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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Walter

Poetry Bee Blog #11: James Thomson (Entry 2)

Updated: Jan 12

We are continuing our series of Poetry Bee installments on clergyman poets. In the previous installment you read how James Thomson, the son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister named Thomas Thomson, was preparing to become a minister himself, but something happened which made him stop in his tracks. I left you hanging as to what that was. Rest assured: you’ll find out if you read further!    

    The last we said about Thomson and his endeavors was that he had written a patriotic poem titled “Britannia.” I hope that you got a chance to see the video clip that I posted. It is a wonderful performance of the song, and though I am not especially fond of patriotic songs, this particular performance was done by a talented and celebrated British singer. Many famous singers doubtless have sung our own national anthem, “The Star-spangled Banner.” If you have ever gone to a baseball game, you have heard some famous or not so famous singer give a rendering of it. But do you know who wrote our own patriotic anthem? (“The Star-Spangled Banner,” is after all a poem, you know.) Although he is not well-known as a poet, one of his later relatives wrote what is sometimes considered the “Great American Novel.” The author of “The Star-spangled Banner” was Francis Scott Key and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was named after his second cousin, three times removed, became one of the most celebrated American writers of the 20th century for his novel The Great Gatsby. You can listen to a rather good rendition of the American National Anthem here.

    Soon after composing “Britannia,” Thomson published his poem "Spring,” dedicating it to the Countess of Hertford. "Autumn"—the season before which "Spring" and "Summer" are supposed to come—had not yet been written; it was published only when the whole poem “Seasons” came out in 1730.

    You will remember that Thomson had expressed his love and admiration of England in “Rule Britannia.” Although it seems to be (like a lot of patriotic poems) over the top, it is quite rousing, and I believe that the sentiment that he expressed in it was very sincere. Compared to other European countries, England had much to be proud of. Thomson had this rude awakening when he was sent to travel with a man named Charles Talbot, the eldest son of the Chancellor of England. In his travels on the continent Thomson experienced what he saw to be the tyranny of other governments. The trip really made an impression on him. He was not the only traveler to notice that England was a great place to live. The famous French poet, Voltaire, noticed the same. Around the same time that Thomson took his trip, Voltaire, thrown out of his home country of France, discovered that England had what his native France desperately lacked: liberty. In fact he wrote a collection of essays about it titled Letters concerning the English Nation. And what Voltaire celebrated in his book is both the title and subject of Thomson’s next poem, “Liberty.”  He spent two years on the poem, and the author congratulated himself on it, saying that it was his best work thus far. But, as is often the case with literature, authors often don’t share the opinions of their readers. (Mark Twain actually thought his best work was Joan of Arc. Few people read it, and if they do, do not enjoy nearly as much as his most famous work, Huckleberry Finn). Thus, though Thomson thought very highly of his poem “Liberty,” unfortunately no one else did. In fact, most people thought it was his worst poem.

    The last piece that Thomson lived to publish was the "Castle of Indolence," which he spent a lot of time in writing. The first scene opens with a lavish scene of indolence, or laziness. It is quite an imaginative poem and vivid in its description. Now Thomson was able to live the life of his poem’s title: indolence. He was living at ease in his popularity and financial success. But his easy life did not last very long, as soon he caught a bad cold, neglected it, became feverish and died on August 27th, 1748. He was buried in the church at Richmond without an inscription, but a monument was erected in his memory at that famous burial place of poets and kings, Westminster Abbey. In the following excerpt Samuel Johnson summed Thomson’s poetic life, saying basically that Thomson was a genius who had a style, voice and vision all his own, using his imagination in a way that only a true poet can.

    As a writer he is entitled to one praise of the highest kind; his mode of thinking and expressing his thoughts is original. His blank verse is no more the verse of Milton, or of any other poet, than the rhymes of Prior are the rhymes of Cowley. His numbers, his pauses, his diction, are of his own growth, without transcription, without imitation. He thinks in a peculiar train, and he thinks always as a man of genius; he looks round on nature and on life, with the eye which nature bestows only on a poet; the eye that distinguishes, in every thing presented to its view, whatever there is on which imagination can delight to be detained, and with the mind that at once comprehends the vast and attends to the minute.

    Now the answer to the question that you have all been waiting for: why did Thomson give up the ministry for poetry? Here is the answer. As part of his training for the ministry, Thomson was asked to give a message on a psalm. Thomson rose to speak and gave it his best. The professor was was not pleased. Apparently, Thomson spoke with such a highfalutin poetic style, that he hardly made any sense—at least to a non-poet. His professor said that his manner of speaking was completely incomprehensible to the common person, and further added that one of his expressions was even “indecent” if not “profane.” Perhaps that was not the only reason, however, Thomson chose not to become a minister. There was another problem that might have made him change his life plans: he was really, after all, not a very good speaker. "Among his peculiarities,” Samuel Johnson writes,Thomson had “a very unskillful and inarticulate manner of pronouncing any lofty or solemn composition.” Once Thomson was reading to one of his rich admirers, who was himself a very good reader. Listening to Thomson fumble over his own poetry was too much for him to bare. He snatched the paper from Thomson’s hand, and told him, that he did not even understand his own verses!    

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