Thomson’s Seasons

illustration from half-title page of 1824 edition of Thomson’s Seasons

Half Title (1824)

Thomson’s Seasons:
Introductory Material

Illustrations on this page are from the 1793 and 1824 editions.

illustration from title page of 1793 edition of Thomson’s Seasons

Title Page (1793)


An additional mark of homage to the merit and genius of Thomson is sure to delight those who are familiar with his writings; and it claims the notice of all persons who can appreciate just sentiments, vivid description, or the melody of verse.

We have the union of those qualities in The Seasons. No poem surpasses it in felicity of theme; in ethical tendency; in the pathos of its episodes; in the truth, the richness, the variety of its details of scenery. The mutable circumstances of taste or fashion can never diminish its value. It is the perpetual calendar of nature—which may be read with profit and pleasure in each ‘revolving year.’

A poem of so elevated a character is entitled to the best attire; and this edition has been prompted by such feelings. The publishers, aware of the objections which attach to previous attempts, were anxious to produce a volume which should merit confidence as to the fidelity of its text, and become the favourite of all classes by the superiority of its graphic accompaniments.

An admirer of Thomson, and of the spirit in which this project was conceived, I could not resist the offer of editorship; and I have therefore to describe the course pursued, and the precise amount of my responsibility.

The form which has been adopted, while it gives scope to ornament, invites to perusal by its convenience. The paper, the type, and the various minor essentials, have received all the consideration which experience could dictate. As the result is obvious, there can be no necessity for comment.

The poem is printed from the edition of 1746, which contains the final revision of the author—who died in 1748. This valuable edition, afterwards in part mutilated, has escaped the researches of his numerous biographers; and the text of the subsequent editions proves to be more or less defective. The memoir of the poet is printed from the revised edition of 1768, and the ode to his memory from the original edition of 1749; both which have also escaped notice. This concurrence of editorial oversights, viii in works so frequently printed, is a very remarkable circumstance in the history of literature.

If I notice the text before the engraved illustrations, it is in obedience to the rules of bibliography; and not from insensibility to the charms which they possess. By others, this order may be reversed.

The illustrations, seventy-seven in number, have been executed from designs furnished by various eminent artists, members of The Etching Club; which, though of recent date, has deservedly obtained celebrity. The designs were drawn on the wood by the artists themselves; and have been engraved with the utmost attention to similitude—so that we behold, in effect, the very drawings. I anticipate, as to the designs, the entire approbation of the public. The artists have established their relationship to the poet: they have evinced a similar intimacy with the forms and phases of nature; and a capability of giving each idea its apt expression. Accustomed to co-operation, they have also imparted to the series a harmony which we too frequently miss in ornamented works. A more extended encomium would be unsuitable to an advertisement. The list of illustrations records the subject of each design, the name of the artist by whom it was drawn, and of the engraver by whose skill it received permanency.

It may be interesting to the scientific reader to know that the illustrations are printed from copper blocks formed by the electrotype process. This method has been found to be attended with several advantages in printing, besides the means which it affords of preserving the original blocks, and of renewing the electrotypes, thus forming a perpetual security against inferior impressions of the designs.

A witness to the care bestowed on this volume in the typographic and artistic departments, I have felt a proportionate solicitude as to the editorial operations; which alone remain to be described. In a Memorandum on the text of The Seasons, which appeared in the patriarchal columns of Mr. Sylvanus Urban, I pointed out its defective state, and called attention to the authoritative edition of 1746. I afterwards undertook to correct the proofs by that edition; recommended the adoption of the memoir now prefixed; and made some additions to it in the shape of notes. Perhaps it may be expedient to add, with reference to a certain resolution contained in the Memorandum, that I have acted on this occasion as an amateur.

Greenwich, May 6. 1842.

Bolton Corney.

Spring (beginning) from 1793 edition of Thomson’s Seasons

Spring beginning (1793)




It is commonly said that the life of a good writer is best read in his works; which can scarce fail to receive a peculiar tincture from his temper, manners, and habits: the distinguishing character of his mind, his ruling passion, at least, will there appear x undisguised.1 But however just this observation may be, and although we might safely rest Mr. Thomson’s fame as a good man as well as a man of genius on this sole footing, yet the desire which the public always shows of being more particularly acquainted with the history of an eminent author ought not to be disappointed; as it proceeds not from mere curiosity, but chiefly from affection and gratitude to those by whom they have been entertained and instructed.

To give some account of a deceased friend is often a piece of justice likewise, which ought not to be refused to his memory; to prevent or efface the impertinent fictions which officious biographers are so apt to collect and propagate. And we may add that the circumstances of an author’s life will sometimes throw the best light upon his writings; instances whereof we shall meet with in the following pages.

Mr. Thomson was born at Ednam2, in the shire of Roxburgh, on the 11th of September in the year 1700.3 His father, minister of that place4, was but little known beyond the narrow circle of his co-presbyters, and to a few gentlemen in the neighbourhood; but highly respected by them for his piety and his diligence in the pastoral duty, as appeared afterwards in their kind offices to his widow and orphan family.


The reverend Messrs. Riccaltoun5 and Gusthart, particularly, took a most affectionate and friendly part in all their concerns. The former, a man of uncommon penetration and good taste, had very early discovered, through the rudeness of young Thomson’s puerile essays, a fund of genius well deserving culture and encouragement. He undertook, therefore, with the father’s appro­bation, the chief direction of his studies, furnished him with the proper books, corrected his performances; and was daily rewarded with the pleasure of seeing his labour so happily employed.

The other reverend gentleman, Mr. Gusthart6, who is still living [1762], one of the ministers of Edinburgh, and senior of the chapel-royal, was no less serviceable to Mrs. Thomson in the management of her little affairs; which, after the decease of her husband, burdened as she was with a family of nine children, required the prudent counsels and assistance of that faithful and generous friend.

Spring: “The Lovers Dream” from 1793 edition of Thomson’s Seasons

Spring. The Lovers Dream. (1793)

Sir William Bennet7 likewise, well known for his gay humour and ready poetical wit, was highly delighted with our young poet, and used to invite him to pass the summer vacation at his country seat; a scene of life which Mr. Thomson always remembered with particular pleasure. But what he wrote during that time, either xii to entertain sir William and Mr. Riccaltoun, or for his own amusement, he destroyed every new year’s day8; committing his little pieces to the flames in their due order, and crowning the solemnity with a copy of verses in which were humorously recited the several grounds of their condemnation.

After the usual course of school education, under an able master at Jedburgh9, Mr. Thomson was sent to the university of Edinburgh.10 But in the second year of his admission, his studies were for some time interrupted by the death of his father11; who was carried off so suddenly that it was not possible for Mr. Thomson, with all the diligence he could use, to receive his last blessing. This affected him to an uncommon degree; and his relations still remember some extraordinary instances of his grief and filial duty on that occasion.

Mrs. Thomson, whose maiden name was Trotter12, and who was co-heiress of a small estate in the country13, did not sink under this misfortune. She consulted her friend Mr. Gusthart; and having, xiii by his advice, mortgaged her moiety of the farm, repaired with her family to Edinburgh—where she lived in a decent, frugal manner, till her favourite son had not only finished his academical course, but was even distinguished and patronised as a man of genius. She was, herself, a person of uncommon natural endowments; possessed of every social and domestic virtue; with an imagination, for vivacity and warmth, scarce inferior to her son’s, and which raised her devotional exercises to a pitch bordering on enthusiasm.14

Spring (ending) from 1793 edition of Thomson’s Seasons

Spring ending (1793)

But whatever advantage Mr. Thomson might derive from the complexion of his parent, it is certain he owed much to a religious education; and that his early acquaintance with the sacred writings contributed greatly to that sublime by which his works will be for ever distinguished. In his first pieces, the Seasons, we see him at once assume the majestic freedom of an Eastern writer; seizing the grand images as they rise, clothing them in his own expressive language, and preserving, throughout, the grace, the variety, and the dignity which belong to a just composition, unhurt by the stiffness of formal method.

About this time the study of poetry was become general in Scotland, the best English authors being universally read, and imitations of them attempted. Addison15 had lately displayed the xiv beauties of Milton’s immortal work; and his remarks on it, together with Mr. Pope’s celebrated Essay16, had opened the way to an acquaintance with the best poets and critics.

But the most learned critic is not always the best judge of poetry; taste being a gift of nature, the want of which Aristotle and Bossu17 cannot supply, nor even the study of the best originals, when the reader’s faculties are not tuned in a certain consonance to those of the poet—and this happened to be the case with certain learned gentlemen into whose hands a few of Mr. Thomson’s first essays had fallen. Some inaccuracies of style, and those luxuriances which a young writer can hardly avoid, lay open to their cavils and censure; so far indeed they might be competent judges—but the fire and enthusiasm of the poet had entirely escaped their notice. Mr. Thomson, however, conscious of his own strength, was not discouraged by this treatment; especially as he had some friends on whose judgment he could better rely, and who thought very differently of his performances. Only, from that time he began to turn his views towards London, where works of genius may always expect a candid reception and due encouragement; and an accident soon after entirely determined him to try his fortune there.

