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AMES THOMSON, the son of a minister well esteemed
1700, at Ednam, in the shire of Roxburgh, of which his father was pastor. His mother, whose name was Hume, inherited as co-heiress a portion of a small estate. The revenue of a parish in Scotland is seldom large ; and it was probably in commiseration of the difficulty with which Mr. Thomson supported his family, having nine children, that Mr. Riccarton, a neighbouring minister, discovering in James uncommon promises of future excellence, undertook to superintend his education, and provide him books.
He was taught the common rudiments of learning at the school of Jedburg, a place which he delights to recollect in his
poem of “ Autumn";* but was not considered by his master as superior to common boys, though in those early days he amused his patron and his friends with poetical compositions ; with which however he so little pleased himself, that on every new-year's day he threw into the fire all the productions of the foregoing year.
From the school he was removed to Edinburgh, where he had not resided two years when his father died, and left all his children to the care of their mother, who raised upon her little estate what money a mortgage could afford, and, removing with her family to Edinburgh, lived to see her son rising into eminence.
Thomson's mother's maiden name was Trotter. See Boswell's Johnson, vol. iii. p. 356.
2 Widehope in the county of Roxburgh.
3 Mr. Riccaltoun. “ Mr. Rickelton's poem on Winter, which I still have, first put the design into my head. In it are some masterly strokes that awakened me." Thomson to Cranston, Sept. 1725. Ald. T. vol. i.
4 Autumn, line 890, Ald. T. vol. i. p. 131.
The design of Thomson's friends was to breed him a minister. He lived at Edinburgh, as at school, without distinction or expectation, till, at the usual time, he performed a probationary exercise by explaining a psalm. His diction was so poetically splendid, that Mr. Hamilton, the professor of Divinity, reproved him for speaking language unintelligible to a popular audience, and he censured one of his expressions as indecent, if not profane.
This rebuke is reported to have repressed his thoughts of an ecclesiastical character, and he probably cultivated with new diligence his blossoms of poetry, which however were in some danger of a blast; for, submitting his productions to some who thought themselves qualified to criticise, he heard of nothing but faults, but, finding other judges more favourable, he did not suffer himself to sink into despondence.
He easily discovered that the only stage on which a poet could appear, with any hope of advantage, was London; a place too wide for the operation of petty competition and private malignity, where merit might soon become conspicuous, and would find friends as soon as it became reputable to befriend it. A lady, who was acquainted with his mother, advised him to the journey, and promised some countenance or assistance, which at last he never received ; however, he justified his adventure by her encouragement, and came to seek in London patronage and fame.'
At his arrival he found his way to Mr. Mallet, then 1 See his letter to Dr. Cranston, dated April 3rd, 1725. London. Ald. T. vol. i. p. XX.
2 Daniel Malloch, or Mallet, the poet. Vid. infr. Life of Mallet.
tutor to the sons of the duke of Montrose. He had recommendations to several persons of consequence, which he had tied up carefully in his handkerchief; but as he passed along the street, with the gaping curiosity of a new-comer, his attention was upon every thing rather than his pocket, and his magazine of credentials was stolen from him.
His first want was of a pair of shoes. For the supply of all his necessities, his whole fund was his “ Winter,” which for a time could find no purchaser; till, at last, Mr. Millan was persuaded to buy it at a low price; and this low price he had for some time reason to regret; but, by accident, Mr. Whatley, a man not wholly unknown among authors, happening to turn his eye upon it, was so delighted that he ran from place to place celebrating its excellence. Thomson obtained likewise the notice of Aaron Hill,' whom, being friendless and indigent, and glad of kindness, he courted with every expression of servile adulation.
“ Winter was dedicated to Sir Spencer Compton, but attracted no regard from him to the author ; till Aaron Hill awakened his attention by some verses addressed to Thomson, and published in one of the newspapers, which censured the great for their neglect of ingenious men. Thomson then received a present of twenty guineas, of which he gives this account to Mr. Hill:
Vid. supr. Life of Savage, vol. ii. p. 315. 2 Winter.
Ald. T. vol. i. p. 147. Wordsworth in his fine criticism on Thomson (Works, vol. iii. pp. 332-336) speaks of this poem as “a work of inspiration,” and points out “ that, excepting the Nocturnal Reverie of Lady Winchelsea, and a passage or two in the Windsor Forest of Pope, the period intervening between the publication of the Paradise Lost and the Seasons does not contain a single new image of external nature, and scarcely presents a familiar one from which it can be inferred that the eye of the poet had been steadily fixed upon his object, much less that his feelings had urged him to work upon it in the spirit of genuine imagination.”