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The poem, which, being of a new kind, few would venture at first to like, by degrees gained upon the publick ; and one edition was very
speedily succeeded by another. Thomson's credit was now high, and every day brought him new friends;
among others Dr. Rundle, a man afterwards unfortunately famous, sought his acquaintance, and found his qualities such, that he recommended him to the Lord chancellor Talbot. “Winter” was accompanied, in many editions, not only with a preface and a dedication, but with poetical praises by Mr. Hill, Mr. Mallet (then Malloch), and Mira, the fictitious name of a lady once too well known. Why the dedications are, to “Winter” and the other Seasons, contrarily to custom, left out in the collected works, the reader may enquire. The next year (1727) he distinguished himself by three publications; of “Summer,” in pursuance of his plan; of “A Poem on the Death of Sir Isaac Newton,” which he was enabled to perform as an exact philosopher by the instruction of Mr. Gray; and of “Britannia,” a kind of poetical invective against the ministry, whom the nation then thought not forward enough in resenting the depredations of the Spaniards. By this piece he declared himself an adherent to the opposition, and had therefore no favour to expect from the Court. Thomson, having been some time entertained in the family of the lord Binning, was desirous of testifying his gratitude by making him the patron of his “Summer;” but the same kindness which had first disposed lord Binning to encourage him, determined him to refuse the dedication, which was by his advice addressed to Mr. Dodington, a man who had more power to advance the reputation and fortune of a poet. “Spring” was published next year, with a dedication to the countess of Hertford; whose practice it was to invite every summer some poet into the country, to hear her verses and assist her studies. This honour was one summer conferred on Thomson, who took more delight in carousing with lord Hertford and his friends than assisting her ladyship's poetical operations, and therefore never received another summons. “Autumn,” the season to which the “ Spring” and “Summer” are preparatory, still remained unsung, and was delayed till he published (1730) his works collected. He produced in 1727 the tragedy of “Sophonisha” which raised such expectation, that every rehearsal was dignified with a splendid audience, collected to anticipate the delight that was preparing for the publick. It was observed, however, that nobody was much affected, and that the company rose as from a moral lecture. It had upon the stage no unusual degree of success. Slight accidents will operate upon the taste of pleasure. There is a feeblee line in the play: - O Sophonisba,
O Sophonisba, Sophonisba, O ! -
which for a while was echoed through the town. I have been told by Savage, that of the Prologue to “Sophonisba,” the first part was written by Pope, who could not be persuaded to finish it; and that the concluding lines were added by Mallet. Thomson was not long afterwards, by the influence of Dr. Rundle, sent to travel with Mr. Charles Talbot, the eldest son of the Chancellor. He was yet young enough to receive new impressions, to have his opinions rectified and his views enlarged; nor can he be supposed to have wanted that curiosity which is inseparable from an active and comprehensive mind. He may therefore now be supposed to have revelled in all the joys of intellectual luxury; he was every day feasted with instructive novelties; he lived splendidly without expence; and might expect when he returned home a certain establishment. At this time a long course of opposition to Sir Robert Walpole had filled the nation with clamours for liberty, of which no man felt the want, and with care for liberty, which was not in danger. Thomson, in his travels on the continent, found or fancied so many evils arising from the tyranny of other governments, that he resolved to write a very long poem, in five parts upon Liberty. - While he was busy on the first book, Mr. Talbot died; and Thomson, who had been rewarded for his attendance by the place of secretary of the Briefs, pays in the initial lines a decent tribute to his memory. Upon this great poem two years were spent, and the author congratulated himself upon it as his noblest work; but an author and his reader are not always of a mind. Liberty called in vain upon her votaries to read her praises, and reward her encomiast: her praises were condemned to harbour spiders, and to gather dust ; none of Thomson's performances were so little regarded. - The judgement of the publick was not erroneous; the recurrence of the same images must tire in time ; an enumeration of examples to prove a position which nobody denied, as it was from the beginning superfluous, must quickly grow disgusting. The poem of “Liberty” does not now appear in its original state; but, when the author's works were collected after his death, was shortened by Sir George Lyttleton, with a liberty which, as it has a manifest tendency to lessen the confidence of society, and to confound the characters of authors, by making one man write by the judgment of another, cannot be justified by any supposed propriety of the alteration, or kindness of the friend. —I wish to see it exhibited as its author left it. Thomson
Thomson now lived in ease and plenty, and seems for a while to have suspended his poetry; but he was soon called back to labour by the death of the Chancellor, for his place then became vacant; and though the lord Hardwicke delayed for some time to give it away, Thomson's bashfulness, or pride, or some other motive perhaps not more laudable, withheld him from soliciting ; and the new Chancellor would not give him what he would not ask. He now relapsed to his former indigence; but the prince of Wales was at that time struggling for popularity, and by the influence of Mr. Lyttleton professed himself the patron of wit, to him Thomson was introduced, and being gaily interrogated about the state of his affairs, said that they were in a “more poetical posture than formerly;” and had a pension allowed him of one hundred pounds a year. Being now obliged to write, he produced (1738) the tragedy of Agamemnon, which was much shortened in the representation. It had the fate which most commonly attends mythological stories, and was only endured, but not favoured. It struggled with such difficulty through the first night, that Thomson, coming late to his friends with whom he was to sup, excused his delay by telling them how the sweat of his distress had so disordered his wig, that he could not come till he had been refifted by a barber. . He so interested himself in his own drama, that, if I remember right, as he sat in the upper gallery, he accompanied the players by audible recitation, till a friendly hint frighted him to silence. Pope countenanced “Agamemnon,” by coming to it the first night, and was welcomed to the theatre by a general clap ; he had much regard for Thomson, and once