James Thomson, the Scottish poet, died on the 27th of August, 1748.
There have been at least two Scottish poets called James Thomson. Maybe they should’ve been known as Thomson and Thomson – or would that clash with the characters in Hergé’s ‘Adventures of Tintin’? I think they were called Thomson and Thompson; the ‘p’ makes all the difference. In Scotland, there’s a saying, “We're all Jock Tamson's bairns”, which suggests we all share the same forefathers or we’re all in ‘the same boat’. On the other hand, it suggests that there are a lot of ‘Thomsons’ in Scotland. That’s been true and although ‘Thomson’ dropped down a place in the 1995 league table of most common surnames, it only dropped to fourth. The most frequent spelling in Scotland is ‘Thomson’ – without the 'p'. This article is not about the Scottish poet, James Thomson, who wrote under the pseudonym ‘Bysshe Vanolis’ (or ‘BV’). It is about the Scottish poet, James Thomson, who wrote ‘Rule Britannia’ and who died almost a hundred years before the ‘BV’ Thomson.
James Thomson was the most celebrated Scottish poet of the 1700s until Robert Burns burst onto the scene. His most famous ‘surviving’ work – in the sense that it is still well known today – is the patriotic (he wasn’t a Jacobite) anthem or ode, ‘Rule Britannia’. That was written in 1740 as part of a masque entitled ‘Alfred’, on which he collaborated with his friend, David Mallet, and which was composed by Thomas Arne. Thomson’s other famous work, for which he is chiefly remembered and which is regarded as a classic of English literature, is ‘The Seasons’. That has been described as ‘his celebrated descriptive poem in four parts’ – just how many parts could it have had exactly? It was the first British anthology on nature and was written in ‘blank verse’. Now, that doesn’t mean it can’t be read. Blank verse is poetry that is written in unrhymed iambic pentameter, which is usually unobtrusive in that it resembles the rhythms of ordinary speech. A good example of an exponent of blank verse is yon William Shakespeare. Most of his plays were written in blank verse. Some of them get ‘blank looks’ (we’re not all in thrall to Shakespeare). Thomson began with ‘Winter’ in 1726, which achieved an immediate success and was followed, not by ‘Spring’, which was published in 1728, but by ‘Summer’ a year earlier, and the series was completed by ‘Autumn’ (not ‘Hearst’) when a collected edition was released in 1730. A translation into German of Thomson’s ‘Seasons’ ended up forming the basis of the libretto for Haydn’s oratorio of the same name.
Thomson has been cited as an influence on the ‘Romantic’ poets who followed him or on the forerunners of ‘Romanticism’; the likes of Gray and Cowper. Thomson's faithful, sensitive, fresh and vivid descriptions of natural scenes in ‘The Seasons’ were a direct challenge to the witty, urban and artificial school of Alexander Pope and other literary celebrities of the day, such as Gay and Arbuthnot, with all of whom Thomson was acquainted. He chose nature for his subject matter and also made good use of his interest in classical themes and his notions of mankind's place within the natural world. That shone though in his other important poems like ‘Liberty’ in 1735–36, which was a tribute to Britain, and ‘The Castle of Indolence’ of 1748, which was written in imitation of Edmund Spenser and reflected his delight in idleness – if dreaming up poetry is an idle pursuit – and which can be summed up in his own words (from the preface to ‘The Seasons’): “I know no subject more elevating, more amazing, more ready to the poetical enthusiasm, the philosophical reflection, and the moral sentiment than the works of nature. Where can we meet such variety, such beauty, such magnificence?” Thomson’s ‘Hymn on Solitude’ is another in such vein.
James Thomson was born at Ednam, near the Scottish-English border, on the 11th of September, 1700. He was taught at first by Robert Riccaltoun, whose verses on winter later influenced his famous pupil, before going to school at Jedburgh. In 1715, he matriculated at the University of Edinburgh, where he became a divinity student. During his years in Edinburgh, Thomson joined a literary club called the ‘The Grotesques’ and, by the time he left for London in 1725, he had written a considerable quantity of verse and three of his pieces had been accepted for inclusion in the ‘Edinburgh Miscellany’ of 1720. In London, Thomson had hoped to become a popular preacher or to acquire a patron for his poetry. He settled for the latter and became a tutor to the son of Sir Charles Talbot, however, on Talbot senior’s death in 1737, Thomson lost his sinecure.
Thomson described himself as “A little, round, fat, oily man of God”, but that didn’t stop him writing a series of tragedies with a strong political flavour. His 1738 tragedy ‘Agamemnon’ revived his fortunes and, whatever its poetic merits, its political merits were rewarded by the patronage of Frederic, the Prince of Wales. Thomson received a handsome allowance or pension of £100 per annum on which he then depended. He then wrote ‘Edward and Eleanora’, but that was prohibited in 1739 for ‘political reasons’. A misunderstanding that existed between His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, and the King, prevented Thomson getting a licence for what has been described as ‘his admirable tragedy’ about Edward I, King of England and his Queen Consort, Eleanor of Castile. It was dedicated to the Princess of Wales and was to have been performed at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. So it was never performed, although it was published for reading by A. Millar, ‘over-against St. Clement’s Church in the Strand’.
Here’s a taster from the ‘Epilogue to Agamemnon’:
“Charm'd by your frown, by your displeasure graced;
He hails the rising virtue of your taste.
Wide will its influence spread as soon as known:
Truth, to be loved, needs only to be shown.”