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
(The entire section is 134 words.)
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 strange, to urge us on
With unremitted labour to pursue
Those sacred stores that wait the rip'ning foul
In Truth's exhaustless bosom.——
[Previously] we have attempted… an imperfect sketch of the leading object to which the Seasons of Thomson are chiefly directed. The great and only general effect, which he seems most solicitous to produce in the minds of his readers, is a full acquiescence in the economy, and a filial confidence in the Author of Nature. And he paints every part of the year, and every genial form that wakes, to the plastic energy of poetical enthusiasm, in colours peculiarly adapted to his purpose. He does not satisfy himself, however, with simply...
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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 upon the great epic narrative of the 'poet's poet.' The poem was begun, according to his own words, as early as 1733, and engaged his attention at intervals of more or less duration till its publication in 1748. It formed another 'departure' in his poetry. The intention of the writer obviously was that the work should be a reflection of his ideas and capabilities as an artist—as an artist especially of the effects of poetical cadence, and of the literary grace of language. The result fully justified his aim. No imitation of a similar kind ever made has attained so near a rank of excellence to the original as do certain passages of The Castle of Indolence to The Faery Queen. Although Thomson's poem was the principal...
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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 Imagination, and Armstrong's Art of Preserving Health, both in 1744, all in a certain sense owe their form of verse to Thomson's bold initiative. So great was the vogue, that Goldsmith, in 1765, sets down blank verse, in company with party spirit, as one of the almost indispensable conditions of popularity: "What reception a poem may find which has neither abuse, party, nor blank verse to support it, I cannot tell, nor am I solicitous to know."
If we wish to appreciate the poetic quality of The Seasons, we cannot do better than to compare Thomson's work with that of his friend Mallet, a man of considerable literary talent, who was dealing with nearly the same themes at the same time. The style, diction, and...
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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 liberty, his constant plea for the poor as against the rich, his preference for blank verse, his imitation of older models, especially Spenser, and in his tendency toward comprehensive schemes; but his chief importance is in his attitude toward external Nature. If, however, we take into consideration all his work, we shall find in more than three-fourths of it the utmost apparent indifference to Nature. In the five tragedies written between 1738 and 1748 there is no hint that their author knew more of the world about him than the veriest classicist of them all. In "Alfred" (1740), written by Thomson and Mallet, there are occasional descriptive touches, but these are almost too slight to mention when we think what effects might have been produced...
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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.
So Wordsworth was to write in Lyrical Ballads, with a perception of the possibilities of nature as teacher far different from anything ever hinted by Thomson. Wordsworth's "nature" taught by working on the emotions; Thomson's did nothing so undignified. The eighteenth-century poet, in his concern with morality, falls in many ways into the typical pattern of his time, defined by Lovejoy more than a quarter of a century ago.1 He looked to the "pure light of nature" for authority; gradually, as nature became less and less important to him, he turned to presenting the rules of morality without feeling the need for any explicit authority behind them.
An effective method of...
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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 are assumed to be nonverbal communications, and they belong to a significant realm of human behaviour. Psychologists have pointed out that 'art both codifies and interprets…. Symbolic representation in art is more than merely a code; it also contains a comment, an interpretation, and a suggestion of how to understand its symbols.'1 When illustrations or paintings are exemplifications of specific passages or parts of a poem, they are governed by principles of interpretation, and they constitute nonverbal criticisms. It is possible for an interpretation—whether verbal or non-verbal—to be irrelevant to the poem, but such irrelevance is discoverable only upon analysis.
The fact that poetry or painting or...
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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 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."2 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.3 In spite, however, of the perennially strong protest against Dr. Johnson's charges about the ear-filling qualities...
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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 all his work link him to the neo-classical school of poetry, while his subject and forms of poetic expression point to the poetry of the new age.1 But Thomson is not quite a transitional poet in the conventional sense of the term. He is rather a link, maintaining the continuity of the romantic tradition between the Elizabethans and the great Romantics of the nineteenth century. He brings certain Elizabethan literary values down to his own age and forestalls the Romantic age to come. His Castle of Indolence, written in the manner of Spenser, and The Seasons, written in the manner of Milton, not only revive the old romantic mood of the Elizabethans, but also strike the dawn of modern Romanticism by introducing some new...
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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 is perhaps the presence of these contradictory impulses, rather than its unnatural inflation, that often makes modern readers ill at ease with eighteenth-century poetry, and it is certainly the persistence of contradictory impulses that makes the history of eighteenth-century poetry so baffling to write. Having used the Eton College ode to illustrate the style, I should like to turn to Thomson's Seasons in order to demonstrate the intellectual coherence underneath the superficial inconsistencies and seemingly ill-defined ideology of this poetry.
The issue is the way form constrains style. Poetic diction, in particular, has generally been studied in historical perspective, at the expense of its contextual...
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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, 1988, 373 p.
A biography that attempts to account for "the distinctive influences which the poet's Scottish background had upon is work."
Bush, Douglas. "Newtonianism, Rationalism, and Sentimentalism." In his Science and English Poetry: A Historical Sketch, 1590-1950, pp. 51-78. New York: Oxford University Press, 1950.
Includes comments on the Newtonian inspiration of Thomson's poetry of nature. Contends that Thomson, like Newton, viewed God as immanent in all creation.
Campbell, Hilbert H. James Thomson. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979, 175 p....
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