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"Thou canst not learn, nor can I show,
To paint with Thomson's landscape glow," is the verdict upon himself which Burns puts into the mouth of his poetical genius Coila; and in a sense it is not more candid than true. Burns could even rise above Thomson in associating the tumult of human passion with the "roar of the elements," as in "Tam o' Shanter;" or in describing the wondrous sympathy that the face of nature, in her "tragic moods," awakens in the susceptible breast of the poet :
"I saw thee seek the sounding shore,
I saw grim Nature's visage hoar
Struck thy young eye."
Also in defining that gentler joy of the soul, responsive to the genial throbbings of Spring :—
"Or when the deep green-mantled earth
I saw thee eye the general mirth
These are strains as catholic in their treatment, and as pure and elevated in style, as anything of Thomson's
does he lose in power when, with a slight admixture of his native Doric, he pours forth his compassion for the victims of the storm :---
"Ilk happing bird, wee helpless thing!
Delighted me to hear thee sing,
What comes o' thee?
Whare wilt thou cow'r thy chittering wing, And close thy ee?"
Yet Burns is not the poet of inanimate nature as Thomson is; neither is Wordsworth, nor any other poet. Others may woo her occasionally, like ardent but inconstant lovers; but he is her devoted worshipper, who loves to trace her every feature, and study her every mood, not at second-hand, but face to face.
Thomson's father, the Rev. Thomas Thomson, was minister of the parish of Ednam, in Roxburghshire; and the poet, the eldest of a family of nine, was born there on the 11th September 1700. His mother, Beatrix Trotter, was the daughter of Mr Trotter of Fogo, in the same shire. In November 1700, his father was appointed to the parish of Southdean, near Jedburgh, where he remained till his death.
Thomson would appear to have been educated at home till he was twelve, at which age he was sent to the grammarschool at Jedburgh. An anecdote is told of his boyhood, which indicates that he was not an expert scholar. Being overheard by the teacher to "Confound the tower of Babel!" he was asked what he meant ; when he replied, that "but for it there would be no languages to learn!"
Though perhaps a backward linguist, like Scott, he was a precocious
poet; and his juvenile effusions attracted the notice of several gentlemen of the neighbourhood, of whom the Rev. Mr Riccaltoun, of the neighbouring parish of Hobkirk, a man of literary tastes, undertook to assist him in his studies. He was also a favourite with Sir William Bennet of Grubbat, the friend of Ramsay, at whose house at Chesters he used to spend his school vacations. His first known poem, written at the age of fifteen, is an epistle to Sir William.
In 1715, Thomson was sent to Edinburgh University to study for the Church, but he manifested great reluctance to sever his connection with the country. On the death of his father, in 1718, his mother removed with her family to Edinburgh, where, by mortgaging the small property of Windhope, of which she was co-heiress, she was enabled to keep the poet at the University till the end of his course. Among other college friends, he made the acquaintance of David Mallet, the author of "William and Margaret," and the two poets became fast friends. Their first published poems, which appeared together, in 1720, in The Edinburgh Miscellany, conducted by the "Athenian Society" club of wits, obtained such a reception from the critics as not to encourage their continuing long to cultivate the homefield. Mallet, who received the appointment of tutor in the Duke of Montrose's family, removed to London; and Thomson, feeling the incompatibility of his disposition for the clerical profession, resolved to quit his country and it at the same time.
Leith for London, bidding adieu to his mother, whom he never saw again. On his arrival in the metropolis, he sought his friend Mallet, but on his way his pocket was emptied of his letters of introduction. By the assistance of his poetical countrywoman, Lady Grizell Baillie, he obtained the situation of tutor in the family of Lord Binning, near East Barnet, but he did not remain in it over a few months; yet here he appears to have commenced "Winter," the first written of his Seasons. He soon returned to London; and with the advice and assistance of Mallet, whose talents in matters of practical detail were as conspicuous as his friend's were the reverse, he had the detached fragments in which it was composed arranged in proper sequence.