Summer (beginning) from 1793 edition of Thomson’s Seasons

Summer beginning (1793)

The divinity chair at Edinburgh was then filled by the reverend and learned Mr. Hamilton18, a gentleman universally respected and xv beloved; and who had particularly endeared himself to the young divines under his care, by his kind offices, his candour, and affability. Our author had attended his lectures for about a year, when there was prescribed to him, for the subject of an exercise, a psalm in which the power and majesty of God are celebrated. Of this psalm he gave a paraphrase and illustration, as the nature of the exercise required; but in a style so highly poetical as surprised the whole audience.19 Mr. Hamilton, as his custom was, complimented the orator upon his performance, and pointed out to the students the most masterly striking parts of it; but at last, turning to Mr. Thomson, he told him, smiling, that if he thought of being useful in the ministry, he must keep a stricter rein upon his imagination, and express himself in language more intelligible to an ordinary congregation.

This gave Mr. Thomson to understand that his expectations from the study of theology might be very precarious; even though the church had been more his free choice than probably it was. So that having, soon after, received some encouragement from a lady of quality20, a friend of his mother’s, then in London, he quickly prepared himself for his journey. And although this encouragement ended in nothing beneficial, it served for the present as a good pretext to cover the imprudence of committing himself to the wide world, unfriended and unpatronised, and with the slender stock of money he was then possessed of.


But his merit did not long lie concealed. Mr. Forbes21, afterwards lord-president of the session, then attending the service of parliament, having seen a specimen of Mr. Thomson’s poetry in Scotland, received him very kindly, and recommended him to some of his friends22; particularly to Mr. Aikman23, who lived in great intimacy with many persons of distinguished rank and worth. This gentleman, from a connoisseur in painting, was become a professed painter; and his taste being no less just and delicate in the kindred art of descriptive poetry, than in his own, no wonder that he soon conceived a friendship for our author. What a warm return he met with, and how Mr. Thomson was affected by his friend’s premature death, appears in the copy of verses which he wrote on that occasion.24

Summer [untitled] from 1793 edition of Thomson’s Seasons

Summer. (1793)

In the mean time, our author’s reception, wherever he was introduced, emboldened him to risk the publication of his Winter; in which, as himself was a mere novice in such matters, he was kindly assisted by Mr. Mallet25, then private tutor to his grace the xvii duke of Montrose26, and his brother the lord George Graham27, so well known afterwards as an able and gallant sea-officer. To Mr. Mallet he likewise owed his first acquaintance with several of the wits of that time; an exact information of their characters, personal and poetical, and how they stood affected to each other.28

The poem of Winter29, published in March 1726, was no sooner read than universally admired30; those only excepted who had not been used to feel, or to look for, any thing in poetry beyond a point of satirical or epigrammatic wit, a smart antithesis richly xviii trimmed with rhyme31, or the softness of an elegiac complaint. To such his manly classical spirit could not readily recommend itself; till, after a more attentive perusal, they had got the better of their prejudices, and either acquired or affected a truer taste. A few others stood aloof, merely because they had long before fixed the articles of their poetical creed, and resigned themselves to an absolute despair of ever seeing any thing new and original. These were somewhat mortified to find their notions disturbed by the appearance of a poet who seemed to owe nothing but to nature and his own genius. But, in a short time, the applause became unanimous; every one wondering how so many pictures, and pictures so familiar, should have moved them but faintly to what they felt in his descriptions. His digressions too, the overflowings of a tender benevolent heart, charmed the reader no less; leaving him in doubt whether he should more admire the poet, or love the man.

From that time, Mr. Thomson’s acquaintance was courted by all men of taste; and several ladies of high rank and distinction became his declared patronesses—the countess of Hertford32, miss Drelincourt33, afterwards viscountess Primrose, Mrs. Stanley34, xix and others. But the chief happiness which his Winter procured him was that it brought him acquainted with Dr. Rundle35, afterwards lord bishop of Derry; who, upon conversing with Mr. Thomson, and finding in him qualities greater still and of more value than those of a poet, received him into his intimate confidence and friendship—promoted his character every where—introduced him to his great friend the lord-chancellor Talbot36—and, some years after, when the eldest son of that nobleman was to make his tour of travelling, recommended Mr. Thomson as a proper companion for him. His affection and gratitude to Dr. Rundle, and his indignation at the treatment that worthy prelate had met with, are finely expressed in his poem to the memory of lord Talbot. The true cause of that undeserved treatment has been secreted from the public, as well as the dark manœuvres that were employed; but Mr. Thomson, who had access to the best information, places it to the account of—


slanderous zeal, and politics infirm,

Jealous of worth.

Summer (ending) from 1793 edition of Thomson’s Seasons

Summer ending (1793)

Meanwhile our poet’s chief care had been, in return for the public favour, to finish the plan which their wishes laid out for him; and the expectations which his Winter had raised were fully satisfied by the successive publication of the other Seasons: of Summer, in the year 172737; of Spring38, in the beginning of the following year; and of Autumn, in a quarto edition of his works, printed in 1730.39

In that edition, the Seasons are placed in their natural order; and crowned with that inimitable Hymn in which we view them in their beautiful succession, as one whole, the immediate effect of infinite power and goodness. In imitation of the Hebrew bard, all nature is called forth to do homage to the Creator, and the reader is left enraptured in silent adoration and praise.

Besides these, and his tragedy of Sophonisba40, written and acted xxi with applause in the year 1729, Mr. Thomson had, in 1727, published his poem to the memory of sir Isaac Newton41, then lately deceased; containing a deserved encomium of that incomparable man, with an account of his chief discoveries—sublimely poetical, and yet so just, that an ingenious foreigner, the count Algarotti, takes a line of it for the text of his philosophical dialogues, Il Newtonianismo per le dame. This was in part owing to the assistance he had of his friend Mr. Gray42, now [1768] of the marischal college, Aberdeen, a gentleman well versed in the Newtonian philosophy, who, on that occasion, gave him a very exact though general abstract of his principles.

That same year, the resentment of our merchants for the interruption of their trade by the Spaniards in America running very high, Mr. Thomson zealously took part in it; and wrote his poem Britannia43, to rouse the nation to revenge. And although this piece is the less read that its subject was but accidental and temporary, the spirited generous sentiments that enrich it, can never be out of season; they will at least remain a monument of that xxii love of his country, that devotion to the public, which he is ever inculcating as the perfection of virtue, and which none ever felt more pure, or more intense, than himself.

Autumn (beginning) from 1793 edition of Thomson’s Seasons

Autumn beginning (1793)

Our author’s poetical studies were now to be interrupted, or rather improved, by his attendance on the honourable Mr. Charles Talbot in his travels.44 A delightful task indeed! endowed as that young nobleman was by nature, and accomplished by the care and example of the best of fathers, in whatever could adorn humanity; graceful of person, elegant in manners and address, pious, humane, generous—with an exquisite taste in all the finer arts.

With this amiable companion and friend, Mr. Thomson visited most of the courts and capital cities of Europe45; and returned with his views greatly enlarged—not of exterior nature only, and the works of art, but of human life and manners, of the constitution and policy of the several states, their connexions, and their religious institutions. How particular and judicious his observations were, we see in his poem of Liberty, begun soon after his return to England. We see at the same time to what a high pitch his love of his country was raised by the comparisons he had all along been making of our happy well-poised government with those of other nations. To inspire his fellow-subjects with the like sentiments, and to show them by what means the precious freedom we enjoy xxiii may be preserved, and how it may be abused or lost, he employed two years of his life in composing that noble work; upon which, conscious of the importance and dignity of the subject, he valued himself more than upon all his other writings.46

While Mr. Thomson was writing the first part of Liberty, he received a severe shock by the death of his noble friend and fellow-traveller; which was soon followed by another that was severer still, and of more general concern, the death of lord Talbot himself47—which Mr. Thomson so pathetically and so justly laments in the poem dedicated to his memory.48 In him the nation saw itself deprived of an uncorrupted patriot, the faithful guardian of their rights, on whose wisdom and integrity they had founded their hopes of relief from many tedious vexations49; and Mr. Thomson, besides xxiv his share in the general mourning, had to bear all the affliction which a heart like his could feel, for the person whom, of all mankind, he most revered and loved. At the same time, he found himself, from an easy competency, reduced to a state of precarious dependence, in which he passed the remainder of his life; excepting only the two last years of it, during which he enjoyed the place of surveyor-general of the Leeward Islands, procured for him by the generous friendship of my Lord Lyttelton.50

Immediately upon his return to England with Mr. Talbot, the chancellor had made him his secretary of briefs51; a place of little attendance, suiting his retired indolent way of life, and equal to all his wants. This place fell with his patron; and although the noble lord who succeeded to lord Talbot in office52 kept it vacant for some time, probably till Mr. Thomson should apply for it, he was so dispirited, and so listless to every concern of that kind, that he never took one step in the affair—a neglect which his best friends greatly blamed in him.

Autumn: “Palemon & Lavinia” from 1793 edition of Thomson’s Seasons

Autumn. Palemon & Lavinia. (1793)

Yet could not his genius be depressed, or his temper hurt, by xxv this reverse of fortune.53 He resumed, with time, his usual cheerfulness, and never abated one article in his way of living; which, though simple, was genial and elegant. The profits arising from his works were not inconsiderable: his tragedy of Agamemnon54, acted in 1738, yielded a good sum; Mr. Millar55 was always at hand, to answer, or even to prevent his demands; and he had a friend or two besides, whose hearts, he knew, were not contracted by the ample fortunes they had acquired—who would of themselves interpose, if they saw any occasion for it.

