I shall now give my best attention to the works of Thomson: and if my view of those works shall be found to be, in any degree, worthy of them, it will certainly make not the least acceptable, part of these Lectures. Thomson was a great poet; but though inferiour to some, whose excellences I have endeavoured to display, perhaps he is read more, and makes deeper impressions in our minds than any one of our other poets. For he paints the scenes of Nature which are most interesting, and affecting; to which we are most habituated; and to which we, therefore, most frequently recurr; and he paints them with glowing colours; and with a choice, and assemblage of objects, by which he is eminently distinguished above all other poets. Those who are not properly acquainted with Thomson (and they are the great majority of his readers) seem only to be sensible of his uncommon merit, as a descriptive poet. But certainly, in his moral strains, in which he often expands, and expatiates, he is entitled to our high esteem, and admiration. They speak distinctly, and forcibly to the understanding, and to the heart. They inculcate the most natural, and the noblest religion; they inculcate that warm, and universal philanthropy, which, from such a religion, is the necessary, and most beneficent deduction. Every image is presented to the fancy, which can excite humanity and compassion; all the poetical apparatus is displayed, and thrown into the most vigorous and beautiful action, that an make selfishness, and barbarity odious; that can deterr us from incurring the guilt of those detestable crimes. Thomson, in his poetical theology, and morality, like a true poet, avoids all metaphysical reasoning; all abstracted, and complicated argument. Does he wish to inspire you with true religion; with a rational, yet ardent devotion? he leads you, immediately, "from Nature, up to Nature's God." He exhibits to you the magnificence; the beauty, and the harmony of the universe; — the spring pours forth its luxuriant sweets; and the senses, and the imagination are delighted: the sea roars, and overflows its bounds; the thunder peals; the lightning flashes through the hemisphere; yet the creatures, and the order of creation are preserved. Then, the heavens declare the "glory of God," and "the firmament showeth" the stupendous works of the Divine Artificer, in the luminous, and emphatical language of our bard: the celestial motions, and revolutions are represented with a corresponding majesty, by the vast, and, splendid poetical orrery: on or minds rushes the Supreme Mind; the Deity; the Being of infinite power, and wisdom; and of eternal existence.
So, in his morality; he does not instruct us with the severity of reasoning; with the ingenious, but cold distinctions, and subtleties of the schools. Inspired as he is, by the Muses; without any formal, and didactick process, he inflames you with a love of virtue, and with a hatred of vice. With him, all is living, active, and dramatick. The offices of humanity take their figures; their colouring; and their passions: benevolent power, and its objects, are personified, in striking attitudes; and with pathetick features: tyrants frown; and their victims bleed before us, by the magical operation of numbers; these expressive scenes awake, and actuate those emotions, by which the sentiments that most adorn human nature, are agitated and refined. The solemn philosopher endeavours to take you by the siege of syllogism; and wins his way to your citadel of reason by slow approaches: the poet, with, eagle-speed; through a tract of verdure, and of roses, assails your heart, and soul; you instantaneously yield to the rapidity, and brilliancy of his march; and your captivity is your pleasure.
The religious, and benevolent strains with which the poetry of Thomson is eminently characterized, flowed, all, from the sincerity, and ardour of his soul; they were, indeed, but so many transcripts of his habitual sentiments, and conduct. He was an enemy to all profaneness; to every species of irreligion. Indeed, the mind of a poet is happily, and particularly formed to observe, and to admire all order; symmetry; harmony; beauty; and sublimity. It is formed to admire these objects; not in the cooler degree of good, yet common minds; but with the warmth of rapture; with the most exquisite delight. His moral practice, it is true, may not be so uniformly analogous to this theory, and to these feelings, as we might wish; for that very susceptible frame, which is so powerfully attracted to those worthy, and great objects, by which it is exalted, and refined, is likewise unfortunately liable to be allured to those inferiour, but captivating objects, by which it is debased, and corrupted. How could a mind like Thomson's, go abroad, and take a view of the universe; how could it return home, and take a view of its own operations; without knowing, to demonstration, the existence, and providence of a God; and without most humbly, and devoutly adoring him? To throw our faculties into a sluggish, and putrid channel; to throw them into a substance, and direction, contrary to this pure and vigorous flow; to be daily conversant with the works of the Deity, with a stupid, or profane indifference; to feel no religious impressions from their influence; or to affect to feel none; nay, to be industrious to propagate the monstrous nonsense of atheism; to laugh at the works of God, when we insist on their divine origin; and to sport with his name; this disposition, and these habitudes render any creature in human shape the most contemptible; the most abominable of beings.
Totally the contrast of this most hideous moral deformity, was our elegant, pathetick, and sublime poet. Every day, and night read him lectures of piety, which be imbibed, with a heart full of gratitude, and rapture. It was not only the "sun," "who cometh forth from his chamber, as a bridegroom, and who rejoiceth as a giant, to run his course;" — nor was it only "the moon;" — "rising in clouded majesty;" — then, "apparent queen, unveiling her peerless light; and throwing her silver mantle o'er the earth:" — it was not only these more energetical proclaimers of their Divine Authour that composed the, mind of Thomson to humility, and awe; or raised it to triumph, and exultation; with these sacred sentiments he was not less inspired by the elegant than by the grand objects of Nature: the whole system of creation was his vast, and splendid volume of divinity: he never could forget the oracles of celestial truth; they were breathed to him, at morn, by the rose, in fragrance; and at eve, by the nightingale, in musick.
I should suppose that nothing forms the mind of man more to true benevolence, and humanity, than a high enjoyment of what is good, in this life; and a long, and pungent experience of its evils. Of this severe, but salutary school, the poet seems particularly doomed to be a disciple, from his exquisite sensibility; and from his unequal, and iniquitous situations. Therefore, whatever may be, in general, the faults, or the vices of a poet; without any partiality to an extraordinary class of beings; I think we may venture to assert, that a poet would always be generous to those who needed his protection; if he was enabled by fortune to exercise his generosity. It is well known that Thomson was extremely affectionate to his relations; and that his philanthropy was ardent; and as active as his circumstances would permit. His conversation was mild, and unassuming, like his love of man; he seldom showed anger, and indignation, but when he heard some horrid tale of oppression, and barbarity. Thus are his numbers doubly consecrated to posterity; they were inspired by capital genius; and considered as his moral theory, they are a copy of his practice. We may likewise observe; that vice is only vice, in proportion to its bad effects; and that human actions can only with propriety be denominated virtuous; as they promote, the happiness of the individual, and of mankind. But this private, and publick happiness are promoted by nothing so much as by ardent, and active benevolence; as they are most materially, and extensively injured by the exercise of a cruel, and tyrannical disposition. One might think it superfluous, at this period of literary discriminations, to advance this doctrine; to mark these distinctions; but it is the duty of every liberal writer never to quit his hold of selfish hypocrisy, and superstition; they will keep their ground as long as they can; as long as they can, they will substitute symbols, and words, for things; they will substitute that legerdemain, or magick, which cannot be kept in play without them, for disinterested, and noble conduct; or, in other terms, for genuine christianity.
Thomson, then, was a man of great virtue; he was a man of the highest virtue; for he was a man of universal benevolence in sentiment, and in life That, certainly, must be the most excellent virtue which makes us most resemble the Divine Nature: and what says Cicero? — "Homines ad Deos nulla re propius accedunt quam salutem hominibus dando."
