the Seasons, from this close neighbourhood.
Thomson is buried in Richmond church, at the west end of the north aisle. There is a square brass tablet, well secured into the wall with ten large screws, bearing this inscription:—
"In the earth below this Tablet
Are the remains of
Author of the beautiful Poems entitled, The Seasons, Castle of Indolence, etc. etc.
who died at Richmond on the 27th day of August, and was buried here
on the 29th, old style, 1748. The Earl of Buchan, unwilling that
so good a man and sweet a poet should be without a
memorial, has denoted the place of his inter-
ment for the satisfaction of his
admirers, in the year of
our Lord 1792."
Father of light and life, thou Good Supreme!
O teach me what is good; teach me myself!
Save me from folly, vanity, and vice,
From every low pursuit! and feed my soul
With knowledge, conscious peace, and virtue pure,
Sacred, substantial, never-fading bliss!
Winter, p. 144.