But his chief dependence, during this long interval, was on the protection and bounty of his royal highness Frederic56 prince xxvi of Wales; who upon the recommendation of lord Lyttelton57, then his chief favourite, settled on him a handsome allowance. And afterwards, when he was introduced to his royal highness, that excellent prince, who truly was what Mr. Thomson paints him, the friend of mankind and of merit, received him very graciously, and ever after honoured him with many marks of particular favour and confidence.58 A circumstance which does equal honour to the patron and the poet ought not here to be omitted; that my lord Lyttelton’s recommendation came altogether unsolicited, and long before Mr. Thomson was personally known to him.59

It happened, however, that the favour of his royal highness was in one instance of some prejudice to our author; in the refusal of a licence for his tragedy of Edward and Eleonora60, which he had prepared for the stage in the year 1739. The reader may see that this play contains not a line which could justly give offence; but the ministry, still sore from certain pasquinades, xxvii which had lately produced the stage-act61, and as little satisfied with some parts of the prince’s political conduct, as he was with their management of the public affairs, would not risk the representation of a piece written under his eye, and, they might probably think, by his command.

This refusal drew after it another; and in a way which, as it is related, was rather ludicrous.62 Mr. Paterson, a companion of Mr. Thomson, afterwards his deputy and then his successor in the general-surveyorship, used to write out fair copies for his friend, when such were wanted for the press or for the stage. This gentleman likewise courted the tragic muse; and had taken for his subject, the story of Arminius the German hero. But his play, guiltless as it was, being presented for a licence, no sooner had the censor cast his eyes on the hand-writing in which he had seen Edward and Eleonora, than he cried out, “Away with it!” and the author’s profits were reduced to what his bookseller could afford for a tragedy in distress.

Autumn (ending) from 1793 edition of Thomson’s Seasons

Autumn ending (1793)

Mr. Thomson’s next dramatic performance was the masque of xxviii Alfred63, written, jointly with Mr. Mallet, by command of the prince of Wales, for the entertainment of his royal highness’s court, at his summer-residence. This piece, with some alterations, and the music new, has been since brought upon the stage by Mr. Mallet: but the edition we give is from the original64, as it was acted at Cliefden, in the year 1740, on the birthday of her royal highness the princess Augusta.65


In the year 1745, his Tancred and Sigismunda, taken from the novel in Gil Blas, was performed with applause; and from the deep romantic distress of the lovers, continues to draw crowded xxx houses.66 The success of this piece was indeed insured from the first by Mr. Garrick and Mrs. Cibber, their appearing in the principal characters; which they heightened and adorned with all the magic of their never-failing art.

He had, in the mean time, been finishing his Castle of indolence67, in two cantos. It was, at first, little more than a few detached stanzas, in the way of raillery on himself, and on some of his xxxi friends, who would reproach him with indolence; while he thought them, at least, as indolent as himself. But he saw very soon, that the subject deserved to be treated more seriously, and in a form fitted to convey one of the most important moral lessons.

The stanza which he uses in this work is that of Spenser, borrowed from the Italian poets, in which he thought rhymes had their proper place, and were even graceful; the compass of the stanza admitting an agreeable variety of final sounds, while the sense of the poet is not cramped or cut short, nor yet too much dilated, as must often happen when it is parcelled out into rhymed couplets—the usual measure indeed of our elegy and satire, but which always weakens the higher poetry, and to a true ear will sometimes give it an air of the burlesque.68

Winter (beginning) from 1793 edition of Thomson’s Seasons

Winter beginning (1793)

This was the last piece Mr. Thomson himself published; his tragedy of Coriolanus being only prepared for the theatre, when a fatal accident robbed the world of one of the best men, and best poets, that lived in it.

He had always been a timorous horseman, and more so in a road where numbers of giddy or unskilful riders are continually xxxii passing; so that when the weather did not invite him to go by water, he would commonly walk the distance between London and Richmond69, with any acquaintance that offered, with whom he might chat and rest himself, or perhaps dine, by the way. One summer-evening, being alone, in his walk from town to Hammersmith, he had overheated himself, and in that condition, imprudently took a boat to carry him to Kew; apprehending no bad consequence from the chill air on the river, which his walk to his house, at the upper end of Kew-lane, had always hitherto prevented. But, now, the cold had so seized him, that next day he found himself in a high fever, so much the more to be dreaded that he was of a full habit. This, however, by the use of proper medicines, was removed, so that he was thought to be out of danger; till the fine weather having tempted him to expose himself once more to the evening dews, his fever returned with violence, and with such symptoms as left no hopes of a cure. Two days had passed before his relapse was known in town; at last, Mr. Mitchell70 and Mr. Reid71, with xxxiii Dr. Armstrong72, being informed of it, posted out at midnight to his assistance—but, alas! came only to endure a sight of all others the most shocking to nature, the last agonies of their beloved friend. This lamented death happened on the 27th day of August 1748.73

His testamentary executors74 were the Lord Lyttelton, whose xxxiv care of our poet’s fortune and fame ceased not with his life, and Mr. Mitchell, a gentleman equally noted for the truth and constancy of his private friendships, and for his address and spirit as a public minister. By their united interest, the orphan play of Coriolanus75 was brought on the stage to the best advantage; from the profits of which, and the sale of manuscripts, and other effects, all demands were duly satisfied, and a handsome sum remitted to his sisters. My lord Lyttelton’s prologue to this piece was admired as one of the best that had ever been written76: the best spoken it certainly was. The sympathising audience saw that then, indeed, Mr. Quin was no actor; that the tears he shed, were those of real friendship and grief.77


Mr. Thomson’s remains were deposited in the church of Richmond, under a plain stone, without any inscription78; nor did his brother-poets at all exert themselves on the occasion, as they had lately done for one who had been the terror of poets all his lifetime.79 This silence furnished matter to one of his friends for an excellent satirical epigram, which we are sorry we cannot give the reader. Only one gentleman, Mr. Collins, who had lived some time at Richmond, but forsook it when Mr. Thomson died, wrote an Ode to his memory. This, for the dirge-like melancholy it breathes, and the warmth of affection that seems to have dictated it, we shall subjoin to the present account.80

Winter: “The Shepherd’s Care” from 1793 edition of Thomson’s Seasons

Winter. The Shepherd’s Care. (1793)

Our author himself hints, somewhere in his works, that his exterior was not the most promising—his make being rather robust than graceful81; though it is known that in his youth he had been xxxvi thought handsome.82 His worst appearance was, when you saw him walking alone, in a thoughtful mood; but let a friend accost him, and enter into conversation, he would instantly brighten into a most amiable aspect, his features no longer the same, and his eye darting a peculiar animated fire. The case was much alike in company; where, if it was mixed, or very numerous, he made but an indifferent figure—but with a few select friends, he was open, sprightly, and entertaining. His wit flowed freely, but pertinently, and at due intervals, leaving room for every one to contribute his share. Such was his extreme sensibility, so perfect the harmony of his organs with the sentiments of his mind, that his looks always announced, and half-expressed, what he was about to say; and his voice corresponded exactly to the manner and degree in which he was affected. This sensibility had one inconvenience attending it, that it rendered him the very worst reader of good poetry: a sonnet, or a copy of tame verses, he could manage pretty well, or xxxvii even improve them in the reading; but a passage of Virgil, Milton, or Shakspere, would sometimes quite oppress him, [so] that you could hear little else than some ill-articulated sounds, rising as from the bottom of his breast.83

He had improved his taste upon the best originals, ancient and modern, but could not bear to write what was not strictly his own—what had not more immediately struck his imagination, or touched his heart; so that he is not in the least concerned in that question about the merit or demerit of imitators. What he borrows from the ancients84, he gives us in an avowed faithful paraphrase or translation; as we see in a few passages taken from Virgil, and in that beautiful picture from Pliny the elder, where the course and gradual increase of the Nile are figured by the stages of man’s life.

The autumn was his favourite season for poetical composition85, and the deep silence of the night the time he commonly chose for such studies; so that he would often be heard walking in his library till near morning, humming over, in his way, what he was to correct and write out next day.86


The amusements of his leisure hours were civil and natural history, voyages, and the relations of travellers, the most authentic he could procure; and, had his situation favoured it, he would certainly have excelled in gardening, agriculture, and every rural improvement and exercise. Although he performed on no instrument, he was passionately fond of music, and would sometimes listen a full hour at his window to the nightingales in Richmond gardens. While abroad, he had been greatly delighted with the regular Italian drama, such as Metastasio writes, as it is there heightened by the charms of the best voices and instruments; and looked upon our theatrical entertainments as, in one respect, naked and imperfect, when compared with the ancient, or with those of Italy—wishing sometimes that a chorus, at least, and a better recitative, could be introduced.

Winter (ending) from 1793 edition of Thomson’s Seasons

Winter ending (1793)

Nor was his taste less exquisite in the arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture. In his travels he had seen all the most celebrated monuments of antiquity, and the best productions of modern art; and studied them so minutely, and with so true a judgment, that in some of his descriptions, in the poem of Liberty, we have the master-pieces there mentioned placed in a stronger light perhaps than if we saw them with our eyes—at least more justly delineated than in any other account extant: so superiour is a natural taste of the grand and beautiful, to the traditional lessons of a common virtuoso. His collection of prints, and some drawings from the antique, are now in the possession of his friend Mr. Gray of Richmond Hill.87

As for his more distinguishing qualities of mind and heart, they are better represented in his writings than they can be by the pen xxxix of any biographer.88 There, his love of mankind, of his country and friends, his devotion to the Supreme Being, founded on the most elevated and just conceptions of his operations and providence, shine out in every page. So unbounded was his tenderness of heart, that it took in even the brute creation: judge what it must have been towards his own species. He is not indeed known, through his whole life, to have given any person one moment’s pain, by his writings or otherwise. He took no part in the poetical squabbles which happened in his time; and was respected and left undisturbed by both sides.89 He would even refuse to take offence when he justly might; by interrupting any personal story that was xl brought him, with some jest, or some humorous apology for the offender. Nor was he ever seen ruffled or discomposed but when he read or heard of some flagrant instance of injustice, oppression, or cruelty; then, indeed, the strongest marks of horror and indignation were visible in his countenance.

