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Significant Scots
James Thomson

THOMSON, JAMES, a celebrated poet, was born, September 11, 1700, at Ednam, near Kelso, of which parish his father was minister. Beatrix Trotter, the mother of the poet, was daughter and co-heiress of a small portion of land at Foggo in Berwickshire, and is described as having been a woman of "a singular fervour of imagination," at the same time that she shone in the domestic and social virtues. The difficulty with which his father supported his family, having nine children, occasioned his removal, in the early childhood of the poet, to the parish of Southdean, in the presbytery of Jedburgh, where the stipend, though not large, was somewhat better than that which he had enjoyed at Ednam. The change was from a low and beautifully ornamented part of the country, and the close neighbourhood of a considerable market town, to an elevated pastoral district, enlivened only by the slender waters of the Jed, and frequented by few except the lonely angler. In the church-yard of Southdean, may yet be seen the humble monument of the father of the poet, with the inscription almost obliterated. The manse in which that individual reared his large family, of whom one was to become so illustrious, was what would now be described as a small thatched cottage. [Infomration by Mr Richmond, the present minister of Southdean.] The poet received the rudiments of his education at the school of Jedburgh, and was not distinguished among his youthful companions, by remarkable superiority of parts. He was still, however, very young, when his talents for writing verses attracted the attention of several respectable individuals in that part of the country. Mr Riccarton, minister of the neighbouring parish of Hobkirk, and a man of taste and learning, observed and encouraged this talent; and young Thomson was occasionally invited, on account of his promising abilities, to spend his vacations at the country seats of Sir William Bennet of Chesters, Sir Gilbert Elliot of Minto, and lord Cranstoun. He was so little pleased, however, with the poetry he produced at this early period, that on every new-year’s day he burnt all that he had composed during the foregoing years. At a proper age he was sent to the university of Edinburgh. According to tradition, a servant of his father conducted him to the capital, seated behind himself on horseback; but such was his reluctance to forsake the country, that he had no sooner been left to himself in the city, than he set out on foot for home, and was back at his father’s manse (between fifty and sixty miles distant) as soon as the man and the horse. When his parents remonstrated with him respecting this disobedient conduct, he passionately observed that "he could study as well on the haughs of Sou’den (so Southdean is commonly pronounced) as in Edinburgh." [The editor is obliged for this curious anecdote to Mr Richmond.] He was, nevertheless, prevailed upon to commence a course of study in Edinburgh.

In the second year of his attendance at the university, his studies were interrupted by the sudden death of his father. He was summoned home to receive his parent’s dying benediction, but came too late. This circumstance contributed to increase his sorrow, and his filial piety was expressed on this mournful occasion in instances of conduct which his surviving relations afterwards delighted to recollect.

