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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
James Thomson (1700–1748)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
JAMES THOMSON occupies a significant position among English poets, less by virtue of his poetical gifts—although these are of no mean order—than by the wholesome influence of his recognition of nature in an artificial age. He was a contemporary of Pope, yet he struck a note in his poems which was to be amplified later in the works of Wordsworth and Coleridge, of Shelley and Keats. He was the father of the natural school, as opposed to the pseudo-classical school of which Pope was the complete embodiment.  1
  When Thomson was growing up amid the wild scenery of the Scottish Border country, literary England was dominated by an ideal of verse in contrast to which even Shakespeare’s measures were held to be barbarous. The rhyming iambic pentameter, the favorite verse form, had been developed by Pope to such a point of polished perfection that imitation alone was possible. Moreover, it was employed only on a limited range of subjects. These might be either classical or urbane: nothing so vulgar as nature or the common people was worthy of the Muse. The genius of poetry had been brought from the fresh air of the fields into the vitiated air of the drawing-rooms; had been laced and powdered and encased in stiff brocades, which hindered all freedom of motion.  2
  But of this Thomson knew nothing. It was his good fortune to have been born far from London, and to have been brought up amid the simple influences of country life. He was born in 1700 in the parish of Ednam, in Roxburghshire, of which his father was minister. He received his early education at Jedburgh school. It was at Jedburgh that he met a Mr. Riccalton, who was accustomed to teach the boys Latin in the aisle of his church. He had written a poem on ‘A Winter’s Day,’ from which Thomson obtained his first idea for the ‘Seasons.’ The future poet’s education was received more from nature than from books. The magnificent panorama of the year was unrolled continually before him, and he was not indifferent to its beauties. It was with reluctance that he left his country home for Edinburgh, where he remained five years as a student of divinity. The ministry, however, had few attractions for him: in 1725 he abandoned his studies, and followed a fellow-student, Mallet, to London, to seek his fortune there. Through the influence of a friend, Lady Baillie, he obtained a tutorship in the family of Lord Binning; but he held this position only a short time. The following winter found him without money, without prospects, and almost without friends. The death of his mother had plunged him into deep melancholy: he gave vent to his feelings at the approach of the unfriendly winter, by writing the first of his poems on the seasons. For several weeks after its publication no notice was taken of it; then a gentleman of some influence in the London world of letters ran across it, and immediately proclaimed its value in the coffee-houses. ‘Winter’ began to be widely read: its popularity was soon established.  3
  Thomson enjoyed all the prestige of a man who has struck a new vein in literature. It is easy to understand how the jaded palates of the London circles, surfeited with Popian classicism, were refreshed by this simple poem of winter in the country. To the generations which know Wordsworth, Thomson’s song of the bleak season seems well-nigh artificial; but it was Nature herself to the coffee-house coteries who had forgotten her existence. It contains indeed much that is sincere, wholesome, and beautiful. The pretty picture of bright-eyed robin-redbreast hopping across the cottage floor in quest of crumbs, the pathetic description of the peasant-shepherd dying in the snow, while his wife and children wait for him in vain, must have stirred unwonted emotions in the hearts of a generation accustomed to the jeweled artificialities of the ‘Rape of the Lock.’ Thomson’s conception of nature was in no sense like that of Wordsworth: he never disassociated it from human interests; it is always the background for the human drama: but for this reason it was popular, and will always remain popular, with a class of persons to whom the Wordsworthian conception seems cold and unsympathetic.  4
  ‘Winter’ was also significant because it was written in blank verse of a noble order. The rhyming couplets of the classicists, the rocking-horse movement of their verse, had done much to destroy the exquisite musical sense which had reached its perfection in the Elizabethans. It was the mission of Thomson to revive this sense through his artistic use of blank verse.  5
  ‘Summer’ was published not long after ‘Winter.’ It was followed by an ‘Ode to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton.’ ‘Spring’ was published in 1728, and ‘Autumn’ in 1730. In this same year, the play of ‘Sophonisba’ also appeared; but Thomson never succeeded as a playwright. His ‘Agamemnon,’ his ‘Tancred and Sigismunda,’ his masque of ‘Alfred,’ which contains the song ‘Rule, Britannia,’ are stilted and dreary compositions. He had written ‘Alfred’ in conjunction with his friend Mallet. His poem ‘Liberty,’ published the first part in 1734 and the second in 1736, was of no higher order of merit. It would seem that after writing the ‘Seasons,’ Thomson’s energies declined, not again to be revived in full force until he wrote the ‘Castle of Indolence,’ shortly before his death. His income during these years was obtained partly from his books, and partly from sinecure positions. In 1744 he was appointed Surveyor-General of the Leeward Islands, a position which he held until his death in 1748.  6
  In the year of his death ‘The Castle of Indolence’ was published. It is a poem of great beauty and charm, whose richness of diction is suggestive of Keats. The sensuous Spenserian stanza employed is well adapted to the subject. The false enchanter, Indolence, holds many captive in his castle by his magic arts; but he is at last conquered by the Knights of the Arts and Industries. The slumberous atmosphere of the Castle and its environment is wonderfully communicated in the opening stanzas; and the poem in its entirety is worthy of the author of the ‘Seasons’ at his best.  7
  What Wordsworth is to the nineteenth century, Thomson was to the eighteenth. With him began that outpouring of the true poetical spirit which was to culminate one hundred years later.  8
 
 
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