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LIFE OF THOMSON,
BY DR. JOHNSON.
JAMES THOMSON, the son of a minister well esteemed for his piety and diligence, was born September 7, 1700, at Ednam, in the shire of Roxburgh, of which his father was pastor. His mother, whose name was Hume', inherited as co-heiress a portion of a small estate. The revenue of a parish in Scotland is seldom large; and it was probably in commiseration of the difficulty with which Mr. Thomson supported his family, having nine children, that Mr. Riccarton, a neighbouring minister, discovering in James uncommon promises of future excellence, undertook to superintend bis education, and provide him books.
He was taught the common rudiments of learning at the school of Jedburgh, a place which he delights to recollect in his poem of Autumn; but was not considered by
h his master as superior to common boys, though in those early days he amused his patron and his friends with poetical compositions; with which, however, he so little pleased himself, that on every new-year's day he threw into the fire all the productions of the foregoing year.
From the school he was removed to Edinburgh, where he had not resided two years when his father died, and left all his children to the care of their mother, who raised apon her little estate what money a mortgage could afford, and, removing with her family to Edinburgh, lived to see her son rising into eminence.
The design of Thomson's friends was to breed him a minister. He lived at Edinburgh, as at school, without distinction or expectation, till, at the usual time, he performed a probationary exercise by explaining a psalm. His diction was so poetically splendid, that Mr. Hamilton, the professor of Divinity, reproved him for speaking language unintelligible to a popular audience; and he censured one of his expressions as indeceny, if not profane.
This rebuke is reported to have repressed his thoughts of an ecclesiastical character, and he probably cultivated with new diligence his blossoms of poetry, which, how, ever, were in some danger of a blast; for, submitting his productions to some who thought themselves qualified to criticise, he heard of nothing but faults; but, finding
His mother's name was Beatrix Trotter. His grandmother's name was Hume, c.
other judges more favourable, he did not suffer himself to sink into despondence.
He easily discovered that the only stage on which a poet could appear, with any hope of advantage, was London ; a place too wide for the operation of petty competition and private malignity, where merit might soon become conspicuous, and would find friends as soon as it becamè reputable to befriend it. A lady who was acquainted with his mother, advised him to the journey, and promised some countenance or assistancę, wbich at last he never received; however, he justified his adventure by her encouragement, and came to seek in London patronage and fame.
At his arrival he found his way to Mr. Mallet, then tutor to the sons of the duke of Montrose. He had recommendations to several persons of consequence, which he had tied up carefully in his handkerchief; but as he passed along the street, with the gaping curiosity of a new-comer, his attention was upon every thing rather than his pocket, and his magazine of credentials was stolen from him.
His first want was a pair of shoes. For the supply of all his necessities, his whole fund was his Winter, which for a time could find no purchaser ; till, at last, Mr. Millan was persuaded to buy it at a low price; and this low price he had for some time reason to regret; but, by accident, Mr. Whatley, a man not wholly unknown among authors, happening to turn his eye upon it, was so delighted that he ran from place to place celebrating its excellence. Thomson obtained likewise the notice of Aaron Hill, whom, being friendless and indigent, and glad of kindness, he courted with every expression of servile adulation.
Winter was dedicated 10 sir Spencer Compton, but attracted no regard from him to the author; till Aaron Hill awakened his attention by some verses addressed to Thomson, and published in one of the newspapers, which censured the great for their neglect of ingenious men. Thomson then received a present of twenty guineas, of which he gives this account to Mr. Hill: :
“I hinted to you in my last, that on Saturday morning I was with sir Spencer Compton. A certain gentleman, without my desire, spoke to him concerning me: his answer was, that I had never come near him. Then the gentleman put the question, If he desired that I should wait on him? He returned, he did. On this, the gentleman gave me an introductory letter to him. He received me in what they commonly call a civil manner; asked me some common-place questions; and made me a present of twenty guineas. I am very ready to own that the present was larger than my performance deserved; and shall ascribe it to his genero sity, or any other cause, rather than the merit of the address,"
The poem, which, being of a new kind, few would venture at first to like, by degrees gained upon the public; and one edition was very speedily succeeded by another.