These amiable virtues, this divine temper of mind, did not fail of their due reward. His friends loved him with an enthusiastic ardour, and lamented his untimely fate in the manner that is still fresh in every one’s memory90; the best and greatest men of his time honoured him with their friendship and protection91; the applause of the public attended every appearance he made—the actors, of whom the more eminent were his friends and admirers, grudging no pains to do justice to his tragedies.92 At present, xli indeed, if we except Tancred, they are seldom called for; the simplicity of his plots, and the models he worked after, not suiting the reigning taste, nor the impatience of an English theatre.93 They may hereafter come to be in vogue; but we hazard no comment or conjecture upon them, or upon any part of Mr. Thomson’s works94, neither need they any defence or apology, after the reception they have had at home, and in the foreign languages into which they have been translated.95 We shall only say, that, to judge from the imitations of his manner, which have been following him close from the very first publication of Winter, he seems to have fixed no inconsiderable æra of the English poetry.


[We cannot conclude without doing justice to Mr. Millar, who has spared no pains or expense to render this edition both beautiful and correct; and generously dedicates what profits may arise from it to a funeral monument of his favourite author and much-loved friend.96]


* The life of Thomson has been frequently written. The most important narratives are those of Robert Shiels, published in 1753; of Murdoch, published in 1762, and revised in 1768; of Johnson, published in 1781, and revised in 1783; of the Earl of Buchan, published in 1792; of sir Harris Nicolas, in 1830; and of the Rev. Robert Lundie, of Kelso, in 1830.—Shiels wrote with intelligence, but is very sparing as to dates. Murdoch, the next biographer of the poet, was one of his most intimate friends; and this circumstance, added to the merit of his narrative as a composition, stamps it with a peculiar value. Each of the other biographers enumerated, and especially sir Harris Nicolas, has produced some additional information, the substance of which I have endeavoured to express in the notes. I have, moreover, had recourse to Spence, to Joseph Warton, and to Boswell; to the Memoranda of Thomson by Mr. Park; to the Culloden papers; to the recent Statistical account of Roxburghshire; to the letters of the poet which were published by Seward, and by Lundie; to the works of his principal contemporaries, etc.

I have also been indebted to David Laing, Esq. F.S.A. L. and Sc., for various communications; to the Rev. Joseph Thomson, minister of Ednam, and to the Rev. John Richmond, minister of Southdean, for documentary materials; and to William Jerdan, Esq., M.R.S.L. etc., for the favour of some instructive colloquies on his native Teviotdale.—B. C.

1 Johnson, relying on the testimony of Savage, censures this observation as not well-timed. I shall prove, in a future note, the incompetency of his witness.

2 The village of Ednam is within a short distance of the Tweed. This circumstance explains the epithet “parent-stream”—Autumn, line 889.

3 Johnson says the 7th of September, but cites no authority. I prefer the date which appears in the text. The poet was baptized on the 15th.

4 The Rev. Thomas Thomson was admitted minister of Ednam in 1692. He was appointed to Southdean, a more extensive parish in the same shire, soon after the poet was born; and preached his farewell sermon at Ednam in November 1700. The manse of Southdean is near the sylvan Jed.

5 The Rev. Robert Riccaltoun appears to have resided at Hobkirk, about three miles from Southdean. He was minister of Hobkirk from 1725 to 1769. His literary works were published at Edinburgh in 1771, 8vo. 3 vols.

6 The Rev. William Gusthart died in 1764. His son, Robert Gusthart, M.D., who visited Thomson at Richmond, died at Bath in 1780.

7 Sir William Bennet of Grubit, Bart. He is celebrated by Allan Ramsay. His seat was in the parish of Eckford, Roxburghshire—where he died in 1729. Ramsay thus adverts to its picturesque attractions:

“Your lovely scenes of Marlèfield abound

With as much choice as is in Britain found.”

Lord Cranston and sir Gilbert Elliot were also attentive to our young poet.

8 One of these pieces, a poetical epistle to sir William Bennet, has been preserved. It is chiefly remarkable for its anticipations of poetical celebrity.

9 He was educated in the grammar-school, which was held in a chapel on the south side of the choir of the venerable abbey of Jedburgh. The poet had a twofold reason to celebrate the sylvan Jed.

10 His matriculation is not recorded. He was admitted as a student of divinity in 1719, and is presumed to have left the university towards the close of 1724.

11 The Rev. Thomas Thomson appears to have died in 1720. His tombstone still remains in the churchyard of Southdean, but the inscription is obliterated.

12 The edition of 1762 has Hume. In the revised edition of 1768 it is altered to Trotter; and I am enabled to confirm the propriety of this alteration by a certified extract from the session-records of Ednam: “1693. Oct. 6. The said day Mr. Thomas Thomson minister of Ednam and Beatrix Trotter in the parish of Kelso gave up their names for proclamation in order to marriage.”

13 This estate, which bore the name of Widehope, is in the parish of Morbattle, Roxburghshire. It is now the property of the marquess of Tweeddale.

14 Mrs. Thomson died in 1725. The verses which our poet wrote on this occasion do honour to his feelings and his poetic taste. I shall give a specimen:

“Ye fabled muses, I your aid disclaim,

Your airy raptures, and your fancied flame:

True genuine woe my throbbing breast inspires,

Love prompts my lays, and filial duty fires;

The soul springs instant at the warm design,

And the heart dictates every flowing line.”

15 The criticism on Paradise Lost appeared in 1712. It occupies eighteen numbers of the Spectator—which, as Bisset proves, was much read in Scotland.

16 The Essay on criticism was published in 1711. It was first advertised in the Spectator, No. 65. The best homeborn critical-code, and the best models of style, appeared in the same year!

17 René Le Bossu, author of the Traité du poëme épique, 1675. “Son Traité” said Voltaire in 1752, “a beaucoup de réputation, mais il ne fera jamais de poëtes.” Blair and Laharpe have censured it more pointedly.

18 The Rev. William Hamilton, minister of Cramond in 1694, was appointed professor of divinity in 1709, and succeeded Wishart as principal in 1732. He died in the following year. Anne, his daughter, was married to John Horsley, F.R.S.

19 The prescribed exercise was an illustration of the 10th section of the 119th psalm. It was delivered in the divinity-hall on the 27th of October 1724.

20 Lady Grisell Baillie, daughter of sir Patrick Hume afterwards earl of Marchmont, and wife of George Baillie of Jerviswood, Esq., then member for Berwickshire—both exalted characters. Rachel, their second daughter, was married to Charles lord Binning, in whose family Thomson acted as a tutor soon after his arrival in London in March 1725. Lady Grisell Baillie died in 1746.

21 Duncan Forbes of Culloden, Esq.—He was born near Inverness in 1685, and admitted as an advocate in 1709. In 1722 he obtained a seat in parliament. In 1725 he was appointed lord-advocate, and in 1737 lord-president of the court of session. He was a man of eminent ability, activity, and patriotism. Thomson has an encomiastic address to him in Autumn, line 944, etc. He died at Edinburgh on the 10th of December 1747.

22 His first introductions were to the duke of Argyle, the earl of Burlington, and sir Robert Walpole, to Dr. Arbuthnot, Mr. Pope, and Mr. Gay.

23 William Aikman, Esq.—He was born in Scotland in 1682; became a pupil of Medina; and afterwards visited Italy. He painted portraits of the duke of Argyle, the countess of Burlington, lady Grisell Baillie, and other patrons of Thomson. His own portrait is preserved at Florence. He died in 1731.

24 The copy of verses on Mr. Aikman, as edited in 1750 and 1762, consists of eight lines. As edited by the earl of Buchan, from the autographic manuscript, it extends to forty-two lines.

25 Mallet, as Ramsay intimates, left the Grampian heights to educate two Grahams. His pupils were the sons of James first duke of Montrose; and to this noble patron he dedicated his tragedy of Eurydice. An interview with Mallet, at the residence of the duke in Hanover-square, was the earliest object of Thomson on his arrival in London.

26 Lord William Graham.—He became earl Graham, by the death of an elder brother, in 1731; and duke of Montrose in 1741. He enjoyed his honours till 1790. His recollections of Mallet and Thomson might have been valuable.

27 Lord George Graham, member for Stirlingshire, and captain of H.M.S. Nottingham, of sixty guns, died at Bath in 1747.

28 The character of Mallet has been variously represented. He was “Malloch to his relations, Mallet to his friends, and Moloch to his enemies.” Shiels, however, declares that his intimacy with Thomson was never “once disturbed by any casual mistake, envy, or jealousy on either side.” He died in 1765.

29 “Winter. A poem. By James Thomson, A.M. London: printed for J. Millan, 1726.” Folio.—Dedicated, in the epistolary form, to sir Spencer Compton, afterwards earl of Wilmington. The dedication was written by Mallet. The poem has several lines which now appear in Autumn, 963, etc., 1030, etc. It was reprinted, with additions; a preface; and commendatory verses by Aaron Hill, Mira, and D. Malloch, 1726. 8vo. The first edition was reprinted at Dublin, for William Smith, 1726. 8vo.

