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The author of The Seasons was born at Ednam, a couple of miles or so from Kelso, on the 11th of September, 1700. His father was the minister of the parish, and it was intended to bring him up to the same profession. The early childhood only of Thomson was spent here, for his father removed to Southdean, near Jedburgh, having obtained the living of that place.
Ednam has nothing poetical about it. It lies in a rich farming country of ordinary features. The scenery is flat, and the village by no means picturesque. It consists of a few farm-houses, and long rows of hinds' cottages. David Macbeth Moir, the Delta of Blackwood's Magazine, described the place some years ago in these lines :
“A rural church; some scattered cottage roofs,
From whose secluded hearths the thin blue smoke
Yet even this description is too favourable. It would induce us to believe that the spot had something of the picturesque—it has nothing of it. The streamlet sings little even to itself through that flat district ;-the mossy bridge has given way to a good substantial but unpoetical stone one. T'he landscape is by no means over enriched by fine trees. There are some limes, I believe they are, in the churchyard. The old church has been pulled down since Thomson's time, and the new one now standing is a poor barn-like affair, with a belfry that would do for a pigeon-cote. The manse in which the poet was born has also disappeared, and a new, square, unpicturesque one been built upon the site. Perhaps no class of people have less of the poetical or the picturesque in them than the Presbyterian clergy of Scotland. The hard, dry, stern Calvinism im. parted by John Knox has effectually expelled all that. The country people of Scotland are generally intelligent, and have a taste for poetry and literature ; but to a certainty they do not derive this from their clergy. In no country have I found the parish clergy so ignorant of general literature, or so unacquainted with anything that is going on in the world, except the polemics of their own church. The cargo of Geneva which Knox imported has operated on the religious feeling of Scotland worse than any gin or whisky on its moral or physical condition. It is a spirit as unlike Christianity as possible. One is all love and tenderness; the other all bitterness and hardness :—the one is gentle and tolerant; the other fierce and intolerant :--the one careless of form, so that the life and soul of charity and piety are preserved; the other is all form and doctrine-doctrine, hard, metaphysical, rigid, and damnatory. On the borders too, in many places, the very people seem to me more ignorant and stupid than is the wont of Scotland ; they would match the Surrey chopsticks or Essex calves of England.
I walked over from Kelso to Ednam on a Sunday morning. The people were collected about the church door, waiting for the time of service. I thought it a good opportunity to hear something of the traditions of the country about Thomson. Nobody could tell me anything. So little idea had they of a poet, that they informed me that another poet had been born there besides Thomson. I asked whom that might be? They said, “One White, a decrepit old man, who used to write under the trees of the churchyard ;" and this they thought having another poet! Such—as we are often obliged to exclaim-is fame !
An old woman, into whose cottage I stepped, on returning, to avoid a shower, was more intelligent. She told me that her mother had lived at the old manse, and frequently heard what had been toid to inquirers. The manse in which Thomson was born, she said, was of mud; and he was born in the parlour, which had a bed in a recess concealed by a curtain.
I stayed the service, or at least nearly three hours of it. It is the odd custom of many country places in Scotland, where the people have too far to come to be able to do it twice in the day, to have actually two services performed all at one sitting. With that atten
tion to mere rigid formality which Calvinism has introduced, that task-work holiness which teaches that God's wrath will be aroused if they do not go through a certain number of prayers, sermons, and ceremonies in the day, they have the morning and afternoon services all at once. There were, therefore, tuo enormously long sermons, three prayers, three singings, and, to make worse of it, the sermons consisted of such a mass of doctrinal stubble as filled me with astonishment that such actual rubbish, and worse than rubbish, could at the present day be inflicted on any patient and unoffending people. What a gross perversion and misconception of Christianity is this! How my heart bled at the very idea that the state paid and upheld this system, by which the people were not blessed with the pure, simple, and benign knowledge of that simplest, most beautiful, and love-inspiring of all systems—Christianity, but were actually cursed with the drawing of the horrid furze-bushes of school divinity and Calvinistic damnation across their naked consciences.
Imagine a company of hard-working and care-worn peasants, coming for five or ten miles on a Sunday to listen to such choppedstraw preaching as this. The sermons were to prove that the temptation of Christ in the wilderness was a bona fide and actual history. And, first, the preacher told them what profound subtlety the temptations of Satan showed, such as advising Christ after forty days' fast to cause the stones to be made bread, as if Christ could not have done that, if he needed, without the devil's suggestion. And then he told them that Christ was God himself, so that the devil, knowing that, instead of showing such profound subtlety, must have been a very daft devil indeed to try to tempt him at all. Poor people! of all the beautiful sayings and doings in the life of our Saviour; of all the divine precepts which he peculiarly brought down from heaven for the especial consolation and invigoration of the poor ; of all the deeds and the expressions of an infinite love ; of all those teachings that “the Sabbath is made for man, and not man for the Sabbath ;” of all the gracious declarations, that it was not by doctrine and cunningly devised fables, but by the great spirit of love-love to God and to one another, and by keeping his commandments, that we are to be saved-was there nothing that could be dealt out to you? Could your dry and thirsty spirits receive nothing but this dry and musty fodder of sectarian disquisition ? Oh ! how much better were one simple word of genuine feeling from the most unlettered preacher on a bare hill-side!
