Scotland, James Thomson was raised a Scottish Calvinist. He was exposed early to a range of literature, influenced by the social and political atmosphere that followed the Union of Scotland with England. He matured in a family of gardeners and appreciated that occupation as an art. Thomson's keen observation of nature would be reflected in his poetry, especially his detailed observation of landscapes. Most critics viewed him as an English poet for some time, but later criticism regarded Thomson's Scottish background as crucial to his art. While some argued his style was too intellectual for the common man, others noted that only a Scottish peasant could relate to his description, as they had a shared experience with Thomson. His poetry continued to provoke such varying consideration into the 21st century. Later criticism holds that his natural descriptions reflect Scottish enlightenment aesthetic philosophy, which held that specific geography proved crucial to a sense of nationalism. He drew on his own experience, such as writing about a shepherd found frozen in the snow, to reveal how the elements challenged a productive life in Scotland. Thomson celebrated that challenge in his poetry, revealing how humans, the crops, and animals suffered from seasonal changes. The isolated nature of South-dean, where Thomson spent his childhood and youth, complemented his shy nature.
He attended local school and at age 12 entered the prestigious and challenging Jedburgh Grammar School, a 15th-century Latin school. Students also studied Greek, history, and math with the natural philosophy that passed for science in that era. Thomas began to write poetry as he studied, although none of his early work survived. He was probably inspired by the school stage plays, although his shy nature gained him a reputation as a dull and noncreative student. Sir William Bennett of Grubbet, a member of Parliament, adopted Thomson as his protégé. Thomson eventually adopted political views of the Whig Party, which was allied with the Presbyterian Church. It developed to represent support for Great Britain and Anglicization, rather than the militant Scottish nationalism practiced by some of his fellow poets. Bennet would encourage him to write poetry in English. Other supporters included the Elliots of Minto, Sir Gilbert and the younger Gilbert Elliot. Robert Riccaltoun also influenced Thomson through his philosophical "Essays on Human Nature." These many influences may be seen in Thomson's most enduring work, "A Hymn on the Seasons" (1726-30), a copy of which was said to be found in every cottage in Scotland, despite Thomson's writing in English, rather than his native Scots tongue. He continuously revised the poem over the next 16 years.
Thomson matriculated to Edinburgh University in 1715 and became a passable student in theology, philosophy, and science, writing "A Poem Sacred to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton" (1727) just after graduation. It reflected the influence of Newton's Principia as well as his Optics. Thomson completed the four-year M.A. program in 1719, delaying taking his degree until 1720. He continued divinity studies and after 10 years left the university in 1725, having become a member of the literary and political group the Grotesque Club. He soon began to publish in The Edinburgh Miscellany.
Thomson's father, Thomas, was minister and lived in the parish of Southdean and remained there all his life. While Thomson later openly displayed his love for his mother in his writings, he never mentioned his father, suggesting a difference in approach to faith and politics between the two men. Supposedly while performing an exorcism, Thomas Thompson was hit by a ball of fire that robbed him of the power of speech; shortly thereafter he died. According to records he probably died of apoplexy or a heart attack, although his death was blamed on Satan. In part because of his father's death, Thomson later adopted superstition as a theme for his writings. He continued his close relationship with his mother until her death two weeks after his move to London in 1725.
In London Thomson joined a heady literary circle, as his patrons, Lord Minto and Duncan Forbes, introduced him to Alexander Pope; Pope's best friend, Dr. Arbuthnot; and John Gay. As he wrote, he also tutored
Thomas Hamilton, son to Charles, Lord Binning. In 1726 "Winter," the first part of The Seasons, was published, followed by "Summer" (1727), "Spring" (1728), and "Autumn," the latter appearing in a collected edition published in 1730. Many of the best writers subscribed, and Thomson's reputation was assured. He continued to revise the work, perhaps with help from Pope and George Lyttleton, and a corrected, enlarged edition was published in 1744. Thomson's poetry, such as "The Castle," reflect his belief as a member of the first generation of moderates of the Scottish church that the work ethic was part of Christian social concerns, and that good works positively affected society as a whole. As a Scottish Calvinist he believed it his religious duty to work hard. While such work could not earn salvation, material rewards resulting from it were a sign that one belonged to those predestined, or elected, to merit salvation.
Thomson produced a tragedy in 1730 titled Sophonisba, then escorted as tutor Charles Talbot abroad. Talbot died unexpectedly, and his father expressed his fondness and gratitude to Thomson by giving him the secretaryship of briefs as a sinecure. This allowed Thomson to retire to Richmond, where he enjoyed his gardens and published a lengthy patriotic poem titled Liberty from 1734 to 1736. Marked by exaggeration and verbal extravagance, it was unsuccessful. After the death of his patron, Lord Talbot, Thomson focused again on the stage, producing a series of tragedies. None did particularly well. They included Agamemnon (1738), Edward and Eleanora, and Tancred and Sigismunda (1745). Corio-lanus (1749) received a posthumous staging.
Through the efforts of George Lyttleton, Thomson was granted an annual pension of £100 from the prince of Wales. He contributed the famous lyrics to "Rule Britannia" as part of The Masque of Alfred (1740). In 1748 Thomson published a poem 15 years in the writing, The Castle of Indolence. A clever imitation of work by Edmund Spenser and admired by many, it reflected Thomson's belief that wasted time was near-sinful and incorporated more of the natural description valued in "The Seasons." Labeled by the biographer Scott "a religious and sociopolitical allegory," as well as Thomson's "most compact and formally controlled poem," it represented a return to the Scottish themes crucial to
Thomson's work. He died after a brief illness that followed a boat outing, said to have caused him to "chill." Thomson was buried in the Richmond parish church and later celebrated by William Collins in the ode "In Yonder Grave a Druid Lies."
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