- Thomson's credit was now high, and every day brought him new friends; among other's Dr. Rundle, a man afterwards unfortunately famous, sought his aequaintance, and found his qualities such, that he recommended him to the lord chancelot Talbot.
Winter ras accompanied, in many editions, not only with a preface and dedication, but with poetical praises by Mr. Hill, Mr. Mallet (then Malloch), and Mira, the fictitious name of a lady once too well known. Why the dedications are, to Winter and the other Seasons, contrarily to custom, left out in the collected works, the reader may inquire.
The next year (1727) he distinguished himself by three publications ; of Summer, in pursuance of his plan; of A Poem on the Death of Sir Isaac Newton, which he was enabled to perform as an exact philosopher by the instruction of Mr. Gray; and of Britannia, a kind of poetical invective against the ministry, whom the nation then thought not forward enough in resenting the depredations of the Spaniards. By this piece he declared himself an adherent to the opposition, and had therefore no favour to expect from the court.
Thomson, having been some time entertained in the family of the lord Binning, was desirous of testifying his gratitude by making him the patron of his Summer; but the same kindness which had first disposed lord Binning to encourage him, determined him to refuse the dedication, which was by his advice addressed to Mr. Dodington, a man who had more power to advance the reputation and fortune of a poet.
Spring was published next year, with a dedication to the countess of Hertford; whose practice it was to invite every summer some poèt into the country, to hear her verses, and assist her studies. This honour was one summer conferred on Thomson, who took more delight in carousing with lord Hertford and his friends than assisting her ladyship's poetical operations, and therefore never received another summons. Autumn, the to which the Spring and
Summer are prepara." tory, still remained unsung, and was delayed till he published (1730) his works collected.
He produced in 1727 the tragedy of Sophonisba, which raised such expectation, that every rehearsal was dignified with a splendid audience, collected to anticipate the delight that was preparing for the public. It was observed, however, that nobody was much affected, and that the company rose as from a moral lecture.
* It had upon the stage no unusual degree of success. Slight accidents will operate upon the taste of pleasure. There is a feeble line in the play:
O Sophonisba, Sophonisba, o ! This gave occasion to a waggish parody:
O, Jemmy Thomson, Jemmy Thomson, O! which for a while was echoed through the town.
I have been told by Savage, that of the Prologue to Sophonisba the first part was written by Pope, who could not be persuaded to finish it; and that the concluding lines were added by Mallet.
Thomson was not long afterwards, by the influence of Dr. Rundle, sent to travel with Mr. Charles Talbot, the eldest son of the chancellor. He was yet young enough to receive new impressions, to have his opinions rectified, and his views enlarged ; nor can be be supposed to have wanted that curiosity which is inseparable from an active and comprehensive mind. He may therefore now be supposed to have revelled in all the joys of intellectual luxury; he was every day feasted with
instructive novelties : he lived splendidly without expense; and might expect when he returned hoine a certain establishment.
At this time a long course of opposition to sir Robert Walpole had filled the nation with clamours for liberty, of which no man felt the want, and with care for liberty, which was not in danger. Thomson, in his travels on the continent, found or fancied so many evils arising from the tyranny of other governments, that he resolved to write a very long poem, in five parts, upon Liberty.
While he was busy on the first book, Mr. Talbot died; and Thomson, who had been rewarded for his attendance by the place of secretary of the briefs, pays in the initial lines a decent tribute to his memory.
Upon this great poem two years were spent, and the author congratulated himself upon it, as his noblest work; but an author and his readers are not always of a mind. Liberty called in vain upon her votaries to read her praises, and reward her encomiast: her praises were condemned to harbour spiders, and to gather dust: none of Thomson's performances were so little regarded.
The judgement of the public was not erroneous; the recurrence of the same images must tire in time; an enumeration of examples to prove a position which nobody denied, as it was from the beginning superfluous, must quickly grow disgusting.
The poem of Liberty does not now appear in its original state; but, when the author's works were collected after his death, was shortened by sir George Lyttleton, with a liberty which, as it has a manifesť tendency to lessen the confidence of society, and to confound the characters of authors, by making one man write by the judgement of another, cannot be justified by any supposed propriety of the alteration or kindness of the friend. I wish to see it exhibited as its author left it.
