Thomson, James (Vol. 29)
James Thomson 1700–1748
Scottish poet and dramatist. For further information on Thomson's career, see LC, Vol. 16.
Regarded as one of the leading poets in eighteenth-century European literature, Thomson is primarily known for The Seasons (1726-30), a four-part poetic work about nature and its transformations during the course of the year. Considered Thomson's masterpiece, The Seasons had a significant influence on eighteenth-century English and Continental literature, reflecting the period's fascination with nature, and establishing a paradigm for pastoral poetry throughout Europe. Thomson is also known for his patriotic poem "Rule Britannia," from the masque Alfred (1740), written with David Mallet and set to music by Thomas Augustine Arne. Since its debut in 1740, "Rule Britannia" has been the emblematic song of Great Britain.
Born the son of a clergyman in southern Scotland, Thomson was raised in the picturesque rural environment depicted in his most famous poems, and later studied for the ministry at Edinburgh University. In 1725, he went to London to pursue a literary career. While employed as a tutor, he worked on The Seasons, publishing Winter in 1726, Summer the following year, Spring in 1728, and Autumn in 1730. Even after publishing the collected cycle that same year, Thomson continued reworking and revising his masterpiece, introducing significant changes and additions and eventually publishing a revised edition in 1744. The poem was received enthusiastically, resulting in literary fame and the attractive position of travelling companion and tutor to Charles Talbot, son of the future Lord Chancellor. Thomson held this post, which provided him with the opportunity to visit France and Italy, until 1733, when he became Secretary of Briefs in the Court of Chancery. In 1737, he lost the secretarial appointment, owing to the death of the Lord Chancellor. The following year, upon the intervention of his friend George Lyttelton, the poet received an annual pension from the Prince of Wales. His financial situation became quite comfortable in 1744, when he was named Surveyor-General of the Leeward Islands. Highly esteemed by literary London, surrounded by loyal friends, and the recipient of sinecures, royalties, and a royal pension, Thomson spent his last years quietly, in a fine house in Kew Lane, Richmond, not far from his friend Alexander Pope. As many commentators—including Thomson himself—have noted, Thomson's life, though closely bound to writing, was characterized by a certain degree of indolence, which is one of the themes of his poetic oeuvre, notably the last poem completed before his death, The Castle of Indolence (1748).
Described by some critics as a precursor of Romanticism, Thomson is nevertheless firmly rooted in the traditions of Classicism and Rationalism, his worldview being clearly defined by the paramount significance he accorded science. Thomson venerated the scientist and philosopher Sir Isaac Newton, whose philosophy of nature represented the dominant intellectual paradigm of the period. "Newton," as Douglas Bush as written, "sees everywhere in the universe the proofs not only of design, both majestic and minute, but of God's continuously active care." The Newtonian conception of God as architect and guardian of the universe constitutes the religious and philosophical foundation of The Seasons. Related to Newton's theology, and also incorporated into the intellectual framework of The Seasons, is the idea of the Great Chain of Being, ultimately traceable to Platonic idealism, which postulates a hierarchical gradation of beings, from the lowest to the highest. Thomson also turned to Newton for accurate poetic description, as did many other poets; the seminal scientific work from which Thomson benefited was Newton's Opticks (1704), a treatise explaining the nature of color and light. "With Newtonian eyes," Marjorie Hope Nicholson has explained, "the poets discovered new beauties in the most familiar aspects of nature, which had always been the stuff of poetry in individual colors seen through the prism, the rainbow, in sunrise and sunset, in the succession of colors throughout the day." But no poet of the mid-century, Nicholson has asserted, "responded to Newtonian color and light more fully than did Thomson in The Seasons, and no other poet so well used the new techniques."