It is indeed evident, from the vigour, and complexion of Thomson's writings, that he was humane, and beneficent. There is a pathos, and a language, by which you see the soul, and real character of the man. I know, we are every day told, that we must not presume to determine what the authour is, from his book; and the remark, if it is limited to general validity, is true. The morality of a literary work, and the morals of him by whom it was composed, are, too often, at an unfortunate, and melancholy, variance: hence, the writer is commonly accused of hypocrisy. The accusation is unjust to him, and to the cause of virtue; which it deprives of a strong argument in its defence; of a seasonable tribute to its irresistible influence. We never at first, before the understanding is darkened by bad habits, become votaries to vice, from an injudicious choice. Passion prevails over reason; and thus we submit to the ignominious captivity. Yet virtue, even when she is deserted, naturally charms the human mind; she still charms the renegado, by whom she has been long deserted. These propositions will acquire a strength, in proportion to the strength of abilities of the man to whom they are applied. When a Bolingbroke, in his closet, free from all mean passions, and temptations, beautifully, and sublimely displays the heroick virtues which may be practised in exile; he is, during the auspicious hour, the good man; the noble-minded patriot whom he describes. He writes with a pure sincerity; with an unaffected fervour: the rectitude of his imagination condemns the habitual depravity of his will.
Yet in doctrines, and descriptions of this kind, fancy, and ingenuity are the predominant characteristicks. You have an elegant selection, and arrangement of words; you have the ardour, and the flow, and the energy of eloquence; for these words, and this eloquence, are the vehicles of that warmth with which a liberal mind; with which talents, in the prosecution of a noble subject, must necessarily be inflamed. Still, however, there are wanting those impressive, and indelible marks, those infallible criteria, by which the moral and practical sincerity of the writer is ascertained. The genius is evinced; but the man is not indubitable.
But both the substance, and the colouring of Thomson's poetry show that his life was animated, and directed, by those amiable, and God-like virtues which adorned, and dignified his verse. The heart; the soul is poured forth, in every line. You see an anxiety; a tenderness; an interest for the cause which he pleads; which absorbs the whole man; and which are wanting in those literary works that are produced merely by the exertion of the understanding, and the imagination. As an advocate for the general weal, he is not only inspired by genius, but thrilled with a sympathy which penetrates the whole frame. The luxury of woe; a strong feeling for the human species, — at once, painful, desirable, and delightful, pours forth a simple, yet powerful, and victorious eloquence (victorious, at least, for the moment), which the schools never taught, and which the mere intellectual faculties never seized. He conjures you by our common nature; by our fraternal ties; by your own experience; by your own sufferings; he entreats you, with tears, to lose no opportunity of exerting humanity; to be the zealous, active, and indefatigable friends of mankind. So ingenuous, and ardent is our captivating advocate; he so unaffectedly "glows, and "trembles, while he writes;" that he is, then, evidently performing the divine office which he recommends. As an example of this invaluable species of eloquence, in which all the heart is engaged, and which may easily be distinguished from that rhetorical eloquence, which, comparatively, is but artificial, and meretricious; permit me to refer you to a letter from Thomson to his sister, which you will find in Johnson's life of our poet: it was communicated to the Doctor by Mr. Boswell; but if it had been picked up in the street, its internal evidence amounts to such demonstration, that we could no more have doubted of its authenticity, than of the sincere, tender, and ardent affection, which moved, and guided the hand of the writer.
The strokes in writing, representing the mind of the person who drew them, produce the same effect with those in a masterly portrait; the work of a painter; which immediately assure us of a true likeness; of a striking resemblance to the original. In such a portrait, art hath emulated nature with so fortunate an ambition; the features bear with such an emphasis, on each other; the colours are so happily blended, and adjusted to those features; and the whole picture produces such a strength, and novelty of expression; amidst the infinite variety of human aspects, and characters; that we are certain that the artist hath done justice to the person who sat to his performance; a person, whom, perhaps, we have never seen.
I shall now beg leave to observe, that if it was in the power of the most exquisite writing; of the most exquisite poetry; to purify the human heart, and to reform the human conduct; if we could possibly be prevailed with to despise a false, glaring, and tawdry splendour; and to grow enamoured of the inimitable elegance; beauty; simplicity and sublimity of nature; if we could be soothed, at least, into some faint resemblance of the amiable Gentoos; into something like an aversion from barbarity; from persecuting, and murdering innocent, and beautiful animals, for our favourite entertainment; if we could be taught the practice of a rational and manly religion; at an equal distance from profaneness, and superstition; if we could make the abridgement of our own wants (an attainment as inestimable as it is rare; for it goes hand in hand with temperance; and it has health for its reward!) — if we could make the abridgement of these wants, and the relief of the wants of others, the fixed, and invariable constituents of our happiness; — if these blessed effects could have been produced by human powers; after they have been preached by the celestial voice of Christ, for many centuries, in vain; they, would have been produced by the poetry of Thomson,
The vigour of Thomson's poetry is charged with frequently degenerating into bombast, by some criticks; and particularly by a Mr. John Scott; from whose pen we have an octavo volume of "Critical Essays on some of the poems of several English poets." I own that the authority of these Critical Essays is, with me, very insignificant. This writer would have had more pleasure, as a man conversant with poetry; and he would have done more justice to his great authours, if he had read their works with a warmer and uninterrupted admiration of their beauties; and with less frigid cavil on their faults; or rather on their trifling inaccuracies. Mr. Scott was an acquaintance of Dr. Johnson; whom illness and death prevented from writing his life; but it was afterwards very well written by Mr. Hoole; an elegant, and respectable authour; in whom it would be cynical, not only not to pardon, but not to love, the amiable partiality of the friend.
That force which almost always bears the poetry of Thomson powerfully along, is, if I may use the expression, as generally enforced by perspicuity, and simplicity. Here, he far excells Young; who frequently excells him, in the sublime; which is the utmost degree of poetical excellence. Young is too often inattentive to clearness; which, in poetry, is an indispensable requisite. We have to contend with an involution of sense, and language, when we should be borne on the ardour, and rapidity of genius, of which he was a most eminent master; though they sometimes unfortunately mount him beyond the regions of judgement, and of taste. The muse of Thomson throws not such impediments in our way; nor can I recollect, or find one instance of her towering to the bombast; of her invading of those heights that suppress poetical respiration. He never transgresses, from that strength, elevation, and glow of thought, and language, which characterize poetry; which distinguish it from common thinking, and writing; he never transgresses, from his pure, and genuine fire, to that injudicious desertion of nature; to that wild extravagance of sentiment; to those gigantick, and monstrous images; and to the congenial inflated, and pompous language, which constitute bombast; or the false sublime.
I do not, indeed, think that the sublime, with all its vigour, and electrical effect, is a characteristick of Thomson, as a poet. The tender; the benevolent; the naturally, and poetically pious; the descriptive; the picturesque; the personification of the passions; and of other striking, though inanimate objects; are his leading, and ruling characteristicks. I am far from meaning to say, that he is incapable of the sublime; nay, he frequently attains it; but it is a sublime of a certain, and secondary species; not of the astonishing; unparalleled Miltonian impetus, and grandeur. I will endeavour to explain myself with more accuracy, and distinction. Thomson is sublime, by presenting to us magnificent, but well-known images, with a noble arrangement, and language; rather than by transporting us with original sublimity of thought; and with images, which he himself hath invented, or aggrandized. A quotation from Thomson, and another from Milton; while they evidently show, will justify my distinction. I shall here beg leave to recite some verses, which I take from the hymn, at the end of the Seasons; a hymn which has all the merit that beautiful, and great imagery, beautifully, and greatly expressed, can give it.
In Winter, awful Thou; with clouds, and storms
Around Thee thrown; tempest o'er tempest rolled;
Majestick darkness, on the whirlwind's wing,
Riding sublime; Thou bid'st the world adore;
And humblest Nature with Thy northern blast!
The following lines, too, are of similar excellence to those which I have just quoted:
Ye softer floods that lead the humid maze
Along the vale; and thou, majestick main,
A secret world of wonders, in thyself,
Sound His stupendous praise; whose greater voice
Or bids you roar, or bids your roarings fall.
