James Thomson (1700 - 1748)

Life and Works


Towards the middle of the 18th century, poetic taste in England veered towards new forms of expression. During the first half of the century, the main figure had been Alexander Pope, whose poems were socialexposing the foolishness of acadmic circles and of the upper classesand urbanthe growing city of London being the perfect setting for the enactment of social relations. Poets of the immediately subsequent generations often chose to write from a more lyrical, subjective perspective. Rather than social mannerisms and follies, one of their major concerns was the steady growth of the cities, and some viewed city life as an undesirable alternative to the predictability and harmony of country life. Further, uncontrolled urban development was feared as a threat for the preservation of nature. These changes in poetry can be considered the antecedents of the Romantic movement, which will emerge towards the end of the century. Representatives of this evolution in poetic sensibility are the so-called “Nature Poets”: Mark Akenside and especially James Thomson.

Portrait of Thomson by James Basire

Thomson was born in Scotland, were he spent his childhood and youth. His first poems had a clear Miltonic influence. He studied theology in Edinburgh and, at the age of twenty-five, he moved to London, where he became a tutor, wrote under noble patronage and was introduced to the major literary figures of the time. Later in his life, he was offered political jobs that required little attention and allowed him to dedicate most of his time to writing.
With varying fortune, Thomson also wrote for the stage: Sophonisba, Agamemnon, Edward and Eleanora, Tancred and Sigismunda. With David Mallet, he wrote the libretto for the masque Alfred, half historical and half mythical, which had music by Thomas Arne. The “Ode: Rule Britannia”, written by the Scottish poet, became the lyrics of the masque’s most memorable piece, a patriotic song that has retained its popularity to this day. Thomson had previously written a nationalistic poem, Liberty, which was not so well received and has now been forgotten. On the year of his death, he published The Castle of Indolence, an allegorical poem which imitates the art of Spenser.

John Neagle’s engraving for Thomson’s “Spring” (The Seasons)

The poetic sequence The Seasons, which appeared in 1730, is doubtlessly Thomson’s masterpiece. It can be defined as an exploration of how nature affects the human spirit. Thomson admired Isaac Newtonhe dedicated an ode to himand was fascinated with his discoveries in the field of optics. In The Seasons, the poet paid almost scientific attention to detail: the effects of light on water and vegetation, the changing shades of colour, the movements of the tiniest creatures. Nature is not so much described, but focalized through the poet and presented to the reader from different physical perspectives. Thomson kept revising the four poems that make up The Seasons until 1744. The result is a heterogeneous work that includes: descriptions of picturesque scenes; evocative passages reminiscent of pastoral or georgic literature; historical, religious or philosophical reflections; rewritings of mythological stories. In The Seasons, Thomson vindicates agricultural life and its cycles and expresses a confident belief in human progress, compatible with the preservation of God’s Creation.
Thomson’s poetry influenced Thomas Gray, William Collins and the Romantic poets. The Seasons had a particularly strong impact, not confined to English literature: the artist William Turner knew the poem and acknowledged his indebtedness to it; in Germany, it inspired Joseph Haydn to compose his oratorio Die Jahreszeiten (1801).