The Seasons, 1730, revised 1744 (includes 4 previous titles)
A Hymn, 1730
The Castle of Indolence: An Allegorical Poem, 1748
The Tragedy of Sophonisba, pb. 1730
Agamemnon, pr., pb. 1738
Edward and Eleonora, pb. 1739
Alfred, pr., pb. 1740 (with David Mallet)
Tancred and Sigismunda, pr., pb. 1745
Coriolanus, pr., pb. 1749
James Thomson was for more than a century considered a major British poet. His masterpiece, The Seasons, was among the best-selling poems between 1730 and 1850, and it was often ranked with John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) as the representative British work.
Although a contemporary of Alexander Pope, who made the heroic couplet standard in the age, Thomson wrote most of his work in blank verse. He further departs from the Augustan tradition in his use of nature. His evocative descriptions of nature, expressed in simple language, free of the self-conscious artificiality of his contemporaries, foreshadowed the Romantic movement.
Thomson’s affinity with nature can be traced to his early days in the small Scottish village of Ednam. Educated at Edinburgh University, he traveled to London in 1725 and passed through a series of patrons, pensions, and tutorial positions–a frequent pattern among writers in eighteenth century London. The phenomenal success of the individual poems of The Seasons (originally published separately) helped make him financially independent, and his works in translation were popular in France, Spain, and Germany. In 1736 he moved to Kew Gardens, then a rural district outside London, where he spent the remainder of his life.
The Seasons is a reflective landscape poem in blank verse that describes nature and the turn of the year with great variety and fullness. The four books, each devoted to a season, reveal the classical influence of Vergil’s Georgics (c. 37-29
The Castle of Indolence, an imitation of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590-1596), recounts the enticement of weary pilgrims into the castle of Wizard Indolence and the subsequent destruction of the wizard and the castle by the Knight of Arms and Industry. The lush music of the poem’s style is more memorable than its allegorical exhortation to cultivate the virtues of Industry.
Thomson was also a popular playwright, and his heroic tragedies with patriotic themes were performed regularly at Drury Lane by David Garrick and James Quin. It is of some historical interest that Alfred, a masque written in collaboration with David Mallet, contains the famous patriotic song “Rule, Britannia.” Thomson’s major importance, however, rests upon his early mastery of poetic forms–blank verse and the Spenserian stanza–and subjects which were atypical of an age dominated by reason and the heroic couplet.