The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 10. Thomsons Dramatic Work, from Sophonisba to Coriolanus
Thomson’s dramatic work consists of five tragedies and the masque of Alfred, written in conjunction with Mallet. He had no special talent for the stage, and, at a period when rhetoric was the chief ambition of the dramatist, Thomson’s rhetoric was no distinguishing excellence. His dramas are devoid of characterisation; his characters are vehicles of lofty sentiment, the prevailing tone of which is the belligerent patriotism of the party to which Thomson was sincerely devoted. Sophonisba, however, the earliest of the tragedies, is without noticeable political bias. It is simply a classical drama of the conventional type. Its subject, to be sure, is patriotic, and its choice of a queen who died for her country may have been intended to spur the queen, to whom it was dedicated, to free herself from an influence to which Thomson’s associates were bitterly opposed. There can be no question as to the meaning of the later plays. Between Sophonisba and the production of Agamemnon, there was an interval of nine years. It is easy to read into the characters of Clytemnestra and Egisthus the queen and the minister whom the prince’s coterie was bent on deposing. The Orestes of Agamemnon was flattered more openly in Alfred, which was played before the prince and princess at Cliveden in 1740; while the application of Edward and Eleonora was so obvious that it was rejected for the stage. Agamemnon and Edward were published with dedications to the princess of Wales; the last of the political plays, Tancred and Sigismunda, was inscribed to the prince himself. Coriolanus, posthumously produced, is a return to pure tragedy without party bias. It may fairly be said that not one of these plays has the least dramatic interest. Their blank verse, however, is, as might be expected, easy and fluent. Thomson, possibly in imitation of the constant habit of the later Jacobean and Caroline dramatists, permitted himself a free use of weak endings to his lines, a practice which may promote ease in delivery, but becomes monotonous to the reader. His rhetoric is respectable; but the nobility of sentiment which it clothes is not above the ordinary level of the conventional sentiment of the classical drama of his day, and provokes no striking bursts of eloquence. His subjects do not afford scope for his gift of natural description, and there is only an occasional touch to remind us that his true genius lay in his appreciation of natural atmosphere and colour. His philosophy, on the other hand, is frequently introduced, but without any material addition to the contents of the passages in which its vague principles had been embodied in The Seasons. On the whole, the main interest of the plays is the debt which they owe directly to Greek tragedy, and not merely to the antique drama through the medium of the French stage. This virtue may, to some extent, be claimed for Agamemnon; it cannot be denied to Edward and Eleonora, where the self-sacrifice of Eleanor of Castile is imitated at first hand from the devotion of Alcestis, and the famous description of the Cretan queen’s farewell to life is almost translated in the narrative given by Daraxa to the earl of Gloster. Otherwise, the dramas fail to offer any special feature that raises them above the ordinary competence of their time; they are deficient in action, and their division into five acts is a theatrical convention which only emphasises the poverty of their construction. The masque of Alfred, the greater part of which, in its first form, seems to have been supplied by Mallet, was afterwards rewritten by Thomson, and the music, “excepting two or three things which being particularly Favourites at Cliefdon, are retained by Desire,” was “new-composed” by Arne. Among the lyrics to which Arne provided new music for the edition of 1753 was Rule, Britannia, the sentiments of which embody Thomson’s enthusiasm for his country and liberty in its most compact form.