His mother now realized as much as she could from her own little inheritance, and removed with her family to Edinburgh, in order to give them what persons of her rank in Scotland generally consider as the best of all endowments, a good education. James re-commenced his studies, and with some reluctance was induced by his friends to enter upon a course of divinity, with the view of applying his talents to the church. After the usual attendance on the professor of theology, he delivered a probationary exercise in the hall; but his diction was so poetically splendid, that the professor reproved him for using language unintelligible to a popular audience; which so disgusted him with his theological pursuits, that he seems to have, soon after this event, resolved to abandon them. He had already contributed to a poetical volume, entitled the Edinburgh Miscellany, which was compiled by a society of young aspirants in verse who were attending the college, and among whom was David Mallet. About the same time he acted as tutor to lord Binning,--the son of the sixth earl of Haddington, and himself a poet; to whom he had probably been introduced by his mother’s friend, lady Grizzel Baillie, mother-in-law to his lordship, and whose "Memoirs" possess so much tender interest; who, finding him unlikely to do well in any other pursuit, advised him to try his fortune in London as a poet, and promised him some countenance and assistance. Accordingly, in the autumn of 1725, he took leave of his mother, whom he was never more to behold, and proceeded by sea to London, carrying with him little besides his poem of "Winter." On arriving in the metropolis, he found his way to his college friend Mallet, who then acted as preceptor to the two sons of the duke of Montrose; he also sought out Mr Duncan Forbes, afterwards president of the court of session, who, having conceived a favourable opinion of his talents in Scotland, was now disposed to promote his views by all means in his power. He was at first in considerable difficulties for the means of subsistence, and is found writing to an ancient friend of his family, the minister of Ancrum, for the loan of twelve pounds, in order to pay off some little debts he had contracted since his arrival in the metropolis, and to procure necessaries, till he should raise something by the sale of his deceased mother’s lands of Whithope. By the friendly intervention of Mallet, a bookseller named Millar was induced to buy "Winter" at a low price, and it was accordingly published in 1726, with a dedication to Sir Spencer Compton, and several recommendatory verses by his friends. Though unnoticed for some time, it gradually attained that estimation which it has ever since maintained, and soon procured for the author the friendship of all the men then distinguished in literature. His acquaintance was sought by Dr Rundle, afterwards bishop of Derry, who recommended him to the lord chancellor Talbot. In 1727, he published another of his Seasons, "Summer," which he at first proposed dedicating to lord Binning, but eventually by the disinterested advice of that nobleman, inscribed to Mr Dodington, afterwards lord Melcombe, whom Binning thought likely to advance his interest. The same year he gave to the public two more of his productions; "A Poem Sacred to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton," who died in that year; and "Britannia," a poetical invective against the ministry, whom the nation then thought not forward enough in resenting the depredations of the Spaniards. His "Spring," published in 1728, and addressed to the countess of Hertford, afterwards duchess of Somerset, procured him an invitation to pass a summer at lord Hertford’s country-seat. The Seasons were not completed by the addition of "Autumn," till 1730, when he published his poems collectively. Autumn was addressed to Mr Onslow.

In the same year, he brought upon the stage, at Drury Lane, his tragedy of Sophonisba, which raised such expectation, that every rehearsal was dignified with a splendid audience, collected to anticipate the delight that was preparing for the public. It was observed, however, that nobody was affected, and that the company rose as from a moral lecture. It was one of the many proofs that dramatic genius is a very different thing from the power of putting in dialogue fine sentiment and poetical description. Not long afterwards, the recommendation of Dr Rundle caused him to be selected as the travelling associate of the honourable Mr Talbot, eldest son of the chancellor, with whom he visited most of the courts and countries of the European continent. Such an opportunity could not fail to be a source of much improvement to one, whose mind was well prepared for the observation of the different forms of society, and appearances in external nature. The idea of his poem on Liberty suggested itself to him during this tour, and after his return he employed nearly two years in its completion. He was now enabled to pursue his studies at leisure, having been remunerated for his attendance on Mr Talbot, by the place of secretary of the briefs, which was nearly a sinecure. His poem "Liberty" at length appeared, being inscribed to Frederick, prince of Wales, and opening with an affectionate tribute to the memory of Mr Talbot, who had died during his journey with the poet. Thomson congratulated himself upon this work as the noblest effort of his mind; but it was received with coldness by the public, and has never been so generally read as the rest of his compositions. In reality, a long historical piece in blank verse, the incidents of which were taken from common reading, was not very likely to prove attractive.

The lord chancellor soon after died, and, Thomson having neglected to apply for a renewal of his place, it was bestowed by the succeeding judge, lord Hardwicke, upon another. The poet was, therefore, reduced once more to a dependence on his talents for support. It is creditable to him, that, while in this painful situation, he showed, in his letters to a friend in Edinburgh, an affectionate anxiety to assist the narrow circumstances of his sisters, Jean and Elizabeth, who then lived with Mr Gusthart, one of the ministers of the city. He was introduced, about this time, by Mr (afterwards lord) Littleton, to the prince of Wales; and, being questioned as to the state of his affairs, he answered. "that they were in a more poetical posture than formerly:" which induced the prince to bestow upon him a pension of one hundred pounds a-year.