Characterized as a descriptive work lacking a narrative structure, The Seasons, with its stately blank verse construction and Latinate vocabulary, harks to the poetry of John Milton. Yet Thomson, while emulating Milton, superimposed his idiosyncratic diction onto an archaic poetic form, thus creating striking and highly suggestive images and harmonies. Thomson's descriptions are eminently pictorial, evoking the characteristic atmosphere encountered in the works of such landscape artists as Nicolas Poussin, Claude Lorrain, and Salvator Rosa. "Thomson and Dyer," wrote Mario Praz in The Romantic Agony, "with their descriptions which translate into terms of literature the pictorial manner of Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa, are the godfathers of the Picturesque." Influenced by visual artists, the author of The Seasons in turn inspired the English painter J. M. W. Turner, who honored the Scottish poet in his 1811 work, Thomson's Aeolian Harp. However, as critics have argued, The Seasons is more than a purely descriptive poem, considering that Thomson extends his interest to include not only nature but the observer, as well as the gamut of feelings elicited by the contemplation of nature's majesty. Thomson's concern for feelings, as commentators remark, reflects the spirit of the time, pointing to the Romantic sensibility of later poets. As such, Thomson is considered a forerunner of such poets as William Cowper and William Wordsworth.
In Liberty (1735-36), a five-part poetical panorama of various countries and their governments and mores, Thomson drew from the optimistic moralism of Anthony Ashley Cooper, Lord Shaftesbury, to extol the unrivalled virtues of Britain's political system. Indicative of Thomson's British patriotism, Liberty, as well as the poem Britannia (1729), also reveals the poet's sympathies for the political opposition—headed by the Prince of Wales—to the Whig prime minister Sir Robert Walpole, known for his feuds with writers. The Castle of Indolence, a verse allegory detailing, in Spenserian diction, the ills of indolence and the blessings of industry, has been hailed by critics as a brilliant and highly suggestive recreation of an old poetic mode. Thomson's other writings include incidental poems, exemplified by gentle love lyrics, and five dramas, which seldom rise above rhetorical bombast, according to critics. Thomson did gain some measure of fame as a playwright, however, particularly with his 1745 tragedy Tancred and Sigismunda, which is based on an episode from Alain-René Lesage's popular picaresque novel Gil Blas.
Thomson gained an international reputation primarily as a result of the success of The Seasons. Accessible to readers in translation, the poem became immensely popular shortly following its publication in England, eliciting praise from both the reading public at large and litterateurs, and exerting an extraordinary influence on writers. In the German-speaking world, Thomson's admirers included Albrecht von Haller, author of the poem Die Alpen (The Alps), Ewald von Kleist, who wrote Frühling (Spring), the lyric poet Johann Peter Uz, and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. In an adaptation by Gottfried van Swieten, the poem served Franz Joseph Haydn as a text for his celebrated oratorio Die Jahreszeiten. In France, Thomson was praised by Voltaire and emulated by poets. His influence can also be seen in the pastoral poetry of the Spaniard Juan Melendez Valdés. Thomson's English critics appreciated his originality but also expressed certain technical concerns. For example, such eminent contemporaries as Pope and Samuel Johnson, while recognizing The Seasons as a remarkable literary accomplishment, noted its compositional weakness. William Hazlitt thought highly of Thomson, naming him the foremost descriptive poet of the time. Anticipating a theme in later criticism, Wordsworth recognized Thomson's talent but complained about his "vicious style." Indeed, such later nineteenth-century commentators as George Saintsbury and Edmund Gosse focused on the formal structure of Thomson's poetry, identifying technical and stylistic faults and placing his diction under careful scrutiny. Twentieth-century critics have attempted to offer a balanced assessment of Thomson's poetry, noting that stylistic imperfections and dissonances in diction hardly diminish his poetic voice. "Despite the general and particular flaws," affirmed Douglas Grant in his acclaimed 1951 biography of Thomson, "The Seasons is a great if not a good poem, and it would be impossible to exaggerate its influence on English poetry." Commentators have also questioned earlier evaluations of Thomson's diction and style, arguing that some of his cadences may sound awkward because they are heard outside the natural context of Scottish speech. Finally, as the work of a Scottish poet who spent his productive years in England, Thomson's poetry has inevitably attracted the attention of scholars interested in Anglo-Scottish literary relations.