30 This phrase may lead to misconception. Was it soon read? Shiels declares that the impression lay as waste paper, and Dr. Warton confirms the statement. The poem was much indebted for its early popularity to two divines. The Rev. Robert Whatley, afterwards prebendary of York, undertook to display its merit to the coffee-house critics; and the Rev. Joseph Spence, afterwards professor of poetry at Oxford, commended it in his Essay on the Odyssey.

31 Perhaps a sarcasm on Pope. Thomson paid his senior this fine compliment:

“For though not sweeter his own Homer sings,

Yet is his life the more endearing song.”

Pope, in return, sent him a poetical epistle—but never admitted it into his works! He also glanced at his redundancy of epithets.

32 Frances, daughter of the Hon. Henry Thynne, and wife of Algernon Seymour earl of Hertford—who became duke of Somerset in 1748. She deserved the rich encomium which appears in The Seasons—Spring, line 5, etc. In her letters, says Shenstone, we discern a “perfect rectitude of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and a truly-classic ease and elegance of style.” She died in 1754.

33 Anne Drelincourt, daughter of the dean of Armagh, was married to Hugh third viscount Primrose in 1739; and became a widow in 1741. Lady Hervey describes her as a very sensible, amiable woman. She died in 1775.

34 Sarah, eldest daughter of sir Hans Sloane, Bart., and relict of George Stanley, of Paultons, in Hampshire, Esq.—Thomson beautifully apostrophises Mrs. and miss Stanley in Summer, line 564, etc. He also wrote an epitaph on miss Stanley, who died in 1738; and was buried at Southampton. Mrs. Stanley, the best of parents, a lover also of astronomy and of poetry, died in 1764.

35 Thomas Rundle, a native of Milton-Abbots, was educated at Oxford. B.C.L. 1710; D.C.L. 1723. While a student there, he was introduced to Edward, second son of bishop Talbot. He afterwards became the favourite of the Talbot family, to whom he was indebted for various preferments. On the death of Dr. Sydall, the lord-chancellor Talbot recommended him for the see of Gloucester, but the stern opposition of bishop Gibson prevailed. He was, however, consecrated bishop of Derry in 1735. Pope, who was charmed with his society, said on that occasion: “He will be an honour to the bishops, and a disgrace to one bishop.”—No person has characterised the genius and writings of Thomson more happily than Rundle. He died at Dublin, before he had reached his sixtieth year, in 1743.

36 Charles Talbot, Esq., solicitor-general.—He did not receive the great seal till the 29th of November 1733. He was forthwith created baron Talbot.

37 “Summer. A poem. By James Thomson. London: printed for J. Millan, 1727.” 8vo.—Dedicated, in the epistolary form, to Mr. Dodington, afterwards lord Melcombe. The poem was reprinted, 1728? 8vo.

38 “Spring. A poem. By Mr. Thomson. London, printed: and sold by A. Millar, 1728.” 8vo.—Dedicated, in the epistolary form, to the countess of Hertford. The second separate edition is dated 1731. 8vo.

39 “The Seasons, [with a poem to the memory of sir Isaac Newton.] By Mr. Thomson. London: printed in the year 1730.” 4to. Vignette, plate to each season, and monument of Newton.—This handsome volume, which contains the first edition of Autumn, was published by subscription. The proposals were circulated before the publication of Spring. The epistolary dedications are omitted. Autumn is inscribed to Arthur Onslow, Esq.: the other seasons to the same persons as in the first editions. The price to subscribers was one guinea. Mr. Dodington subscribed for twenty copies; and, in addition to a brilliant list of nobility, we observe the names of Arbuthnot, Pope, Somervile, Spence, Young.

40 “The tragedy of Sophonisba. Acted at the theatre-royal in Drury-lane. By his majesty’s servants. By Mr. Thomson. London: printed for A. Millar, 1730.” 8vo.—Dedicated, in the epistolary form, to queen Caroline. The prologue and epilogue are anonymous contributions. The former was written by Pope and Mallet. This tragedy was first acted on the 28th of February, 1730. Masinissa was personated by Mr. Wilks; Sophonisba, by Mrs. Oldfield.

41 “A poem sacred to the memory of sir Isaac Newton. By James Thomson. London: printed for J. Millan, 1727.” Folio.—Dedicated, in the epistolary form, to sir Robert Walpole. The intended life of Newton, by Mr. Conduitt, is announced in some lines which are omitted in the editions of 1750 and 1762.

42 John Gray, Esq., author of A treatise of gunnery, was admitted F.R.S. in 1732; and contributed a paper to the Philosophical transactions. In 1765 he was chosen rector of marischal college, Aberdeen; and by deed, dated in 1768, founded two mathematical bursaries in that university. He died in London, rector of marischal college, in 1769; and was buried at Petersham in Surrey.

43 “Britannia. A poem. Written in the year 1719.” [1727.] London, 1729. 8vo. Second edition, 1730. 4to. Third edition, 1730. 8vo.—In the second edition, the deceptive date is omitted; in the third, it re-appears.

44 Charles Richard Talbot, Esq.—He died before his father was created a peer. Our learned mathematician is somewhat inattentive to synchronism.

45 Thomson had acquired fame by The Seasons; and to travel was now his fondest wish—not for mere recreation, but to collect fresh materia poetica. In December 1730, he was at Paris. He proceeded to Lyon, where he met Spence; and afterwards visited the fontaine de Vaucluse, of which he promised the countess of Hertford a poetical description. He was at Rome in November 1731, and in correspondence with lord Binning—who died at Naples. Before the expiration of 1731 he was at Ashdown Park in Berkshire. He did not make the tour of Europe: as Lyttelton expresses it, he travelled to Italy.

46 “[Liberty. A poem.] Antient and modern Italy compared: being the first part of liberty, a poem. By Mr. Thomson. London: printed for A. Millar, 1735.” 4to.—“Greece: being the second part, etc. 1735.—Rome: being the third part, etc. 1735.—Britain: being the fourth part, etc. 1736.—The prospect: being the fifth part, etc. 1736.”—Dedicated, in the epistolary form, to the prince of Wales. The poem seems to have been written in compliance with a suggestion of Mr. Dodington. It is a vision, comprised in three thousand three hundred and eighty lines of blank verse; and is the least attractive of the works of Thomson. The dignity of the subject is undeniable; but it is not less certain that history, geography, arbitrary power, aristocratic sway, etc., may be more effectively treated in prose than in verse.

47 Mr. Talbot died on the 27th of September 1733; the lord-chancellor, on the 14th of February 1737. The former was in his twenty-fifth year.

48 “A poem to the memory of the right honourable the lord Talbot, late chancellor of Great Britain. By Mr. Thomson. London: printed for A. Millar, 1737.” 4to.—Inscribed “To the right honourable the lord Talbot.” The poem is in blank verse. It was published in June, 1737.

49 In illustration of this remark, I shall transcribe the conclusion of an eloquent eulogy on lord Talbot by another of his learned and judicious contemporaries: “He died in the fifty-second year of his age, and though removed at a time of life when others but begin to shine, he might justly be said satis et ad vitam et ad gloriam vixisse; and his death united in one general concern a nation which scarce ever unanimously agreed in any other particular—and notwithstanding the unhappy warmth of our political divisions, each party endeavoured to outvie the other in paying a due reverence to his memory.”—Thomas Birch, M.A. F.R.S.

50 George Lyttelton, Esq., eldest son of sir Thomas Lyttelton, Bart.—He was appointed a lord of the treasury in 1744, and succeeded to the title and estates of his father in 1751; but was not created a peer till 1757. A memoir of this accomplished and amiable man, with an exposure of the sarcastic narrative of Johnson, is a desideratum. He died at Hagley Park in 1773.—Lyttelton the friend, and his beloved Lucy, are choicely enshrined in The Seasons.

51 Immediately? I date his return to England in 1731. His patron could not have made him his secretary of briefs before the 29th of November 1733.

52 The successor of lord Talbot was lord Hardwicke. He was a lover of literature; and might have divested himself, on such an occasion, of the habitual pride with which he has been taxed—but I cannot excuse the poet.

53 This reverse of fortune seems rather to have increased his literary activity. I must add to the publications of 1738:

“Areopagitica: a speech of Mr. John Milton, for the liberty of unlicens’d printing, to the parliament of England. First published in the year 1644. With a preface, by another hand. London: printed for A. Millar, 1738.” 8vo. The preface, of six pages, was written by Thomson.—Ms. note of Thomas Hollis, Esq.

“The works of Mr. Thomson. In two volumes. London: printed for A. Millar, 1738.” 8vo. Vignettes, plate to each season, and monument of Newton. This is the first collective edition of the works of Thomson, with alterations and additions.

54 “Agamemnon. A tragedy. Acted at the theatre-royal in Drury-lane, by his majesty’s servants. By Mr. Thomson. London: printed for A. Millar, 1738.” 8vo.—Dedicated, in the epistolary form, to the princess of Wales. The prologue was contributed by Mallet. Thomson, in return, contributed a prologue to Mustapha. This tragedy was first acted on the 6th of April, 1738. Agamemnon was personated by Mr. Quin; Clytemnestra, by Mrs. Porter.

55 Andrew Millar, Esq., the very eminent publisher. He purchased the copyright of The Seasons in 1729, and the parties soon became friends. The important case of Millar v. Taylor, on the property of the poem, occupied more than two years. Mr. Millar died, before it was decided, in 1768.

