Authors: James Thomson (1700-1748)

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Scottish poet and playwright

Author Works

Poetry:

Winter, 1726

Summer, 1727

Spring, 1728

Autumn, 1730

The Seasons, 1730, revised 1744 (includes 4 previous titles)

A Hymn, 1730

Liberty, 1735-1736

The Castle of Indolence: An Allegorical Poem, 1748

Drama:

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

Biography

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.{$I[AN]9810000348}{$I[A]Thomson, James}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Thomson, James}{$I[geo]SCOTLAND;Thomson, James}{$I[tim]1700;Thomson, James}

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 b.c.e.) in their rural patriotism as well as the modern scientific influence of Isaac Newton’s Opticks (1704) in the play of light and color in their bucolic imagery. The poem’s passages on beauty, truth, and goodness elevate it beyond the merely picturesque, for they expound a philosophy of the natural, social, political, and moral realms of humankind. Its moral tone and rural subject make The Seasons a perfect merger of two great English literary traditions, the Augustan and the Romantic.

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.

BibliographyBalakier, Ann Sewart. The Spatial Infinite at Greenwich in Works by Christopher Wren, James Thornhill, and James Thomson: The Newton Connection. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1995.Irlaum, Shaun. Elations: The Poetics of Enthusiasm in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999.Sambrook, James. James Thomson, 1700-1748: A Life. New York: Clarendon Press, 1991. This is the first extensive biography of Thomson since Douglas Grant’s in 1951. It places Thomson in his social and cultural context, explores his relationships with fellow writers such as Alexander Pope, and thoroughly examines Thomson’s Whig politics and relationship with Frederick, Prince of Wales, leader of the opposition to Prime Minister Robert Walpole. Sambrook supplies biography, history, and literary criticism by producing a detailed analysis of the whole body of Thomson’s writings.Scott, Mary Jane W. James Thomson, Anglo-Scot. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988. This book argues for the importance of the Scottish dimensions of Thomson’s writings. For example, although the third earl of Shaftesbury has always been considered a major influence on Thomson’s ideas about benevolence and the poetry of sensibility, this book shows that the Scottish writer Francis Hutcheson, a follower of Shaftesbury, was the more important influence. Hutcheson had a Calvinist interpretation of benevolence, which moved Thomson to his frequent promotion in his poetry of sympathy as a universal social duty.Terry, Richard, ed. James Thomson: Essays for the Tercentenary. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 2000. This is the first book of essays devoted to Thomson’s works. Part 1 focuses on Thomson’s poetry and drama, and part 2 examines Thomson’s influences on later writers and his reputation. There is a useful introduction that gives a good overview of Thomson scholarship. This book offers a reappraisal of Thomson from the perspective of the early twenty-first century, to show how he transcends his own time, as well as being a barometer of the trends of his day.
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