Thomson was the son of a minister in Scotland. He was partly educated at the University of Edinburgh, and upon the death of his father, was persuaded by his friends to enter on a course of theological studies. As a previous exercise, one of the Psalms was given him for explanation, and his language is said to have been so splendid, that he was reproved for employing a diction, which none of his future audience would be able to understand. This reproof, united with the dislike which he felt to the profession of divinity, determined him to abandon it, and to seek his fortune in London.
Thither he went in 1725, with his poem of Winter, which was published the following year, and after a short neglect, admired and applauded. Summer appeared in 1727, Spring in 1728, and Autumn in 1730. After this, he travelled on the European continent with the son of the Lord Chancellor of England, and on his return, employed himself in the composition of his various tragedies and his poem on Liberty. In 1746, he published the Castle of Indolence a poem, which is perhaps the most finished of all his productions.
Thomson is said to have been naturally amiable and benevolent, and perfectly free from all literary jealousies; reserved in mingled company, but cheerful and social with his particular friends, and beloved by them all in a degree quite uncommon and singular. It is no where recorded that he was religious, though some of his poetical compositions might be supposed to have emanated from a mind impressed with a deep reverence for the Deity, as well as an ardent admiration of his works.
The moral character of his poetry is exalted and excellent; though the declaration of Lord Lyttleton, that his works contained "No line which, dying, he could wish to blot," would not, perhaps, have proceeded from the poet's own lips at that last solemn hour.
In his boyhood he used regularly to burn all his verses, as fast as he composed them — a conduct, which proved the strength of his judgment, and probably contributed to his succeeding eminence. It would be well for the world were it oftener imitated.
Thomson is superior in nature and originality to all the descriptive poets except Cowper. He looked upon nature with a view at once comprehensive and minute. Like a skilful limner of the human countenance, he seized upon some of the expressive features in each Season, and the portraiture of these communicated individuality and verisimilitude to the whole picture. His subject had before been comparatively untouched, and his own delineation of it is rather sparing than full. He displays not only beauty and accuracy, but great sublimity in his description of the torrid and frigid zones; and his sketch of the traveller lost in the snows, is full of pathos. "His diction," Dr. Johnson observes, "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 invest 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."
The Castle of Indolence is the finest effort of his genius. In that poem he seems to have imbibed the very spirit of Spenser. His style preserves all its richness and copiousness, without the florid splendour, which marks it in The Seasons, and his versification combines a softness and melody of flow, with a harmony which holds the mind in enchantment. His imagery is remarkable for its luxuriance and adaptation to his subject.