Page images
PDF
EPUB

before his death, Lord Lyttelton, being then in power, made him Surveyor-General of the Leeward Islands. Those islands he surveyed from his elevation on Richmond-hill, and very general his survey of course must have been. The particular and actual survey was left to his deputy in the islands themselves, and Thomson netted a yearly balance, the deputy being paid, of three hundred a year; which, with his pension, left him most comfortably at ease in the castle of indolence. Besides his two principal poems he wrote several tragedies, as Sophonisba, in which the unfortunate line,

“O Sophonisba, Sophonisba, O!" was parodied by a wag with

“O Jemmy Thomson, Jemmy Thomson, O!" and was echoed through the town everywhere and for a long time. Agamemnon was another, Edward and Eleonora a third, and Tancred and Sigismunda his last and best; except a posthumous oneCoriolanus.

Amongst the haunts of Thomson were the country houses of many of the more literary or more tasteful noblemen of the time ; as Hagley, the seat of Lord Lyttelton ; Bub Doddington's seat in Dorsetshire ; Stowe, then the seat of Lord Cobham; the seat of the Countess of Hertford, etc. The last place, however, it seems, only received Thomson once. It was the practice, says Johnson, of the Countess of Hertford, to whom Thomson dedicated his poem of Spring, to invite some poet every summer into the country to hear her verses and assist her studies. This honour was once conferred on Thomson, who took more delight in carousing with Lord Hertford and his friends than assisting her ladyship's poetical operations, and never therefore received another summons.

Thomson was, in fact, the last person to hope for much literary and understrapper service from, though in the shape of a countess, where, on the one hand, bad verses had to be inflicted on him, and on the other there was a good table and good talk. Indolence and self-indulgence were his besetting sins. Every one has heard of the lady who said she had discovered three things concerning the author in reading the Seasons : that he was a great lover, a great swimmer, and rigidly abstinent; at all which Savage, who had lived much with him, laughed heartily, saying that he believed Thomson was never in cold water in his life, and that the other particulars were just as true. The anecdote of Quin, regarding Thomson's splendid description of sunrise, has been equally diffused. He, like Savage, asserted that he believed Thomson never saw the sun rise in his life; and . related that, going one day to see him at Richmond, he found him in bed at noon, and asking him why he did not get up earlier, he replied listlessly, that “he had nae motive."

That no man ever lived more completely in a castle of indolence there can be little question, and perhaps as little that it cut his life short. Ho died August the 27th, 1748, at the age of forty-eight, of cold taken on the Thames between Kew and Richmond. He usod, it seems, to be in the habit of walking from town to his house at

Richmond, and crossed at a boat-house, somewhere hereabout, which being also a public-house, he there took a rest and refreshment. The place is still shown. Here, it would seem, he came warm from his walk, and crossing in a damp wind took cold; but this susceptibility to cold was the direct result of his indolent, self-indulgent, and effeminate habits. Had he followed those practices of healthy activity so finely described in his poem, how much longer and more useful might his life have been! Yet it must be a fact unquestionable, that Thomson as a boy rose early, saw both sunrises and all the glories of nature, plunged into the summer flood, and braved the severity of winter. No man could so vividly or so accurately describe what he had not experienced, and they who know best the country know how exact is his knowledge of it. Every one can feel how masterly are his descriptions of the grandest phenomena of nature in every region of the world, when such descriptions are deducible from books. In those, however, which came under his own eye, there is a life and there are beauties that attest that personal knowledge. The faults of his Seasons are those of style. His blank verse is peculiar; you can never mistake it for that of any other poet, but it has not the charm of that of Milton, of Wordsworth, or of various other poets. It is often turgid, and still more often prosaic. There are strange inversions used; and with his adverbs and adjectives he plays the most terrible havoc. Frequently the adjective is tossed behind the substantive, just for the sake of the metre, and regardless of all other effect, as,

Driving sleets

Deform the day delightless;" instead of the delightless day. His adverbs are continually lopped of their last syllable, and stand like wretched adjectives out of place ; as,-the sower “liberal throws the grain,” instead of liberally,clouds, "cheerless, drown the crude, unripened year," instead of cheerlessly,--the herb dies, though with vital power “it is copious blest,” instead of copiously. These barbarisms, which greatly deface this poem, abound; but especially in the Spring, which was not pubIished first in its native position, but third, the routine of appearance being Winter, Summer, Spring, and Autumn,

But, above its faults, how far ascend the beauties and excellences of this poem ! the finest of which spring out of that firm, glowing, and noble spirit of patriotism and religion which animated James Thomson. His patriotism bursts forth on all occasions, but more especially in that elaborate description of England, her deeds and worthies, in the Summer, commencing

"Heavens! what a goodly prospect spreads around,

Or hills and dales, of woods and lawns, and spires
And glittering towns, and gilded streams, till all
The stretching landscape into smoke decays!

