« PreviousContinue »
EVERY one has read Thomson's Seasons; comparatively few have read his Castle of Indolence. Yet the latter is the finer piece of literary workmanship. The subject of the former comes home to every heart,—we like to find our own thoughts and feelings pictured in the books we read; and so the poem of the Seasons, displaying in glittering blank-verse the changeful beauty of the year, has come to be read by old and young, and loved by all.
The poet's father was minister of Ednam in Roxburghshire; and there in 1700 James was born. Having received his elementary education at the Grammar School of Jedburgh, he became a student in the University of Edinburgh. Nothing of importance marked his progress there, until one day in the Divinity classroom he paraphrased a psalm in language so brilliantly figurative as to excite the wonder of the class and draw forth a rebuke from the professor, who cautioned him against the use of such highflown diction in the pulpit. This was the turning-point in the youth's career; forthwith he abandoned his studies for the Church, wrote poetry more diligently than before, and, upon the slightest encouragement from a friend, went to seek his fortune among the literary men of London.
A raw Scotchman, newly landed in London streets, was then the butt of every Cockney witling, and the sure prey of thief. Thomson did not escape; for as he gaped along the street, bis letters of introduction, which he had carefully knotted into his handkerchief, were stolen from his pocket. But he did not de
spair. When his poem of Winter, of which his friend Mallet
thought very highly, was finished, he offered the manu1726 script to several booksellers without success; until at last
a Mr. Millar bought it for three guineas. It appeared in
1726. Poets in those days, if they desired success, were forced, as we have just seen, to dance attendance on the great. Having selected some rich or powerful man, they wrote a dedication, crammed with compliments, which often drew from the flattered magnate a purse of guineas, far outweighing the niggard pay they got from their booksellers. Thomson in this
received twenty guineas from Sir Spencer Compton. Quickly "Winter" grew into public favour. One literary amateur and another read it, and buzzed the praises of the new poet everywhere. The panorama of the completed Seasons soon followed this success. Thomson tried his pen, too, upon tragedy; but Sophonisba perished from the stage in a few nights, killed by the echo of one weak line.
“O Sophonisba! Sophonisba, 0." wrote the poor poet;
“O Jemmy Thomson! Jemmy Thomson, O!" cried some critical mocking-bird; and the mischief was done, for all London rang with a ready laugh.
In 1731 Thomson set out for the Continent, as tutor to the son of Sir Charles Talbot, afterwards Lord Chancellor. Having travelled through France, Switzerland, and Italy with his pupil, he returned to England and published a poem on Liberty, which he wrongly considered to be his greatest work. About the same time he received from his patron Talbot the easy place of Secretary of Briefs in Chancery. When the Chancellor died, the Secretary lost office; although it is said that he might have retained it by soliciting the favour of the incoming minister. The loss of this appointment drove the poet again to pen-work. He wrote for the stage two tragedies, which proved failures. But the Prince of Wales granted him a yearly pension of £100; and he was, besides, made Sur veyor-General of the Leeward Islands,—from which office, after paying a man to do the work, he drew about £300 a year.
So the fat and lazy poet found at last a snug haven in which to spend his few remaining days. A pretty cottage at Richmond, filled with good furniture and well supplied with wine and ale, was the last home of Thomson. There, lounging in his garden or his easy-chair, he brought to a close his greatest poem, The Castle of Indolence, lavishing on its polished lines the wealth of his ripened genius. This latest effort was published in May 1748. One day in the following August, after a sharp walk out of town, which heated him, he took a boat at Hammersmith for Kew. On the water he got chilled-neglected the slight cold, as many dom became feverish—and in a few days was dead.
The plan and style of Thomson's Seasons are too well known to need much comment. Many fine episodes of human life relieve the stillness and deepen the interest of the ever-changing pictures of natural scenery which fill this beautiful poem. A certain roughness and crudity, disfiguring many passages of the original work, were removed by the poet, as years developed more fully his artistic skill. So many, indeed, were the changes and corrections, that the third edition of the “ Seasons” may almost as a new work. Thomson's style becomes occasionally inflated and wordy; but, as to the ring of his blank-verse, it has been well said, that, with all its faults, it is his own—not the echo of another poet's song.
“ The Castle of Indolence,” an allegory written in the stanza and the style of Spenser, affords a noble specimen of poetic art. No better illustration could be given of that wonderful linking of sound with sense, which critics call onomatopoeia. Stanza after stanza rolling its dreamy music on the ear, soothes us with a soft and sleepy charm. Like Tennyson's Lotus Eaters, the dwellers in this enchanted keep lie steeped in drowsy luxury. The good knight Industry breaks the magician's spell; but (alas for the moral teaching of the allegory !) we have grown so delighted with the still and cushioned life, whose hours glide slumberously by, that we feel almost angry with the restless being who dissolves the delicious charm. No man or boy need hope to be lured into early rising by the study of this poem. That Thomson's forte lay
be looked upon
in description, is clearly shown in both his leading works. On such a theme as Indolence he wrote con amore; for no man could better enjoy the dolce far niente of the lazy Italian than he could himself. And when, after some hard battling with the stern realities of life, he had settled himself down in his quiet nest at Richmond—itself a Cottage of Indolence—all circumstances were most favourable to the composition of his great work. It took its colours from his daily life. With £400 a year and nothing to do for it—lying down and rising when he liked—sauntering in the green lanes around his house, or sucking peaches in sunny nooks of his little garden-he mused and wrote and smoothed his verses, undisturbed by anything which could mar the music of his song
STANZAS FROM "THE CASTLE OF INDOLENCE."
In lowly dale, fast by a river's side,
Was nought around but images of rest :
SPECIMEN OF THOMSON'S VERSE.
Full in the passage of the vale above,
A pleasing land of drowsy-head it was,