1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Thomson

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:12-14.



The publication of the "Seasons" was an important era in the history of English poetry. So true and beautiful are the descriptions in the poem, and so entirely do they harmonise with those fresh feelings and glowing impulses which all would wish to cherish, that a love of nature seems to be synonymous with a love of Thomson. It is difficult to conceive a person of education in this country, imbued with an admiration of rural or woodland scenery, not entertaining a strong affection and regard for that delightful poet, who has painted their charms with so much fidelity and enthusiasm. The same features of blandness and benevolence, of simplicity of design and beauty of form and colour, which we recognise as distinguishing traits of the natural landscape, are seen in the pages of Thomson, conveyed by his artless mind as faithfully as the lights and shades on the face of creation. No criticism or change of style has, therefore, affected his popularity. We may smile at sometimes meeting with a heavy monotonous period, a false ornament, or tumid expression, the result of an indolent mind working itself up to a great effort, and we may wish time subjects of his description were sometimes more select and dignified: but this drawback does not affect our permanent regard or general feeling; our first love remains unaltered; and Thomson is still the poet with whom some of our best and purest associations are indissolubly joined. In the "Seasons" we have a poetical subject poetically treated — filled to overflowing with the richest materials of poetry, and the emanations of benevolence. In the "Castle of Indolence" we have the concentration or essence of those materials applied to a subject less poetical, but still affording room for luxuriant fancy, the most exquisite art, and still greater melody of numbers.

JAMES THOMSON was born at Ednam, near Kelso, county of Roxburgh, on the 11th of September, 1700. His father, who was then minister of the parish of Ednam, removed a few years afterwards to that of Southdean in the same county, a primitive and retired district situated among the lower slopes of the Cheviots. Here the young poet spent his boyish years. The gift of poesy came early, and some lines written by him at the age of fourteen, show how soon his manner was formed:—

Now I surveyed my native faculties,
And traced my actions to their teeming source:
Now I explored the universal frame,
Gazed nature through, and with interior light
Conversed with angels and unbodied saints
That tread the courts of the Eternal King!
Gladly I would declare in lofty strains
The power of Godhead to the sons of men,
But thought is lost in its immensity:
Imagination wastes its strength in vain,
And fancy tires and turns within itself,
Struck with the amazing depths of Deity!
Ah! my Lord God! in vain a tender youth,
Unskilled in arts of deep philosophy,
Attempts to search the bulky mass of matter,
To trace the rules of motion, and pursue
The phantom Time, too subtle far his grasp:
Yet may I from thy most apparent works
Form some idea of their wondrous Author.

In his eighteenth year, Thomson was sent to Edinburgh college. His father died, and the poet proceeded to London to push his fortune. His college friend Mallet procured him the situation of tutor to the son of Lord Binning, and being shown some of his descriptions of "Winter," advised him to connect them into one regular poem. This was done, and "Winter" was published in March 1726, the poet having received only three guineas for the copyright. A second and a third edition appeared the same year. "Summer" appeared in 1727. In 1726 he issued proposals for publishing, by subscription, the "Four Seasons;" the number of subscribers, at a guinea each copy, was 387; but many took more than one, and Pope (to whom Thomson had been introduced by Mallet) took three copies. The tragedy of "Sophonisba" was next produced; and in 1731 the poet accompanied the son of Sir Charles Talbot, afterwards lord chancellor, in the capacity of tutor or travelling companion, to this continent. They visited France, Switzerland, and Italy, and it is easy to conceive with what pleasure Thomson must have passed or sojourned among scenes which be had often viewed in imagination. In November of the same year the poet was at Rome, and no doubt indulged the wish expressed in one of his letters, "to see the fields where Virgil gathered his immortal honey, and tread the same ground where men have thought and acted so greatly." On his return next year he published his poem of "Liberty," and obtained the sinecure situation of Secretary of Briefs in the Court of Chancery, which he held till the death of Lord Talbot, the chancellor. The succeeding chancellor bestowed the situation on another, Thomson not having, it is said, from characteristic indolence, solicited a continuance of the office. He tried the stage, and produced "Agamemnon," which was coldly received. "Edward and Eleonora" followed, and the poet's circumstances were brightened by a pension of £100 a-year, which he obtained through Lyttelton from the Prince of Wales. He further received the appointment of Surveyor General of the Leeward Islands, the duties of which he was allowed to perform by deputy, and which brought him £300 per annum. He was now in comparative opulence, and his residence at Kew-lane, near Richmond, was the scene of social enjoyment and lettered ease. Retirement and nature became, he said, more and more his passion every day. "I have enlarged my rural domain," he writes to a friend: "the two fields next to me, from the first of which I have walled — no, no — paled in, about as much as my garden consisted of before, so that the walk runs round the hedge, where you may figure me walking any time of the day, and sometimes at night." His house appears to have been elegantly furnished: the sale catalogue of his effects, which enumerates the contents of every room, prepared after his death, fills eight pages of print, and his cellar was stocked with wines and Scotch ale. In this snug suburban retreat Thomson now applied himself to finish the "Castle of Indolence," on which he had been long engaged, and a tragedy on the subject of Coriolanus. The poem was published in May 1748. In August following, he took a boat at Hammersmith to convey him to Kew, after having walked from London. He caught cold, was thrown into a fever, and, after a short illness, died (27th of August 1748). No poet was ever more deeply lamented or more sincerely mourned.

