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LIFE AND WRITINGS
MR. JAMES THOMSON.
IT is commonly said, that the life of a good
writer is best read in his works; which can scarce fail to receive a peculiar tincture from his temper, manners, and habits: the distinguishing character of his mind, his ruling passion, at least, will there appear undisguised. But however just this observation may be; and although we might safely rest Mr. Thomson's fame, as a good man, as well as a man of genius, on this sole footing; yet the desire which the public always shows of being more particularly acquainted with the history of an eminent author, ought not to be disappointed; as it proceeds not from mere curiosity, but chiefly from affection and gratitude to those by whom they have been entertained and instructed.
To give some account of a deceased friend is often a piece of justice likewise, which ought not
to be refused to his memory: to prevent or efface the impertinent fictions which officious biographers are so apt to collect and propagate. And we may add, that the circumstances of an author's life will sometimes throw the best light upon his writings; instances whereof we shall meet with in the following pages.
Mr. Thomson was born at Ednam, in the shire of Roxburgh, on the 11th of September, in the year 1700. His father, minister of that place, was but little known beyond the narrow circle of his co-presbyters, and to a few gentlemen in the neighbourhood; but highly respected by them, for his piety, and his diligence in the pastoral duty: as appeared afterwards in their kind offices to his widow and orphan family.
The reverend Messrs. Riccarton and Gusthart particularly took a most affectionate and friendly part in all their concerns. The former, a man of uncommon penetration and good taste, had very early discovered, through the rudeness of young Thomson's puerile essays, a fund of genius well deserving culture and encouragement. He undertook therefore, with the father's approbation, the chief direction of his studies, furnished him with the proper books, corrected his performances; and was daily rewarded with the pleasure of seeing his labour so happily employed.
The other reverend gentleman, Mr. Gusthart,
who is still living*, one of the ministers of Edinburgh, and senior of the Chapel Royal, was no less serviceable to Mrs. Thomson in the management of her little affairs; which, after the decease of her husband, burdened as she was with a family of nine children, required the prudent counsels and assistance of that faithful and generous friend.
Sir William Bennet likewise, well known for his gay humour and ready poetical wit, was highly delighted with our young poet, and used to invite him to pass the summer vacation at his country seat: a scene of life which Mr. Thomson always remembered with particular pleasure. But what he wrote during that time, either to entertain Sir William and Mr. Riccarton, or for his own amusement, he destroyed every new year's day; committing his little pieces to the flames, in their due order; and crowning the solemnity with a copy of verses, in which were humourously recited the several grounds of their condemnation.
After the usual course of school education, under an able master at Jedburgh, Mr. Thomson was sent to the university of Edinburgh. But in the second year of his admission, his studies were for some time interrupted by the death of his father; who was carried off so suddenly, that it was not possible for Mr. Thomson, with all
the diligence he could use, to receive his last blessing. This affected him to an uncommon degree; and his relations still remember some extraordinary instances of his grief and filial duty on that occasion.
Mrs. Thomson, whose maiden name was Hume, and who was co-heiress of a small estate in the country, did not sink under this misfortune. She consulted her friend Mr. Gusthart; and having, by his advice, mortgaged her moiety of the farm, repaired with her family to Edinburgh; where she lived in a decent frugal manner, till her favourite son had not only finished his academical course, but was even distinguished and patronised as a man of genius. She was, herself, a person of uncommon natural endowments; possessed of every social and domestic virtue; with an imagination, for vivacity and warmth, scarce inferior to her son's, and which raised her devotional exercises to a pitch bordering on enthusiasm.
But whatever advantage Mr. Thomson might derive from the complexion of his parent, it is certain he owed much to a religious education; and that his early acquaintance with the sacred writings contributed greatly to that sublime, by which his works will be for ever distinguished. In his pieces, the Seasons, we see him at once assume the majestic freedom of an Eastern writer; seizing the grand images as they rise,
clothing them in his own expressive language, and preserving, throughout, the grace, the variety, and the dignity which belong to a just composition; unhurt by the stiffness of formal method.
About this time the study of poetry was become general in Scotland, the best English authors being universally read, and imitations of them attempted. Addison had lately displayed the beauties of Milton's immortal work; and his remarks on it, together with Mr. Pope's celebrated Essay, had opened the way to an acquaintance with the best poets and critics.
But the most learned critic is not always the best judge of poetry-taste being a gift of nature; the want of which Aristotle and Bossu cannot supply; nor even the study of the best originals, when the reader's faculties are not tuned in a certain consonance to those of the poet and this happened to be the case with certain learned gentlemen, into whose hands a few of Mr. Thomson's first essays had fallen. Some inaccuracies of style, and those luxuriances which a young writer can hardly avoid, lay open to their cavils and censure: so far indeed they might be competent judges; but the fire and enthusiasm of the poet had entirely escaped their notice. Mr. Thomson, however, conscious of his own strength, was not discouraged by this treatment; especially as he had some friends on whose judgment he