In 1738, his second tragedy, entitled "Agamemnon," was brought upon the stage at Drury Lane. Pope, who had favoured the author, when in Italy, with a poetical epistle, countenanced the performance on the first night by his presence; and was received in the house with a general clap. It had the fate of most mythological pieces, and was only endured, not favoured. The reception it met with, is said to have thrown the author into such a copious perspiration, that he found it necessary to change his wig, before he could join a party of friends at supper. Another tragedy, which he offered to the theatre, was "Edward and Eleonora;" but it was prevented from appearing by the lord chamberlain, on account of its political complexion. In 1740, he wrote, in conjunction with Mallet, the "Masque of Alfred," which was performed before the prince of Wales, at Cliefden House, on the birth-day of the princess Augusta. In this piece was introduced the song, "Rule Britannia," which has ever since maintained so high a popularity. It is understood to be the composition of Thomson. [It appears from the letters published by the earl of Buchan, that Thomson at this time rented a house at the upper end of Kew Lane; and that the Amanda whom he so frequently celebrated in his verses, was a Miss Young, sister of Mrs Robertson, wife of the surgeon to the household at Kew.]

The most successful of his dramatic compositions, "Tancred and Sigismunda," was brought out at Drury Lane, in 1745: it is still occasionally acted. His poem, entitled "The Castle of Indolence," which had been several yeals under his polishing hand, and which is perhaps the most perfect and pleasing of all his compositions, was published in 1746. His friend, lord Lyttleton, was now in power, and procured him the place of surveyor-general of Leeward Islands; from which, when his deputy was paid, he received about three hundred pounds a-year. He did not live long to enjoy this state of comparative independence. He was in the habit of walking from London to his house at Richmond, for the sake of exercise. One evening, after he had proceeded a certain distance, being fearful that he would be too late, he took a boat for the remainder of the way, not observing that the dews of the evening, and the cold air of the river, were dangerous to a person whose pores were opened by the perspiration of a hasty walk. The cold which he caught on this occasion, terminated in a fever, which carried him off, August 27, 1748, when he had nearly completed the forty-eighth year of his age. He was buried under a plain stone in Richmond church, where the earl of Buchan, forty years afterwards, erected a tablet to his memory. A monument, however, had been raised to him at an earlier period in Westminster Abbey. The poet left a tragedy, entitled "Coriolanus," which was brought upon the stage at Covent Garden, in 1749, and realized a considerable sum for the benefit of his relations.

It is as a descriptive poet that Thomson has gained a permanent fame; for all his compositions, except of that kind, have sunk into comparative neglect. His "Seasons" has now kept its place amongst the poetical classics of England, for upwards of a century; and still there is no perceptible tendency to decline in its popularity. In reference to this poem, Dr Johnson has written as follows; and no further criticism seems to be necessary:—"As a writer, Thomson is entitled to one praise of the highest kind,—his mode of thinking, and of expressing his thoughts, is original. His blank verse is no more the blank verse of Milton, or of any other poet, than the rhymes of Prior are the rhymes of Cowley. His numbers, his pauses, his diction, are of his own growth, without transcription, without imitation. He thinks in a peculiar train, and he always thinks as a man of genius: he looks round on nature, and on life, with the eye which nature only bestows on a poet, the eye that distinguishes, in every thing presented to its view, whatever there is on which imagination can delight to be detained, and with a mind that at once comprehends the vast, and attends to the minute. The reader of the ‘Seasons,’ wonders that he never saw before what Thomson shows him, and that he never yet felt what Thomson impresses. His descriptions of extended scenes, and general effects, bring before us the whole magnificence of nature, whether pleasing or dreadful. The gaiety of Spring, the splendour of Summer, the tranquillity of Autumn, and the horrors of Winter, take, in their turns, possession of the mind. The poet leads us through the appearances of things, as they are successively varied by the vicissitudes of the year; and imparts to us so much of his own enthusiasm, that our thoughts expand with his imagery, and kindle with his sentiments. Nor is the naturalist without his share in the entertainment; for he is assisted to recollect and to combine, to arrange his discoveries, and to amplify the sphere of his contemplation."