From this justly celebrated hymn I shall give you one extract more; in which the grand images are happily connected; and expressed with energy.
Great source of day; best image, here below,
Of thy Creator! ever pouring wide,
From world to world, the vital ocean round,
On Nature write, with every beam, His praise!
The thunder rolls! be hushed, the prostrate world;
While cloud to cloud returns the solemn hymn!
In these passages, we have certainly the sublime; but it is principally effected by the objects which are presented to us; it owes little to the masterly art; to the more fervid inspiration; to the bold, and creative genius of the poet.
I have said much on Milton; I wish that the justness of my observations on that unrivalled poet may, in some degree, warrant their number! my quotations from him, now, shall, therefore, be concise: nor shall my remarks on those quotations be tedious. The true sublime, however; tle peculiar sublimity of Milton, will be evidently displayed. Toward the close of the fourth book of Paradise Lost, when the phalanx of the angel, Gabriel, began to hem Satan round with ported spears; the stature, spirit, and dignity of the infernal hero, are thus described:
—On the other side, Satan alarmed,
Collecting all his might, dilated stood,
Like Teneriff, or Atlas, unremoved;
His stature reached the sky; and on his crest
Sat horrour plumed!
B. IVth. V. 9.
Near the end of the sixth book of that divine poem, the Messiah rushes on, to attack the hosts of Pandaemonium, in the following terrifick majesty:
He, on his impious foes right onward drove;
Gloomy as night; under his burning wheels
The stedfast Empyrean shook throughout;
All, but the throne itself of God!
B. VIth. V. 831.
A concurrence of new, vast, awful, and tremendous objects, sent home, to the soul, with a force, and ardour of sentiment, and language, which are worthy of them, conspire to work up the passages which I have now quoted, to as high a sublimity as it is possible for the mind of man to conceive. By the very alarm, which Satan felt, at first; the immediately subsequent, and glorious throw of intrepidity; the collected fortitude, and firmness, with which he stood resolute against his foes, are aggrandized, to our imagination. The stature, and ornaments of the subterranean chief; the immense objects of similitude which are applied to him; all mark the vast, and unbounded mind, by which they were produced. In the second quotation, by the gloomy terrour, with which the Messiah moves to battle; by the shaking of the stedfast Empyrean, through its unlimited extent; and by the exception, and contrast, of this trembling of the heavens, in the eternal immobility of the throne of God; the poet still expands, and rises, in his infinite sublimity. There is a peculiar art; or rather a peculiar divine afflatus, in the poetry of Milton; he is fired with his own pictures; therefore they are sure to fire his readers. But as be proceeds to paint, his mental forms grow too vivid, and too expanded for his pencil; they take too much of the fervour, and immensity of his mind, to admit of representation. From what he has expressed, he sees, with the eye of fancy, what he has left unexpressed; what is not turned to actual shape, by the pen of the poet; what is too great, or too fine for expression: his imagination enjoys all its play, and its luxury; it rejoices, and triumphs in the persuit of the fleeting meteor; in throwing it, with varied sallies, into something like a form, and pressure. The susceptible reader catches. the mental vivacity, activity, and expansion of the poet; he participates his agitation; his invention, and his rapture.
Thomson, in whatever light we view him, as a poet, has the great merit of originality. The grand, and the delightful scenes of nature are particularly formed to attract, and charm a poetical imagination; therefore, they have been the favourite themes of poets of all ages. Yet the descriptions of these scenes, in the Seasons of Thomson, and in his other works, are his own: as a descriptive poet, indeed; or, as a painter of rural objects, he has not his equal. His scenery is evidently grouped, and executed, from his own observations; so interesting; so striking; so much to the life, are the forms; the colours; the arrangements and the effect of the whole. His morality, and his piety, too, have their novelty; their peculiar beauty, and dignity: he unfolds, and urges them, with the most persuasive topicks; with a tender, yet subduing force; he pleads the cause of his distressed neighbour; and of his independent, eternal, omnipotent, and beneficent God, with an irresistible stream of the pathetick; with a captivating luxury of poetical eloquence, unknown before.
Style is the copy of thought; therefore, as our substance, and manner of thinking are, such will our words, and such will their order be. The language, like the sentiments of Thomson, has an essence, and a structure, by which it is prominently discriminated from the styles of other poets. The style of his poetry is almost constantly impressive; and his epithets are often as happily applied to their objects as they are new. His numbers, in general, flow with an exuberance, and harmony, responsive to the exquisite sensibility, and warmth of the soul of their authour; their modulation, however, has its peculiarity; the musick of their sonorous march is sometimes interrupted by a stiffness, and ruggedness of idiom; by words unnaturally, and harshly compounded; and by other uncouth, hard, and abrupt words, closing a line, or a paragraph. Sense, force, and expression, ought, undoubtedly, to be ruling objects with a poet; but even for their sakes, he should not sacrifice elegance, and harmony of diction: whenever he does, he departs from the character of a poet: when he connects; when he blends all these objects, amicably, and "con amore," he atchieves the duty of a true, and great poet.
Thomson has been accused by respectable criticks of sometimes dwelling too long on his immediate subject. I speak with deference to their opinion; but on that subject he never dwells too long for me: for in reading his works, and particularly his Seasons, my mind is kept, throughout, in a lively, strong, and pleasurable current; without a moment's dead stagnation; without a moment's languour. But if he is, sometimes redundant, it is not the redundance of antithesis, and conceit; it is not a puerile, Ovidian redundance: in his excess, there is still a strength, and variety; an additional fine light, or shade of colouring: it is the excess of a blooming, sand luxuriant tree; a excess that you would prune with regret. In this part of my Lecture, it will not be improper to introduce a passage or two from Johnson's critical remarks on our pt ii am the more inclined to think favourably of some of my own sentiments on the poetry of Thomson, that they coincide with those of that great man.
"As a writer (says Johnson) he is entitled to one praise of the highest kind; his mode of thinking, and of expressing his thoughts, is original. His blank verse is no more the blank verse of Milton, or, of any other poet, than the rhymes of Prior are the rhymes of Cowley. His numbers; his pauses; his diction; are of his own growth; without transcription; without imitation. He thinks in a peculiar train; and he thinks always as a man of genius: he looks round on nature, and on life, with the eye which Nature bestows only on a poet; the eye that distinguishes, in every thing presented to its view, whatever there is, on which imagination can delight to be detained; and a mind that; at once, comprehends the vast, and attends to the minute. The reader of the Seasons wonders that he never saw before what Thomson shows him; and that he never yet has felt what Thomson impresses."
"His diction is, in the highest degree, florid, and luxuriant; such as may be said to be, to his images, and thoughts, both their lustre, and their shade; such as invests them with splendour; through which, perhaps, they are not always easily discerned. It is too exuberant; and sometimes may be charged with filling the ear more than the mind." — Life of Thomson: Vol. VIth. pages 235; 236.
Of the justice of the last charge, I can not say that I am satisfied. That the style of Thomson is florid, splendid, and exuberant, every reader of the least discernment must acknowledge: but I do not remember to have ever felt that it was unsubstantial, or obscure. Surely, if perspicuity, and an uninterrupted tenour of interesting sentiment, are characteristicks of any poet, they are characteristicks of him whom I have now in view.
Alluding to the Seasons — "His is one of the works" (observes our critick) "in which blank verse seems properly used. Thomson's wide expansion of general views; and his enumeration of circumstantial varieties, would have been obstructed, and embarrassed, by the frequent intersections of the sense; which are the necessary effects of rhyme." — Page 235.
