Page images






THE remains of Dryden were scarcely cold when Pope rose to eminence, and Pope had not attained to middle age when the fame of the Author of the Seasons was established.

JAMES THOMSON was born at Ednam, near Kelso, on the 7th of September 1700. His father was minister of the parish in which his son was born, but shortly afterwards removed to that of Southdean, a lonely but romantic district in the heart of the Cheviots. Here Thomson spent his boyish years; and here he first gave evidence of that poetic spirit which long afterwards shone forth so brightly in the Seasons.1

Allan Cunninghain was fortunate enough to discover a fragment written by Thomson at the age of fourteen, which shows how early his style was formed. It was first published in 1841, in a memoir prefixed to

an illustrated edition of the Seasons.

"Now I surveyed my native faculties,

And traced my actions to their teeming source;

Now I explored the universal frame,

Gazed Nature through, and, with interior light,
Conversed with angels and unbodied saints,
That tread the courts of the Eternal King!

Gladly I would declare, in lofty strains,
The power of Godhead to the sons of men,-
But thought is lost in its immensity,
Imagination wastes its strength in vain,
And Fancy tires, and turns within itself,


At school, Thomson, like so many men who have afterwards risen to eminence,-like Goldsmith, for example, in the following generation, and like Scott in the last,-proved himself a dullard. He was constitutionally indolent, and loved better, we do not doubt, to saunter along the pastoral banks of the "sylvan Jed,' than pore over the pages of his Cæsar or his Sallust. In his eighteenth year, he removed to Edinburgh to study for the ministry; and at Edinburgh his old reputation still clove to him. "He remained there," says Johnson, "without distinction or expectation." In the meantime his father died. This event made a great change in Thomson's prospects. His mother was poor, and had a large family to support. She removed to Edinburgh; and her son resolved to abandon his profession.

London, still the best, was then the only stage on which a poet could appear with any hopes of success. It was the only stage, as Johnson has remarked, at that time too wide for the operation of petty competition and private malignity, the only stage where merit might soon become conspicuous, and where it would find friends as soon as it became reputable to befriend it. To London, accordingly, Thomson, on the promise of some assistance from an acquaintance of his mother's,-a promise, however, which seems never to have been redeemed,-determined to repair. In 1724 he left Edinburgh, with the poem of Winter and some letters of introduction in his pocket.

One of those letters was addressed to Mallet, then tutor to the sons of the Duke of Montrose. Mallet was a Scotchman, the son of an innkeeper at Crieff, and probably the most successful, as he was certainly the most unprincipled, literary adventurer of that age. He praised and courted Pope while living, so long as praise and courtship could advance his interests. He heaped abuse upon Pope's memory when dead, when he found that such abuse would gratify his patron. He earned an ignominious pension by publishing, under the signature of "A Plain Man," a pamphlet in which he imputed cowardice to Byng. He accepted a legacy from the Duchess of Marlborough, and a pension from her grandson, on condition that he should write the life of the hero of Blen

Struck with the amazing depths of Deity:
Ah, my Lord God! in vain a tender youth,
Unskilled in arts of deep philosophy,
Attempts to search the bulky mass of matter,
To trace the rules of motion, and pursue
The phantom Time, too subtle for his grasp:
Yet may I from thy most apparent works,
Form some idea of their wondrous Author"

heim and Malplacquet. On his death, in 1765, it was found that he had not completed a single page of the memoir. Johnson, indeed, seems unintentionally to have pronounced the highest eulogium on the Scotchmen then in London when he said that Mallet was the only Scot whom his countrymen did not commend.

On the recommendation of this man, Thomson was received into the family of Lord Binning as tutor to his sons. He had in the meantime, however, disposed of the copyright of Winter for three guineas; and even this low price, we are told, the purchaser, Mr. Miller, had for a time reason to regret. The generous kindness of Aaron Hill and Mr. Whateley, "a man," says Johnson, "not wholly unknown amongst authors," a man whose talents, indeed, were such as to lead many of his contemporaries to impute to him the authorship of those famous letters which drove Grafton from the Treasury in an agony of shame and terror, and carried dismay alike into the palace, the senate, and the courts of law, at length opened the public eyes. The poem was in the end completely successful, and raised the author to a rank amongst living poets second only to that of Pope.

It is impossible for a literary man of our day to look back upon the age which preceded the time of which we write without feelings of deep shame and degradation. It was the age of private patronage; an age in which readers were so few that men of letters were too often obliged to become the parasites and hangers-on of the rich; an age in which Otway died in the agonies of hunger, and in which Dryden was forced to prostitute his genius to pander to the prurient appetite of a ribald king and a ribald court. Until Pope arose, it is not too much to say that no English writer however eminent, not Dryden, not Congreve, not Addison, was able to earn, by his literary labours alone, a sum equal to that which is now annually earned by a penny-aliner on the London press. The highest offices in Church and State, bishoprics, deaneries, secretaryships, commissionerships, embassies, were open to the lucky few. But to the many, to ninety-nine out of every hundred of those who made literature their profession, there only existed the alternative of abject penury or abject dependence.