Happy Britannia !" etc. His piety,—the piety of love and wonder, of that profound admiration which the contemplation of the works of the Divine Creator had inspired him with, and of that grateful love and trust which the

riot waste;

manifestations of parental goodness everywhere had impressed upon his heart,—these are, as it were, the living soul of the poem, and the principles of imperishable vitality. These sentiments, diffused throughout the poem itself, concentrate themselves at its conclusion as predominant over all others, and burst forth in that magnificent hymn, which has no rival in the language, except the glorious one of Milton, the morning hymn of our first parents, beginning,

These are thy glorious works, Parent of good,
Almighty! Thine this universal frame,

Thus wondrous fair; Thyself how wondrous then," etc. The religion, too, of Thomson was the religion not of creeds and crabbed doctrines of humanity. He had studied nature in the spirit of its Maker, and the fruit of that study was an enlarged and tender sympathy for his fellow-men. This sentiment is everywhere conspicuous as his piety; and in the passage following the fine account of the man perishing in the snow, rises to a high degree of power and descriptive eloquence.

“ Ah! little think the gay licentious proud,
Whom pleasure, power, and afluence surround ;
They who their thoughtless hours in giddy mirth,
And wanton, oft cr
Ah! little think they, while they dance along,
How many feel, this very moment, death,
And all the sad variety of pain :
How many sink in the devouring flood,
Or more devouring flame: how many bleed,
By shameful variance betwixt man and man;
How many pine in want, and dungeon glooms;
Shut from the common air, and common use
of their own limbs : how many drink the cup
Of baneful grief, or eat the bitter bread
Of misery: sore pierced by wintry winds,
How many shrink into the sordid hut
Of cheerless poverty! How many shake
With all the fiercer tortures of the mind,
Unbounded passion, madness, guilt, remorse :
Whence tumbled headlong from the height of life,
They furnish matter for the tragic Muse.
Even in the vale where Wisdom loves to dwell,
With Friendship, Peace, and Contemplation joined,
How many racked with honest passions, droop
In deep retired distress. How many stand
Around the death-bed of their dearest friends,
And point the parting anguish. Thought fond man
Of these, and all the thousand nameless ills,
That one incessant struggle render life,
One scene of toil, of suffering, and of fate,
Vice in his high career would stand appalled,
And heedless rambling Impulse learn to think;
The conscious heart of Charity would warm,
And her wide wish Benevolence dilate;
The social tear would rise, the social sigh,
And into clear perfection, gradual bliss,

Refining still, the social passions work."-Winter. Yes, if the great sentiment of this passage were but firmly imprinted on the hearts of all men and all women, but especially the rich and powerful, how soon would the face of earth be changed, and the vale of tears be converted into a lesser heaven! It is the grand defect of our systems of education, for rich and for poor, but preeminently for the former, that they are not taught that no man can

live innocently who lives only for his own enjoyment; that to live merely to enjoy ourselves is the highest treason against God and man; that God does not live merely for himself, his eternal existence is one constant work of beneficence; and that it is the social duty of every rational being to live like God, his Creator, for the good of others. Were this law of duty taught faithfully in all our schools, with all its responsibilities, the penalties of its neglect, the ineffable delight of its due discharge, there would be no longer seen that moral monster, the man or woman who lives alone for the mere purpose of selfish enjoyment. That host of gay and idle creatures, who pass through life only to glitter in the circles of fashion, to seek admiration for personal attractions and accomplishments—for dressing, playing, dancing, or riding-whose life is but the life of a butterfly when it should be the life of a man, would speedily disperse, and be no more seen. That life would be shrunk from as a thing odious and criminal, because useless ; when faculties, wealth, and fame are put into their hands, and a world is laid before them in which men are to be saved and exalted ; misery, crime, shame, despair, and death prevented; and all the hopes and capacities for good in the human soul are to be made easy to the multitude. To live for these objects is to be a hero or a heroine, and any man or woman may be that; to live through this world of opportunities given but once, and to neglect them, is the most fearful fate that can befal a creature of eternal responsibilities. But poets and preachers have proclaimed this great truth for ages ; the charge now lies at the door of the educators, and they alone can impress effectually on the world its highest and most inalienable duty, that of living for the good of others.

