Thomson, James (1700–1748), poet, was born on 11 September 1700 in the village of Ednam, Roxburghshire, the son of Thomas Thomson (c.1666–1716), a Presbyterian minister, and Beatrix Trotter (d. 1725), who was distantly related to the noble house of Hume. James was the fourth child of Thomas and Beatrix, in a family of four boys and five girls. Eight weeks after his birth his father was admitted minister of Southdean, close to the English–Scottish border. Here the future poet of The Seasons received his first impressions of nature.
Thomson perhaps attended the parish school in Southdean before being sent, about 1712, to the ancient grammar school that was housed in a transept of the abbey church at Jedburgh. He was a mediocre scholar, but began to write poetry under the encouragement of two men—the scholar, poet, farmer, and Presbyterian minister Robert Riccaltoun (1691–1769), and Sir William Bennet (d. 1729), a whig laird who was also a patron of Allan Ramsay (1686–1758). In autumn 1715 Thomson entered the College of Edinburgh. He completed his arts course at Edinburgh (Latin, Greek, logic, metaphysics, ethics, and natural science) by 1719, but did not choose to graduate. He entered Divinity Hall, Edinburgh, as a candidate for the Presbyterian ministry, supported by bursaries from the Jedburgh presbytery from 1720 to 1724. Thomson’s first published poems appeared in the Edinburgh Miscellany (January 1720); one of them, ‘Of a Country Life’, a short georgic distantly modelled on John Gay’s Rural Sports, anticipates in little The Seasons.
To London: Winter, Summer
Thomson went to London almost certainly with literary ambitions, thinking of English ordination only as a last resort, but his first employment was as tutor to the four-year-old son of the poet Charles Hamilton, Lord Binning (1697–1732. He soon made the acquaintance of English poets, including Richard Savage, Aaron Hill, John Dyer, and Alexander Pope, and influential expatriate Scots. The most notable works from his first year in England were early versions of a ‘Hymn on Solitude’ and Winter, a blank-verse poem of nature description with devotional overtones
Winter was published in April 1726 by John Millan, who, it was said, paid 3 guineas for the copy; it was dedicated to Sir Spencer Compton, speaker of the House of Commons, who tardily gave the author a present of 20 guineas. In June a second, revised and enlarged edition appeared, with a preface in which Thomson disparages satire and advocates sublime verse on lofty themes. By then he was writing Summer and had left Lord Binning’s household in order to act as tutor to a young gentleman at Watts’s academy in Little Tower Street. Summer was published in February 1727 and was dedicated to George Bubb Dodington—like Compton, a prominent whig politician, but a far more generous and enduring patron.
Shortly afterwards Thomson left Watts’s academy, hoping to live by his pen. He acquired more patrons, notably Frances Seymour, countess of Hertford, and Thomas Rundle, future bishop of Derry, who introduced him to Charles Talbot (1685–1737), solicitor-general. From 1727 Thomson was a regular summer guest at the country seats of Dodington, Talbot, and Lord and Lady Hertford. On his first visit to Eastbury, Dodington’s mansion in Dorset, he met Voltaire, who later wrote of Thomson, ‘I discovered in him a great genius and a great Simplicity, I liked in him the poet and the true philosopher, I mean the Lover of Mankind’ (McKillop, 212).
Spring and The Seasons
In January 1728 Thomson issued proposals to publish The Seasons by subscription. This did not prevent him from publishing Spring, dedicated to Lady Hertford, on his own account in June 1728, apparently with little success, because in January 1729 the bookseller Andrew Millar bought up remainder copies and reissued them over his own imprint.
The queen headed a glittering list of subscribers to The Seasons in June 1730. The subscription quarto edition, which was also sold to the public through the trade, was printed by Thomson’s friend Samuel Richardson and illustrated by engravings after William Kent. The poem now included ‘Autumn’, dedicated to Arthur Onslow, Compton’s successor as speaker, and a concluding ‘Hymn’, as well as revised, enlarged texts of the three previously published ‘Seasons’. The general tendency of the revisions, despite the addition of a pantheistic ‘Hymn’, is to make the poem more secular; it is more excursive, patriotic, and overtly whiggish than the earlier texts.
By the middle of 1730, five years after leaving Scotland, Thomson had achieved a measure of fame and fortune. He had received royal notice as playwright and poet, he enjoyed the friendship and respect of men of wit, and the support of some discriminating patrons; his Seasons had attracted 457 subscriptions at 1 guinea or more each.
Having overheated himself walking one summer evening from central London to Hammersmith, he took a boat for the rest of the journey to Kew and caught a chill, from which he had not fully recovered before he exposed himself once more to the evening dews. This brought on a tertian fever and then a malignant nervous fever, from which he died on 27 August 1748, at his house in Kew Foot Lane. Thomson’s remains were buried under a plain stone in the north-west corner of St Mary’s Church, Richmond, on 29 August.
The Seasons is considered by many to be Thomson’s masterpiece, it was hugely popular both back in 1730 and even still today. The Seasons celebrates the magnificence and harmony of nature as a manifestation of the Supreme Being. It embodies literary, philosophical, and theological ideas characteristic of the eighteenth century, yet it also prefigures the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century, particularly in its depictions of storms and wilderness. It enjoyed extraordinary popularity and influence in both centuries, and its impressive, picturesque landscapes made it a favorite text for illustration.The most popular illustration perhaps is the scene of Amelia’s death in Thonson’s ‘Summer’. This image has been produced time and time again, it is full of raw emotion, Celadon has just had his love struck down by thunder.
During the eighteenth century there was a move away from context and toward the texts that accompanied the a literary piece. Book covers could be read as a text in themselves, the book trade really took off in the eighteenth century. It was at this time booksellers began to collaborate so that they could publish better illustrated books and more impressive covers. Why did booksellers collaborate? To put it simply, money, they wanted to make more unique copies so they could sell more and charge more.
This is the kind of illustration you would find in the earlier publishing’s that would accompany the texts. This was a very costly process, the correct kind plate must be purchased, it must be brought to a specialist engraver, the brought to a printer, and could only be printed so many times before the plate would break. The whole process would cost about six hundred pounds today.
Some illustrations would be produced independent of the text. This picture for example is bigger than an A1 page. Far to big to be put with the text even though it still represents the Amelia’s death. A painting like this could cost upward of ten thousand pounds today.
Sixty years after The Seasons was published it was still incredibly popular and it was still being reproduced, republished illustrations still being made, but now color had been produced and this opened a whole new range of colored illustrations to accompany the texts. These were extremely expensive, an illustrated copy could cost anywhere in the region of twenty five thousand pounds. The Seasons had a massive influence on the consumer market at the time, pocket watches, dresses, hats, even cups would have the illustrations from The Seasons on them. There were ballets, recitals and even instrumentals dedicated to the Thomson’s work.
- “The Seasons.” Masterplots, Fourth Edition. Ed. Laurence W. Mazzeno. Salem Press, Inc., 2010. eNotes.com. 21 Nov, 2012 http://www.enotes.com/seasons-salem/
- Chapman, T. “”The Seasons: By James Thomson; with His Life, an Index, and Glossary. . and Notes to The .” Archive.org. Ed. T Chapman. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2012. <http://archive.org/stream/seasonsbyjamest00thomgoog/seasonsbyjamest00thomgoog_djvu.txt>.
- Hilbert H. Campbell, James Thomson (1700-1748): An Annotated Bibliography of Selected Editions and the Important Criticism (New York: Garland, 1976).
- McKillop, The Background of Thomson’s “Seasons” (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1942).
- Cohen, The Unfolding of “The Seasons” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1970).