This is certainly a curious observation; if we recollect all the contemptuous remarks which have been thrown out by Johnson against blank verse. But they, who are determined, at all hazards, to espouse, and defend a bad cause, are very apt to fall into palpable inconsistencies. If "blank verse is only verse to the eye," how could Thomson rank so high, as a poet, in Johnson's estimation; for certainly true, and generous verse is an essential constituent of excellent poetry? But if blank verse is properly applied to Thomson's "wide expansion of general views;" and his "enumeration of circumstantial varieties;" or, in other words; in the words of Johnson's Imlac; in his Prince of Abyssinia; to "all that is awfully great, or elegantly little;" (for the objects of the Seasons take no less a range;) if blank verse is applied with a peculiar propriety; if it is applied with more propriety than rhyme, to so vast a region; and to such various, and contrasted images; our great critick, then, in spite of himself; and apparently unconscious of a plain, and inevitable consequence, gives the absolutes palm to blank verse, when he has brought blank verse, and rhyme directly into competition.
But the preference of the one species of versification to the other, is more a matter of fancy, and of individual taste, than of decisive judgement, and of immutable truth. Hence, the preference is as little to be claimed, when any particular subject of the poet is in question. Neither general nor specifick objects should determine the poet to the use of either kind of verse; he should be determined only by his own genius; by that mode of versification, in which, he must be sensible, by experience that Nature meant that he should excell. I would not be so repeatedly tenacious of this theory, if it was not demonstrated to me by the annals of English poetry. And if any thing could invalidate this theory; if any thing could annihilate its force; (I mean, with my own private judgement; while I entertain a proper respect for the differing judgement of others) if any thing could induce me universally to recommend the adoption of blank verse to the poets of the rising generation; it would be the very great advantage which is attributed to it by Johnson; in the passage which I have just quoted; that of leaving the thoughts; the sallies; the fire of the poet, more uncircumscribed, and free.
I am afraid that in the course of these Lectures I have too often wished for your attention to my defence of blank verse. The defence of it, from me, must be impartial. I am a great admirer of Pope; therefore I must be a great admirer of excellent rhyme. I was, however, particularly desirous that blank verse should have its merit, in your esteem; for two reasons; I was solicitous to remove the prejudices against it which so great an authority as Dr. Johnson's might have axed in your minds; and I have been industrious to restore that species of versification to its proper value, which is essential to the sublimest poetry in the world; to the poetry of Milton. But I am apprehensive that in the lapse of a few years, in which melancholy, perhaps, hath sometimes invaded more lively, and encouraging ideas, I may have been guilty of tautology; without diversifying my reasoning, and my topicks, I may frequently have recurred to the same subject. I have not, however, willingly, or consciously, exactly re-traversed the same ground; and mere failures of memory, liberality, and humanity will be eager to excuse. I very sensibly feel that faculty decline in me; but the very failure is a salutary memento; it reminds me of my age; it reminds me that the time is approaching, when my heart will vibrate to the strains of poetry no more; when it will be cold, and insensible to the pathos of Thomson, and, to the sublime of Milton.
Though we must be convinced, that Thomson was a great poet, by whatever he has written, his master-pieces are unquestionably his Seasons. The happy choice of a subject is as much a proof of the poet's judgement, and taste, as it is propitious to his poetical success. The different seasons present objects which are most interesting to our feelings; to our discursive faculties; to the best powers of the mind; objects, whose return always affords a rational, and a new pleasure; a delightful veneration of their first' cause; if, fortunately for the true, and full enjoyment of our existence, we are under the salutary dominion of virtue; or if we are yet sensible, and alive to her impressions. These objects were never painted so justly; so completely; with such striking forms, and in such glowing colours, as they are by Thomson; and they are likewise adorned, and dignified with the humane, the moral, the religious sentiments, which they naturally excite: with a copious, and splendid eloquence; with peculiar force, and beauty. We need not therefore, be surprized, that the Seasons are as much read, and remembered, as any poems in the English, or in any other language. It is not incumbent on me to say much more of these beautiful productions, for two reasons, their excellence is thoroughly felt, and known, by every person of reading, and taste; and it has been strongly enforced by what I have already quoted from Dr. Johnson; and by what I shall now beg leave to transcribe.
"His descriptions of extended scenes, and general effects," (says our celebrated critick) "bring before us the whole magnificence of Nature, whether pleasing or dreadful. The gaiety of spring; the splendour of summer; the tranquillity of autumn; and the horrour of winter, take, in their turns, possession of the mind. The poet leads us through the appearances of things, as they are successively varied by the vicissitudes of the year; and imparts to us so much of his own enthusiasm, that our thoughts expand with his imagery, and kindle with his sentiments. Nor is the naturalist without his part in the entertainment; for he is assisted to recollect, and to combine; to range his discoveries; and to amplify the sphere of his contemplation." — Pages 235, 236.
This is just, and generous, and poetical criticism. With the next paragraph I am not so well satisfied. — "These poems" (continues our authour) "with which I was acquainted at their first appearance, I have since found altered, and enlarged, by subsequent revisals; as the authour supposed his judgement to grow more exact; and as books, or conversation extended his knowledge, and opened his prospects. They are, I think, improved, in general; yet I know not whether they have not lost part of what Temple calls their 'race;' a word, which, applied to wines, in its primitive sense, means, the flavour of the soil." P. 236. A poem must always be greatly improved by the future serious, and strenuous attention of its authour; if he possesses the genius, and the judgement of Thomson. Consequently, the latter, part of, this passage is the result of the fastidiousness of the moment; of a false delicacy; of a fancied refinement on critical observation; in short, of a little triumph (inferiour to the triumphs of which Johnson should have been ambitious) in having started a new, pretty, quaint simile.
Though I have observed that it was not necessary for me to be at all diffuse in my remarks on the Seasons; yet on reviewing some notes, which, in the year 1793, I was engaged to write by a bookseller, who was then publishing an edition of those poems, I flatter myself that you will not think an extract or two from them altogether superfluous, or uninteresting. Permit Me to give you the first general note; or preliminary view of the authour.
"Perhaps no poems have been read more generally, or with more pleasure than the Seasons of Thomson. This was a natural consequence of the objects which they present, and of the genius which they display. In descriptive poetry, or as a poetical painter, I do not know an equal to Thomson. The pictures of other poets, comparatively with his, often want precision; colour, and expression; because they are more copies from books than originals; rather secondary descriptions, than transcripts made immediately from the living volume of Nature. With her Thomson was intimately acquainted; and as his judgement, and his taste were equal to his diligent observation, the whole groupe of objects, in his descriptions, is always peculiarly striking, or affecting; from their natural, and happy relation to one another. Hence, peculiarly in this poet, a little natural object, apparently insignificant, of itself, takes consequence from its association to others, and very much heightens, or enforces the awful, or beautiful assemblage. Thomson's poetry is still more nobly recommended to his readers by a most amiable morality, and religion; the painter, and the sage are very fortunate auxiliaries to each other. The structure of his verse is characteristically his own: true genius disdains all mechanical, and servile imitation: that verse is always perspicuous; energetick; fully, and clearly expressive of his ideas; not so easy, always, and flowing in its close, as we could wish. The favourite objects of his mind did not captivate his imagination alone; they actuated, and marked his manners, and his life. He was a most benevolent, as well as a great man. He was a poet of the first class; he was an honour to Scotland; to Europe; to mankind."