It was, therefore, only in accordance with the custom and necessities of the age, that Thomson dedicated his poem to the Earl of Wilmington, a man known in English history chiefly from the part he took in opposition to Walpole on the accession of George II. For a time he seemed to have sued in vain. But the attention of Wilmington having at length been drawn to the young aspirant by a copy of verses addressed to him by Aaron

Hill, the peer condescended to reward the poet for his adulation with a present of twenty guineas.

The fame of Thomson now rose high. "Every day," says. Johnson, "brought him new friends." To the Lord Chancellor Talbot he was introduced by Dr. Rundle. The publication of Summer secured him the favour of Bubb Dodington. His invectives against the ministry introduced him to the society of the wits and poets who crowded the saloons of Leicester House. The Countess of Hertford invited him to Sudbourn; Lord Lyttelton entertained him at Hagley. He had reached the highest pinnacle of fame when he was selected by the Chancellor as travelling tutor to his eldest son.

He returned just in time to take part in that great conflict which drove Walpole from the Treasury to his retreat amid the woods and gardens of Houghton. "The Opposition," says Mr. Macaulay, was in every sense formidable." The elections of 1741 had been unfavourable to the Ministry. "The majority of the landed gentry, the majority of the parochial clergy, one of the universities, and a strong party in the City of London and in the other great towns, were decidedly adverse to the Government. Of the men of letters, some were exasperated by the neglect with which the Minister treated them, a neglect which was the more remarkable because his predecessors, both Whig and Tory, had paid court with emulous munificence to the wits and the poets; others were honestly inflamed by party zeal; almost all lent their aid to the Opposition. In truth, all that was alluring to ardent and imaginative minds was on that side; old associations, new visions of political improvement, high-flown theories of loyalty, high-flown theories of liberty, the enthusiasm of the Cavalier, the enthusiasm of the Roundhead. The Tory gentleman, fed in the common-rooms of Oxford with the doctrines of Filmer and Sacheverell, and proud of the exploits of his grandfathers, who had charged with Rupert at Marston, who had held out the old manor-house against Fairfax, and who had, after the King's return, been set down for a Knight of the Royal Oak, flew to that section of the Opposition which, under pretence of assailing the existing administration, was in truth assailing the reigning dynasty. The young Republican, fresh from his Livy and his Lucan, and glowing with admiration of Hampden, of Russell, and of Sydney, hastened with equal eagerness to those benches from which eloquent voices thundered nightly against the tyranny and perfidy of Courts. . . . . In fact almost every young man of warm temperament and lively imagination, whatever his political bias might be, was drawn into the party adverse to the Govern


ment; and some of the most distinguished among them, Pitt, for example, among public men, and Johnson among men of letters, afterwards openly acknowledged their mistake."1

By the side of these men, in the foremost rank of the assailants, observers did not fail to note the obese person and the dull and inanimate countenance of Thomson. Thomson brought to the contest a mind of singular endowments, but fitted neither by nature nor by training for political discussion. He attacked the old statesman, notwithstanding, with a vehemence hardly to be expected from a man of habits so lethargic. But the publication of Liberty, although it did much for his fortunes, did little for his fame. High as his own opinion of the poem was, it had few readers in his own day and has almost ceased to be read in ours.

The First Minister retired, the Cabinet was partially remodeled, and the nation soon discovered that its liberties were not greater or more secure under the reign of the patriots than they had been under the reign of Walpole. Thomson, in the meantime, was reaping the profits of a place to which he had been appointed by Lord Talbot. The death of Talbot, however, soon obliged him to vacate it. The poet would not deign to solicit his re-appointment, and the new Chancellor would not re-appoint him without solicitation. Thomson was, therefore, at the age of thirty-seven, once more thrown upon the world, a writer for his bread.

He was, however, partially consoled for his loss by a pension of a hundred pounds a-year bestowed upon him by the Prince of Wales. But this partial consolation was more than compensated by the fate which attended the representation of his Agamemnon. Pope emerged from his retirement amid the groves of Twickenham to countenance the performance. Thomson himself sat in the upper gallery, trembling with anxiety and distress. "But the tragedy," says Johnson, "had the fate which most commonly attends mythological stories." It was tolerated for a few nights, but is now as utterly forgotten as the most worthless of the por tentous productions of Behn or D'Urfey.

Edward and Eleonora, Alfred, and Tancred and Sigismunda, now followed each other in quick succession. To Edward and Eleonora a licence was refused. Alfred was written in conjunction with Mallet, and failed. Tancred and Sigismunda alone was successful. Yet, in spite of its success, Tancred, we are afraid, must be content to take its place by the side of the Caractacus of

1 Essays. Art. "Horace Walpole."

« PreviousContinue »