The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
V. Thomson and Natural Description in Poetry
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 1. Relations of Thomsons Poetry to the tendencies of the age; His life and literary career
IN a general estimate of the poetry of the earlier half of the eighteenth century, Thomson’s work, from the exceptional character of its subject, may, perhaps, be apt to receive undue prominence. It called attention to a field of verse which his contemporaries, absorbed in the study of man, in ethical reflection and moral satire, had ceased to cultivate; it looked back with admiration to models which were almost forgotton, and, through its influence on the poetry of Collins and Gray, it lent impulse to the progress which was to culminate in the romantic movement. On the other hand, Thomson was not the champion of an opposition or the apostle of a new order, contending against prejudices and destroying barriers. In essential qualities of thought, he was at one with the taste of his day; and, if his talent was most happily exercised in the observation and delineation of nature, his point of view was the very antithesis of that emotional treatment of the subject which marked the ultimate revolt against the limitations of eighteenth century convention.
James Thomson was born at Ednam in Roxburghshire, where his father was parish minister, in September, 1700. In the following year, his father obtained the cure of Southdean, at the head of the Jed valley, and here Thomson spent his boyhood. For some time, he went to school in the abbey church of Jedburgh, and, in 1715, he entered Edinburgh university, intending, as it seems, to become a presbyterian minister. His early surroundings could hardly fail to disclose to him the natural charms of a district which, seventy years later, kindled the romantic imagination of Scott; and they duly received Thomson’s tribute when he wroteThe Tweed (pure Parent-stream,Whose pastoral banks first heard my Doric reed,With, silvan Jed, thy tributary brook).In these early experiments, which show little promise, he was encouraged by a neighbour, Robert Riccaltoun, the author of a poem called Winter. At Edinburgh, Thomson’s talents developed, and, after coming to London in 1725, he had his own Winter ready for publication in March, 1726. About this time, he gave up all intention of a clerical career, and devoted himself to poetry, earning a stipend as tutor in various noble families. His friend David Mallet was tutor in the household of the duke of Montrose; and it was, probably, through him that Thomson obtained introductions which brought him into the society of possible patrons of his verse. He spared no pains to make himself agreeable to the kindly disposed Aaron Hill; and the prose dedications of the first three Seasons, which were fortunately cancelled in later editions in favour of lines inserted in the poem, are remarkable examples of the effusiveness of bad taste. Winter soon reached a second edition. Sir Spencer Compton, to whom it was inscribed, showed a tardy gratitude for the compliment; but George Bubb Dodington, the patron of Summer (1727), proved a more useful friend. Thomson visited Dodington’s seat, Eastbury park, near Blandford; and the acquaintance thus formed probably led to his friendship with George Lyttelton and to his adhesion to the political party which supported the prince of Wales. Britannia (1729) eulogised the prince and condemned Walpole’s policy. In the printed copies, this monologue is said to have been written in 1727. In that year, Thomson dedicted his Poem sacred to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton to Walpole himself. The sincerity of the patriotism which was laboriously expressed in Liberty cannot be doubted; but the patronage of Walpole, had it rewarded Thomson’s advances, might have curbed his enthusiasm for an aggressive policy.