1795 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Thompson

Robert Anderson, "The Life of Thompson" Works of the British Poets (1795) 10:353-57.



Of the personal history of THOMPSON, the present writer is sorry that the intelligence his inquiries have obtained, is so scanty, that he must give his life to the world much more briefly than his qualifications deserve. A few detached dates and notices, less ample and satisfactory than the inscription on a common grave-stone, collected chiefly from his writings, composed the slender memorials of his life.

William Thompson, was second son of the Rev. Francis Thompson, B.D. Senior Fellow of Queen's College, Oxford, and thirty-two years vicar of Brough, in Westmoreland.

Of the time and place of his birth there are no memorials. But it is probable, he was born at Brough, about 1712. His mother was first married to Joseph Fisher, M.A. Fellow of Queen's College, Oxford, Vicar of Brough, and Arch-deacon of Carlisle, by whom she had no children. His father died August 31, 1735, aged 70. His mother died October 25, 1737, aged 65.

After passing through the usual course of elementary learning in the country, he was sent to the University of Oxford, and entered at Queen's College, where he afterwards became a Fellow.

Early in life, he discovered a propensity to poetry, and wrote, as he himself informs us, Six Pastorals, in 1734.

His early conceptions of love, of friendship, and of virtue, were very warm and elevated, and prompted a variety of poetical effusions, amatory, sentimental, and serious.

In his retirement in Westmoreland, on the banks of his native Eden, which "first heard the Doric reeds" of the unfortunate Pattison, and the amiable Langhorne, he wrote his Stella, five Amores, Elegiarum tres Libri, in 1736.

These Pastorals and Love Elegies, written when the young poet's soul was high-tuned to the tender emotions of nature, without any design of printing them, have not been collected in his works.

In 1736, he wrote an Epithalamium on the Royal Nuptials, as a college exercise, which procured him considerable reputation.

He took the degree of Master of Arts, February 26, 1738; and entering into orders, was presented to the rectory of South Weston and Hampton-Pyle, in Oxfordshire.

About this time, on his recovery from the small-pox, he wrote his poem called Sickness; which was published in 1746, and very favourably received by the polite and religious world.

Not long after, he published his Hymn to May, in the manner of Spenser, which completely established his poetical reputation.

In 1751, he was a candidate for the poetry professorship at Oxford; but did not succeed in his application.

Soon after, he published Gratitude, a Poem, on the Countess of Pomfret's benefactions to the University of Oxford, which has eluded the inquiries of the present writer.

In 1757, he published, by subscription, a collection of his Poems on Several Occasions, and Gondibert and Birtha, a tragedy, with a dedication to the Countess of Northumberland. In a short advertisement, he informs the reader, "that the greater part of the poems were written when the author was very young, and without any design of printing them, which," he says, "is only mentioned with hopes to procure the reader's pardon for the imperfection of some, and the lightness of others. Yet

Non ego mordac i distrinxi carmine quemquam
Nulla venenato litera mista joco est.

"The tragedy," he adds, "was likewise chiefly composed when the author was an under-graduate in the University, as an innocent relaxation from those severer and more useful studies; for which the College, where he had the benefit of his education, is so deservedly distinguished. I have caused it (with all its juvenile imperfections on its head) to be printed as it was first written, and have even added the original motto, that it might be of a piece."

This seems to be the language of unaffected modesty; some of the earlier little pieces might probably have admitted of some improvements, if he had judged it proper to retouch them afterwards: but as a spirit of ingenuousness is manifest throughout his sentiments, he has probably given his most private productions, as they were first conceived and written; upon which supposition, there appears very little reprehensible in them, and not a little, for their quantity, that may be justly commended.

"The poem called Sickness," he says, "was republished at the request of several of my subscribers; to which, without regarding the additional expense, I very readily agreed. I have made some alterations, which, in the divisions of the books, I hope will be thought improvements."

He survived this production several years, and intended to republish Browne's Britannia's Pastorals, upon which he left some short notes, inserted in T. Davies's edition, 1772; but the present writer has not been able to discover when he died.

This is all that is known of Thompson, an amiable and ingenious poet, whose writings seem not hitherto to have received so much attention as they deserve.

His Poems on Several Occasions, with the omission of a few trifling songs, and his Garden Inscriptions, published in the Poetical Calendar for August 1763, are now, for the first time, received into a collection of classical English poetry. The reader may perhaps wish, for the sake of his reputation, that some of the more lighter pieces had been omitted. The majority of them are, however, worthy of him.