56 The quarrel between George II. and the prince of Wales broke out in 1737. It was not a political quarrel; but arose, says the noble author of Walpoliana, “solely out of the interior of the palace.” It soon, however, bore a political character; the opposition acquired strength; sir Robert Walpole resigned in 1742; and the patrons of Thomson obtained office.

57 Mr. Lyttelton was appointed secretary to the prince, on the resignation of Mr. James Pelham, the 16th of August 1737. He neither solicited nor expected the office. Thomson had made himself known to the prince by the dedication of Liberty, towards the close of 1734.

58 Johnson has preserved a curious anecdote of this interview. The prince questioned the unfortunate poet as to the state of his affairs. He replied “that they were in a more poetical posture than formerly.” There was tact in this reply: no one likes a querulous applicant.—The allowance was 100l. per annum.

59 Six years may have elapsed before the intercourse commenced. Thomson received his first invitation to Hagley in July 1743. Lyttelton introduced him to Shenstone, who describes him as a right friendly bard, in 1746. He was a frequent visitor at Hagley, and always welcome at the Leasowes.

60 “Edward and Eleonora. A tragedy. As it was to have been acted at the theatre-royal in Covent-garden. By Mr. Thomson. London: printed for the author; and sold by A. Millar, 1739.” 8vo.—Dedicated, in the epistolary form, to the princess of Wales. The prologue and epilogue are anonymous contributions. “Advertisement. The representation of this tragedy, on the stage, was prohibited in the year one thousand seven hundred and thirty-nine.”

61 The act of the 10th of George II. cap. 28.—This act received the royal assent on the 21st of June, 1737. It requires that a copy of every new interlude, tragedy, comedy, etc., should be sent to the lord-chamberlain fourteen days before the acting thereof; and authorises the lord-chamberlain to prohibit the acting, performing, or representing, any interlude, tragedy, comedy, etc.—His majesty, in closing the session, bitterly complained of the licentiousness of the times. Perhaps the authority which this act confers might have been more temperately and impartially exercised. Mustapha, which is not devoid of political allusions, was allowed to be acted—for Mallet had numerous friends. Gustavus Vasa and Edward and Eleonora were prohibited. Millar and Dodsley, the two most eminent publishers of the time, advertised in the same month prohibited plays!

62 The anecdote, as it is related, wants authenticity. The licenser could not venture to exercise his authority before he read the play. The final remark is very inapposite. Arminius, dedicated to the duke of Cumberland, was printed for the author, and advertised price five shillings!

63 “Alfred: a masque. Represented before their royal highnesses the prince and princess of Wales, at Cliffden, on the first of August, 1740. London: printed for A. Millar, 1740.” 8vo.—This masque is anonymous, but was advertised as the production of Thomson and Mallet. It contains the undying Rule Britannia—which I ascribe, on no slight evidence, to Mallet. The piece was twice acted at Cliefden. Alfred was personated by Mr. Milward; the hermit, by Mr. Quin; Emma, by Mrs. Clive.

64 This refers to an edition of the works of Thomson published in 1762, and hereafter described. Alfred seems to have been acted in commemoration of the accession of the house of Hanover: the princess was born on the 31st of July.

65 Murdoch omits to notice the employments of Thomson after the completion of Alfred in 1740; but he was never better employed. He was revising The Seasons—on whose origin and progress I shall now state some additional facts.

As early as 1720 he felt the attractions of the theme—witness some lines, an epitome of the mysterious cycle, in his poem Of a country life:

“Through every Season of the sliding year,

Unto the ravish’d sight new scenes appear.

In the sweet Spring,” etc.

He was eminently fitted to the bold design, but chance may have led him to decide on its execution.—“Nature,” said he, “delights me in every form:” such were his feelings while occupied in writing his Winter; and he added, in the confidence of friendship, a “poem on winter first put the design into my head.” The poem seems to have perished; but the late Dr. Somerville of Jedburgh, who attained his ninetieth year, had heard part of it recited by the author—the Rev. Robert Riccaltoun. The above facts chiefly apply to Winter; we have other evidence on the origin of The Seasons. Thomson informed Collins that he took the first hint and idea of writing his Seasons from the titles to the four Pastorals of Pope. The Pastorals, which were published in 1709, are entitled Spring—Summer—Autumn—Winter; and in a preface thereto, published with his Works in 1717, the author remarks that “the year has not that variety in it to furnish every month with a particular description, as it may every season.”

There is a remarkable resemblance between the two writers in Winter; and it adds to the testimony of Collins, as reported by Dr. Warton:

“’Tis done, and nature’s various charms decay.”


“’Tis done!—Dread Winter has subdu’d the year.”


In the first edition of Winter, Thomson also sang of fair Autumn. In the second edition he earnestly pleaded in favour of descriptive poetry, and thus intimated his entire design: “How gay looks the Spring! how glorious the Summer! how pleasing the Autumn! and how venerable the Winter!” This design was completed, as Murdoch observes, in 1730; but he should have added that a revised edition of the Seasons appeared in 1738; another edition, with considerable additions and improve­ments, in 1744; and another edition, with the final revision of the author, in 1746.

The number of lines contained in the poem, at the above-mentioned epochs, shall now be stated in a tabular form. The italic figures denote the first editions.

a. d. 1726 1727 1728 1730 1738 1744 1746
Spring     1082 1087 1087 1173 1176
Summer   1146   1206 1206 1796 1805
Autumn       1269 1269 1375 1373
Winter 405     781 787 1069 1069
Hymn       121 121 118 118
Total       4464 4470 5531 5541

It thus appears that Thomson paid no serious attention to the poem in the interval 1730-8. He afterwards undertook to correct it; made considerable additions; and inscribed it to the prince of Wales in 1744. He also re-edited the poem, with further additions, in 1746. The volumes are entitled:

“The Seasons. By James Thomson. London: printed for A. Millar, in the Strand. 1744.” Sm. 8vo. pp. 4 + 242. Vignette, and plate to each season.

“The Seasons. By James Thomson. London: printed for A. Millar, in the Strand. 1746.” 12mo. pp. 4 + 236. Vignette, and plate to each season.

The edition of 1744 was improved by the suggestions of Pope; and the interleaved volume which received his emendations has become the property of the Rev. John Mitford—who, with the true feelings of a critic and a poet, values it as the ruby in the royal crown. The edition of 1746, as it exhibits the final revision of the author, must ever be considered as the standard impression; except in orthography and punctuation. A circumstance elsewhere recorded by Murdoch, gives it an additional importance. He reminds Mr. Millar that Thomson published his own editions with much deliberation and care.

I shall not attempt to enumerate the subsequent editions of The Seasons. The most splendid are those printed—at Glasgow, for Andrew Foulis, 1783. Folio.—at Parma, by Bodoni, 1794. 4to.—and at London, by T. Bensley, 1797. Folio.—all defective as to the text. The most popular edition is that of the late Dr. Aikin. It has a preliminary essay on the plan of the poem, remarkable for its judicious criticism and classical terseness of style.

66 “Tancred and Sigismunda. A tragedy. As it is acted at the theatre-royal in Drury-lane, by his majesty’s servants. By James Thomson. London: printed for A. Millar, 1745.” 8vo. Dedicated, in the epistolary form, to the prince of Wales. This tragedy, much shortened, was first acted on the 18th of March, 1745.

67 “The castle of indolence: an allegorical poem. Written in imitation of Spenser. By James Thomson. London: printed for A. Millar, 1748.” 4to. Second edition, 1748. 8vo.—The Castle of indolence has no dedication. The poem is divided into two cantos, comprising one hundred and fifty-eight stanzas; four of which, afterwards revised, were contributed by Armstrong. It was near fifteen years in hand.—Thomson was an ardent admirer of the gentle Spenser; and has left us, in this noble specimen of art, the combined result of his earliest inspiration, and his mature taste. It is, as I have elsewhere observed, one of the most impressive and exquisite pieces within the circle of true poesy.

68 We have had no account of the minor poems of Thomson.—The Edinburgh miscellany, 1720. sm. 8vo. contains three pieces which are ascribed to him—I believe correctly, viz. 1. Of a country life; 2. Upon happiness; 3. Verses on receiving a flower from his mistress. In a volume entitled Miscellaneous poems by several hands, London, 1729. 12mo. he is particularly named as a contributor. In this collection, which was edited by Mr. Ralph, the pieces are anonymous; but I observe, 1. A paraphrase on the latter part of the 6th chap. of St. Matthew; 2. The incomparable soporific doctor; 3. The happy man; 4. Hymn on solitude. These poems were undoubtedly written by Thomson; and they were reprinted, perhaps for private circulation, uniformly with The Seasons, 1730. 4to. In the Works of Thomson, as edited in 1750 and 1762, the minor pieces are fourteen in number; but we miss The soporific doctor and The happy man. The most ample collection is contained in the Aldine edition of the Poetical works of James Thomson, 1830. 2 vols.

69 He had resided at Richmond six years or more. His earliest letter from Kew-lane is dated in November 1742; and his encomium on delightful Sheen, with its boundless landscape, appeared in 1744. His attachment to the spot increased, and he wrote thus to Mr. Paterson only four months before his decease: “You must know that I have enlarged my rural domain.”