Winter. A Poem (poetry) 1726
Summer. A Poem (poetry) 1727
A Poem Sacred to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton (poetry) 1727
Spring. A Poem (poetry) 1728
Britannia. A Poem (poetry) 1729
Autumn. A Poem, (poetry) 1730
The Seasons. A Poem (poetry) 1730
The Tragedy of Sophonisba (drama) 1730
Antient and Modern Italy Compared: being the first Part of Liberty, a Poem (poetry) 1735
Greece: being the Second Part of Liberty, a Poem (poetry) 1735
Rome: being the Third Part of Liberty (poetry) 1735
Britain: being the Fourth Part of Liberty (poetry) 1736
The Prospect: being the Fifth Part of Liberty (poetry) 1736
Agamemnon. A tragedy (drama) 1738
The Works of Mr. Thomson (poetry, dramas) 1738
Edward and Eleonora. A Tragedy (drama) 1739
Alfred. A Masque (drama) 1740
Tancred and Sigismunda. A Tragedy (drama) 1745
The Castle of Indolence: an Allegorical Poem. Written in Imitation of Spenser (poetry) 1748
Coriolanus. A Tragedy (drama) 1749
(The entire section is 134 words.)
SOURCE: "A Poem Sacred to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton: Introduction" and "Britannia: Introduction," in The Castle of Indolence and Other Poems by James Thomson, edited by Alan Dugald McKillop, University of Kansas Press, 1961, pp. 128-47, 157-64.
[In the excerpt below, McKillop critically examines two of Thomson's major poems, providing historical background for each.]
Thomson's poem, linked in various ways, like all his work, with tendencies already clearly defined in the feeling and thought of his age, still conveys a fresh and authentic response to Newtonian science. Like the physico-theological pieces, it seeks some degree of precision, and in the tradition of philosophical panegyric it takes the highest ground. Among Thomson's shorter pieces it preeminently illustrates Miss [Josephine] Miles' excellent description of his mode as "an exceptionally panoramic and panegyric verse, emotional, pictorial, noble, universal, and tonal, rising to the height of heaven and of feeling in the style traditionally known as grand or sublime." Or, using the terms of an earlier age, we may apply to this poem Dryden's description of his Eleonora (1692): "It was intended … not for an Elegie, but a Panegyrique. A kind of Apotheosis, indeed; if a Heathen Word may be applyed to a Christian use."…
Newton is the central figure in a drama of revelation—almost a second creation,...
(The entire section is 2761 words.)
SOURCE: "Vision and Meaning in James Thomson," in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. IV, No. 4, Summer, 1965, pp. 206-19.
[An American essayist, biographer, and educator, Spacks has written extensively on eighteenth-century poetry. In the following essay, she demonstrates that, as is evidenced in The Seasons, Thomson possesses "clear physical vision, and the ability to reproduce its perceptions," as well as "the vital gift of transforming imaginative vision."]
Although James Thomson's The Seasons was early admired for its fine sentiments, its greatest influence was clearly as a work of natural description. Thomson himself, however, soon became aware of the essential impossibility of recording actuality in poetry. Spring (1728) contains a revealing passage (quoted here in its slightly altered final form):
But who can paint
Like Nature? Can imagination boast,
Amid its gay creation, hues like hers?
Or can it mix them with that matchless skill,
And lose them in each other, as appears
In every bud that blows? If fancy then
Unequal fails beneath the pleasing task,
Ah, what shall language do?
That the eye can discriminate more colors than language can define was an eighteenth-century truism. Thomson, however, here goes...
(The entire section is 4987 words.)
SOURCE: "Religion and Poetry, 1660-1780," in The Poet and His Faith: Religion and Poetry in England from Spenser to Eliot and Auden, The University of Chicago Press, 1965, pp. 123-59.
[In the excerpt below, Woodhouse finds Thomson's poetry to represent the synthesis of several religious and aesthetic strands which eventually saw their culmination in William Wordsworth's Prelude.]
