« PreviousContinue »
JAMES THOMSON, one of the nine children of a divine of the church of Scotland, was born at Ednam near Kelso in Roxburghshire, September 11, 1700. The rudiments of scholastic education he received at Jedburgh, where he was not distinguished among his schoolfellows for any superiority of parts; though a neighbouring minister of taste and learning discovered, and encouraged, his early propensity to poetry.
According to Lord Buchan, he was occasionally invited to spend his vacations at the seat of Sir William Bennet, an accomplished country-gentleman; was favourably noticed by Sir Gilbert Elliot of Minto (subsequently, Lord Justice Clerk), and frequently visited at Lord Cranston's. Thus patronised, he amused himself and his friends with many copies of verses ; which he regularly, however, committed every ensuing New Year's Day to the flames.
From school, he was sent to the University of Edinburgh. In the second year of his admission, his proficiency was greatly interrupted by the death of
* AUTHORITIES. Murdoch's Memoirs of Thomson, prefixed to his Works, ed. 1762.
his father ; * but his mother (whose maiden name was Beatrix Trotter) with her numerous family removing to the Scottish capital, he was enabled to complete his academical labours, and began to acquire distinction as a youth possessed of an extraordinary poetic vein. The study of poetry, about this time, was much extended in Scotland : the · Edinburgh Miscellany' had been published, consisting chiefly of contributions from Callander, Symmers, and Mitchell, young men of his acquaintance; and Mallett, his steadfast friend, and himself had probably here first tried their youthful wing. But a just taste, and true criticism, were yet wanting: rigid rules and forms received more respect than a lively imagination and genuine fire. Thomson saw this, and therefore determined to settle in London, in which resolution he was confirmed soon afterward by the following incident: The divinitychair at Edinburgh was filled at this period by Professor Hamilton, who prescribed to the young bard, for the subject of an exercise, the illustration of a psalm celebrating the power and the majesty of God. Of this he gave a paraphrase, in a stile so highly poetical, that his auditors were struck with astonishment. The Professor however, after complimenting him upon the performance, added with a smile, that if he thought of being useful in the ministry, he must keep a stricter rein upon his fancy, and express himself in language more intelligible to an ordinary congregation. Hence Thomson, who foresaw the impossibility of complying with the injunction, rightly concluded that his expectations from the study of divinity must be very precarious : and, therefore, he declined entering into the church.* To this an invitation, which he received from Lady Grizzel Baillie (of the family of Jerviswood) a friend of his mother, not a little contributed. In the autumn of 1725, he embarked at Leith, leaving his pious and tender parent on the margin of the briny flood, never to see her again. Her Ladyship’s patronage however, although it furnished him with an apology for the imprudence of leaving his native country, and entrusting himself in a great measure to chance for his subsistence, extended no farther than to a general introduction among her acquaintance.
* He arrived, to his unutterable grief, too late to receive the paternal benediction;
and his sorrow upon
the occasion was exhibited by instances of conduct, which his surviving relations afterward delighted to recollect.
But his merit did not long lie concealed in the English metropolis. He quickly found a zealous patron in Mr. Forbes, afterward Lord President of the Court of Session in Scotland. This gentleman strongly recommended him to his friends, and in particular to Mr. Aikman, whose premature death Thomson has affectionately commemorated in a copy of verses. Under their encouragement, he published his · Winter,' in March 1726.† It was dedicated to Sir Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington, who however
* It is said, he lived some time in the family of Lord Binning, as tutor to his son, afterward Earl of Haddington.
+ This, upon his arrival in London, he had shown in detached scraps to Mallett, at that time tutor to the sons of the Duke of Montrose, who advised him to form them into one connected piece, and to publish it immediately. For some time, he could find no purchaser. His friend, at last, persuaded Millar to give him a low price for it: and even that price, from the slowness of it's early sale, the buyer was disposed to regret; till Mr. Whateley, a man of taste and learning, by his strong commendations ushered it into universal notice.
took no notice of it, till Hill (whom Thomson had courted with too obsequious a degree of adulation) awakened his attention by some verses addressed to the author in the newspaper, censuring the great for their neglect of ingenious men. This elicited a present of twenty guineas. It made him known, likewise, to Pope.
Henceforward, his acquaintance was courted by all men of taste. Dr. Rundle, Bishop of Derry, more especially exerted himself in his behalf; and at length introduced him to Chancellor Talbot, whose son Thomson subsequently accompanied as travelling tutor. His love and gratitude to the friendly prelate are finely expressed in his • Poem to the memory of Lord Talbot.'
The favourable reception given by the public to the first of his Seasons induced him to study with great assiduity, that he might be enabled in his progress rather to excel, than to fall short of, this specimen of his talents for pastoral poetry. His 'Summer' was published in 1727;* his Spring,' in 1728; and his « Autumn,' in a 4to. edition of his works, in 1730.
In 1727, likewise, he produced his Poem upon Sir Isaac Newton, then recently deceased: and the British merchants beginning loudly to complain of the interruption of their commerce in South America
* This he would have dedicated to Lord Binning: but that nobleman, with true zeal for the poet's interest, advised him to transfer the compliment to Mr. Doddington (subsequently Lord Melcombe), as one who had more power to advance his reputation and his fortune. His • Spring' was inscribed to the Countess of Hartford, afterward Duchess of Somerset; and his · Autumn' to Mr. Onslow. VOL. VI.
by the Spaniards, he composed also his Britannia,' with a view of rousing the spirit of national vengeance. His friends now advised him to turn his thoughts to the drama, observing that, “if he succeeded in this walk, it would be the readiest road to fame and fortune. In conformity to their suggestion, he wrote his tragedy of Sophonisba,' which was acted with great applause in 1729.*
Being summoned soon afterward to make the tour of Europe with the Hon. Charles Talbot, his poetical studies underwent a considerable interruption : but even his travels furnished him with rich materials for gratifying his darling passion on his return. For having visited most of the courts and capital cities of Europe, and made observations upon their government, manners, and customs, he wrought his remarks with admirable skill into a poem on · Liberty; divided into five parts, with the more general title of • Ancient and Modern Italy compared; Greece, Rome, Britain, and the Prospect.' This, † which he regarded as his noblest work, was less popular than he had expected, and has never been a very general favourite. While he was composing it's first part, he received a severe shock by the death of his noble fellow-traveller, followed (perhaps, as a consequence) by the much
* Such was the expectation excited by this drama, that it's mere rehearsals were dignified by splendid audiences, who invariably rose however with the apathy, which might have more probably followed a moral lecture. The waggish parody upon one of it's lines (“ Oh, Sophonisba! Sophonisba, oh!”) viz. 'Oh, Jamie Thomson ! Jamie Thomson, Oh!' was for a considerable time echoed throughout London.
+ Lord Lyttelton having assumed the unjustifiable licence of curtailing it, we no longer have it in it's original state.