Amongst those who have used the voice of poetry given them of God to rouse their fellow-men to a life of beneficence, none have done it more zealously or more eloquently than Thomson. For this we pass over here the mere charms of his poetic achievements; over those great pictures which he has painted of the world, and its elements of frosts, tempests, plagues, earthquakes; of the views of active life at home and abroad; the hunter's perils and the hunter's carouse,

" In ghostly halls of grey renown;" of man roaming the forests of the tropics, or climbing the cliffs of the lonely Hebrides ; to notice in this brief article those bursts of eloquent fire in which he calls to godlike deeds,—those of mercy and of goodness. In this respect, as well as in that of mere poetical beauty, his poem of the Castle of Indolence is pre-eminent. Thomson suffered from the seductions of the vile wizard of Indolence, and in his first canto he paints most effectively the horrors of that vice; in the second canto he shows that though he had fallen into the net of sloth, it had not entirely conquered, and it could not corrupt him. He calls with the energy of a martyr on his fellow-men to assume the privileges and glories of men. The Castle of Indolence is as felicitous in its versification as in its sentiments ; it is full of harmony, and the spirit of picturesque beauty pervades every line ; there is a manliness of sentiment about it that is worthy of trus genius. Such a stanza as this is the seed of independence to the minds of thousands :

“ I care not, Fortune! what you me deny:

You cannot rob me of free Nature's grace ;
You cannot shut the windows of the sky,
Through which Aurora shows her bright'ning face ;
You cannot bar my constant feet to trace
The woods and lawns, by living stream, at eve;
Let health my nerves and finer fibres brace,

And I their toys to the great children leave :
Of fancy, reason, virtue, nought can me bereave."

The address of the bard of active virtue is worthy of being listened to in every age.

“ Ye hapless race!
Dire labouring here to smother Reason's ray,
That lights our Maker's image in our face,
And gives us wide o'er earth unquestion'd sway :
What is the adored Supreme Periection, say?
What but eternal, never-resting soul,
Almighty power, and all-directing day;

By whom each atom stirs, the planets roll:
Who fills, surrounds, informs, and agitates the whole.

“Come, to the beaming God your hearts unfold !

Draw from its fountain life! "Tis thence alone
We can excel. Up from unfeeling mould
To seraphs burning round the ALMIGHTY's throne,
Life rising still on life, in brighter tone,
Perfection forms, and with perfection bliss.
In universal nature this clear shown

Not needeth proof; to prove it were, I wis,
To prove the beauteous world excels the brute abyss.

" It was not by vile loitering in ease,

That Greece obtained the brighter palm of art;
That soft, yet ardent Athens learn'd to please,
To keen the wit, and to sublime the heart,
In all supreme, complete in every part !
It was not thence majestic Rome arose,
And o'er the nations shook her conquering dart :

For sluggard's brow the laurel never grows :
Renown is not the child of indolent repose.

“Had unambitious mortals minded nought,

But in loose joy their time to wear away;
Had they alone the lap of dalliance sought,
Pleased on her pillow their dull heads to lay:
Rude nature's state had been our state to-day;
No cities here their towery fronts had raised,
No arts had made us opulent and gay;

With brother brutes the human race had grazed;
None e'er had soared to fame, none honour'd been, none praised.

“Great Homer's song had never fired the breast

To thirst of glory and heroic deeds;
Sweet Maro's Muse, sunk in inglorious rest,
Had silent slept amid the Mincian reeds;
The wits of modern times had told their beads,
And monkish legends been their only strain;
Our Milton's Eden had lain wrapp'd' in weeds;

Our Shakspeare strolled and laugh'd with Warwick swains;
Ne had my master, Spenser, charm'd his Mulla's plains.

« PreviousContinue »