From my notes on Summer I shall beg leave to give you rather a large extract. It will contribute, I hope, in some degree, to illustrate, and enforce his poetical merit; and to vindicate him from groundless, and hypercritical censure. And when I consider the unfortunate ground on which I have stood, in the republick of letters, and in the world, I think it proper once more to assure you, that whatever plain, and downright language I may have used, or shall use, in the course of these Lectures, proceeds from my zeal for literary justice; for the memory of departed greatness; not from the least incitement of mean envy; or of meaner personal resentment. I will not be so ungrateful to the liberality of manners which you have already shown me, as to apprehend the unfavourable reception of this declaration; if you honour it with your belief, you will be the better prepared to agree with me, that the gross errours; the mere assertions; the "sic volo; sic jubeo;" — the "stet pro ratione voluntas," of a celebrated, but imperious authority, should be combated, and subdued, with an opposition, and refutation, particularly unequivocal, direct, and explicit; for our judgement is apt to be "ravished with the whistling of a name;" and powerful prejudices are only successfully opposed; they are only decisively conquered, by honest, arid unreserved argument; by just, and strong expressions. He is not worthy to defend elegant, or moral truth, who sacrifices a particle of it to false delicacy; to disingenuous compliance.
I shall now quote some observations which I have prefixed my notes on particular passages of Thomson's Summer.
"Among the many futile, absurd, and ungenerous passages Johnson's Lives of the Poets, is the following remark on the Seasons. 'The great defect of the Seasons is want of method; but for this, I know not that there was any remedy. Of many, appearances subsisting all at once, no rule can be given why on should be mentioned before another; yet the memory wants the help of order; and the curiosity is tot excited by suspense, or expectation.' I must beg have to assert that what I have now quoted is absolute nonsense. Therefore, as it is not entitled to a particular refutation, let it be refuted by the poem which now engages my attention; and which is longer by several hundred lines than the other seasons. It has all the order, and method that any sensible, and liberal critick; that any reader, except a dry, formal pedant, could wish. The poet surveys, paints, and enforces, with a glowing, and animated pencil; with an affecting, and sublime morality, and religion, a summer's morning; noon; evening; and night; as they succeed one another, in the course of nature; (for surely the many appearances, in any season, do not subsist all at once.) — If this is not method, I know not what is. The most admired poems have their episodes, which by no means destroy, or confuse, the order of the principal fable. His description of noon is expanded with an interesting picture of the torrid zone, to which he devotes 460 lines. The rich, and ardent colouring of this picture is congenial with the climate which it represents. If these lines are a digression, they, are naturally connected with the main subject; they never lose sight of it; therefore they keep it continually in the mind of the reader. For his moral, and pious apostrophes, originating from his immediate objects; for his charming episodes, derived from the same sources; he cannot be reasonably taxed with a neglect of regularity. To point out the particular beauties of his Celadon and Amelia; of his Damon and Musidora, would be to affront the good sense, and good sentiments of my readers. They are beautiful tributes to virtue; to piety; to our best affections. They alone evince the falsehood, and the folly of another strange observation of our arbitrary critick; — 'That it does not appear that he had much sense of the pathetick.' The person who wrote this of Thomson, must either have lost all remembrance of his authour, when he wrote it; or his own mind must have been ill adapted to sympathize with pathetick writing. The pathetick is one of the leading characteristicks of the Seasons; it inspired the numbers, and the life of this great Caledonian poet.
"After having described summer, and its effects, in our fortunate island, he, very forcibly, and I think, with great regularity, expatiates on those inestimable blessings which are peculiarly enjoyed by the inhabitants of Britain. He then pays his tribute of judiciously distinguished eulogy (and certainly with no incoherent deviation from his ruling objects) to those illustrious characters, who have distinguished, and elevated the annals of this country; and he closes the season with a peroration to philosophy; the noble instructor, and guide of life; a peroration which is characterized with elegance, and with a fine enthusiasm. All this I beg leave to call regularity, and a beautiful method.
"What our formidable critick means by telling us that — 'In reading the Seasons, memory wants the help of order; and the curiosity is not excited by suspense, or expectation;' — it is difficult to say. It is so unsubstantial, and random a censure, that it may be applied, with equal propriety, to the best poem of Virgil, or of Pope. To excite that eager, and anxious curiosity, suspense, and expectation, which it is incumbent on the writer of a novel, or of a drama, to raise, did not enter into the plan of the Seasons; yet in reading them, every mind that has a genuine taste for poetry, is always warmly interested, and affected, as it goes along; it proceeds with a delightful expectation; for it expects to meet with most excellent poetry; and it is never disappointed; with poetry which flows, in a natural, and easy succession of sentiments, and imagery. By Thomson — 'lecta potenter erat res; therefore, nec facundia deserit hunc, nec lucidus ordo.' — Horace's Art of Poetry, V. 40.
"According to the edict of Johnson, — 'The diction of Thomson is too exuberant; and sometimes may be charged with filling the ear more than the mind.' I should be sorry to lose a single expression of that most amiable, and immortal poet. There is not a feeble, not superfluous word, in the Seasons; not a word which does not contribute to inform the mind; to enrich the fancy; or to improve the heart."
I fear that after my best endeavours, I am very remote from accuracy, and consistency; and that I in vain aspire to that symmetry of plan, and of ideas, of which we have complete examples in my great masters in the art of composition; and which I should wish, myself, to combine. In consequence of looking into my notes on the beautiful poems of the Seasons, I have now been more diffuse on them than I at first intended. The transcendent, and singular merit of those poems; the warm, and durable interest which they secure in the heart, and mind; will, I am persuaded, prevail with you to excuse me for surveying them with deliberate, and repeated attention; and for patiently extracting the poisoned shafts with which their fame bath been wounded. They will be read with a most lively pleasure by susceptible souls, while human nature is continued; if the English language is known so long. They are adapted, with a peculiar poetical felicity, to engage, and to charm feeling minds, of all habits, and in all circumstances; to delight the fancy that is enamoured of rural scenes, to soothe, or to transport, the lover; to inflame laudable ambition; to console, and fortify the distressed; and to exalt, and govern, successful virtue.
I make my observations on his works, in the order in which they are printed. His poem to the memory of Sir Isaac Newton is worthy of the good the great; the astonishing man, to whose glory it is consecrated. In this poem, the severer truths of science are worked into attractive, and beautiful pictures, by the genius of the poet: the mind is forcibly stimulated to intellectual atchievements; the sublimity of the poetry rises to heights collateral with the sublimity of the Newtonian philosophy; and we are as warmly inspired with reverence for the virtues that amiably characterized his life, as with admiration of the powers that super eminently distinguished his mind.
The poem of Britannia, too, flows in the humane, generous, patriotick strains, which predominate in the poetry of Thomson; which give it a soft; insinuating; pathetick force; or a noble; ardent; and commanding vigour. In this poem, our empire of the sea, which I hope that we shall ever maintain, is asserted with all the flaming spirit of poetical eloquence. Peace, too, has all the honours which it could receive from a benevolent soul, and from a lover of the fine arts: luxury is deprecated; and its corruptions of the mind are justly, and forcibly displayed. With this temperate and sage morality, his extravagant eulogy on commerce is not very consistent. I have already taken the liberty to censure Young for making commerce the large, and elaborate theme of his encomium. I have no doubt that there are many commercial persons whom I should esteem, and respect, if I knew them; such persons will pardon one who has long weaned himself from all imitative, and servile attachment to the world; from all ambition for common popularity; for common fame; such persons will pardon me for speaking my real, but unembittered sentiments on great national objects; for viewing them through an abstracted; and through a poetical, and Arcadian medium; for I am satisfied that thus to view them, is to view them in a just, moral, and virtuous light. It is very worthy of a modern statesman, with his absurd ideas of what constitutes the wealth, and strength, and happiness of a people; it is very worthy of a member for Liverpool, or Bristol, to labour, and harangue for commerce, at all events: but the mind of a poet, as Nature forms it, is particularly formed for the ardent practice of benevolence, and of all virtue; however it may act beneath its constitution, by too great a commixture of extreme sensibility with an alluring, and corrupted world. Therefore, to plead the cause of commerce, was very unworthy of those poets, whose numbers are fraught with the most humane, and generous morality; and whose lives were as amiable as their numbers. For commerce, especially when it hath risen to its last, its fatal improvements, hath always effected what was its natural, its necessary tendency, to effect; it hath diffused luxury, with all its baleful refinements, over an unfortunate, and devoted land. For it is the very energy of luxury, to enfeeble the body, and the soul; to vitiate the taste; to emasculate the talents of a nation; to eradicate humanity; and indeed, all publick virtue,
For his adulation, in his Britannia, to the reigning family, let the motive of gratitude excuse him; a sentiment which operates with a peculiar force, in a susceptible mind. Frederick, Prince of Wales, a friend of good, and great men, had rewarded Thomson's merit; and had honoured him with his personal attention.