With the spaciousness of the Georgics as precedent, James Thomson writes his poem on the seasons, mingling scenes from nature and rural life with philosophic reflections on nature and the God of nature. In these reflections the influence of Shaftesbury is dominant, but it is joined by that of Newton. Indeed, as McKillop has shown, all the major currents of religio-philosophic thought as applied to nature meet in The Seasons; and the reflections are supported by a more immediate response to the variety, grandeur, and beauty of nature than is found in the rather labored paragraphs of Shaftesbury. Though the subject is well worth pursuing in detail, we can afford here no more than a quotation from A Hymn, in which various currents of thought mingle and merge: a Shaftesburian sense of God's immanence, a Newtonian sense of his direction and control, the older traditions of God's power and goodness as revealed in the work of his hand, and of all his creatures as owing and paying him praise, and a sense of...
(The entire section is 794 words.)
SOURCE: "Thomson's Seasons, " in The English Georgie: A Study in the Development of a Form, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1969, pp. 90-140.
[In the following essay, Chalker examines the influence of Virgil's Georgics upon The Seasons "in order to show more clearly how Thomson's 'unspectacular competence' works, in other words to consider more fully the form of the poem. "]
Thirteen years after the publication of Windsor Forest Thomson brought out Winter and by 1730 The Seasons in its first version was complete. It was a poem which achieved and long retained an extraordinary popularity. There were often more than eight editions a year until the mid-nineteenth century, and there was a total of considerably more than three hundred separate editions in the hundred years from 1750-1850. It was frequently illustrated, and the illustrations range from grand designs by William Kent to humble woodcuts by obscure artists. After nearly a century Hazlitt wrote that Thomson was, perhaps, the most popular of English poets because,
he gives most of the poetry of natural description … treating a subject that all can understand, and in a way that is interesting to all alike, to the ignorant or the refined, because he gives back the impression which the things themselves make upon us in nature.
Yet what strikes...
(The entire section is 15376 words.)
SOURCE: An introduction and "Conclusion: The Artistry of The Seasons," in The Unfolding of "The Seasons," The Johns Hopkins Press, 1970, pp. 1-8, 324-30.
[In the excerpt below, Cohen offers a critical analysis of The Seasons, finding it a major Augustan work in which "Thomson's unity, diction, and thought are entwined with a conception of man, nature, and God poetically tenable and distinctive."]
A number of critics have sought to teach us how to read The Seasons, but their efforts still meet the determined resistance of such careful readers as F. R. Leavis and Reuben A. Brower. In Revaluation F. R. Leavis wrote: 'when we think of Johnson and Crabbe, when we recall any example of a poetry bearing a serious relation to the life of its time, then Gray, Thomson, Dyer, Akenside, Shenstone and the rest clearly belong to a by-line. It is literary and conventional in the worst sense of those terms.' And there is a more recent attack on the artistry of The Seasons [in 'Form and Defect of Form in Eighteenth Century Poetry: A Memorandum,' College English 29 (April 1968)] by Reuben A. Brower, who like another critic who guarded our tender sensibilities from Milton, warns against a Thomson revival on the grounds that Thomson lacks a 'unifying vision active in the separate descriptions.'
When such warnings are issued, it is necessary not to heed them,...
(The entire section is 5390 words.)
SOURCE: "Observer and Observed in Eighteenth-Century Literature," in The Self Observed: Swift, Johnson, Wordsworth, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1972, pp. 7-32.
[In the excerpt below, Golden examines patterns of "self-vision" in Thomson's poetry, notably The Castle of Indolence and The Seasons.]
While James Thomson shares with Pope such contemporary aspirations as synthesis, civilization, and universal harmony, he necessarily shaped them into a different vision. Thomson seems to have been neither alienated nor overtly idiosyncratic. Aside from a line in Winter about his boyhood joys in storms and a stanza or two in The Castle of Indolence on his poetic ambitions, he did not break the generic limitations of the poeta to speak of his own career or condition. He left few letters or documents, and these reveal no more about obvious mental patterns than we can gather from the anecdotes of his friends about his laziness, his mild sensuality, or his eager good nature. For us, the idiosyncratic elements in his poetic imagination must be derived mainly from the poems themselves. In his two main poems, The Seasons and Castle of Indolence, those personal characteristics become, I think, major principles of organization; and Thomson can be evidence that we do not need oddities verging on neurosis to provide critically useful patterns of self-vision in the poetry.
