1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Thomson

John Taylor Esq., in Records of my Life (1832) 1:185-88.



THOMSON, the poet. The merit of this poet is universally acknowledged, and therefore all eulogiums on his works are unnecessary; but the character of these and the conduct of his life were essentially different. Nobody could describe the excellences of the female character with more delicacy than he has done, but as a man of gallantry, if such a denomination may be applied to him, his taste was of the most vulgar description. My friend Mr. Donaldson, whom I have previously mentioned, resided at Richmond when Thomson lived at the same place, and was very intimate with him, as may easily be supposed, for Mr. Donaldson was a scholar, a poet, and a wit. Thomson, speaking of Musidora, says, that she possessed

A pure ingenuous elegance of soul,
A delicate refinement known to few.

Yet Mr. Donaldson assured me, that when once in company with Thomson, and several gentlemen were speaking of the fair sex in a sensual manner, Thomson expressed his admiration of them in more beastly terms than any of the company, and such as, though I well remember, I do not think proper to preserve.

The most extraordinary fact in the history of this excellent poet I derived from my late friend Mr. George Chalmers, whose industry, research, and learning are well known. It was Mr. Chalmers's intention to write the life of Thomson, but whether to introduce into his elaborate work, "Caledonia," or not, I do not recollect; he told me, however, the following remarkable fact, on which he assured me I might confidently depend. Mr. Chalmers had heard that an old housekeeper of Thomson's was alive and still resided at Richmond. Having determined to write a life of the celebrated poet of his country, he went to Richmond, thinking it possible he might obtain some account of the domestic habits of the poet, and other anecdotes which might impart interest and novelty to his narration. He found that the old housekeeper had a good memory, and was of a communicative turn. She informed him Thomson had been actually married in early life, but that his wife had been taken by him merely for her person, and was so little calculated to be introduced to his great friends, or indeed his friends in general, that he had kept her in a state of obscurity for many years, and when he at last, from some compunctious feelings, required her to come and live with him at Richmond, he still kept her in the same secluded state, so that she appeared to be only one of the old domestics of the family. At length his wife, experiencing little of the attention of a husband, though otherwise provided with every thing that could make her easy, if not comfortable, asked his permission to go for a few weeks to visit her own relations in the north. Thomson gave his consent, exacting a promise that she would not reveal her real situation to any of his or her own family. She agreed, but when she had advanced no farther on her journey than to London, she was there taken ill, and in a short time died. The news of her death was immediately conveyed to Thomson, who ordered a decent funeral, and she was buried, as the old housekeeper said, in the church-yard of old Marylebone church.

Mr. Chalmers, who was indefatigable in his inquiries, was not satisfied with the old woman's information, but immediately went and examined the church register, where he found the following entry — "Died, Mary Thomson, a stranger" — in confirmation of the housekeeper's testimony. My late worthy friend Mr. Malone, I doubt not, would not have been satisfied with this simple register, but would have pursued the inquiry till he had discovered all the family of Mary Thomson, the time of the marriage, and every thing that could throw a light on this mysterious event, important and interesting only as it relates to a poet who will always be conspicuous in the annals of British literature. Thus we find that the letter from Thomson to his sister, accounting for his not having married, which is inserted in all the biographical reports of Thomson, is fallacious, and that his concealment of his early marriage was the result of pride and shame, when he became acquainted with Lady Hertford, Lord Lyttelton, and all the high connexions of his latter days.

Mr. Boswell, in his ever-amusing, and I may add instructive life of Dr. Johnson says, "My own notion is, that Thomson was a much coarser man than his friends are willing to allow. His 'Seasons' are indeed full of elegant and pious sentiments, animated by a poetic and philosophic spirit; yet a rank soil, nay a dunghill, will produce beautiful flowers." Boswell never knew Thomson, but the report of the poet's surviving friends, who would not suppress the truth, fully confirms the account of Mr. Donaldson, who was personally intimate with the bard.

Mr. Chalmers, finding that the old housekeeper retained some of the furniture which had belonged to Thomson, purchased his breakfast-table, some old-fashioned salt-cellars and wine glasses. I had the pleasure of drinking tea with Mr. Chalmers on that table. I mentioned this circumstance to Dr. Wolcot, who told me that if I had any poetry in my nature I should write an ode on the subject; and in conformity with his hint, I wrote the stanzas which will be found in one of my printed volumes.