His poem of Liberty, in five parts; his longest poem, if we except the Seasons, comes now under my consideration. He wrote it, after he had travelled on the continent; where his love of the English Constitution must have been much augmented by the many ocular examples that were presented to him, of the bad effects of superstitious, and arbitrary government, in the different states which he visited. On this poem, I find, in my last literary memoranda, that I have these remarks. — "Liberty is, on the whole, a very noble poem; fraught with interesting poetical history, which exhibits the causes, and consequences of liberty, and slavery. It abounds, too, with magnificent imagery." By a subsequent part, however, of this account of the poem, I find that I have esteemed it more highly when I lately read it, than I did, some years ago. Yet the impressions which the two perusals gave me, will be found not to have been absolutely inconsistent with each other. For I cannot better give what is essentially my opinion of the poem of Liberty, at large; nor can I better answer the illiberal misrepresentations which it hath suffered from our great critick, than by transcribing a passage or two from my notes to the Seasons, which I have already quoted. "'Thomson's poem of Liberty' (says Dr. Johnson, in his life of our poet,) 'when it first appeared, I tried to read; and soon desisted. I have never tried again; and therefore will not hazard either praise or censure,'" — Pages 236, 237. Murphy's edition.
This crude, and superficial stricture is a kind of critical corollary to some equally trifling propositions which he had thrown out, on this poem, in a preceding part of his life of Thomson.
"As Liberty was written by the authour of the Seasons, I am persuaded that the reader will easily forgive me for offering him, here, some remarks on its merit, and on the fastidious manner in which it was treated by Dr. Johnson. Most poets have their conspicuous masterpiece; and the Seasons are Thomson's, beyond all controversy. The spirit, and style with which a poem is executed, depends greatly on the judgement, and taste, with which its fable is chosen, and arranged. The plan of Liberty, which, unfortunately, is minutely, and circumstantially historical, spreads a damp, and a languor through several parts of the poem. I must likewise acknowledge that the composition of its language often wants the perspicuity of the authour of the Seasons. It is, however, as often marked with the manner of a great master; and it hath several passages which are completely worthy of the poet by whom they were written. It may seem surprizing that a lexicographer had not patience to peruse the poem of Liberty. He, who, one day, told the authour of these notes that he liked 'muddling' work (that was his expression.) — For the disgust, however, which this unfortunate poem soon gave him, I can easily account to those who are at all acquainted with his real habits, and character.
"With all his atchievements in the republick of letters, he gave way to long intervals of the most unmanly, and torpid indolence. This indolence prevented him from being property acquainted with several books which are carefully perused by every man who deserves the title of a scholar. I was not a little surprized when he told me that he had only read parts of my Lord Clarendon's History. If he recoiled from a history which is written with great genius, and strongly in favour of towering prerogative; we need not wonder that he was violently repelled from a poem, which is fraught with encomiums on equal liberty. For, the other reason, undoubtedly, why he so soon desisted, after he had begun to read that poem, was his prejudiced, and ungenerous dislike of the glorious subject: he treats the very word, liberty, which, properly understood, comprehends every thing that is dear to man, with an indecent, and contemptible contempt, in his Lives of the Poets, and in several of his other works. The well-proportioned, and fair fabrick of our constitution, is half-way between the star-chamber of Samuel Johnson, and the tap-room of Thomas Paine.
"There are several very fine passages in the poem of Liberty. But Johnson, as I have already observed, disliked the subject. Surely, a poem which is adorned with the following imagery, and language, might have been perused by one, whose talents were too often obliged to submit to works of mere industry, and labour. Liberty thus describes the Genius of the Deep; whom she met, as she was advancing toward Britain; after she had left the more northern nations:
—As o'er the wave-resounding deep;
To my near reign, the-happy isle I steered,
With easy wing; behold, from surge to surge,
Stalked the treuendous Genius of the Deep!
Around him clouds, in mingled tempest, hung:
Thick-flashing meteors crowned his starry head;
And ready thunder reddened in his hand;
As from it streamed compressed, the glowing cloud.
Where'er he looked, the trembling waves recoiled;
He needs but strike the conscious flood, and shook,
From shoar to shoar, in agitation dire,
It works his dreadful will. To me, his voice,
Like that hoarse blast that round the cavern howls,
Mixed with the murmurs of the falling main,
Liberty; Part 4th. V. 293."
I shall take my leave of this poem, by extracting from its fourth part, a fine encomium on our limited monarchy, and on our laws. We might naturally suppose that a whole composition, in which there are many splendid passages, might have been read, at least, with patience, and perseverance, by the greatest poet; by the most fastidious critick.
—Thrice happy; did they know
Their happiness, Britannia's bounded Kings!
What, though not theirs the boast, in dungeon-glooms
To plunge bold Freedom; or to cheerless wilds
To drive, him from the cordial face of friend;
Or fierce to strike him at the midnight-hour,
By mandate blind; not justice that delights
To dare the keenest eye of open day.
What though no glory to controul the laws,
And make injurious will their only rule,
They deem it! what; though tools of wanton power;
Pestiferous armies swarm not at their call!
What, though, they give not a relentless crew
Of civil furies, proud Oppression's fangs;
To tear, at pleasure, the dejected land;
With starving Labour pampering idle Waste!—
To cloath the naked; feed the hungry; wipe
The guiltless tear from lone Affliction's eye;
To raise hid Merit; set the alluring sight
Of Virtue high to view; to nourish arts
Direct the thunder of an injured state;
Make a whole glorious people sing for joy;
Bless human kind; and through the downward depth
Of future times, to spread that better sun,
That lights up British soul:— for deeds like these,
The dazzling, fair career, unbounded lies;
While (still superiour bliss!) the dark abrupt
Is kindly barred; the precipice of ill!
Oh! luxury divine! O! poor to this,
The giddy glories of despotick thrones!
By this; by this, indeed, is imaged Heaven!
By boundless good; without the power of ill!
And now, behold! exalted as the cope
That swells immense, o'er many-peopled earth,
And like it, free, my fabrick stands complete;
The Palace of the Laws. To the four Heavens,
Four gates impartial thrown. Unceasing crowds;
With Kings themselves the hearty peasant mixed,
Pour urgent in: and though to different ranks
Responsive place belongs, yet equal spreads
The sheltering roof o'er all; while plenty flows,
And glad contentment echoes round the whole.
Ye floods, descend; ye winds, confirming, blow!
Nor outward tempest; nor corrosive time;
Nought but the felon, undermining hand
Of dark Corruption, can its frame dissolve;
And lay the toil of ages in the dust.
Liberty; Part 4th. V. 1145.
May our British Kings ever be thankful for that unrivalled political constitution, which prohibits them from doing evil; and may they ever exercise, with a paternal affection, and with a truly royal munificence, that divine prerogative with which it endows them, of doing all possible good! Might the actual dispensation of our laws be as accessible, and salutary to the inferiour orders, of the community, as they are equal, and equitable, in theory! and let us offer our ardent supplications to Heaven, ere it be too late; and if our supplications can avail; that the "felon, undermining hand of dark corruption," may not dissolve the fair, and august fabrick of this admirable constitution; "and lay the toil of ages in the dust!"
