James Thomson (1700-1748) Analysis

Other literary forms (British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Although James Thomson’s reputation is as a poet, he also wrote plays that were generally successful in their day. He wrote five plays and coauthored a sixth. The Tragedy of Sophonisba, a tragedy about the Carthaginian queen Sophonisba, was performed and published in 1730. Thomson’s second tragedy, Agamemnon, appeared in 1738. His next two plays followed rapidly: Edward and Eleonora (pb. 1739) was prohibited by censorship, and Alfred (pr., pb. 1740) was coauthored with David Mallet. The play about King Alfred contains Thomson’s famous ode “Rule, Britannia,” still well known in England, especially the refrain: “Rule, Britannia, rule the waves;/ Britons never will be slaves.” Thomson’s most successful play, the tragedy Tancred and Sigismunda (pr., pb. 1745), continued to be performed in the second half of the eighteenth century and was translated into French and German. His final play, the tragedy Coriolanus (pr., pb. 1749), was not performed until after Thomson’s death.

James Thomson (1700-1748) Achievements (British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

For more than a century, James Thomson’s most famous work, The Seasons, was among the most widely read poems in English. It went through more than two hundred editions in the eighteenth century. Even though William Wordsworth replaced Thomson as the poet of nature for English readers beginning in the nineteenth century, The Seasons remained popular; there have been more than four hundred editions of the poem since the eighteenth century.

James Thomson (1700-1748) Bibliography (British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Goodman, Kevis. Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism: Poetry and the Mediation of History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Examines the poetry and writings of Thomson (The Seasons), William Wordsworth, William Cowper, and Joseph Addison.

Irlam, Shaun. Elations: The Poetics of Enthusiasm in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999. Takes the concept of enthusiasm and examines the aesthetic theory and poetry of Thomson and Edward Young.

Lethbridge, Stefanie. James Thomson’s Defence of Poetry: Intertextual Allusion in “The Seasons.” Tübingen, Germany: Max Niemeyer, 2003. Examines aesthetics in Thomson’s The Seasons.

Sambrook, James. James Thomson, 1700-1748: A Life. New York: Clarendon Press, 1991. This extensive biography places Thomson in his social and cultural context, explores his relationships with fellow writers such as Alexander Pope, and thoroughly examines Thomson’s Whig politics and relationship with Frederick, Prince of Wales, leader of the opposition to Prime Minister Robert Walpole. Sambrook supplies biography, history, and literary criticism by producing a detailed analysis of the whole body of Thomson’s writings.

Scott, Mary Jane W. James Thomson, Anglo-Scot. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988. This book argues for the importance of the Scottish dimensions of Thomson’s writings. For example, although Anthony Ashley-Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury, has always been considered a major influence on Thomson’s ideas about benevolence and the poetry of sensibility, this book shows that the Scottish writer Francis Hutcheson, a follower of Shaftesbury, was the more important influence. Hutcheson had a Calvinist interpretation of benevolence, which moved Thomson to his frequent promotion in his poetry of sympathy as a universal social duty.

Terry, Richard, ed. James Thomson: Essays for the Tercentenary. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 2000. This is the first book of essays devoted to Thomson’s works. Part 1 focuses on Thomson’s poetry and drama, and part 2 examines Thomson’s influences on later writers and his reputation. There is a useful introduction that gives a good overview of Thomson scholarship. This book offers a reappraisal of Thomson from the perspective of the early twenty-first century, to show how he transcends his own time, as well as being a barometer of the trends of his day.