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More we perceive by dint of thought alone;
we have a poetical subject poetically treated—filled
to overflowing with the richest materials of poetry, and the emanations of benevolence. In the Castle || of Indolence we have the concentration or essence ||
of those materials applied to a subject less poetical,
but still affording room for luxuriant fancy, the most exquisite art, and still greater melody of | numbers. | JAMEs THoMson was born at Ednam, near Kelso, | county of Roxburgh, on the 11th of September, 1700. | His father, who was then minister of the parish of Ednam, removed a few years afterwards to that of Southdean in the same county, a primitive and || retired district situated among the lower slopes of || the Cheviots. Here the young poet spent his boyish || years. The gift of poesy came early, and some lines written by him at the age of fourteen, show how soon his manner was formed:—
Now I surveyed my native faculties,
In his eighteenth year, Thomson was sent to Edinburgh college. His father died, and the poet proceeded to London to push his fortune. His college friend Mallet procured him the situation of tutor to the son of Lord Binning, and being shown some of his descriptions of “Winter,’ advised him to connect them into one regular poem. This was done, and “Winter' was published in March 1726, the poet having received only three guineas for the copyright. A second and a third edition appeared the same year. “Summer' appeared in 1727. In 1728 he issued proposals for publishing, by subscription, the “Four Seasons;’ the number of subscribers, at a guinea each copy, was 387; but many took more than one, and Pope (to whom Thomson had been introduced by Mallet) took three copies. The tragedy of Sophonisba was next produced; and in 1731 the poet accompanied the son of Sir Charles Talbot, afterwards lord chancellor, in the capacity of tutor or travelling companion, to the continent. They visited France, Switzerland, and Italy, and it is easy to conceive with what pleasure Thomson must have passed or sojourned among scenes which he had often viewed in imagination. In November of the same year the poet was at Rome, and no doubt indulged the wish expressed in one of his letters, “to see the fields where Virgil gathered his immortal honey, and tread the same ground where men have thought and acted so greatly.” On his re: turn next year he published his poem of Liberty, and obtained the sinecure situation of Secretary of Briefs in the Court of Chancery, which he held tilt the death of Lord Talbot, the chancellor. The succeed
1 This curious fragment was first published in 1841, in a life of Thomson by Mr Allan Cunningham, prefixed to an illus
trated edition of the “Seasons."
sometimes at night.'
was published in May 1748. | he took a boat at Hammersmith to convey him to | Kew, after having walked from London. He caught | cold, was thrown into a fever, and, after a short ill
ing chancellor bestowed the situation on another, Thomson not having, it is said, from characteristic indolence, solicited a continuance of the office. He again tried the stage, and produced Agamemnon, which was coldly received. Edward and Eleonora followed, and the poet's circumstances were brightened by a pension of L. 100 a-year, which he obtained through Lyttelton from the Prince of Wales. He further received the appointment of Surveyor General of the Leeward Islands, the duties of which he was allowed to perform by deputy, and which brought him L.300 per annum. He was now in comparative opulence, and his residence at Kewlane, near Richmond, was the scene of social enjoyment and lettered ease. Retirement and nature
that the walk runs round the hedge, where you may figure me walking any time of the day, and His house appears to have
now applied himself to finish the ‘Castle of Indolence, on which he had been long engaged, and a tragedy on the subject of Coriolanus. The poem In August following,
ness, died (27th of August 1748). No poet was ever
more deeply lamented or more sincerely mourned.
Though born a poet, Thomson seems to have advanced but slowly, and by reiterated efforts, to
refinement of taste. The natural fervour of the man overpowered the rules of the scholar. The first edition of the “Seasons' differs materially from the second, and the second still more from the third. Every alteration was an improvement in delicacy of thought and language, of which we may mention one instance. In the scene betwixt Damon and Musidora—‘the solemnly-ridiculous bathing,’ as Campbell has justly termed it—the poet had originally introduced three damsels' Of propriety of language consequent on these corrections, we may cite an example in a line from the episode of LaVinia
And as he viewed her ardent o'er and o'er, stood originally
And as he run her ardent o'er and o'er.
