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.