The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 2. The Seasons
Meanwhile, Spring, inscribed to Frances countess of Hertford, appeared in 1728. Autumn, dedicated to Arthur Onslow, speaker of the House of Commons, completed the collected edition, under the title of The Seasons, in 1730. Thomson began his career as a dramatist with Sophonisba (1729). Of his plays, more will be said later: they have a special historical interest, in that, for the most part, their choice of subject and outspoken treatment were directed against the court party on behalf of the prince. In 1730, he went abroad as travelling tutor to a son of Sir Charles Talbot, solicitor-general and, afterwards, lord chancellor. He complained that the muse did not cross the channel with him, and his ambitious poem Liberty (1734–6), in which there are some touches due to his foreign tour, confirms the accuracy of his judgment. Thrown out of employment by the death of his pupil in 1733, he received from Talbot the sinecure secretaryship of briefs in chancery. He could afford, on the failure of Liberty, to cancel generously his bargain with the publisher, and, in 1736, to retire to a small house at Richmond, where he was able to enjoy the society of Pope and other friends. In these circumstances, he made a thorough revision of The Seasons, the fruits of which are seen in the transformed text of 1744. A copy of the 1738 edition in the British museum proves that he sought and took the advice of a friend whose poetical skill was considerable; but whether this helper, as has been assumed, was Pope or another, is a question upon which experts in handwriting differ. The new text, while omitting a certain amount which may be regretted, bears testimony to a judicious pruning of florid diction; and passages hitherto enervated by excess of colour gained in vigour what they lost in diffuseness. The poem, however, was lengthened by the insertion of new matter, much of which increased its general value. One personal feature of these additions is the introduction of references to Amanda, the subject, also, of the graceful lyric “Unless with my Amanda blest.” Too much may be made of attachments expressed in verse; but there is no doubt of Thomson’s genuine affection for Elizabeth Young, a sister-in-law of his friend Robertson, and this fact may be set against one side of the charge of sensuality imputed to him by Johnson, probably on the untrustworthy information of Savage. The Castle of Indolence, published in May, 1748, after a long period of elaborate revision, may stand as the personal confession of a poet whose industry was not proof against his love of ease and luxury. Thomson’s later days were not without reverses of fortune. The story of his arrest for debt and delivery from the spunging-house by Quin the actor may be a legend; but he lost his sinecure after Talbot’s death in 1737, through negligence (so it is said) in applying for its renewal. Through the instrumentality of Lyttelton, who was one of the lords of the treasury, he obtained the surveyorship-general of the Leeward islands, a sinecure well suited to a poet who had often surveyed the phenomena of nature from the pole to the tropics in his easy chair. A pension from the prince of Wales, who had received the dedication of Liberty and about 1737 heard from Thomson that his affairs were “in a more poetical posture than formerly,” was stopped when Lyttelton fell into disgrace with the prince. This was not long before Thomson’s death. One evening in the summer of 1748, after a journey by boat from Hammersmith to Richmond, he was attacked by a chill. A short recovery was followed by a relapse, and he died on 27 August. His tragedy Coriolanus was produced during the next year: the story of the emotion shown by Quin in the delivery of the prologue is a testimony to the affection which Thomson inspired in his friends.