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James Thomson

Thomson, James (1700–1748). Poet, son of the minister of Ednam, Roxburghshire, spent most of his youth, however, at Southdean, a neighbouring parish, to which his father was translated. He was ed. at the parish school there, at Jedburgh, and at Edinburgh, whither he went with the view of studying for the ministry. The style of one of his earliest sermons having been objected to by the Prof. of Divinity as being too flowery and imaginative, he gave up his clerical views and went to London in 1725, taking with him a part of what ultimately became his poem of Winter. By the influence of his friend Mallet he became tutor to Lord Binning, son of the Earl of Haddington, and was introduced to Pope, Arbuthnot, Gay, and others. Winter was published in 1726, and was followed by Summer (1727), Spring (1728), and Autumn (1730), when the whole were brought together as The Seasons. Previous to 1730 he had produced one or two minor poems and the tragedy of Sophonisba, which, after promising some success, was killed by the unfortunate line, “Oh! Sophonisba, Sophonisba, oh!” being parodied as “Oh! Jemmy Thomson, Jemmy Thomson, oh!” In 1731 T. accompanied Charles Talbot, son of the Lord Chancellor, to the Continent, as tutor, and on his return received the sinecure Secretaryship of Briefs which, however, he lost in 1737, through omitting to apply for its continuance to Talbot’s successor. He then returned to the drama and produced Agamemnon in 1738, and Edward and Eleanora in 1739. The same year he received from the Prince of Wales a pension of £100, and was made Surveyor–General of the Leeward Islands which, after providing for a deputy to discharge the duties, left him £300 a year. He was now in comfortable circumstances and settled in a villa near Richmond, where he amused himself with gardening and seeing his friends. In conjunction with Mallet he wrote, in 1740, the masque of Alfred, in which appeared Rule Britannia, which M. afterwards claimed, or allowed to be claimed, for him, but which there is every reason to believe was contributed by T. In 1745 appeared Tancred and Sigismunda, the most successful of his dramas, and in 1748 Coriolanus. In May of the latter year he published The Castle of Indolence, an allegorical poem in the Spenserian stanza, generally considered to be his masterpiece. In August following he caught a chill which developed into a fever, and carried him off in his 48th year. Though T. was undoubtedly a poet by nature, his art was developed by constant and fastidious polishing. To The Seasons, originally containing about 4000 lines, he added about 1400 in his various revisions. He was the first to give the description of nature the leading place, and in his treatment of his theme he showed much judgment in the selection of the details to be dwelt upon. His blank verse, though not equal to that of a few other English poets, is musical and wielded in a manner suitable to his subject. In all his poems he displays the genial temper and kindly sympathies by which he was characterised as a man. He was never married, and lived an easy, indolent life, beloved by his many friends.

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