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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Walter

Poetry Bee Blog #10: James Thomson

Updated: Dec 22, 2023

We have often heard or even observed sons following in the footsteps of their fathers (and daughters in the footsteps of their mothers) by taking on their father’s profession. Often sons of physicians become physicians, and sons of musicians become musicians. What do you think that you will be? Will you become a lawyer, businessman, engineer, plumber, teacher, physician, or artist like your father (or mother)? Many do. Such was the case of the 18th-century English poet James Thomson, whose father was a minister in the shire of Roxburgh, Scotland. Thomson followed in the footsteps of his father by studying for the ministry, but a rather humorous occurrence led him away from studying for the ministry, and he became a poet instead. 

James Thomson was from a large family. I know that many of the families that come to our Friday homeschool classes are large and would be able to understand what it was to live in a family of nine children. The father’s congregation was in Scotland and so money was tight. As Johnson writes in his biographical Lives of the Poets, “The revenue of a parish in Scotland is seldom large; and it was probably in commiseration of the difficulty with which Thomson supported his family, having nine children, that Mr. Riccarton, a neighboring minister, discovering in James the uncommon promises of future excellence, undertook to superintend his education and provide him books.”

Supported financially, James went to a school in Jedburgh, a place which Thomson, so writes Samuel Johnson, “delights to recollect in his poem of ‘Autumn.’” At his early age, Thomson wrote poetry, which amused his little friends and patron, but was himself dissatisfied with. In fact, he disliked his poems so much, that he was said to throw away his little verses into the fire, never to be read again. Thomson left Jedburgh for the large city of Edinburgh. Two years laster his father died. Thomson’s mother was to raise all her children on her little sum of money. She also moved to where her son James resided and lived to see her son rising in fame and fortune.

Thomson’s first poetic success was the poem “Winter.” It is funny to think that he did not begin with spring when he was in the springtime of his life and that of his life as a poet, too. However, the poem earned him some attention. It earned him some money as well. As poets often did in those days, he dedicated his work to a wealthy noble named Sir Spencer Compton, who gave the author a gift of twenty guineas. Today, many poets and writers might be too proud to stoop so low as to become a “toady” to earn the favor of a benefactor, but we have to understand that only rich men could afford being a poet, not poor people, such as Thomson was. Poor poets had to find patrons to support them in their writing. It was not his success in poetry that made him change his mind about entering the ministry. It was something else. As I said, it is a rather humorous incident, which I will tell you in the next blog.

Thomson continued the topical theme of the season, publishing the poem “Summer” in 1727. In the same year he wrote a poem in honor of one of the most famous men of the period, Isaac Newton, titled “Death of Sir Isaac Newton.” You probably never heard of these poems, as they are not read that much anymore, except by English teachers. But you may have read, or at least heard of, another poem that Thomson wrote in this period of his life. It really is quite famous. In fact, it is sung all over England at many public events. I doubt that those who sing it, though, think of Thomson when they sing it, just as people who sing “Joy to the World” do not think of Isaac Watts. The name of Thomson’s poem is "Britannia.” This patriotic poem was set to music in 1740 by Thomas Arne, and has since become the song of the Royal Navy and British Army. You can listen to the music here.

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