Thomson, James (Vol. 40)
James Thomson 1700–1748
Scottish poet and dramatist.
The following entry contains critical essays on Thomson's relationship to Preromanticism. For further information on Thomson's career, see LC, vols. 16 and 29.
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 cyclical transformations. Considered Thomson's masterpiece, The Seasons had a significant influence on eighteenth-century English and continental literature, both reflecting the period's fascination with nature and establishing a model for pastoral poetry throughout Europe. This poem constitutes the basis for claims that Thomson anticipated the rise of Romanticism in British poetry. Thomson is also known for other major and minor works, including The Castle of Indolence (1748) and his patriotic poem "Rule Britannia," from the masque Alfred (1740), written with David Mallet and set to music by Thomas Augustine Arne. Since the poem debuted in 1740, Great Britain has used "Rule Britannia" as a musical declaration of national power and pride.
Born the son of a clergyman in southern Scotland, Thomson grew up in the kind of picturesque rural environment he often depicted in his poetry. After following a course of study at Edinburgh University that prepared him for a career in the ministry, Thomson decided instead to pursue a literary career, for which he moved to London in 1725. There, he was able to write while employed as a tutor. He worked on The Seasons for the next several years, publishing "Winter" in 1726, "Summer" the following year, "Spring" in 1728, and "Autumn" in 1730. Even after publishing the cycle as a whole that same year, Thomson continued reworking his masterpiece, eventually publishing a revised edition in 1744. At its first printing, the poem was received enthusiastically and lifted its author to literary fame. In a period when poets lived on patronage rather than sales, Thomson's success procured him an attractive position as the travelling companion and tutor to Charles Talbot, son of the future Lord Chancellor. Thomson held this post, which provided him with the opportunity of visiting France and Italy, until 1733, when he became Secretary of Briefs in the Court
of Chancery. He lost this appointment in 1737 due 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.
Described by many critics as a precursor of Romanticism, Thomson is nevertheless firmly rooted in the Classicism and Rationalism prevalent in his own era. Like other Neoclassical poets, he understood the world through the paramount significance he accorded science. Thomson venerated the scientist and philosopher Sir Isaac Newton, whose philosophy of nature defined the intellectuar paradigms of the period. Newton's influence reveals itself extensively in The Seasons, where the Newtonian concept of God as architect and guardian of a highly-ordered and hierarchical universe clearly shaped Thomson's descriptions of nature. 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 (1740), a treatise explaining the nature of color and light. Thomson's poetic forbearers include John Milton, author of the epic Paradise Lost, and Edmund Spenser, whose best known work is The Faerie Queene. Milton's influence appears in the stately blank verse and latinate vocabulary of The Seasons.
Despite a foundation in the conventions of his own past and present, Thomson created poetry with innovations that many critics have hailed as significantly forward-looking. These experiments appear especially in the non-narrative, wholly descriptive verses of The Seasons. While emulating Milton, Thomson superimposed his own idiosyncratic diction onto the archaic poetic form, thus creating unprecedented images and harmonies. The pictorial emphasis of his descriptions drew on and later influenced landscape painters; for example, he inspired the English painter J. M. W. Turner, who honored Thomson in his 1811 work entitled Thomson's Aeolian Harp. The most dramatically historic impact of The Seasons appears, however, in the works of English Romantic poets, including William Cowper, William Wordsworth, and John Keats. Thomson's reputation as a Preromantic arises from his descriptions of nature, which incorporated both the observer and, especially, the centrality of the emotions elicited by the contemplation of nature's majesty.
As Patricia Meyer Spacks has noted, however, Thomson's emotive depictions of nature constitute only a limited portion of his entire corpus. Much of the rest of his writing, both poetic and dramatic, stresses instead social and even moral issues. 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. The Castle of Indolence, a verse allegory based explicitly on Spenser's The Faerie Queene, expounds on the ills of indolence and the blessings of industry. Thomson's other writings include incidental poems, exemplified by love lyrics, and five dramas; the latter, according to critics, seldom rise above rhetorical bombast.