As a poet, his compositions are characterized by fertility of invention, splendour of imagination, tenderness of sentiment, facility of expression, and harmony of numbers. He is of the school of Spenser and Milton; but he imitates the former more than the latter. He seems to have been an enthusiastic admirer, and an attentive observer of the charms of nature, as his compositions abound in minute rural imagery, and picturesque description. His faults are those of his master. Rich in native stores, he sometimes employs traditionary imagery, and hereditary similes. His descriptions are sometimes puerile and extravagant, and sometimes overwrought, and lost in a profusion of colours.

His capital performance is Sickness, a poem, in five books, in blank verse. In this work, boldness of personification, energy of language, sublimity of sentiment, pathetic representation, and the most exquisite beauties of poetry, are ennobled with Christian and moral truths. Almost every line glows with devotion, rises into the most exalted apprehensions of the Creator, and is animated with the most lively faith in the all-sufficient mediation of the Redeemer of mankind. In the first book, which bears only the general title of Sickness, after proposing his subject, he thus reflects on the levity of his earlier poetical amusements.

—Too long the muse,
Ah! much too long, a libertine, diffus'd
On Pleasure's rosy lap, has idly breath'd
Love-sighing elegies, and pastoral-strains,
The soft seducers of our youthful hours,
Soothing away the vigour of the mind,
And energy of virtue. But, farewell,
Ye myrtle walks, ye lilly-mantled meads
Of Paphos, and the fount of Acidale.

The second book is called the Palace of Disease. This palace is very poetically imagined and executed, and the malignant power inhabiting it is very correspondingly pourtrayed. He thus describes one of her six attendant furies, the small-pox, whose severe infection occasioned the poem.

The last, so turpid to the view, affrights
Her neighbour hags. Happy herself is blind,
Or madness would ensue, so bloated black,
So loathsome to each sense, the sight or smell,
Such foul corruption on this side the grave,
Variola yclep'd; ragged and rough,
Her couch perplex'd with thorns. What heavy scenes
Hang o'er my head, to feel the theme is mine!

In the third book, called the Progress of Sickness, after a succession of dreams of different complexions, which are very poetically enumerated and contrasted, on waking affrighted from the imaginary blast of Astolpho's horn, in "Orlando Furioso;" he thus energetically exclaims:

Pain empties all her vials on my head,
And steeps me o'er and o'er. Th' envenom'd shirt
Of Hercules enwraps my burning limbs
With dragon's blood: I rave and roar like him,
Writhing in agony. Devouring fires
Eat up the marrow frying in my bones,
O whether, whether shall I turn for aid!

The metaphorical display of friendship at the close of this book is warm and delicate.

Friendship's
—a holy fire,
Where honourl beams on honour, truths on truths,
Bright as the eyes of angels, and as pure.
An altar whence two gentle loving hearts
Mount to the skies in one conspiring blaze,
And spotless union—

The fourth book is called the Recovery. In this, Mercy sends Hygeia or Health, to the well of life, in which he ingeniously feigns the angel who descended into the pool of Bethesda, to have previously moistened his wings. His surprise at the first return of sight, and his succeeding exultation on it, are finely expressed.

I thank thee Sleep! — Heav'ns! is the day restor'd
To my desiring eyes? Their lids, unglew'd,
Admit the long-lost light, now streaming in
Painfully clear! — O check the rapid gleam
With shading silk, till the weak visual orb,
Stronger and stronger, dares imbibe the sun,
Nor, wat'ring, twinkle at unfolded day.

Sight, all-expressive! Though the feeling sense
Thrills from Ianthe's hand; at Handel's lyre
Tingles the ear; though smell from blossom'd beams
Arabian spirit gathers; and the draught,
Sparkling from Burgundy's exalted vines,
Streams nectar on the palate; yet, O sight!
Weak their sensations, when compar'd with thee.

The last book, styled Thanksgiving, is replete with much devout and animated gratitude. The following parody of a very poetical passage in the "Psalms," is well executed.

—For me (who late
A neighbour of the worms) when I forget
The wonders of thy goodness ray'd on me,
And cease to celebrate with matin harp
Or vesper song, thy plenitude of love,
And healing mercy; may the nightly Pow'r,
Which whispers on my slumbers, cease to breathe
Her modulating impulse through my soul;
Untun'd, unhallow'd! Discord, string my lyre,
Idly, my finger, press the fretted gold,
Rebellious to the dictates of my hand,
When indolent, to swell the notes for thee,
FATHER of heav'n and earth!—

The Hymn to May, is a professed imitation of Spenser; and without ostentatious praise, it is but just to observe, that in opulence, of imagery, brilliancy of colouring, distinctness and propriety of attribute, and harmony of numbers, it challenges every modern production, and rivals, if not surpasses very thing of the kind, even in Spenser, from whom he caught his inspiration. The diction is florid and luxuriant, and the sentiments rapturous and tender in the highest degree. He gives a loose to the luxuriance of his imagination, and indulges himself in every extravagance that poetry allows. The exuberance of his diction invests his thoughts with splendour, through which, perhaps, they are not always easily discerned. Spenser being not less celebrated for his description of the beauties of nature, than for his dress and portraiture of allegorical personages, Thompson has thus charmingly delineated and arrayed his poetical May.

She comes! — A silken camus, emerald-green,
Gracefully loose, adown her shoulder's flows,
(Fit to enfold the Limbs of Paphos' Queen)
And with the labours of the needle glows,
Purfled by nature's hand! The amorous air
And musky western breezes fast repair,
Her mantle proud to swell, and wanton with her hair.

Her hair (but rather threads of light it seems)
With the gay honours of the spring entwind,
Copious, unbound, in nectar'd ringlets streams,
Floats glitt'ring on the sun, and scents the wind,
Love-sick with odours! — Now to order roll'd,
It melts upon her bosom's dainty mould,
Or, curling round her waist, disparts its wavy gold.

Young circling roses, blushing, round them throw
The sweet abundance of their purple rays,
And lilies, dipt in fragrance, freshly blow,
With blended beauties, in her angel face.
The humid radiance beaming from her eyes
The air and seas illumes, the earth and skies;
And open, where she smiles, the sweets of Paradise.

On zephyr's wing the laughing goddess view,
Distilling balm. She cleaves the buxom air,
Attended by the silver-footed dew,
The ravages of winter to repair.
She gives her naked bosom to the gales,
Her naked bosom down the ether sails;
Her bosom breaths delight; her breath the spring exhales.

In stanzas 47, 48, 49, 50, and 51, the supposition of Venus being born in this month, and celebrating her birth-day near Acidalus, a fountain in Boetia, is happily imagined, and expressed with that softness of sentiment which he professes to have indulged in this poem, though with an avowal of the purest intention. The stanzas 19, 20, 21, &c. show him a great master in the descriptive. The Nativity, a college exercise, and the Epithalamium on the royal nuptials, are also fine imitations of Spenser. In the Nativity, the lines beginning "Hark, the jolly pipe and rural lay," and ending, "Hell groan'd through all her dens, and grim death dropp'd down dead," are remarkably fine. The verses on Pope's Works are agreeably various and spirited. Those especially on his translation of "Homer," are exquisitely animated. The Epistle to the Author of Leonidas, The fall of Coresus and Callirhoe, from Pausanias; and the Magi, a Sacred Eclogue are all masterly. The lines in the Eclogue in which the sages are introduced paying their adoration to the infant Saviour, are eminently beautiful. His Epistle on both his parents, comprise two most worthy characters pourtrayed by filial piety. The verses Written on the Holy Bible, in his grave religious character, have an original air. The Garden Inscriptions, prove him no languid admirer, but a fervent worshipper of the excellencies of his favourites, particularly Spenser, Milton, Thomson, and Young. The eulogy is sometimes overcharged; yet the overflowing fulness with which he measures out to others, springs from a most amiable source. It is the very contrast of narrow self-love, of envy and detraction, and entitles him to the most liberal regard from every lover of candour and benevolence.

His Love verses are, for the most part, tender and unaffected; dictated by his own feelings, when the passion is quite new, romantically sweet, and, perhaps, at the utmost purity which is compatible with desire.

His two Latin odes on Winter and Summer, rank with the best compositions of our English writers, who have cultivated Latin poetry with success. Poetical versions, by Mr. Tattersal, fellow of Trinity-College, Cambridge, were published with the originals; which I believe, says he, "will be thought the best verses in the collection: they are finished in so easy and masterly a manner, that I must own, that I had rather have been the author of them than of the originals themselves."

His tragedy of Gondibert and Birtha, taken from Davenant's poem of "Gondibert," seems very little adapted to the stage, being much more poetical than dramatic. The sentiments are warm and elevated; but seem rather such as he had collected from an acquaintance with the illustrious dead, than from being "hackneyed in the ways of men," as he appears more delighted with what Syphax malignantly calls the "extravagance of virtue," than experienced in a knowledge of the world, and the ordinary conduct of mankind.