That the genius of Thomson was purifying and ||
working off its alloys up to the termination of his existence, may be seen from the superiority in style and diction of the ‘Castle of Indolence.’ ‘Between the period of his composing the Seasons and the Castle of Indolence,’ says Mr Campbell, “he wrote several works which seem hardly to accord with the improvement and maturity of his taste exhibited in the latter production. To the Castle of Indolence he brought not only the full nature, but the perfect art of a poet. The materials of that exquisite poem are derived originally from Tasso; but he was more immediately indebted for them to the Faery Queen: and in meeting with the paternal spirit of Spenser, he seems as if he were admitted more intimately to the home of inspiration.' If the critic had gone
* The interleaved copy with Pope's and Thomson's alterations is in the possession of the Rev. J. Mitford. See that gentleman's edition of Gray's works, vol. ii. p. 8, where other instances are given. All Pope's corrections were adopted by Thomson.
over the alterations in the “Seasons,’ which Thomson had been more or less engaged upon for about sixteen years, he would have seen the gradual improvement of his taste, as well as imagination. So far as the art of the poet is concerned, the last corrected edition is a new work. The power of Thomson, however, lay not in his art, but in the exuberance of his genius, which sometimes required to be disciplined and controlled. The poetic glow is spread over all. He never slackens in his enthusiasm, nor tires of pointing out the phenomena of nature which, indolent as he was, he had surveyed under every aspect, till he had become familiar with all. Among the mountains, vales, and forests, he seems to realise his own words—
Man superior walks Amid the glad creation, musing praise And looking lively gratitude.
But he looks also, as Johnson has finely observed, ‘with the eye which nature bestows only on a poet —the eye that distinguishes, in everything presented to its view, whatever there is on which imagination can delight to be detained, and with a mind that at once comprehends the vast, and attends to the minute.” He looks also with a heart that feels for all mankind. His sympathies are universal. His touching allusions to the condition of the poor and suffering, to the hapless state of bird and beast in winter; the description of the peasant perishing in the snow, the Siberian exile, or the Arab pilgrims, all are marked with that humanity and true feeling which shows that the poet's virtues “formed the magic of his song.” The genuine impulses under which he wrote he has expressed in one noble stanza of the ‘Castle of Indolence :’—
I care not, Fortune, what you me deny; You cannot rob me of free Nature's grace, You cannot shut the windows of the sky, Through which Aurora shows her brightening face; You cannot bar my constant feet to trace The woods and lawns, by living stream, at eve: Let health my nerves and finer fibres brace, And I their toys to the great children leave; Of fancy, reason, virtue, nought can me bereave.
“The love of nature, says Coleridge, “seems to have led Thomson to a cheerful religion; and a gloomy religion to have led Cowper to a love of nature. The one would carry his fellow-men along with him into nature; the other flies to nature from his fellowmen. In chastity of diction, however, and the harmony of blank verse, Cowper leaves Thomson immeasurably below him; yet, I still feel the latter to have been the born poet.' The ardour and fulness of Thomson's descriptions distinguish them from those of Cowper, who was naturally less enthusiastic, and who was restricted by his religious tenets, and by his critical and classically formed taste. The diction of the Seasons is at times pure and musical; it is too elevated and ambitious, however, for ordinary themes, and where the poet descends to minute description, or to humorous or satirical scenes (as in the account of the chase and foxhunters' dinner in Autumn), the effect is grotesque and absurd. Mr Campbell has happily said, that, “as long as Thomson dwells in the pure contemplation of nature, and appeals to the universal poetry of the human breast, his redundant style comes to us as something venial and adventitious—it is the flowing vesture of the Druid; and perhaps to the general experience, is rather imposing; but when he returns to the familiar narrations or courtesies of life, the same diction ceases to seem the mantle of inspiration, and
only strikes us by its unwieldy difference from the common costume of expression.” Cowper avoided this want of keeping between his style and his subjects, adapting one to the other with inimitable ease, grace, and variety; yet only rising in one or two instances to the higher flights of Thomson. In 1843, a Pocm to the Memory of Mr Congreve, Inscribed to her Grace Henrietta, Duchess of Marlborough, was reprinted for the Percy Society (under the care of Mr Peter Cunningham) as a genuine though unacknowledged production of Thomson, first published in 1729. We have no doubt of the genuineness of this poem as the work of Thomson. It possesses all the characteristics of his style—its exaggeration, enthusiasm, and the peculiar rhythm of his blank verse. The poet's praise of Congreve is excessive, and must have been designed rather to gratify the Duchess of Marlborough than to record Thomson's own deliberate convictions. Jeremy Collier would have started with amazement from such a tribute as the following:—
What art thou, Death ! by mankind poorly feared,
The gentle and benevolent nature of Thomson is seen in this slight shade of censure. He, too, flattered the “gross vulgar, but it was with adulation, not licentiousness.