My only wonder was to find any body in the church, for I thought I must have met the whole village going to Kelso, where they have eight different sects, the most zealous of all being the Free Church. It is only by a passage through Scotland that you get a living idea of what a movement the movement of this Free Church has been. In every town, from the extremest south to the extremest north, you see free churches rising or arisen. Even in little Melrose there is a large one ; and l observed that they built them as near, on all occasions, as possible to the established one, and, if compassable, exactly opposite. Indeed, I have been told that land has, in many instances, been offered gratuitously to build a free church upon, and has been refused because it was not opposite to the established one. Such is the fruit of an Establishment in Scotland, and such were the evidences of its teachings in Ednam. How different to the fine, genial, and genuine faith of James Thomson !
On a hill on the right hand of the road, proceeding from Kelso to Ednam, and about a quarter of a mile from that village, a plain obelisk has been erected to the memory of the poet, bearing this inscription :-"Erected in memory of James Thomson, Author of the Seasons. Born at Ednam, 11th of September, A.D. 1700.”
The Earl of Buchan, who erected a temple of the Muses at Dryburgh, in the centre of which he placed Thomson, and who affixed the brass tablet to his memory in the church at Richmond, also instituted an annual commemoration of his fame at Ednam, which has long fallen into desuetude. For the first meeting of this kind, Burns wrote his address to the shade of Thomson in crowning his bust at Ednam.
Of Thomson's sojourn at Southdean nearly all that is now known is comprehended in the following passage in Mr. Robert Chambers's “ Picture of Scotland :"_“ The father of James Thomson was removed from Ednam to this parish while the poet was a child ; and here accordingly the author of the Seasons spent the days of his boyhood. In the churchyard may still be seen the humble monument of the father of the poet, though the inscription is nearly obliterated. The manse in which that individual reared his large family, of whom one was destined to become so illustrious, was what would now be described as a small thatched cottage. It is traditionally recollected that the poet was sent to the University of Edinburgh, seated behind his father's man on horseback, but was so reluctant to quit the country for a town life, that he had returned on foot before his conductor, declaring that he could study as well on the braes of Sou'den—so Southdean is generally pronounced—as in Edinburgh.”
Southdean lies in a much more beautiful country than Ednam. In his rambles he could reach the banks of the Tweed and the Teviot, and the fine ruins of Jedburgh, Dryburgh, and Melrose ; and here Thomson undoubtedly acquired that deep love for nature, and that intimate acquaintance with it, which enabled him to produce the poem of the Seasons, which, with considerable faults of style, is one of the richest compositions in the language, in the legitimate subject matter, in the grandeur of its scenery drawn from all regions of the earth, and in the broad and beautiful spirit of its religious philosophy. It has stood the test of more than a century, during which time great changes have taken place in the theory of versification and in public taste. Compositions of great variety, and of the most splendid character, have since rendered fastidious the public judgment, yet the Seasons are, and will continue to be, read with pleasure.
Through the recommendation of Mr. Riccaltoun, the minister of
Hobkirk, Thomson was sent to Jedburgh school. His uncle was gardener to Sir Gilbert Elliott, of Minto, and that gentleman and Sir William Bennet, of Chesters, noticed something promising in the lad, and invited him to their houses. Though the old man-servant, who bad jogged along to Edinburgh with little Jemmy Thomson behind him, was astonished on his return to find him at home again, yet another attempt must have been more successful, for at the University of Edinburgh he finished his education. The poetic nature, however, convinced him by that time that it was not his vocation to preach the arid notions of Knox, and palm them off as the grand heart-opening truths of Christianity. His father had died, two years after his coming to Edinburgh, in a very extraordinary manner, being fatally struck on the head, it is said, by a ball of fire, while trying to exorcise a ghost at a place called Woolie, leaving his mother with nine children, who raised upon her little estate by mortgage what she could, and came to reside in Edinburgh. James resolved not to weigh upon her resources longer than needful; but set out for London with his poem of Winter in his pocket. He had introductions to several influential persons, and one of them to Mr. Mallet, then tutor to the sons of the Duke of Montrose, with whom, after residing some time near East Barnet as a tutor to the eldest son of Lord Binning, he went to live. His great want, Dr. Johnson says, on reaching London, was a pair of shoes. To make his calls these were necessary, and his Winter was his sole resource. It was a wintry one, for he could find no purchaser for it for a long time, and when purchased it did not for a good while sell
. At length it fell under the eye of a Mr. Whatley, who instantly perceived its merit, and zealously spread the information. Thomson was quickly a popular author, and from this time resided chiefly in the neighbourhood of London. Before this period he was fagging as usher of an academy in Little Tower Street. On the success of his Winter he left the chool, and took lodgings in Lancaster ourt, Strand. He made one tour on the Continent as companion to Mr. Talbot, the eldest son of the chancellor. The despotism which he saw abroad induced him to write his poem of Liberty, one of his very worst productions, and which lost him much government preferment; and when the public complained of this, a ministerial writer remarked that " Thomson had taken a Liberty which was not agreeable to Britannia in any Season.”
Government preferment, however, he did receive. The chancellor conferred on him the place of Secretary of the Briefs, which made him independent. On the death of the Chancellor Talbot he lost his post, through being too indolent to make application to Lord Hardwicke for it, though Hardwicke kept it open for some time that he might. He was again reduced by this circumstance to poverty and difficulty, out of which he was, after a while, permanently raised through the influence of Lord Lyttelton, a pension of a hundred a year being conferred on him. This removed the pressure of utter necessity, but compelled him to work, without which compulsion perhaps no man would have worked less About three years