His Elegy to the memory of Lord Talbot, inspired by sincere, and overflowing gratitude, and abounding with warm, and extensive praise, is a tribute, however, to universally acknowledged, and great desert. The topicks of encomium are artfully, and agreeably varied; the poetry is luminous, and pathetick; and its march has a dignity worthy of the strains which are consecrated to private, and publick virtue.
I come now to his Castle of Indolence; his best poem, after the Seasons. It is, indeed, a masterpiece of poetry; it contains an infinite variety of entertainment, and instruction. It is equally, and eminently distinguished, by generous, and noble sentiment: and by fertile, and inventive imagination. The thoughts are vigorous; the pictures glowing, and diversified; the language florid, and harmonious. He is equally happy in adopting his old, and great master, Spenser's versification; and his allegorical scenes, and characters. The appendages, and the doctrine of Indolence, are contrasted, with a most emphatical morality, and painting, to the companions, and animating strains, of the Knight of Arts, and industry.
The following stanza, from the Castle of Indolence, will deeply interest those distinguishing, and good minds, who regret the unprotected fate of poetry; unprotected, when its merit alone, however transcendent, pleads for patronage;. and only rewarded, and stimulated, as it deserves, when it is favoured by objects, which are quite extrinsick, and foreign, to its own genuine excellence; by the contemptible selfishness of power; or by some vain, and gay circumstances, which are yet, more contemptible.
Is there no patron, to protect the Muse;
And fence for her, Parnassus' barred soil?
To every labour its reward accrues;
And they are sure of bread, who swink, and moil:
But a fell tribe the Aonian hive despoil;
As ruthless wasps oft rob the painful bee:
Thus while the laws not guard the noblest toil,
Ne for the Muses other meed decree;
They praised are alone; and starve right merrily.
Castle of Indolence; Canto II. Stanza 2d.
How prophetick are these lines of our monthly literary assassins; who, with a pretence of candid, and liberal criticism, have, notoriously stabbed the interest, and the fame, of authours of unquestionable merit; and yet are exempted from justice; in a country which boasts that its laws are peculiarly tender of property, and reputation!
Thomson, too, as it appears from these lines, thought that some encouragement was necessary to the well-being of a poet; and to the happy exertions of his genius: and is not this an evident truth? Shall those incentives to arduous atchievement, which will always operate most powerfully on human nature, be lavished on grosser beings; and are frames of the finest sensibility to have none? In this opinion Thomson differed from the late Horace Walpole; who so rigorously asserts that a poet only needs pen, ink, and paper, that we may infer from his words, without very much aggravating their import, that he classed a poet with a chameleon; or that the matter which contributed to perpetuate his mind, might support his body. The practice of this man was perfectly consonant with his theory. If — "aught this scene can threaten or indulge," should discompose, and wound the mind; it would be, to see a little creature, pampered with luxury, vain of hereditary ignominy; and adulated into an idea that his puny, and pigmy intellect, is coefficient, and commensurate with the vigour, and expansion of genius; it would be, to see this creature throwing its arrogance on innate greatness; insensible to its adversity; insulting its pains! But I am anticipating the part of another Lecture: the venal criticks; the convivial parasites; the tinsel connexions of this moral, and literary culprit, shall not skreen him from poetick justice: I will bring him to her honest tribunal, when I request your attention to another poet; to the golden strains and to the iron fate, of a young human prodigy!
But let active, and ingenuous minds; let minds peculiarly privileged by Heaven, and trained worthily of their high privileges, by severe, but salutary discipline; let such minds, and their friends, be consoled; let them be, for ever devoted to pure, and indeprivable enjoyments, by the stanza which immediately follows that which I have already quoted.
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.
Castle of Indolence; Canto II. Stanza 3d.
The Epitaphs, Songs; and other smaller pieces of Thomson, are not unworthy of their authour; they flow with the general current of his soul: in a tender strain of sentiment; of refined passion; and of virtue. Among these productions, his Hymn to Solitude seems to claim the preeminence.
The poetry of Thomson's Plays is very nervous, and impassioned; and their dramatick merit, however severely it has been criticised, and censured, is considerable. Tancred and Sigismunda is now almost his only tragedy which is admitted on the stage; but from the exclusion of the rest, we cannot undervalue them; if we recollect what trifles; what buffoonery, are, in these times, received with avidity, and applause. His Edward and Eleonora is a pathetick, a beautiful tragedy; though it were to be wished, in general, that his dramatick performances were more marked with the simplicity; with the easy, but powerful strokes of Nature, than with the more elaborate eloquence of Young, and of Rowe.
I shall think myself very fortunate if you feel that I have not detained you too long with my remarks on Thomson, as a poet. I shall now return, for awhile, to his ruling character, as a man. — I can give you an anecdote of him, which alone is a demonstrative evidence of his humane, and affectionate disposition: I am sure, it will be interesting to every mind that is alive to tender obligations. I had it from indisputable authority; and it has deeply impressed me, from my boyish days. The interview which I am going to relate was, communicated to me about the year 1751; when I was at the grammar-school of Berwick upon Tweed; and for the honour of our poet's excellent heart, it should not be lost to the world. Mr. Robert Taylor, who was, for many years, a bookseller at Berwick, was well acquainted with Thomson's relations. They were in poor circumstances; and perhaps the following transaction principally referred to a sister of Thomson, to whom he wrote a kind letter, which has been published by Johnson. I have already made some observations on that letter; and at the close of this Lecture, I intend to give it a more particular attention. Mr. Taylor was a very active man in his business, which frequently called him to the south of England. When he was preparing to take a journey to that quarter, a relation of Thomson gave him a letter to the poet; in which his pecuniary assistance was solicited; and which Mr. Taylor promised to deliver to him, with his own hand. Accordingly, he went from London to Kew, on purpose to visit him. Thomson had not yet risen, when Mr. Taylor arrived at his house, in a forenoon. The name of the stranger was sent up; and of the person who had entrusted to him the letter. Thomson immediately rose; and received him with all possible expedition. After giving the bookseller the kindest welcome, he read the letter with very visible, and strong emotions. He then opened his bureau; and showed Mr. Taylor all the money which he then possessed, and which was twenty guineas. He put ten into his hand; and desired him to transmit that sum to the writer of the letter, without loss of time. "I am a shamefully lazy correspondent" (added he) "but I hope that I shall answer this letter soon. In the mean time, desire my friends, whenever they are in distress, to apply to me: they shall never be disappointed; unless I have absolutely no power to relieve them." These words, which I thought the most pathetick of all speeches, were interrupted by a conflict of sensibility, and by tears. Mr. Taylor, in consequence of the pressing request of the poet, stayed with him till the next morning. They passed their time with much agreeable conversation, and with much heart-felt remembrance of Scotland.
Permit me now to recite to you the letter which he wrote to his sister, while he was on a rural visit to Lord Lyttleton, in the year 1747; about a year before his death. It is a letter which deserves our particular attention; by some of this company it may not have been seen; or it may have been forgotten. In a former part of my observations on Thomson, I made a particular reference to this letter. I remarked, that by the simplicity, and tenderness of its manner; by its "warmth from the soul, and faithfulness to her fires," it proved, beyond the possibility of a doubt, the disposition, and mental habits of its authour; that it was a criterion of his heart; and of the conduct which predominated in his life. In my zeal; in my enthusiasm for the genius, and the productions of our great poets, I have not forgotten their lives; the virtues of which (to use the very words of Thomson) make "the more endearing song."