We subjoin a few of the detached pictures and descriptions in the ‘Seasons,’ and part of the ‘Castle of Indolence.” 4
... [Showers in Spring.]
| The north-east spends his rage; he now, shut up
| Within his iron cave, the effusive south
Breathes the big clouds with vernal showers distent.
|oppressing life; but lovely, gentle, kind,
And full of every hope, of every joy,
The wish of nature. Gradual sinks the breeze
| Into a perfect calm, that not a breath
| Is heard to quiver through the closing woods,
Or rustling turn the many-twinkling leaves
Of aspen tall. The uncurling floods, diffused
| Forgetful of their course. 'Tis silence all,
| And pleasing expectation. Herds and flocks
|Drop the dry sprig, and, mute-imploring, eye
| The plumy people streak their wings with oil,
| To throw the lucid moisture trickling off,
| And wait the approaching sign, to strike at once
| Into the general choir. Even mountains, vales,
| And forests, seem impatient to demand The promised sweetness. Man superior walks
| Amid the glad creation, musing praise, | And looking lively gratitude. At last, | The clouds consign their treasures to the fields, And, softly shaking on the dimpled pool Prelusive drops, let all their moisture flow In large effusion o'er the freshened world. | The stealing shower is scarce to patter heard By such as wander through the forest-walks, Beneath the umbrageous multitude of leaves.
[Birds Pairing in Spring.]
To the deep woods They haste away, all as their fancy leads, | Pleasure, or food, or secret safety, prompts; | That nature's great command may be obeyed: | Nor all the sweet sensations they perceive | Indulged in vain. Some to the holly hedge Nestling repair, and to the thicket some; | Some to the rude protection of the thorn Commit their feeble offspring; the cleft tree Offers its kind concealment to a few, Their food its insects, and its moss their nests : | Others apart, far in the grassy dale Or roughening waste their humble texture weave: But most in woodland solitudes delight, In unfrequented glooms or shaggy banks, Steep, and divided by a babbling brook, | Whose murmurs soothe them all the live-long
| When by kind duty fixed. Among the roots
| Of hazel pendent o'er the plaintive stream,
They frame the first foundation of their domes,
| Dry sprigs of trees, in artful fabric laid, | And bound with clay together. Now 'tis nought But restless hurry through the busy air, |Beat by unnumbered wings. The swallow sweeps The slimy pool, to build his hanging house | Intent: and often from the careless back
Of herds and flocks a thousand tugging bills
Steal hair and wool; and oft, when unobserved, Pluck from the barn a straw ; till soft and warm, Clean and complete, their habitation grows.