Thomson was at this time living at the house of Millan, bookseller, Charing Cross, and completed the poem in the room above the shop; but failing to find a purchaser, Millan was persuaded to venture the sum of three guineas for the copyright. It made its appearance in 1726, inscribed to Sir Spencer Compton, speaker of the House of Commons, but for what reason does not appear; for the poet and his patron knew nothing of one another. Its first reception could not be less propitious, and the venturesome bookseller was like to make a loss by his investment, when the Rev. Mr Whately, afterwards prebendary of York, happening accidentally to look into it, discovered its genius, and spread the news of the advent of a new poet. Its success is also attributed to other causes; and it is
In March 1725, he embarked at quite probable its merits struck several
minds about the same time. It brought its author into contact with the literary men of the day, and a second edition was wanted before the end of the year.
made its appearance; and in 1729-30,. his Sophonisba, a tragedy, dedicated to the Queen, was played at Drury Lane theatre. Its success was not commensurate with the expectations of his friends; and it has now sunk into oblivion.
In 1730, the addition of "Autumn," with the closing Hymn, completed the Seasons, which were now brought out by subscription in a handsome quarto volume; and the number and rank of his subscribers indicated the increase of his popularity.
One of his literary friends having directed the attention of his patron to the poet's merits, that gentleman expressed a desire to see him, when an interview took place. At parting, Sir Spencer made Thomson a present of twenty guineas. The first look of such a style of patronage appears somewhat degrading, at least in the eyes of presentday literary men; but this is an unfair standpoint from which to regard it; and if neither the poet nor his patron felt any incompatibility with the ideas that then prevailed about such matters, we may pass it over, hoping that nothing worse has crept into the usages of later times. While the second edition of "Winter" | accepted it. His observation of Conwas being printed, Thomson accepted the situation of tutor to a young gentleman at Mr Watt's Academy, in Little Tower Street; but the success of his poem brought him into influential society, and he resigned his tutorship in a short time.
In 1727, "Summer" was published, dedicated to Mr Doddington, afterwards Lord Melcombe; also a poem on the death of Sir Isaac Newton, dedicated to Sir Robert Walpole.
"Spring," which appeared in 1728, with a dedication to the Countess of Hertford, sold for fifty guineas; and the poet was invited to spend the summer at Marlborough Castle, the seat of the Earl of Hertford. He now resolved to complete the Seasons, and issued proposals for publishing them by subscription. In the meantime, Britannia
He was introduced by Dr Rundle, afterwards Bishop of Derry, to Sir Charles Talbot, who invited him to accompany his eldest son on a tour on the Continent. This was an engagement much to Thomson's taste, and he readily
tinental life and politics during the year to which their tour extended, confirmed him in his preference for the social and political habits and usages of his native land; and his poem of " Liberty," which embodies his opinions upon political freedom, was the outcome of his observations and their effects on his mind during his travels. His winter on the Continent was spent in Rome; but immediately on his return to England, before the end of 1731, he commenced the writing of "Liberty."
While he was engaged upon this poem, his friend Mr Talbot, who was equally enthusiastic on the subject of liberty, died; and shortly afterwards his father was raised to the woolsack. One of the earliest exercises of his patronage was to confer upon Thomson the Secretaryship of Briefs in the Court of Chancery.
The first part of "Liberty," which took him two years to write, appeared in 1734, dedicated to the memory of his young friend Talbot, with a prose dedication to the Prince of Wales; but its last part was not issued till 1736.
Its reception by the public disappointed the poet's expectations; for he considered it his best poem, and attributed its non-success to mistaken public opinion. Dr Johnson, who never read it, remarks, that "an enumeration of examples to prove a position which nobody denied, as it was at the beginning superfluous, must quickly grow disgusting." According to this dictum, everything that is not a matter of dispute must quickly grow disgusting; yet it is obvious that in a country where every one is in the full enjoyment of liberty, the subject must create less enthusiasm than where it is an aspiration still to be realized. The treatment of the subject is also too severely classical, uniform, and heavy, for popular appreciation. To have made a didactic poem popular, required a skill of which Thomson was not possessed.