For a century following its publication, The Seasons guaranteed Thomson's literary fame and popularity. Embraced both by critics and a general population characterized by a growing literacy rate, the poem made Thomson a prominent figure whose influence spread broadly over time and geography. 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 von 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 various poets. His influence can also be seen in the pastoral poetry of the Spaniard Juan Melendez Valdés.
Hilbert H. Campbell, in his 1979 James Thomson, has argued that the classification of Thomson as a "Preromantic poet" stems from the biases of critics themselves: Romanticism has long been a more favored period in literary history than has the Augustan, or Neoclassical, period during which Thomson lived. "In this persistent and one-sided critical tradition," Campbell contends, "Thomson's accomplishments, virtues, and faults were all measured by the yardstick of how well or how poorly he managed to foreshadow Wordsworth." The critics in this tradition have emphasized those qualities in Thomson's poetry that looked forward to some of the primary values of the Romantics, particularly originality and celebration of nature. William Hazlitt, an influential essayist writing in the Romantic era, thought highly of Thomson, naming him the foremost descriptive poet of the time.
By and large, Thomson's critics have praised his subject matter and originality while expressing reservations about his technical skills. For example, such eminent contemporaries as Pope and Samuel Johnson, who recognized The Seasons as a remarkable literary accomplishment, noted its compositional weakness. Wordsworth acknowledged Thomson's talent but complained about his "vicious style." By the late nineteenth-century, commentators including George Saintsbury and Edmund Gosse focused on the formal structure of Thomson's poetry, identifying faults in his style and diction. Twentieth-century critics have offered a more balanced assessment of Thomson's poetry, noting that imperfections and dissonances hardly diminish his poetic voice. They have questioned earlier evalutions of Thomson's diction and style, arguing that some of his cadences may sound awkward because they are heard outside the context of Scottish speech. Finally, critics including Campbell and Spacks have suggested that Thomson needs to be studied more in the context of his own literary period, rather than compared extensively with the conventions of Romanticism.
Winter. A Poem (poetry) 1726
A Poem Sacred to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton (poetry) 1727
Summer. A Poem (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, drama) 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
J. More (essay date 1777)
SOURCE: "On the Originality of The Seasons," in Strictures, Critical and Sentimental, on Thomson's "Seasons," Garland Publishing, Inc., 1970, pp. 167-87.
[In the following chapter from his book-length study of The Seasons, first published in 1777, More praises Thomson's originality in both the objects he describes and his language. More contends that human nature, in a love of novelty, seeks originality; therefore, according to More, Thomson's poetry is greatly in synchrony with the desires of human nature.]
To such the bounteous Providence of Heav'n,
In every breast implanting this desire
Of objects new and...
(The entire section is 3359 words.)
William Bayne (essay date 1898)
SOURCE: "The Castle of Indolence," in James Thomson, Oliphant Anderson, 1922, pp. 129-43.
[In the following study, originally published in 1898, of The Castle of Indolence, Bayne places the poem between the tradition of Edmund Spenser, whose Faery Queen Thomson deliberately imitated, and poetic innovations that looked forward to Romanticism in general and John Keats in particular. Bayne examines both Thomson's aesthetic method and the strength of his poem as an allegorical narrative.]
Spenser was a long-established favourite of Thomson's, and he therefore took up a very congenial piece of work when he began his Castle of Indolence, avowedly based...
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G. C. Macauley (essay date 1908)
SOURCE: "Conclusion," in James Thomson, Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1908, pp. 234-42.
[In the excerpt below, Macauley examines Thomson's influence on later poets, especially as the decades led into Romanticism. He asserts that the primary distinction between Thomson and the Romantics is their differing concepts of nature.]
Hardly any English eighteenth-century poet, who wrote after Thomson, was quite uninfluenced by him. The use of blank verse in narrative and descriptive poetry became a fashion. Mallet's Excursion, in 1728, Somerville's Chase, 1734, Glover's Leonidas, 1737, Young's Night Thoughts, 1742, Akenside's Pleasures of the...
(The entire section is 2335 words.)
Myra Reynolds (essay date 1909)
SOURCE: "Indications of a New Attitude toward Nature in the Poetry of the Eighteenth Century," in The Treatment of Nature in English Poetry: Between Pope and Wordsworth, The University of Chicago Press, 1909, pp. 58-202.