As thus the patient dam assiduous sits,
Not to be tempted from her tender task Or by sharp hunger or by smooth delight,
Though the whole loosened spring around her
Of wandering swain the white-winged plover wheels
Blue, through the dusk, the smoking currents shine;
She sends on earth; then that of deeper dye Steals soft behind; and then a deeper still, In circle following circle, gathers round, To close the face of things. A fresher gale Begins to wave the wood, and stir the stream, Sweeping with shadowy gust the fields of corn: While the quail clamours for his running mate. Wide o'er the thistly lawn, as swells the breeze, A whitening shower of vegetable down Amusive floats. The kind impartial care Of nature nought disdains: thoughtful to feed Her lowest sons, and clothe the coming year, From field to field the feathered seeds she wings. His folded flock secure, the shepherd home Hies merry-hearted; and by turns relieves The ruddy milkmaid of her brimming pail; The beauty whom perhaps his witless heart— Unknowing what the joy-mixed anguish means— Sincerely loves, by that best language shown Of cordial glances, and obliging deeds. Onward they pass o'er many a panting height, And valley sunk, and unfrequented; where At fall of eve the fairy people throng, In various game and revelry, to pass The summer night, as village stories tell. But far about they wander from the grave Of him whom his ungentle fortune urged Against his own sad breast to lift the hand Of impious violence. The lonely tower Is also shunned; whose mournful chambers hold— So night-struck fancy dreams—the yelling ghost. Among the crooked lanes, on every hedge, The glowworm lights his gem; and through the dark A moving radiance twinkles. Evening yields The world to night; not in her winter robe Of massy Stygian woof, but loose arrayed In mantle dun. A faint erroneous ray, Glanced from the imperfect surfaces of things, Flings half an image on the straining eye; While wavering woods, and villages, and streams, And rocks, and mountain-tops, that long retained The ascending gleam, are all one swimming scene, | Uncertain if beheld. Sudden to heaven Thence weary vision turns; where, leading soft The silent hours of love, with purest ray Sweet Venus shines; and from her genial rise, When daylight sickens till it springs afresh, Unrivalled reigns, the fairest lamp of night.
[Autumn Evening Scene.]
But see the fading many-coloured woods,
|-one dying strain, to cheer the woodman's toil.
Haply some widowed songster pours his plaint, Far, in faint warblings, through the tawny copse; While congregated thrushes, linnets, larks, And each wild throat, whose artless strains so late Swelled all the music of the swarming shades, Robbed of their tuneful souls, now shivering sit On the dead tree, a dull despondent flock: With not a brightness waving o'er their plumes, And nought save chattering discord in their note. 0 let not, aimed from some inhuman eye, The gun the music of the coming year Destroy; and harmless, unsuspecting harm, Lay the weak tribes a miserable prey In mingled murder, fluttering on the ground ! The pale descending year, yet pleasing still, A gentler mood inspires; for now the leaf Incessant rustles from the mournful grove; Oft startling such as studious walk below, And slowly circles through the waving air. But should a quicker breeze amid the boughs Sob, o'er the sky the leafy deluge streams; Till choked, and matted with the dreary shower, The forest walks, at every rising gale, Roll wide the withered waste, and whistle bleak. Fled is the blasted verdure of the fields; And, shrunk into their beds, the flowery race Their sunny robes resign. E'en what remained Of stronger fruits falls from the naked tree; And woods, fields, gardens, orchards all around, The desolated prospect thrills the soul. " + The western sun withdraws the shortened day, And humid evening, gliding o'er the sky, In her chill progress, to the ground condensed The vapour throws. Where creeping waters ooze, Where marshes stagnate, and where rivers wind, Cluster the rolling fogs, and swim along The dusky-mantled lawn. Meanwhile the moon, Full-orbed, and breaking through the scattered clouds, Shows her broad visage in the crimsoned east. Turned to the sun direct her spotted disk, Where mountains rise, umbrageous dales descend, And caverns deep as optic tube descries, A smaller earth, gives us his blaze again, Void of its flame, and sheds a softer day. Now through the passing clouds she seems to stoop, Now up the pure cerulean rides sublime. Wide the pale deluge floats, and streaming mild O'er the skied mountain to the shadowy vale, While rocks and floods reflect the quivering gleam; The whole air whitens with a boundless tide Of silver radiance trembling round the world. The lengthened night elapsed, the morning shines Serene, in all her dewy beauty bright, Unfolding fair the last autumnal day. And now the mounting sun dispels the fog; The rigid hoar-frost melts before his beam; And hung on every spray, on every blade Of grass, the myriad dew-drops twinkle round.