expressed it in a poetical Epistle sen: to Italy, of which however he abated the value by transplanting some of the lines into his Epistle to “Arbuthnot.” About this time the Act was passed for licensing plays, of which the first operation was the prohibition of “Gustavus Vasa," a tragedy of Mr. Brooke, whom the publick recompensed by a very liberal subscription; the next was the refusal of “ Edward and Eleonora,” offered by Thomson. It is hard to discover why either play should have been obstructed. Thomson likewise endeavoured to repair his loss by a subscription, of which I cannot now tell the success. - - When the publick murmured at the unkind treatment of Thomson, one of the ministerial writers remarked, that “he had taken a Lioerty which “ was not agreeable to Britannia in any Saron.” He was soon after employed, it conjunction with Mr. Mallet, to write the masque of “Alfred,” which was acted before the Prince at Cliefden-hause. His next work (1745) was “Tancred and Sigismunda,” the most successful of all his tragedies; for it still keeps its turn upon the stage. It may be doubted whether he was, either by the bent of nature or habits of study, much qualified for tragedy. It does not appear that he had much sense of the Vol. I. ** 4 G - - Fathetick
pathetick; and his diffusive and descriptive style produced declamation rather than dialogue. His friend Mr. Lyttleton was now in power, and conferred upon him the office of surveyor-general of the Leeward Islands; from which, when his deputy was paid, he received about three hundred pounds a year. The last piece that he lived to publish was the “Castle of Indolence,"
which was many years under his hand, but was at last finished with great
accuracy. The first canto opens a scene of lazy luxury, that fills the imagination. He was now at ease, but was not long to enjoy it ; for, by taking cold on the water between London and Kew, he caught a disorder, which, with some careless exasperation, ended in a fever that put an end to his life, August 27, 1748. He was buried in the church of Richmond, without an inscription; but a monument has been erected to his memory in Westminsterabbey. Thomson was of stature above the middle size, and, “more fat than bard beseems,” of a dull countenance, and a gross, unanimated, uninviting appearance; silent in mingled company, but chearful among select friends
and by his friends very tenderly and warmly beloved.
He left behind him the tragédy of “Coriolanus,” which was, by the zeal of his patron Sir George Lyttleton, brought upon the stage for the benefit of his family, and recommended by a Prologue, which Quin, who had long lived with, Thomson in fond intimacy, spoke in such a manner as shewed him “to be,” on that occasion, “no actor.” The commencement of this benevolence is very honourable to Quin; who is reported to have delivered Thomson, then known to him only for his genius, from an arrest, by a very considerable present; and its continuance ... honourable to both, for friend. ship is not always the sequel of obligation. By this tragedy a considerable sum was raised, of which part discharged his debts, and the rest was remitted to his sisters, whom, however removed from them by place or condition, he regarded with great tenderness, as will appear by the following Letter, which I communicate with much pleasure, as it gives me at once an opportunity of recording the fraternal kindness of Thomson, and reflecting on the friendly assistance of Mr. Boswell, from whom I received it. - “Hagley in Worcestershire, “My dear Sister, , “October the 4th, 1747. “I thought you had known me better than to interpret my silence into a ‘ decay of affection, especially as your behaviour has always been such as “ rather to increase than diminish it. Don't imagine, because I am a bad ‘correspondent, that I can ever prove an unkind friend and brother. I “ must do myself the justice to tell you, that my affections are naturally “very fixed and constant; and if I had ever reason of complaint against you (of which by the bye I have not the least shadow), I am conscious of
so many defects in mysels, as dispose me to be not a little charitable and forgiving.
“. It gives me the truest heart felt satisfaction to hear you have a good
kind husband, and are in easy contented circumstances; but were they otherwise, that would only awaken and heighten my tenderness towards you. As our good and tender hearted parents did not live to receive any material testimonies of that highest human gratitude I owed them (than which nothing could have given me equal pleasure), the only return I can make them now is by kindness to those they left behind them. Would to God poor Lizy had lived longer; to have been a farther witness of the truth of what I say, and that I might have had the pleasure of seeing once more a sister who so truly deserved my esteem and love . But she is happy, while we must toil a little longer here below: let us however do it chearfully, and gratefully, supported by the pleasing hope of meeting yet again on a safer shore, where to recollect the storms and difficulties of life will not perhaps be inconsistent with that blissful state. You did right to call your daughter by her name ; for you must needs have had a particular tender friendship for one another, endeared as you were by nature by having passed the affectionate years of your youth together; and by that great softner and engager of hearts, mutual hardship. That it was in my power to ease it a little, I account one of the most exquisite pleasures . of my life.—But enough of this melancholy, though not unpleasing strain, “I esteem you for your sensible and disinterested advice to Mr. Bell, as you will see by my Letter to him : as I approve entirely of his marrying again, you may readily ask me why I don't marry at all. My circuinstances have hitherto been so variable and uncertain in this fluctuating world, as . induce to keep me from engaging in such a state : and now, though they are more settled, and of late (which you will be glad to hear) considerably improved, I begin to think myself too far advanced in life for such youthful undertakings, not to mention some other petty reasons that are apt to startle the delicacy of difficult old batchelors. I am, however, not a little suspicious that, was I to pay a visit to Scotland (which I have some thought of doing soon), I might possibly be tempted to think of a thing not easily repaired if done amiss. I have always been of opinion that none make better wives than the ladies of Scotland; and yet, who more forsaken than they, while the gentlemen are continually running abroad all the world over ? Some of them, it is true, are wise enough to return for a wife. You see I am beginning to make interest already with the Scots ladies.—But no more of this infectious subject.—Pray let me hear from you now and then ; and though I am not a regular correspondent, yet perhaps I may mend in that respect. Remember me kindly to your husband, and believe me to be, “Your most affectionate brother, “ J AM E S Thom so N.”