James Thomson

The British poet James Thomson (1700-1748) is chiefly remembered for his celebrated descriptive poem in four parts, "The Seasons, " written in blank verse.

James Thomson was born at Ednam, Scotland, near the English border, on Sept. 11, 1700, the third son of a minister. Taught at first by Robert Riccaltoun, whose verses on winter later influenced his famous pupil, Thomson then attended school at Jedburgh. In 1715 he matriculated at the University of Edinburgh, where he became a divinity student.

Already a habitual writer of verse, young Thomson went to London in 1725 hoping either to become a popular preacher or to acquire a patron for his poetry. He supported himself by serving as a tutor. His "Winter" appeared in 1726, but its dedication procured only 20 guineas, not a patron. The poem was very well received, however, and it was followed by "Summer" (1727) and "Spring" (1728). The poems were applauded and imitated, but Thomson's financial position was unsound. He therefore determined to write a play.

Thomson's tragedy Sophonisba was produced at Drury Lane Theatre in 1730 with moderate success. He then sold the copyright of this play and that of "Spring." In the same year The Seasons, now including "Autumn, " was published by subscription. This publication secured him a patron, Sir Charles Talbot, who sent Thomson abroad as a companion to his son (1731-1733). Talbot then gave Thomson the post of secretary of briefs in the Court of Chancery, a sinecure. He wrote a long poem based on his travels, Liberty, which was published in five parts (1734-1736) and was a failure. Fortunately Thomson had sold the copyright in advance.

After Talbot's death in 1737, Thomson lost his sinecure. His fortunes reached their lowest ebb in this year; in fact, he was arrested for debt. He retrieved his fortunes, however, with his tragedy Agamemnon, produced in 1738. Whatever the poetic merits of this piece, its political merits were rewarded by a pension from the Prince of Wales (canceled in 1748). Thomson's next tragedy, Edward and Eleanora, published in 1739, was banned for political reasons.

With his friend David Mallet, Thomson wrote in 1740 the masque Alfred, with music by Thomas Arne, for which he created the song Rule, Britannia. In 1744 Thomson's new patron, George Lyttleton, a lord commissioner of the Treasury, appointed him surveyor general of the Leeward Islands, and in 1745 Tancred and Sigismunda, Thomson's most successful play, was produced. The Castle of Indolence, a poem written in imitation of Edmund Spenser and reflecting Thomson's love of idleness, appeared in 1748. He died that year on August 27.

Further Reading on James Thomson

The Complete Poetical Works of James Thomson were well edited by James L. Robertson (1908). Thomson was included in Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets (1781). Thomson's Letters and Documents, edited by Alan D. McKillop (1958), is valuable. The best biography is Douglas Grant, James Thomson: Poet of "The Seasons" (1951). McKillop wrote The Background of Thomson's "Seasons" (1942). Thomson is also discussed in Patricia M. Spacks, The Poetry of Vision: Five Eighteenth-century Poets (1967). Good recent critical studies are Patricia M. Spacks, The Varied God: A Critical Study of Thomson's The Seasons (1959), and Ralph Cohen, The Art of Discrimination: Thomson's The Seasons, and the Language of Criticism (1964).

Additional Biography Sources

Bayne, William, James Thomson, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.

Sambrook, James, James Thomson, 1700-1748: a life, Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Scott, Mary Jane W., James Thomson, Anglo-Scot, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988.