(The entire section is 3184 words.)
SOURCE: "From Accidie to Neurosis: The Castle of Indolence Revisited," in English Literature in the Age of Disguise, edited by Maximillian E. Novak, University of California Press, 1977, pp. 131-56.
[Greene is an American educator and essayist. In the following excerpt, he discusses the moral, psychiatric, and theological aspects of The Castle of Indolence, arguing that the poem has been overshadowed by the popularity of Thomson's earlier work, The Seasons.]
In 1916 George Saintsbury published a book about eighteenth-century English literature bearing the curious title The Peace of the Augustans. The book itself is a strange one. Saintsbury, then an old man in a new and frightening world, created in it an imaginary eighteenth century in which he found the security lacking in the Europe of 1916. The title is curious because, first, one does not read far in the English literature of the eighteenth century before discovering many expressions of deep distrust of the despotism of Augustus Caesar's Rome and contempt for the sycophancy of the great writers of the Augustan establishment. And it is hard to conceive how anyone familiar with British political and social history of the eighteenth century, its wars and riots and invasions, and with the tirades against it by those angry young men—who grew even angrier as they grew older—Swift, Pope in The Dunciad and later satires,...
(The entire section is 5047 words.)
SOURCE: "James Thomson's Luxuriant Language," in Graces of Harmony: Alliteration, Assonance, and Consonance in Eighteenth-Century British Poetry, The University of Georgia Press, 1977, pp. 118-35.
[In the following essay, Adams examines alliteration, assonance, and consonance in Thomson's poetry, citing it as a key to understanding what some critics have termed its "luxuriance."]
"It … sometimes can be charged with filling the ear more than the mind."—Dr. Johnson
Few poems have been so often reprinted or so often condemned and admired as James Thomson's The Seasons, and one of the most controversial of that once popular poem's characteristics is its diction. Although Dr. Johnson admired Thomson, he spoke for a large group of readers, including Wordsworth and Hazlitt, when in The Lives of the English Poets he said of one aspect of Thomson's diction, it "is in the highest degree florid and luxuriant…. It is too exuberant and sometimes can be charged with filling the ear more than the mind." But an even greater number of readers, if not always such honored ones, have liked Thomson's language, from John More's (1777) praise of the "luxuriant images," to Robert Bell's (1860) admiration for the "richness and luxuriance of phrase," to the twentieth century's scholarly defense. In spite, however, of the perennially strong protest against Dr. Johnson's charges about the...
(The entire section is 4822 words.)
SOURCE: An introduction to The Plays of James Thomson, edited by Percy G. Adams, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1979, pp. v-xxxvii.
[In the following excerpt, Adams surveys Thomson's six dramas, discussing each play from both a performance-based and an aesthetic perspective.]
Thomson's six plays were written between 1730, the year of the first full edition of The Seasons, and 1749, the last one being acted and published posthumously. Five are called tragedies—Sophonisba (1730), Agamemnon (1738), Edward and Eleonora (1739), Tancred and Sigismunda (1744), and Coriolanus (1749), while Alfred (1740) is subtitled A Masque and was co-authored with David Mallet, Thomson's friend.
The first of these, Sophonisba, was produced at Drury Lane on February 28, 1730, with Wilks as Masinissa and the equally great Anne Oldfield playing Sophonisba in her last appearance before her death a few months later. Thomson's preface is highly revealing as a document declaring his dramatic theories and practice not just for this one play but for all his blank-verse tragedies. Here he announces that he has been true to history and that he chose the story of Sophonisba for its "simplicity," for, he says, "It is one, regular, and uniform … yet affording several revolutions of fortune." Most revealing perhaps in his long quotation from Racine concerning...
(The entire section is 7757 words.)
SOURCE: "Scientific and Poetic Imagination in James Thomson's Poem Sacred to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 33-50.