"Hagley, in Worcestershire,
October 4th, 1747.
My dear Sister,
I thought you had known me better than to interpret my silence into a decay of affection; especially as your behaviour has always been such as rather to increase than diminish it. Don't imagine, because I am a bad correspondent, that I can ever prove an unkind friend, and brother. I must do myself the justice to tell you, that my affections are naturally very fixed, and constant; and I had ever reason of complaint against you (of which, by the bye, I have not the least shadow) I am conscious of so many defects in myself, as dispose me to be not a little charitable, and forgiving.
"It gives me the truest heart-felt satisfaction to hear that you have a good, kind husband; and are in easy, contented circumstances; but were they otherwise, that would only awaken, and heighten my tenderness towards you. As our good, and tender-hearted parents did not live to receive any material testimonies of that highest human gratitude I owed them (to which nothing could have given me equal pleasure) the only return I can make them, now, is, by kindness to those they left behind them. Would to God poor Lizzy had lived longer, to have been a farther witness of the truth of what I say; and that I might have had the pleasure of seeing once more, a sister who so truly deserved my esteem, and love. But she is happy; while we must toil a little longer here below. Let us, however, do it cheerfully, and gratefully; supported by the pleasing hope of meeting again on a safer shoar; where, to recollect the storms, and difficulties of life, will not perhaps be inconsistent with that blissful state. You did right to call your daughter by her name; for you must needs have had a particular, tender friendship for one another; endeared as you were by nature; by having passed the affectionate years of your youth together; and by that great softner, and engager of hearts, mutual hardship. That it was in my power to ease it a little, I account one of the most exquisite pleasures of my life. But enough of this melancholy, though not unpleasing strain.
"I esteem you for your sensible, and disinterested letter to Mr. Bell; as you will see by my letter to him: as I approve entirely of his marrying again, you may readily ask me why I do not marry at all? My circumstances have, hitherto, been so variable, and uncertain, in this fluctuating world, as to induce to keep me from engaging in such a state; and now, though they are more settled, and of late (which you will be glad to hear) considerably improved; I begin to think myself too far advanced in life for such youthful undertakings; not to mention some other petty reasons that are apt to startle the delicacy of difficult old batchelors. I am, however not a little suspicious that was I to pay a visit to Scotland (which I have some thought of doing soon) I might possibly be tempted to think of a thing not easily repaired if done amiss. I have always been of opinion that none make better wives than the ladies of Scotland; and yet who more forsaken than they; while the gentlemen are continually running abroad, all the world over? Some of them, it is true, are wise enough to return for a wife. You see I am beginning to make interest already with the Scots ladies. But no more of this infectious subject. Pray let me hear from you now and then; and though I am not a regular correspondent, yet perhaps I may mend in that respect. Remember me kindly to your husband; and believe me to be, your most affectionate brother,
We must now be strongly impressed with a most advantageous idea of Thomson's moral character. The grave, and formal doctors of our duty, though they are particularly rigourous in their exactions from others, (especially, of petty, and ostensible actions,) are not so tenacious (at least, in their own conduct) of the very essence of christianity; humanity; or tenderness to mankind. Yet "love," or active, and universal benevolence, is, in the language of our celestial code, "the fulfilling of the law." And, indeed, when we consider that every species of tyranny, and oppression, produces more misery; and every modification of sympathy, and beneficence, more happiness to the world, than all the other operations of the human mind; we shall find that the voice of Nature, and the voice of Reason, are, in this, as in every moral instance, in a most harmonious, and charming unison, with our divine religion. To crown, therefore, our praise of Thomson, we may safely pronounce him a true, practical christian. We can say nothing higher of a man's temporal importance, if it is rightly understood; we can say nothing higher of his enjoyment, even of this transitory life; if that enjoyment, too, is properly comprehended; than that his conduct is animated, and directed, by the spirit of christianity. A most generous, and heavenly system! which will always have the love, and the zeal of every sensible head; which is actuated by an honest, and feeling heart; of every independent, and ingenuous mind; whether he is smiled, or frowned on, by the hierarchy; who, by their luxury, and pride, and pomp of life, are the representatives of any thing rather than of the christian religion. So remote, indeed, is the time in which our Saviour lived; so extraordinary, and astonishing, are his mission, and character; and so far from the constant course of nature are all the other objects which ushered, and accompanied his revelation; that an honest, and virtuous man may, to some degree, be a sceptick; but he will be a sceptick with that modesty, and moderation which the subject of his scepticism deserves: while he doubts, he will revere; while he fears that a system which provides more effectually than all others, for the well-being; for the comfortable existence of mankind, may be human; he will most ardently wish that it may be divine! Such was the scepticism of the unprejudiced, and illustrious Rousseau. He states the main topicks, and arguments, in favour of christianity, and against it, when it is considered as a divine revelation, perspicuously, and completely; and he gives them all their force. I must honestly acknowledge, that the result of this fair, and dispassionate reasoning, is, a reluctant diffidence; with a preponderance of belief. But as the first beauty in the universe is, moral beauty; it is no wonder that his susceptible, and elegant soul was morally enamoured with the character of Jesus Christ. Admiring the character, and charmed with it; as every sensible, and good heart, must be; the just, and glowing colours; the force, and splendour of eloquence, with which he exhibits it, in a comparison between Christ, and Socrates, which is drawn by this great, and amiable sceptick, do as much honour to our excellent religion, as it is injured, and vilified, by the tawdry, and meretricious glare of prelatical splendour; by its enormous luxury; by its, proud processions; by its mechanical, and insolent magnificence. This last epithet cannot be thought too violent; if we look back to the heavenly example, of whom these men pretend to be the immediate, and regular ministers; if we look back to the humility of his manners; and to the humbleness of his life.
Such was the scepticism of the elegant, and sublime Rousseau; whose reasoning faculties were as acute, and vigorous, as his imagination was warm, and luxuriant. And I must think it an unquestionable truth; that deliberate, and vindictive hostilities against christianity; the best guide of our lives; the best soother of our woes; the best friend to all true pleasure; were never. maintained by any man who was, at once, good, and great. To rail at it, or to ridicule it, are infallible proofs of a bad taste, and of a bad heart. To persecute this divine institution, from the press, with a malignity of the deepest dye; to attack it with a savage ferocity; to attempt to undermine it, with a miserable, and illiterate sophistry; to make it the subject of low, clownish gambols of the mind; which pass with the writer, and with his gang, for wit; this gothick warfare was reserved for our intellectual ruffians, and assassins; it was reserved for the literary profligacy of the present times.
I am almost assured that you will, at any time, excuse a digression; if it is not quite foreign from my main subject; in defence of a religion; which, if we had resolution, and constancy to practise, we should be rewarded with the highest possible enjoyment of good fortune; and in the worst, we should not be absolutely unhappy. Our superficial, and confident infidels, and atheists may charge me as peremptorily as they please, with abuse: I deem them the most mischievous enemies to mankind; therefore, as a friend to mankind, I am satisfied that I have only given them their just, and proper epithets, and appellations. You will, I am sure, as liberally excuse my repeated, and prolonged attention to the moral character of a poet; as you will undoubtedly, agree with me, that the practice of virtue not only gives the purest pleasure, and the supreme dignity to life; but that it likewise contributes, more than any other auxiliary, to animate, and exalt genius: a Chesterfield often says to his pupil, while he is recommending to his imitation a hypocritical phantom of polished vice; — "Remember the Graces!" But all graces fade, and shrivel before those of virtue! Wherever she moves, we feel the influence of a Majesty Divine! Her smile illumines, and cheers a drooping world. Her bloom is Elysian, and eternal. Ever, then, be the burden of my song (enforced, I hope, "meliore plectro" than that of Stanhope) — Remember the Graces!