70 Andrew Mitchell of Thainston, Aberdeenshire, Esq.—He was patronised by the celebrated duke of Argyle, and had the entire confidence of the lord-president Forbes. In 1742 the marquess of Tweeddale made him his under-secretary of state. In 1747 he obtained a seat in parliament. Thomson wrote to his friend Paterson on that occasion: “Mitchell is in the house for Aberdeenshire, and has spoken modestly well: I hope he will be in something else soon. None deserves better: true friendship and humanity dwell in his heart.” In 1756 he was appointed envoy extraordinary to the king of Prussia; and was an eyewitness of the battle of Prague. In 1765 he was invested with the order of the bath. He died at Berlin in 1771.

71 Andrew Reid, Esq.—“A man,” says Johnson, “not unacquainted with letters or with life.” He wrote on chronology and on logarithms. He also edited, for lord Lyttelton, the History of Henry II.—Murdoch was one of his friends, and addressed to him a paper on parallax. He died after 1768.

72 John Armstrong, M.D.—the author of The art of preserving health. He was a native of Roxburghshire—the son of a minister—educated at Edinburgh—a writer of blank verse—and had just finished a poem on winter when the Winter of Thomson appeared! These are curious coincidences. On other points, the contrast was not less striking—nevertheless, Armstrong and Thomson were intimate friends. Armstrong survived, in despite of his morbid aversion to life, till 1779.

73 The interesting letter which follows is preserved in the Culloden papers:

“My dear P. [Patrick.] Richmond, in Surry, Saturday, 27 August.

“Our dear friend Thomson died this morning about four o’clock, after a very short illness. His distemper appeared first in the shape of a tertian; but soon ended in a continued fever. I am here to see the last duties fairly paid. I am almost sunk wt this last stroke. Your’s affect

A. M.” [Andrew Mitchell.]

To the Rev. Mr. Murdoch.

Dr. Armstrong and Mr. James Robertson attended Thomson in their medical capacities, and as friends. They were with him till the last moment. His constitution, says Armstrong, was much worn. No other particulars of importance are recorded.—He was followed to the grave by Mr. Quin, Mr. Mallet, Mr. Robertson, etc., on the evening of the 29th of August:

“Remembrance oft shall haunt the shore

When Thames in summer-wreaths is drest,

And oft suspend the dashing oar

To bid his gentle spirit rest!”

74 Thomson died intestate, as appears by this official document:

Extracted from the Registry of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury.—October 1748. James Thompson [sic]. On the twenty fifth day admõn of all and singular the goods chattles and credits of James Thompson late of Richmond in the county of Surry batchelor deceased was granted to the Honble George Lyttleton [sic] Esqr. and Andrew Mitchell Esqr. the lawfull attorneys of Mary Craig formerly Thompson (wife of William Craig) the ñral and lawfull sister and next of kin of the said deceased for the use and benefit of the said Mary Craig now residing at Edinburgh being first sworn duly to administer.


Chas. Dyneley
John Iggulden
W. F. Gostling

Thomson, it appears, died a bachelor. His uncertain circumstances forbad him to marry. He had two surviving sisters. Jean, the wife of Mr. Robert Thomson, died in 1781; and Mary, above described, died in 1790. His house was well provided with furniture, plate, books, and prints; and his cellar was stored with choice wines and Scotch ale. I can give no account of the manuscripts. The house, or rather its site, has been successively the property of George Ross, Esq., who died in 1786; the Honble Mrs. Boscawen, who died in 1805; lord Falmouth, who sold it forthwith; and the earl of Shaftesbury.

75 “Coriolanus. A tragedy. As it is acted at the theatre-royal in Covent-garden. By the late James Thomson. London: printed for A. Millar, 1749.” 8vo.—This tragedy, revised by Lyttelton, was first acted on the 13th of January, 1749. Coriolanus was personated by Mr. Quin; Veturia, by Mrs. Woffington.

76 M. le baron de Barante, whose memoir of Thomson contains much judicious criticism and pleasing reflection, observes of the poetical address composed on this occasion by Lyttelton: “ce sont peut-être les plus beaux vers qu’il ait faits: ils sont remplis du sentiment le plus vrai et le plus touchant.”

77 Mr. Quin, as the personal friend of Thomson, spoke the prologue in mourning. In the delivery of the following paragraph, he is said to have produced an extraordinary effect:

“He lov’d his friends—forgive this gushing tear:

Alas! I feel I am no actor here—

He lov’d his friends with such a warmth of heart,

So clear of interest, so devoid of art,

Such generous freedom, such unshaken zeal,

No words can speak it—but our tears may tell.”

78 A brass tablet, with an inscription by the earl of Buchan, was placed over the spot in 1792. Mr. Park superintended its execution.

79 An obvious allusion to Pope. Dr. Warton, however, observes that the death of Pope “was not lamented by any of his contemporary poets, till Mr. Mason made amends by his Musæus”—which was not published till 1747.

80 The Ode is now reprinted from the only authoritative edition, London, R. Manby and H. S. Cox, 1749, Folio. I have been indebted for the use of this rare piece to the friendly communication of the Rev. Alexander Dyce. The dedication was omitted by Langhorne and others—I must add that Shiels also published a poem to the memory of Thomson. It is entitled Musidorus.

81 He describes himself, in the Castle of indolence, as “more fat than bard beseems.” I shall repeat the entire stanza; as it exhibits, says Shiels, a just image of Thomson. He wrote only the first line; the remainder being the contribution of a friend—perhaps Lyttelton:

“A bard here dwelt, more fat than bard beseems;

Who void of envy, guile, and lust of gain,

On virtue still, and nature’s pleasing themes,

Pour’d forth his unpremeditated strain,

The world forsaking with a calm disdain:

Here laugh’d he careless in his easy seat,

Here quaff’d encircled with the joyous train;

Oft moralising sage; his ditty sweet

He loathed much to write, ne cared to repeat.”

82 The portrait of Thomson by Aikman, now at Hagley, confirms this opinion. It has been engraved. Another portrait, painted by J. Paton in 1746, has been engraved by S. F. Ravenet. I have an impression with this inedited note: “Mr. Robertson of Richmond Green, who was acquainted with Thomson for more than twenty years, and attended him in his last moments, assured me that this portrait was a very strong likeness. T. Park, 1791.”

83 Johnson relates that Mr. Dodington was once “so much provoked by his odd utterance, that he snatched the paper from his hand, and told him that he did not understand his own verses.” Mr. Dodington, however, was one of his earliest and most generous friends. He was created baron Melcombe in 1761, and died in 1762.

84 On his classical proficiency, we have this testimony of Dr. Warton: “Thomson was well acquainted with the Greek tragedies, on which I heard him talk learnedly, when I was once introduced to him by my friend Mr. W. Collins.”

85 Thomson confirms this statement both in prose and in verse. In a letter to Lyttelton he says, “I think that season of the year the most pleasing, and the most poetical.” He expresses the same sentiment in Autumn, and in the Hymn.

86 Mr. Park in his conversation with Mr. Robertson on the habits of Thomson, said—“I hear he kept very late hours?” The reply was—“No, sir—very early. He was always up at sunrise—but then he had never been in bed.” We may therefore credit the assertion of Cave, that noon was his hour of rising.

87 The Mr. Gray who is mentioned in a previous paragraph; there designated as of marischal college, Aberdeen—here, to the quondam embarrassment of a certain annotator, as of Richmond Hill!

88 Both Johnson and Boswell had, at one period, an unfavourable opinion of the moral character of Thomson. Boswell, however, recanted; and wrote thus to Johnson in 1778: “He was of a humane and benevolent disposition; not only sent valuable presents to his sisters, but a yearly allowance in money, and was always wishing to have it in his power to do them more good.”

I have now to encounter Johnson and Savage.—Johnson, relying on the statements of Savage, hints that the poet and the man were very dissimilar beings: the former—a great lover, a great swimmer, and rigorously abstinent: the latter—insensible to passion, never in cold water, and extremely luxurious. Now I affirm, as to the first accusation, that Thomson was desperately in love with the Amanda whom he celebrates in verse; the second accusation is beneath discussion; but as to the third, I am prepared to admit that he yielded more frequently to the allurements of festive pleasure than might become a true votary of serene philosophy. It was one of the prominent vices of the times.

89 Thomson did not always escape criticism. On the appearance of Liberty, Mr. Hawkins Browne published his Pipe of tobacco—the most ingenious specimen of imitative verse anterior to the Rejected addresses. One of the imitations commences thus:

“O thou, matur’d by glad Hesperian suns,

Tobacco, fountain pure of limpid truth,

That looks the very soul;” etc.

The phrases printed in italics are from the commencement of Liberty. This was more than the poet could endure: he replied with extreme asperity!

90 This observation might have been correct in 1762. I could illustrate it by various extracts of letters—but one may suffice:—“We have lost, my dear F. [Forbes], our old, tryed, amiable, open, and honest-hearted Thomson, whom we never parted from but unwillingly; and never met, but with fresh transport; whom we found ever the same delightful companion, the same faithful depository of our inmost thoughts, and the same sensible sympa­thising adviser.”—Murdoch to John Forbes of Culloden, Esq., 8 Sept. 1748.

91 Thomson was an occasional visitor at Cliefden-house; but the friend­ship of the lord-chancellor Talbot, of the lord-president Forbes, and of Lyttelton, more decidedly proves the estimation in which he was held—I must add to the number of his intimate friends, in the order of survi­vorship, Hammond the poet—ob. 1742; Gilbert West the poet—ob. 1756; Robert Symmer, Esq. afterwards F.R.S.—ob. 1763; Young the poet—ob. 1765; John Forbes, Esq. son of the lord-president—ob. 1772; George Lewis Scott, Esq. F.R.S.—ob. 1780; and George Ross, Esq. the army agent, afterwards M.P.—ob. 1786. Mr. Robertson, who resided some years at Richmond, and married the sister of Amanda, was the last survivor. He died in 1791.