"Thomson," says Dr Aikin, "was in person large and ungainly, with a heavy unanimated countenance, and nothing in his appearance or manner in mixed society indicating the man of genius or refinement. He was, however, easy and cheerful with select friends, by whom he was singularly beloved for the kindness of his heart, and his freedom from all the little malignant passions, which too often debase the literary character. His benevoleoce is said to be more ardent than active, for indolence was extremely prevalent in his nature; and though he would readily give to the utmost of his ability, he could not overcome his reluctance to exert himself in doing services. He was fond of indulgences of every kind, and was more attached to the grosser pleasures of sense, than the sentimental delicacy of his writings would lead a reader to suppose: but this is a common failing. No poet has deserved more praise for the moral tenor of his works. Undoubted philanthropy, enlarged ideas of the dignity of man, and of his rights; love of virtues, public and private, and of a devotional spirit, narrowed by no views of sect or party, give soul to his verse, when not merely descriptive: and no one can rise from the perusal of his pages, without melioration of his principles or feelings."

The remark here made as to the attachment of Thomson "to the grosser pleasures of sense," demands some comment. The purity of his writings has been celebrated by lord Lyttleton, and generally allowed by the world; and, excepting the above remark, which is to be traced to the report of Savage to Dr Johnson, and has not been generally credited, no charge has ever, till lately, been laid against the private character of the poet.

In a work lately published, under the title of "Records of my Life," a posthumous autobiography of Mr John Taylor, the author of the humorous poem of "Monsieur Tonson," a curious tale is related, on the authority of the late Mr George Chalmers. "Mr Chalmers," says Taylor, "had heard that an old housekeeper of Thomson’s was alive, and still resided at Richmond. Having determined to write a life of the celebrated poet of his country, he went to Richmond, thinking it possible he might obtain some account of the domestic habits of the poet, and other anecdotes which might impart interest and novelty to his narration. He found that the old housekeeper had a good memory, and was of a communicative turn. She informed him Thomson had been actually married in early life, but that his wife had been taken by him merely for her person, and was so little calculated to be introduced to his great friends, or indeed his friends in general, that he had kept her in a state of obscurity for many years; and when he at last, from some compunctious feelings, required her to come and live with him at Richmond, he still kept her in the same secluded state, so that she appeared to be only one of the old domestics of the family. At length his wife, experiencing little of the attention of a husband, though otherwise provided with every thing that could make her easy, if not comfortable, asked his permission to go for a few weeks to visit her own relations in the north. Thomson gave his consent, exacting a promise that she would not reveal her real situation to any of his or her own family. She agreed; but when she had advanced no farther on her journey than to London she was there taken ill, and in a short time died. The news of her death was immediately conveyed to Thomson, who ordered a decent funeral; and she was buried, as the old housekeeper said, in the churchyard of old Marylebone church. Mr Chalmers, who was indefatigable in his inquiries, was not satisfied with the old woman’s information, but immediately went and examined the church register; where he found the following entry—‘Died, Mary Thomson, a stranger’--in confirmation of the housekeeper’s testimony.

There is little, perhaps, in this story to invalidate the commonly received notions as to the worth of Thomson’s character; though, allowing it to be true, it certainly is not calculated to elevate him in the estimation of the world. The present writer has, of course, no wish to degrade any of the eminent names of the past; but he thinks it worth while, by way of correcting a piece of literary history, to mention that the late earl of Buchan possessed a poem in Thomson’s hand-writing, and bearing all the erasures, interpolations, and other peculiarities, that could mark the composition as his own, which displayed a marked degree of licentiousness. He has, therefore, been satisfied that Thomson, though he had the good sense to publish nothing of an impure character, was not incapable of delighting in gross ideas, and composing lines—

"---which, dying, he could wish to blot."

James Thomson
By William Bayne (Famous Scots Series) (1898) (pdf)

The Complete Poetical Works of James Thomson
By J. Logie Robertson, M.A. (1908) (pdf)

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