In 1736, he went to live in Richmond, and occupied a cottage in Kew Lane, which has since been associated with his name, and with the Seasons, three successive editions of which he here revised and enlarged.
In his prosperity he did not forget his family in Edinburgh; for, besides taking his only brother to live with him at Richmond, he assisted his sisters in setting up a millinery business. But he was of too indolent a disposition to be careful of his own interests; and on the death of the Lord Chancellor Talbot,
his Clerkship of Chancery was given to another, on account of his not applying for a renewal of the appointment. About this time he was confined for a debt of seventy pounds, when Mr Quin the actor called upon him, and said he owed the poet a debt of a hundred pounds. Thomson, not knowing for what it could be, was told by the actor that that was the lowest estimate he could place upon the pleasure he derived from reading his poems; and laying down the money on the table, he left the room. Soon after this, the Prince of Wales settled a pension of £100 a-year upon him.
Thomson's next work was his 'Agamemnon," produced in Drury Lane in April 1738, and dedicated to the Prince of Wales, who went with the Princess to see it acted. Pope also attended its representation, and assisted Thomson in removing some of its defects. Notwithstanding his influential patronage, and the excellence of Quin's acting, the piece never became popular. His next play, "Edward and Eleanora,' written in the interest of the Prince of Wales, was prohibited on account of the prince's political antagonism to the ministry. In 1740, he composed the masque of "Alfred" jointly with Mallet, and in it appeared his famous song, "Rule Britannia." Mallet's friends claim the authorship for him, though not on very convincing grounds. When, in 1751, Mallet largely rewrote the masque of " Alfred," he substituted three stanzas, by Lord Bolingbroke, for three of the original; but these have been justly discarded by the public as out of harmony with the broad catholic
spirit of the original, which is much more characteristic of Thomson's style than of Mallet's.
although he was not unsocial in his habits, and anything but narrow or bigoted in his religious and moral Thomson's political friend, Mr sentiments, yet serious subjects best Lyttleton, having come into power in harmonized with the tone of his mind; 1744, conferred upon him the appoint- and he seemed to have a lofty and conment of Surveyor-General of the Lee- scientious conception of the function ward Isles; from which office, after and responsibilities of the poet's mission. paying a deputy, he derived £300 a- He had all the undemonstrative shyyear. In 1745, his most successful ness and depth of natural feeling of his tragedy, "Tancred and Sigismunda," countrymen, with more of the cosmowas produced. Garrick played the lead-politan in his composition than is genering character, and Pitt and Lyttleton | ally placed to their credit. One of the attended the rehearsal.
The "Castle of Indolence," his second best poem, was published in 1748, and his pension from the Prince of Wales | was discontinued; but as he died in the autumn of this year, the loss did not much faffect his circumstances. The cause of his death was fever, brought on | by having taken a boat in the chill air of the Thames, after being overheated with walking. He was attended by his fellow-poet and countryman, Dr Arm- | strong, author of The Art of Preserving Health, but his constitution was not sufficiently robust to throw off the disease.
Besides the works published under his own supervision, the tragedy of "Coriolanus" was published the year after his death.
Thomson was of an easy, indolent, and retiring disposition, not unlike Goldsmith in some aspects of his character; but wanting that simplicity, comic vanity, and utter forgetfulness of self, which, with his sprightly vivacity, formed such delightful features of Goldsmith's nature. Thomson's genius was grave and slow, but deep and devout; and
most striking characteristics of the Seasons-which forms part of their elevated tone-is the catholicity of the treatment, both as to the sentiment and the points of observation; they have no nationality, and no local colouring-a want which in some respects gives them an aspect of indefiniteness, and which, if a gain in breadth, is a loss in intensity. Numerous editions of his poems, especially of the Seasons, have been published.
COME, gentle Spring, ethereal mildness,
And from the bosom of yon dropping cloud,
Of shadowing roses, on our plains descend!
O Hertford ! fitted, or to shine in courts
Which thy own Season paints, when na
Is blooming and benevolent, like thee.
And see where surly Winter passes off, Far to the north, and calls his ruffian blasts: