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.