[In the excerpt that follows, Reynolds portrays Thomson as an early Romantic poet, a claim she substantiates with a list of the traits that qualify him, including his apeal to the senses and the "freedom" that characterizes the natural world portrayed in The Seasons.]
… James Thomson (1700-1748) is confessedly the most important figure in the early history of Romanticism. He foreshadowed the new spirit in various ways, as in his strong love of...
(The entire section is 5015 words.)
Patricia Meyer Spacks (essay date 1959)
SOURCE: "The Poet as Teacher: Morality in The Seasons," in The Varied God: A Critical Study of Thomson 's "The Seasons, " University of California Press, 1959, pp. 143-75.
[In the excerpt that follows, Spacks concentrates on a trait that separates Thomson from Romanticism: a tendency to make nature a vehicle for and secondary to moral messages regarding human behavior. In general, she stresses a prevailing inconsistency in Thomson's images of nature.]
And hark how blithe the throstle sings;
He, too, is no mean preacher.
Come forth into the light of things,
Let nature be your teacher.
(The entire section is 9670 words.)
Ralph Cohen (essay date 1962)
SOURCE: "Literary Criticism and Artistic Interpretation: Eighteenth-Century English Illustrations of The Seasons" in Reason and Imagination: Studies in the History of Ideas 1600-1800, edited by J. A. Mazzeo, Columbia University Press, 1962, pp. 279-306.
[In the following essay, Cohen uses illustrations for different editions of The Seasons as the basis for an argument about changing standards for interpretion. In the process, he suggests that Thomson's poem was broad enough to encompass the range of meanings captured by the illustrators.]
Art historians have made clear that paintings not only can be, but need to be interpreted to be understood. Such works...
(The entire section is 9478 words.)
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 essay reprinted below, Adams provides a detailed reading of the sounds in Thomson's blank verse. Looking at Thomson in the context of other Neoclassical poets, Adams concludes that Thomson strove for a "fitting of sound to sense."]
Few poems have been so often reprinted or so often condemned and admired as James Thomson's The Seasons,1 and one of the most controversial of that once popular poem's characteristics is its diction. Although Dr. Johnson...
(The entire section is 5438 words.)
R. R. Agrawal (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: "The Poet of Transition," in Tradition and Experiment in the Poetry of James Thomson, Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, 1981, pp. 196-214.
[In the essay that follows, Agrawal contends that Thomson anticipated Romantic poetry not in his rejection of or relationship to the Neoclassicism of his own age, but rather by reviving the romanticism of Elizabethan poetry.]
Thomson bridges two distinct epochs in literary history. He played the epilogue to the school of classicism and prologue to the school of Romanticism. While retaining his allegiance to the school of Pope, he heralded the dawn of romanticism in more than one way. The general tone and style of...
(The entire section is 7214 words.)
Marshall Brown (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: "Formal Balance in Thomson and Collins," in Preromanticism, Stanford University Press, 1991, pp. 24-8.
[In the following excerpt, Brown looks at Thomson—and especially at his alleged inconsistencies—as part of the poetry of the "urbane sublime." At the base of the apparent "wanderings" in this poetry, Brown finds a notion of the social that creates coherence.]
… Because of its inherent discretion the urbane sublime is able to tolerate many apparent paradoxes. It is both high and light, sophisticated and primitive, liberal and aristocratic, elevated and capable of describing the most mundane phenomena, innovative and doggedly conventional.17 It...
(The entire section is 2403 words.)
Grant, Douglas. James Thomson, Poet of The Seasons. London: Cresset Press, 1951, 308 p.
Considered the standard biography of Thomson; includes lengthy commentaries on The Seasons and The Castle of Indolence.
Sambrook, James. James Thomson, 1700-1748: A Life. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991, 332 p.
A biographical study of the author's life and works with an emphasis on his social and political context.
Scott, Mary Jane W. James Thomson, Anglo-Scot. Athens, Ga., and London: The University of Georgia Press,...
(The entire section is 772 words.)