Though born a poet, Thomson seems to have advanced but slowly, and by reiterated efforts, to refinement of taste. The natural fervour of the man overpowered the rules of the scholar. The first edition of the "Seasons" differs materially from the second, and the second still more from the third. Every alteration was an improvement in delicacy of thought and language, of which we may mention one instance. In the scene betwixt Damon and Musidora — "the solemnly-ridiculous bathing," as Campbell has justly termed it — this poet had originally introduced three damsels! Of propriety of language consequent on these corrections, we may cite an example of a line from the episode of Lavinia — "And as he viewed her ardent o'er and o'er," stood originally "And as he 'run' her ardent o'er and o'er." One of the finest and most picturesque similes in the work was supplied by Pope, to whom Thomson had given an interleaved copy of the edition of 1736. The quotation will not be out of place here, as it is honourable to the friendship of the brother poets, and tends to show the importance of careful revision, without which no excellence can be attained in literature or the arts. How deeply must it be regretted that Pope did not oftener write in blank verse! In autumn, describing Lavinia, the lines of Thomson were—

Thoughtless of beauty, she was Beauty's self,
Recluse among the weeds; if city dames
Will deign their faith: and thus she went, compelled
By strong necessity, with as serene
And pleased a look as patience e'er put on,
To glean Palemon's fields.

Pope drew his pen through this description, and supplied the following lines, which Thomson must have been too much gratified with not to adopt with pride and pleasure — and so they stand in all the subsequent editions:—

Thoughtless of beauty, she was Beauty's self,
Recluse among the close-embowering woods.
As in the hollow breast of Apennine,
Beneath the shelter of encircling hills
A myrtle rises, far from human eyes,
And breathes its balmy fragrance o'er the wild;
So flourished blooming, and unseen by all,
The sweet Lavinia; till at length compelled
By strong Necessity's supreme command,
With smiling patience in her looks, she went
To glean Palemon's fields.

That the genius of Thomson was purifying and working off its alloys up to the termination of his existence, may he seen from the superiority in style and diction of the "Castle of Indolence." "Between the period of his composing the Seasons and the Castle of Indolence," says Mr. Campbell, "he wrote several works which seem hardly to accord with the improvement and maturity of his taste exhibited in the latter production. To the Castle of Indolence he brought not only the full nature, but the perfect art of a poet. This materials of that exquisite poem are derived originally from Tasso; but he was more immediately indebted for them to the Faery Queen: and in meeting with the paternal spirit of Spenser, he seems as if he were admitted more intimately to the home of inspiration." If the critic had gone over the alterations in the "Seasons," which Thomson had been more or less engaged upon for about sixteen years, he would have seen the gradual improvement of his taste, as well as imagination. So far as the art of the poet is concerned, the last corrected edition is a new work. The power of Thomson, however, lay not in his art, but in the exuberance of his genius, which sometimes required to be disciplined and controlled. The poetic glow is spread over all. He never slackens in his enthusiasm, nor tires of pointing out the phenomena of nature which, indolent as he was, he had surveyed under every aspect, till he had become familiar with all. Among the mountains, vales, and forests, he seems to realise his own words—

Man superior walks
Amid the glad creation, musing praise,
And looking lively gratitude.

But he looks also, as Johnson has finely observed, "with the eye which nature bestows only on a poet — the eye that distinguishes, in everything presented to its view, whatever there is on which imagination can delight to be detained, and with a mind that at once comprehends the vast, and attends to the minute." He looks also with a heart that feels for all mankind. His sympathies are universal. His touching allusions to the condition of the poor and suffering, to the hapless state of bird and beast in winter; the description of the peasant perishing in the snow, the Siberian exile, or the Arab pilgrims, all are marked with that humanity and true feeling which shows that the poet's virtues "formed the magic of his song." The genuine impulses under which he wrote he has expressed in one noble stanza of the "Castle of Indolence:"—

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 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.

