Thomson can hardly be called a great poet, yet in the history of literature he is unusual enough to be regarded (chronologically) as a freak. As such he is important, and it is necessary to give him some prominence.
His Life: Born near Kelso, close to some of the loveliest valleys on the Scottish side of the border, Thomson early came to London (1725) to seek a patron and fame. His Winter (1726), though a novelty embarrassed the critics, brought him recognition and afterward praise; he obtained the patronage of the great, and assiduously cultivated it; travelled as a tutor to a noble family; obtained government places and emoluments; and passed a happy and prosperous life at his cottage near Richmond.
His Poetry: His Winter was afterward quadrupled in size by including the other three seasons, and became The Seasons (1730). It is a blank-verse poem, and consists of a long series of descriptive passage dealing with natural scenes, mainly those with which he was familiar during his youth on the Scottish border. There is a great deal of padding, and the style is often marked by clumsy expressions; yet on the whole the treatment is exhilarating, full of concentrated observation and joy in the face of nature. Above all, it is real nature, obtained from the living sky and air, and not from books; and, coming when it did, the poem exerted a strong counterinfluence against the artificial school of poetry.
Thomson also wrote Liberty (1735-36), a gigantic poem in blank verse, intolerably dull. It had no success. As Johnson says, “The praises of Liberty were condemned to harbor spiders, and to gather dust.”
In the last year of his life he published The Castle of Indolence, which is even more remarkable than The Seasons. The poem is written in Spenserian stanzas, and in the true Spenserian fashion it gives a description of a lotus land into which world-weary souls are invited to withdraw. The work is imitative, and so cannot claim to be the highest class, but it is an imitation of the rarest merit. For languid suggestiveness, in dulcet and harmonious versification, and for subtly woven vowel-music it need not shirk comparison with the best of Spenser himself. Yet the likeness is confined to similarity of tone and technique; Thomson’s sentiments are too commonplace to merit comparison with the more profound thought and philosophy which underlie Spenser’s work. We give three verses of this remarkable poem. Coming at such a period and expressing as they do the essence of romantic idealism, the verse are well worth quoting:
Joined to the prattle of the purling rills,
Were heard the lowing herds along the vale,
And flocks loud-bleating from the distant hills,
And vacant shepherds piping in the dale:
And now and then sweet Philomel would wail,
Or stock-doves ’plain amid the forest deep,
That drowsy rustled to the sighing gale:
And still a coil the grasshopper did keep:
Yet all these sounds yblent inclined all to sleep.
Full in the passage of the vale, above,
A sable, silent, solemn forest stood;
Where nought but shadowy forms were seen to move,
As Idless fancied in her dreaming mood.
And up the hills, on either side, a wood
Of blackening pines, ay waving to and fro,
Sent forth a sleepy horror through the blood;
And where this valley winded out, below,
The murmuring main was heard, and scarcely heard, to flow.
A pleasing land of drowsyhed it was,
Of dreams that were before the half-shut eye;
And of gay castles in the clouds that pass,
For ever flushing round a summer sky:
There eke the soft delights, that witchingly
Instil a wanton sweetness through the breast,
And the calm pleasures always hovered nigh;
But what’re smacked of noyance, or unrest,
Was far far off expelled from this delicious nest.
Thomson also wrote some dramas, including one bad tragedy, Sophonisba (1729); and in collaboration with Mallet he produced the masque Alfred (1740), which happens to contain the song Rule, Britannia. The song is usually said to be Thomson’s.