[In the following essay, Ketcham investigates three patterns in Poem Sacred to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton through which Thomson "takes the elegy for Newton as an occasion to define the scientific imagination poetically, and, through the definition of science, to define implicitly the potentials of the poetic imagination."]
The lines of influence between the poetry and the new science of the eighteenth century have been often studied, usually with the aim of showing how the observations, language, or methods of science are incorporated into poems. My interest here, though, in reading James Thomson's Poem Sacred to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton, is not so much in what science does to poetry as in what poetry does to science, since Thomson takes the elegy for Newton as an occasion to define the scientific imagination poetically, and, through the definition of science, to define implicitly the potentials of the poetic imagination. This approach to Thomson's poem allows us to see certain features of Thomson's poetic practice, and it allows us to see the poem as one vehicle for an eighteenth-century mythology of science, a mythology of science which reflects less the empirical methods of science itself than an...
(The entire section is 5410 words.)
SOURCE: "The Long Poem Obstructed," in Literary Loneliness in Mid-Eighteenth-Century England, Cornell, 1982, pp. 157-88.
[In the excerpt below, Sitter offers a thematic discussion of Liberty and the constituent poems of The Seasons.]
If we consider Thomson's poetic career and take seriously his aspirations as a philosophic poet, we need to give more witness than usual to Liberty, his second longest poem and the work which occupied many of his best years. Liberty was published in 1735-1736; Thomson seems to have begun it shortly after completing The Seasons in 1730, and many of the more than 1,000 lines added to The Seasons in the editions of 1744 and 1746 reflect Thomson's political preoccupations. Thomson may well have thought, as McKillop has suggested, of his new subject as the outcome of a Virgilian maturation from pastoral to a more overtly political and epic undertaking. We may think of it, less consciously and generically, as Thomson's transfer of the problem of theodicy from "nature" to history.
Perhaps before we go further it will help us to recall the persistence of the mid-eighteenth-century problem of theodicy, which is essentially the loss of physicotheological confidence, by considering some of its modern formulations. Its starkest statement in recent literature may be memorandum Walker Percy's "moviegoer" writes to himself:...
(The entire section is 2646 words.)
SOURCE: "The Whig Sublime and James Thomson," in English Language Notes, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, September, 1986, pp. 27-35.
[In the essay below, Cohen defines and examines the "curious fusion of aesthetic and political ideas," which he terms the "Whig Sublime," as it appears in Thomson's dramas.]
In 1976 I first described an early eighteenth-century literary phenomenon which I called the Whig Sublime. The Whig Sublime fuses the imagery of the "natural sublime"—descriptions of natural scenes of great size or power such as mountains, oceans, deserts, storms, and so on—with the notion, especially appealing to the Whigs, that England's liberty and democratic institutions came from the rough northern homeland of her Germanic invaders, the "Goths." The Whigs saw themselves as the inheritors and preservers of this "Gothic" heritage of liberty, and the plays and poems written as Whig party vehicles during the first decades of the eighteenth century are full of the imagery of the Whig Sublime. Perhaps no playwright of the period used such imagery more than James Thomson (1700-1748), the writer better known for his long blank verse poem The Seasons, but also the author of five plays and co-author (with David Mallett) of the masque Alfred, from which "Rule, Britannia" comes. While Addison's Cato may provide the earliest example of the Whig Sublime in drama, Thomson's plays of the thirties and...
(The entire section is 2489 words.)
SOURCE: "The Castle of Indolence and the Opposition to Walpole," in The Review of English Studies, n.s. Vol. XLI, No. 161, February, 1990, pp. 45-64.
[In the following excerpt, Gerrard reads The Castle of Indolence as a political poem which politely but firmly chastises the ineffectualness of political life in England during Robert Walpole's term as First Minister.]
