1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Thomson

John Aikin, in Select Works of the British Poets (1820) 414-15.



JAMES THOMSON, a distinguished British poet, born at Ednam, near Kelso, in Scotland, in 1700, was one of the nine children of the Rev. Mr. Thomson, minister of that place. James was sent to the school of Jedburgh, where he attracted the notice of a neighbouring minister by his propensity to poetry, who encouraged his early attempts, and corrected his performances. On his removal from school, he was sent to the university of Edinburgh, where he chiefly attended to the cultivation of his poetical faculty; but the death of his father, during his second session, having brought his mother to Edinburgh for the purpose of educating her children, James complied with the advice of his friends, and entered upon a course of divinity. Here, we are told, that the explanation of a psalm having been required from him as a probationary exercise, he performed it in language so splendid, that he was reproved by his professor for employing a diction which it was not likely that any one of his future audience could comprehend. This admonition completed the disgust which he felt for the profession chosen for him; and having connected himself with some young men in the university who were aspirants after literary eminence, he readily listened to the advice of a lady, the friend of his mother, and determined to try his fortune in the great metropolis, London.

In 1725 Thomson came by sea to the capital, where he soon found out his college acquaintance, Mallet, to whom he showed his poem of Winter, then composed in detached passages of the descriptive kind. Mallet advised him to form them into a connected piece, and immediately to print it. It was purchased for a small sum, and appeared in 1726, dedicated to Sir Spencer Compton. Its merits, however, were little understood by the public; till Mr. Whateley, a person of acknowledged taste, happening to cast an eye upon it, was struck with its beauties, and gave it vogue. His dedicatee, who had hitherto neglected him, made him a present of twenty guineas, and he was introduced to Pope, Bishop Rundle, and Lord-chancellor Talbot. In 1727, he published another of his seasons, Summer, dedicated to Mr. Doddington, for it was still the custom for poets to pay this tribute to men in power. In the same year he gave to the public his Poem, sacred to the memory of Sir Isaac Newton, and his Britannia. His Spring was published in 1728, addressed to the Countess of Hertford; and the Seasons were completed by the addition of Autumn, dedicated to Mr. Onslow, in 1730, when they were published collectively.

As nothing was more tempting to the cupidity of an author than dramatic composition, Thomson resolved to become a competitor for that laurel also, and in 1728, he had the influence to bring upon the stage of Drury-lane, his tragedy of Sophonisba. It was succeeded by Agamemnon; Edward and Eleonora; and Tancred and Sigismunda: but although these pieces were not without their merits, the moral strain was too prevalent for the public taste, and they have long ceased to occupy the theatre. Through the recommendation of Dr. Rundle, he was, about 1729, selected as the travelling associate of the Hon. Mr. Talbot, eldest son of the Chancellor, with whom he visited most of the courts of the European continent. During this tour, the idea of a poem on Liberty suggested itself, and after his return, he employed two years in its completion. The place of secretary of the briefs, which was nearly a sinecure, repaid him for his attendance on Mr. Talbot. Liberty at length appeared, and was dedicated to Frederic, Prince of Wales, who, in opposition to the court, affected the patronage of letters, as well as of liberal sentiments in politics. He granted Thomson a pension, to remunerate him for the loss of his place by the death of Lord-chancellor Talbot. In 1746, appeared his poem, called The Castle of Indolence, which had been several years under his polishing hand, and by many is considered as his principal performance. He was now in tolerably affluent circumstances, a place of Surveyor-general of the Leeward Islands, given him by Mr. Lyttleton, bringing him in, after paying a deputy, about 300 a year. He did not, however, long enjoy this state of comfort; for returning one evening from London to Kew-lane, he was attacked by a fever, which proved fatal in August 1748, the 48th year of his age. He was interred without any memorial in Richmond church; but a monument was erected to his memory, in Westminster Abbey, in 1762, with the profits arising from an edition of his works published by Mr. Millar.

Thomson in person was large and ungainly, with a heavy, unanimated countenance, and having nothing in his appearance in mixed society indicating the man of genius or refinement. He was, however, easy and cheerful with select friends, by whom he was singularly beloved for the kindness of his heart, and his freedom from all the malignant passions which too often debase the literary character. His temper was much inclined to indolence, and he was fond of indulgence of every kind; in particular he was more attached to the pleasures of sense, than the sentimental delicacy of his writings would induce a reader to suppose. For the moral tendency of his works, no author has deserved more praise; and no one can rise from the perusal of his pages, without being sensible of a melioration of his principles or feelings.

The poetical merits of Thomson, undoubtedly stand most conspicuous in his Seasons, the first long composition, perhaps, of which natural description was made the staple, and certainly the most fertile of grand and beautiful delineations, in great measure deduced from the author's own observation. Its diction is somewhat cumbrous and laboured, but energetic and expressive. Its versification does not denote a practised ear, but is seldom unpleasantly harsh. Upon the whole, no poem has been more, and more deservedly, popular; and it has exerted a powerful influence upon public taste, not only in this country, but throughout Europe. Any addition to his fame has principally arisen from his Castle of Indolence, an allegorical composition in the manner and stanza of Spenser, and among the imitators of this poet, Thomson may deserve the preference, on account of the application of his fable, and the moral and descriptive beauties by which it is filled up. This piece is entirely free from the stiffness of language perceptible in the author's blank verse, which is also the case with many of his songs, and other rhymed poems.