"The love of nature," says Coleridge, "seems to have led Thomson to a cheerful religion; and a gloomy religion to have led Cowper to a love of nature. The one would carry his fellow-men along with him into nature; the other flies to nature from his fellow-men. In chastity of diction, however, and the harmony of blank verse, Cowper leaves Thomson immeasurably below him; yet, I still feel the latter to have been the born poet." The ardour and fulness of Thomson's descriptions distinguish them from those of Cowper, who was naturally less enthusiastic, and who was restricted by his religions tenets, and by his critical and classically formed taste. The diction of the "Seasons" is at times pure and musical; it is too elevated and ambitious, however, for ordinary themes, and where the poet descends to minute description, or to humorous or satirical scenes (as in the account of the chase and foxhunters' dinner in Autumn), the effect is grotesque and absurd. Mr. Campbell has happily said, that "as long as Thomson dwells in the pure contemplation of nature, and appeals to the universal poetry of the human breast, his redundant style comes to us as something venial and adventitious — it is the flowing vesture of the Druid; and perhaps to the general experience, is rather imposing; but when he returns to the familiar narrations or courtesies of life, the same diction ceases to seem the mantle of inspiration, and only strikes us by its unwieldy difference from the common costume of expression." Cowper avoided this want of keeping between his style and his subjects, adapting one to the other with inimitable ease, grace, and variety; yet only rising in one or two instances to the higher flights of Thomson.

In 1843, a "Poem to the Memory of Mr. Congreve, Inscribed to her Grace Henrietta, Duchess of Marlborough," was reprinted for the Percy Society (under the care of Mr. Peter Cunningham) as a genuine though unacknowledged production of Thomson, first published in 1729. We have no doubt of the genuineness of this poem as the work of Thomson. It possesses all the characteristics of his style — its exaggeration, enthusiasm, and the peculiar rhythm of his blank verse. The poet's praise of Congreve is excessive, and must have been designed rather to gratify the Duchess of Marlborough than to record Thomson's own deliberate convictions. Jeremy Collier would have started with amazement from such a tribute as the following:—

What art thou, Death! by mankind poorly feared,
Yet period of their ills. On thy near shore,
Trembling they stand, and see through dreaded mists
The eternal port, irresolute to leave
This various misery, these air-fed dreams
Which men call life and fame. Mistaken minds!
'Tis reason's prime aspiring, greatly just;
'Tis happiness supreme, to venture forth
In quest of nobler worlds; to try the deeps
Of dark futurity, with heaven our guide,
The unerring Hand that led us safe through time.
That planted in the soul this powerful hope,
This infinite ambition of new life,
And endless joys, still rising, ever new.

These Congreve tastes, safe on the ethereal coast,
Joined to the numberless immortal quire
Of spirits blest. High-seated among these,
He sees the public fathers of mankind,
The greatly good, those universal minds,
Who drew the sword or planned the holy scheme,
For liberty and right; to check the rage
Of blood-stained tyranny, and save a world.
Such, high-born Marlbro', be thy sire divine
With wonder named; fair freedom's champion he,
By heaven approved, a conqueror without guilt;
And such on earth his friend, and joined on high
By deathless love, Godolphin's patriot worth,
Just to his country's fame, yet of her wealth
With honour frugal; above interest great.
Hail men immortal! social virtues hail!
First heirs of praise! But I, with weak essay,
Wrong the superior theme; while heavenly choirs,
In strains high warbled to celestial harps,
Resound your names; and Congreve's added voice
In heaven exalts what he admired below.
With these he mixes, now no more to swerve
From reason's purest law; no more to please,
Borne by the torrent down a sensual age.
Pardon, loved shade, that I with friendly blame,
Slight note thy error; not to wrong thy worth,
Or shade thy memory (far from my soul
Be that base aim), but haply to deter,
From flattering the gross vulgar, future pens
Powerful like thine in every grace, and skilled
To win the listening soul with virtuous charms.

The gentle and benevolent nature of Thomson is seen in this slight shade of censure. He, too, flattered the "gross vulgar," but it was with adulation, not licentiousness.

We subjoin a few of the detached pictures and descriptions in the "Seasons," and part of the "Castle of Indolence."