In May 1748, only weeks before his death, James Thomson's last and most enigmatic poem finally went to press: The Castle of Indolence. An Allegorical Poem. Written in Imitation of Spenser. In a literary era in which admiration for Spenser was becoming increasingly de rigueur, its popularity was assured. By the end of the century, Romantic critics and poets, with their taste for sensuous Spenserian stanzas, prized The Castle of Indolence almost as highly as The Seasons: Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and later Tennyson all fell under its spell. Yet their admiration usually extended only as far as the end of Canto I. The Romantics misread The Castle of Indolence as they misread The Faerie Queene, subordinating allegorical meaning to purely descriptive effects. Canto II and the controlling allegorical scheme were ignored, despite Thomson's explicit emphasis in his title-page that this was, above all, 'An Allegorical Poem'. Thomson began The Castle of Indolence in 1733-4, some fifteen years...
(The entire section is 7270 words.)
SOURCE: "Last Years: The Castle of Indolence and Coriolanus, 1746-1748," in James Thomson, 1700-1748: A Life, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1991, pp. 248-84.
[Sambrook is one of the world's leading authorities on Thomson and the author of a major biography of the poet. In the following excerpt from that work, he offers a closely biographical and source-related interpretation of The Castle of Indolence, Thomson's final work.]
[Having been deeply disappointed by a long delay in seeing his play Coriolanus produced] Thomson has a happier fate to report to [William] Paterson concerning an even longer-gestated work:
know that, after fourteen or fifteen Years, the Castle of Indolence comes abroad in a Fortnight. It will certainly travel as far as Barbadoes. You have an Apartment in it, as a Night-Pensioner; which, you may remember, I fitted up for you during our delightful Party at North-Haw. Will ever these Days return again? Dont you remember your eating the raw Fish that were never catched.
The holiday mood of this reference confirms Murdoch's account of the original conception of The Castle of Indolence, an Allegorical Poem, written in Imitation of Spenser: 'It was, at first, little more than a few detached stanzas, in the way of raillery on himself, and on some of his friends, who would reproach him...
(The entire section is 4811 words.)
SOURCE: "Collins, Thomson, and the Whig Progress of Liberty," in Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, Vol. 34, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. 553–77.
[In the excerpt below, Levine compares Thomson's Liberty with William Collins's "Ode to Liberty."]
Liberty, James Thomson's nearly 3500-line blank verse "poetical vision" that recounts the Whiggish progress of European civilization and the triumphs of British freedom, has been almost unanimously viewed as one of his greatest aesthetic failures, a poem that Johnson once "tried to read, and soon desisted." To this day, interest in the poem remains mostly historical, perhaps unjustly. For not only did Thomson incorporate sections of this panoramic didactic poem into his later, expanded versions of The Seasons, but mid-eighteenth-century British poets also acknowledged this most extensive of progress pieces as a central work of patriotic poetry. In December 1746, twelve years after the first books of Liberty were published, William Collins offered his 144-line Pindaric "Ode to Liberty," one of the more ambitious pieces in his collection, Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegoric Subjects. Although it is indebted at various points to Pope, Dryden, Spenser, the lyrical (as opposed to Thomson's epic) Milton, and writers of the classical and native British Pindaric traditions, Collins's ode borrows and transforms substantial...
(The entire section is 7201 words.)
Barrell, John. The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place, 1730-1840: An Approach to the Poetry of John Clare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972, 244 p.
Discusses the influence of Italian landscape painting on Thomson's poetic technique, as well as Thomson's impact on the poetry of Clare.
Brown, Marshall. "The Urbane Sublime: Formal Balance in Thomson and Collins." In his Preromanticism, pp. 29-34. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991.
Offers an analysis of the style of eighteenth-century sublime poetry exemplified by The Seasons and William Collins's Odes.
Campbell, Hilbert H. James Thomson. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979, 175 p.
Introductory biographical and critical study. Campbell traces the life and major works of Thomson, and examines his reputation and influence.
Spencer, Jeffry B. "James Thomson and Ideal Landscape: The Triumph of Pictorialism." In his Heroic Nature: Ideal Landscape in English Poetry from Marvell to Thomson, pp. 253-95. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1973.
Examines the ways in which the descriptive technique of The Seasons and The Castle of Indolence stem from Thomson's considerable appreciation of the...
(The entire section is 234 words.)