James Thomson Essay - Critical Essays

Thomson, James (Vol. 29)

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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).

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Criticism

Alan Dugald McKillop (essay date 1961)

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...

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Patricia Meyer Spacks (essay date 1965)

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...

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A. S. P. Woodhouse (essay date 1965)

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...

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John Chalker (essay date 1969)

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...

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Ralph Cohen (essay date 1970)

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...

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Morris Golden (essay date 1972)

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...

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Donald Greene (essay date 1977)

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...

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Percy G. Adams (essay date 1977)

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...

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Percy G. Adams (essay date 1979)

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...

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Michael G. Ketcham (essay date 1982)

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...

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John Sitter (essay date 1982)

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...

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Michael Cohen (essay date 1986)

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...

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Christine Gerrard (essay date 1990)

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...

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James Sambrook (essay date 1991)

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:

...

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William Levine (essay date 1994)

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...

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