Thomson now lived in ease and plenty, and seems for a while to have suspended his poetry; but he was soon called back to labour by the death of the chancellor, for his place then became vacant; and though the lord Hardwicke delayed for some time to give it away, Thomson's bashfulness or pride, or some other motive perhaps not more laudable, withheld him from soliciting; and the new chancellor would not give him what he would not ask.
He now relapsed to his former indigence; but the prince of Wales was at that time struggling for popularity, and by the influence of Mr. Lyttleton professed himself the patron of wit; to him Thomson was introduced and being gaily interrogated about the state of his affairs, said, " that they were in a more poetical posture than formerly;" and had a pension allowed him of one hundred pounds a year.
Being now obliged to write, he produced (1738) * the tragedy of Agamemnon, which was much shortened in the representation. It had the fate which most commonly attends mythological stories, and was only endured, but not favoured. It struggled with such difficulty through the first night, that Thomson, coming late to his friends with whom he was to sup, excused his delay by telling them how the sweat of his distress had so disordered his wig, that he could not come till he had been refitted by a barber.
He so interested himself in his own drama, that, if I remember right, as he sat,
* It is not generally known, that in this year an edition of Milton's Areopagitica was published by Millar, to which Thomson wrote a Preface. C.
in the upper gallery, he accompanied the players by audible recitation, till a friendly hint frighted him to silence. Pope countenanced Agamemnon, by coming to it the first night, and was welcomed to the theatre by a general clap; he had much regard for Thomson, and once expressed it in a poetical epistle sent to Italy, of which however he abated the value, by translating some of the lines into his epistle to Arbuthnot.
About this time the act was passed for licensing plays, of which the first operation was the prohibition of Gustavus Vasa, a tragedy of Mr. Brooke, whom the public recompensed by a very liberal subscription; the next was the refusal of Edward and Eleonora, offered by Thomson. It is hard to discover why either play should have been obstructed. Thomson likewise endeavoured to repair his loss by a subscription, of which I cannot now tell the success.
When the public murmured at the unkind treatment of Thomson, one of the ministerial writers remarked, that “ he had taken a Liberty which was not agreeable to Britannia in any Season."
He was soon after employed, in conjunction with Mr. Mallet, to write the mask of Alfred, which was acted before the prince at Cliefden-house.
His next work (1745) was Tancred and Sigismunda, the most successful of all his tragedies, for it still keeps its turn upon the stage. It may be doubted whether he was, either by the bent of nature or habits of study, much qualified for tragedy. It does not appear that he haud much sense of the pathetic; and his diffusive and descriptive style produced declamation rather than dialogue.
His friend Mr. Lyttleton was now in power, and conferred upon him the office of surveyor-general of the Leeward Islands; from which, when his deputy was paid, he received about three hundred pounds a year.
The last piece that he lived to publish was the Castle of Indolence, which was many years under his hand, but was at last finished with great accuracy. The first canto opens a scene of lazy luxury that fills the imagination.
He was now at ease, but was not long to enjoy it; for by taking cold on the water between London and Kew, he caught a disorder, which, with some careless exasperation, ended in a fever that put an end to his life, August 27, 1748. He was buried in the church of Richmond, without an inscription ; but a monument has been erected to his memory in Westminster-abbey.
Thomson was of a stature above the middle size, amd “ more fat than bard beseems,” of a dull countenance, and a gross, unanimated, uninviting appearance : silent in mingled company, but cheerful among select friends, and by his friends very tenderly and warmly beloved.
He left behind him the tragedy of Coriolanus, which was, by the zeal of his patron sir George Lyttleton, brought upon the stage for the benefit of his family, and recommended by a prologue, which Quin, who had long lived with Thomson in fond intimacy, spoke in such a manner as showed him “ to be," on that occasion, “ no actor.” The commencement of this benevolence is very honourable to Quin; who is reported to have delivered Thomson, then known to him only for his genius, from an arrest by a very considerable present; and its continuance is honourable to both; for friendship is not always the sequel of obligation. By this tragedy a considerable sum was raised, of which part discharged his debts and the