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A GROUP OF EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY POETS
THOMSON-EARLY LIFE-DESCRIPTIVE POETRY GENERALLY
WINTER”—THOMSON'S POSITION IN POETRY-DYER AND SOMERVILLE
BETWEEN the end of Pope's second period and the beginning of his third a new poet appeared, of a very different vein.
It was in the last year of the reign of George I. that this fresh and powerful voice made itself heard in literature. A respectable clergyman of literary tastes, Mr. Whatley, chanced to take up a volume of poems lying on the counter of Millan the publisher. The poems had been published for some weeks, but had attracted no attention. As he turned over the leaves Mr. Whatley's attention was roused; before he laid the book down attention had developed into enthusiasm, and he rushed off to the coffee-houses to proclaim the discovery of a new poet.
The new poet was James Thomson, a young man of twenty-six, just as old as the century, who had been born and bred in very different circumstances from Pope, and whose poetry consequently derived its tone from very different influences. Consider the life of Thomson up to the time when“ Winter,” the first of his poems on the “Seasons," was published in 1726, and you will see that a very different strain was to be expected from him. His father was a minister in the Scotch Lowlands—minister of the parish of Southdean in Roxburghshire. The extraordinary death of this gentleman, when his son was in his eighteenth year, is significant
THOMSON'S EARLY YEARS
both of the superstitious atmosphere in which the poet was educated, and of the sensitiveness of the organization that he inherited. There was a ghost in the parish of Southdean, and the minister was sent for to lay it ; but no sooner had he begun his exorcism than it seemed to him that he was struck on the head with a ball of fire, and he never recovered from the shock. A man of such susceptibility and overpowering vividness of imagination was fitting father to a poet. He had literary neighbors
a also, like Pope's father, who encouraged his boy in versemaking. There was Mr. Riccarton, minister of the neighboring parish of Hobkirk, who wrote a poem on Winter, and is shown by that fact to have been likely to give the author of the “Seasons” an early bias toward the vein of sentiment and reflection that afterward took possession of him. A neighboring laird, Sir W. Bennet of Chesters, also took notice of the school-boy, invited him to spend his summer holidays at his house, and, being himself an amateur of poetry, encouraged him to compose verses. Thomson's juvenile verses must have been very clumsy compared with Pope's. We have a speci. men of them, published in the Edinburgh Miscellany in bis twentieth year, when he had completed his course of studies in Arts in the University of Edinburgh, in which, while the language is rough, there is a certain force and freshness of vision, an air of sincere delight in country scenes, evidences of unaffected, loving observations of country sports. There is a story told of Thomson's unwillingness to leave Tweedside for the University. He was sent to Edinburgh on horseback with a servant, but was back before the servant, saying he could study as well on the braes of Sou’dean as in Edinburgh.
To Edinburgh, however, Thomson had to go, and the whole family removed there on the father's sudden death. He was a student in Divinity till 1724, and in October of that year was severely reproved by the Professor for the exuberance of his imagination in an exercise lecture on the 119th Psalm. In March, 1725, armed with introductions from an aristocratic friend of his mother's, the Lady Grizel Baillie, he went in quest of Fortune to London, where a college friend of his, David Mallet, was already settled as tutor in the family of the Duke of Montrose. Thomson also obtained a tutorship,—in the family of Lord Binning, son-in-law of his Edinburgh patroness, but held it only for a few months.
It seems to have been in the neighborhood of Lord Binning's house at Barnet that the idea of writing a poem on Winter first took shape in Thomson's mind. The approach of winter in 1725 found him in circumstances in which he needed all the consolations of a warm imagination. His mother had died a few weeks after he parted from her at Leith, and he was himself in pecuniary straits, with but little prospect of realizing the hopes with which he had come to the capital. Read the opening lines of "Winter" with this knowledge of the poet's circumstances, and you will see how natural it was that such thoughts should come into his mind as he walked to and from his country lodging, with eyes that had long been accustomed to watch changes in the sky and on the face of the earth—turning to them now for relief from his own cheerless-looking future. Very different this from the situation of the artist Pope, for whom poetry was not a consolation for desperate circumstances, but a business pursued with ease and de. liberation.
“ See, Winter comes, to rule the varied year,
Sullen and sad, with all his rising train ;
Trod the pure virgin-snows, myself as pure ;
Descriptive poetry, it seems to me,-i. e., poetry descriptive of inanimate nature,-must always be more or less dull unless we have some clue to the mood of the poets The description then lives for us as an expression of the writer's ruling emotion ; it acquires human interest. Of course the human interest of Thomson's descriptions is not always due to the colors thrown upon them by his own hopes and fears for himself ; it is only passages here and there that have a direct biographical interest. The gloomy notes of the opening of his poem on Winter are only significant of the mood in which he began the poem ; once fairly absorbed in his subject, he seems, as it were, to have been carried on the wings of imagination far above and away from the anxieties of his own life, up into sublime contemplation of the great forces of Nature, and into warm sympathy with the human hardships and enjoyments, horrors and amusements, peculiar to the season. When Thomson is called a descriptive poet, it must be remembered that he not merely describes Nature with the minute fidelity of a landscape painter ; it is always Nature in its relation to man ; the ways and the feelings of man have even greater interest for him than the changing appearances of sky and earth and sea. The secret of his extraordinary popularity is that he describes in sonorous and dignified verse not only what all men must see as long as the seasons endure, but also what all men must feel as long as they are affected by the changes of the seasons, and have hearts to feel for one another's joys and pains.
The poem of “Winter,” published in the spring of
1726, leaped at once into popularity. Two editions were exhausted in a few months. The freshness of the poem must have helped it greatly with the fastidious coffeehouse critics of the time. Nobody since Milton had handled blank verse with such power. The subject also was fresh ; no poet since Milton had lighted on such a theme for sublimity of imagination and breadth of human interest. It came to Thomson quite spontaneously ; from his own hardships to the general hardships of all living things in winter, and the efforts of man to make the most of the gloomy season, was a natural transition; and, coming to him as a happy thought, the subject was treated with genuine enthusiasm. And if we look at the general structure of the poem, we see another thing that must have struck the critics of the time as a novelty. It was an innovation upon the classical structure. It does not follow any predetermined scheme or plan, beyond beginning with the storms of early winter, and ending with the thaw that heralds the approach of spring. The poet leaves himself free to digress wherever casual associations may
lead him. The best way of giving an idea of Thomson's method and style will be to follow the course of this his first, freshest, and most powerful poem. He begins, as I have said, after a short introduction, with a description of the black skies, heavy rains, and floods of early winter :
“ Then comes the father of the tempest forth,
Wrapt in black glooms. First joyless rains obscure