92 Mrs. Oldfield was a subscriber to The Seasons, 1730.—but died in the same year. Mr. Quin was a sincere friend to Thomson; and is said to have relieved him in a moment of pecuniary embarrassment.—The names of the actors of the principal parts in his dramatic pieces are given in notes 40, 54, 60, 63, 66, and 75.

93 The tragic qualifications of Thomson seem to be fairly appreciated by bishop Rundle. He commends him for “a profusion of worthy sentiments, and high poetry;” but observes that he “wants that neatness and simplicity of diction which is so natural in dialogue.

94 As the biographer modestly declines the task of characterising the works of Thomson, I shall call in the assistance of another of his friends—lord Lyttelton. The extract which follows, though given in the imaginative form of a dialogue in Elysium, between Boileau and Pope, is believed to exhibit his own sentiments.

Boileau. Who is the poet that arrived soon after you in Elysium, whom I saw Spenser lead in and present to Virgil, as the author of a poem resem­bling the Georgics? On his head was a garland of the several kinds of flowers that blow in each season, with evergreens intermixed.—Pope. Your description points out Thomson. He painted nature exactly, and with great strength of pencil. His imagination was rich, extensive, and sublime: his diction bold and glowing, but sometimes obscure and affected. Nor did he always know when to stop, or what to reject.—Boileau. I should suppose that he wrote tragedies upon the Greek model: for he is often admitted into the grove of Euripides.—Pope. He enjoys that distinction both as a tragedian and as a moralist. For, not only in his plays, but all his other works, there is the purest morality, animated by piety, and rendered more touching by the fine and delicate sentiments of a most tender and benevolent heart.”

95 Herr F. Schlegel admits that Thomson is the prototype of continental descriptive poets. Mme Bontems much extended his fame by her prose translation of 1759. The other translations are enumerated by Ebert and Quérard.

96 This paragraph was written in 1762, and refers to an edition of the works of Thomson then published. It was therefore omitted in the edition of 1768; but I now restore it as a memorial of the generosity of Mr. Millar, and of his attachment to the author of The Seasons. The volumes are entitled:

“The works of James Thomson, with his last corrections and improve­ments. To which is prefixed, an account of his life and writings. In two volumes. London: printed for A. Millar, in the Strand. 1762.” 4to. Vol. I. Portrait after Aikman, and eight plates. Vol. II. Portrait after Paton, and six plates.

This edition was published by subscription. It is dedicated to George III. by Patrick Murdoch; and contains the first impression of the memoir now adopted. His majesty subscribed one hundred pounds. The number of copies subscribed for was about three hundred and fifty.—The volumes are handsomely printed; but it appears, on collation, that six lines are omitted in The Seasons, and two stanzas in the Castle of indolence. It also appears, by the letter before cited, that the editor had made certain minor alterations in The Seasons.

The monument to which Mr. Millar dedicated the profits arising from the above-mentioned edition was designed by Robert Adam, and executed by M. H. Spang. It is placed in the south transept of Westminster abbey. The inscription is:


Ætatis 48. Obiit 27 August 1748.

Tutor’d by thee, sweet POETRY exalts

Her voice to ages; and informs the page

With music, image, sentiment, and thought,

Never to die!

Hymn from 1824 edition of Thomson’s Seasons

Hymn (1824)





This Ode


Advertisement.The scene of the following stanzas is supposed to lie on the Thames, near Richmond.

Spring from 1824 edition of Thomson’s Seasons

Spring (1824)


In yonder grave a druid lies,

Where slowly winds the stealing wave!

The year’s best sweets shall duteous rise

To deck its poet’s sylvan grave!


In yon deep bed of whispering reeds

His airy harp* shall now be laid,

That he whose heart in sorrow bleeds

May love through life the soothing shade.


Then maids and youths shall linger here,

And while its sounds at distance swell,

Shall sadly seem in pity’s ear

To hear the woodland pilgrim’s knell.


Remembrance oft shall haunt the shore

When Thames in summer-wreaths is drest,

And oft suspend the dashing oar

To bid his gentle spirit rest!

Summer from 1824 edition of Thomson’s Seasons

Summer (1824)


And oft as ease and health retire

To breezy lawn, or forest deep,

The friend shall view yon whitening spire,*

And ’mid the varied landscape weep.


But thou, who own’st that earthy bed,

Ah! what will every dirge avail?

Or tears, which love and pity shed,

That mourn beneath the gliding sail!


Yet lives there one whose heedless eye

Shall scorn thy pale shrine glimmering near?

With him, sweet bard, may fancy die,

And joy desert the blooming year.


But thou, lorn stream, whose sullen tide

No sedge-crown’d sisters now attend,

Now waft me from the green hill’s side

Whose cold turf hides the buried friend!

Autumn from 1824 edition of Thomson’s Seasons

Autumn (1824)


And see—the fairy valleys fade,

Dun night has veil’d the solemn view!

Yet once again, dear parted shade,

Meek Nature’s child, again adieu!


The genial meads assign’d to bless

Thy life, shall mourn thy early doom;

Their hinds and shepherd-girls shall dress,

With simple hands, thy rural tomb.


Long, long, thy stone and pointed clay

Shall melt the musing Briton’s eyes;

O vales, and wild woods! shall he say,

In yonder grave your druid lies!

* The harp of Æolus, of which see a description in the Castle of indolence. [W. C.]

* Richmond church. [W. C.]

Winter from 1824 edition of Thomson’s Seasons

Winter (1824)

Notes and Corrections


A more extended encomium would be unsuitable to an advertisement.
[Insert boilerplate about semantic change.]

Life of Thomson

Thank you, Mr. Corney, for numbering the footnotes. It saved me a world of trouble. (The very first footnote, marked only with an asterisk, must have been a last-minute addition.) The Prince of Wales in this essay is Frederick—son of George II, father of George III—who died in 1751.

the rudeness of young Thomson’s puerile essays
[See elsewhere about semantic change.]

no sooner read than universally admired; those only excepted who
[Poor Mr. Murdoch seems to have had terrible difficulty with the idea that some people just happened not to like his friend’s poem.]

surveyor-general of the Leeward Islands
[Personal attendance was apparently not in the job description. Reading clockwise, the Leeward Islands start with the Virgin Islands—just east of Puerto Rico—and continue with Anguilla, Barbuda, Antigua, Montserrat, Nevis and St. Kitts. The island of Great Britain is conspicuous by its absence.]

The success of this piece was indeed insured from the first by Mr. Garrick and Mrs. Cibber, their appearing in the principal characters
comma after “Cibber” supplied from 1811 edition

that beautiful picture from Pliny the elder, where the course and gradual increase of the Nile are figured by the stages of man’s life
[Summer 802ff. But where the heck is it in Pliny? Humphry Davy’s Salmonia cites the same passage, with still less identifying information; so far I have failed utterly to identify the exact source.]

[Footnote] F.S.A.L. and Sc.
[I think this means that David Laing (1793–1878) was a Fellow of three different Societies, one of them being the (Scottish) Society of Antiquaries.]

[Footnote 1] I shall prove, in a future note, the incompetency of [Johnson’s] witness.
[In real life, Bolton Corney was . . . not a lawyer. He seems to have been a minor civil servant.]

[Footnote 17] il ne fera jamais
[Surprisingly, Voltaire really did say this. In the section of Siècle de Louis XIV listing Écrivains of the 17th century, his capsule summary of Bossu reads in full, verbatim, not one word omitted:

Bossu (René Le), né à Paris en 1631. Chanoine régulier de Saint-Genevieve. Il voulut concilier Aristote avec Descartes; il ne savait pas qu’il fallait les abandonner l’un et l’autre. Son traité sur le Poéme épique a beaucoup de réputation, mais il ne fera jamais de poëtes. Mort en 1680. ]

[Footnote 19] the 10th section of the 119th psalm.
[Assuming for the sake of discussion that “section” means “verse” (it’s a very long psalm): With my whole heart have I sought thee: O let me not wander from thy commandments.]

[Footnote 22] Dr. Arbuthnot, Mr. Pope, and Mr. Gay
. in “Mr. Gay” invisible

[Footnote 34] Thomson beautifully apostrophises Mrs. and miss Stanley
[Bolton Corney had a thing for lower-cased titles: sir, miss, lord.]

[Footnote 38] London, printed: and sold
punctuated as shown

[Footnote 61] Gustavus Vasa and Edward and Eleonora were prohibited
[Gustavus Vasa: The Deliverer of his Country was written by Henry Brooke in 1739 and was promptly banned. Its American premiere—which may well have been its world premiere, if you don’t count the heavily edited version performed in Dublin around 1745—was in June 1782. The play was enor­mously popular; one dramatic scene in Alonzo and Melissa takes place at a performance of Gustavus.]

[Footnote 63] Cliffden . . . Cliefden
[The first spelling is the 1740 printer’s; the second is Corney’s. Currently the preferred spelling is “Cliveden”.]

[Footnote 65]
In the printed book, this footnote begins on page xxviii, takes up most of xxix, and does not wrap up until page xxx.

[Footnote 93] . . . which is so natural in dialogue.”
final . missing

The original of this text is in the public domain—at least in the U.S.
My notes are copyright, as are all under-the-hood elements.
If in doubt, ask.