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James Thomson was born in Ednam in Roxburghshire around 11th September 1700 and baptised on 15th September. He was the fourth of nine children to father Thomas, the Presbyterian minister of Ednam and mother Beatrix.
Apart from the exact date of his birth several other facts of his life cannot be verified.
It is thought Thomson may have attended the parish school of Southdean, his father having been appointed minster there a few months after the birth of his son, before attending the grammar school in Jedburgh in 1712. Accounts of his early abilities are almost always negative. Poetry however was his great love. In this he was encouraged by Robert Riccaltoun, a farmer, poet and Presbyterian minister; and Sir William Bennet, a whig laird who was also the patron of Allan Ramsay. Very few early poems by Thomson survive. It seems that on each New Year’s Day he burned almost all of his year’s output.
In the autumn of 1715 he entered the College of Edinburgh on a career path that would take him to the Presbyterian ministry. In college he studied metaphysics, Logic, Ethics, Greek, Latin and Natural Philosophy. He also became a member of the Grotesque Club, a literary group. Here he met his lifelong friend to be; David Mallet.
In 1716 his father, Thomas, died. Again, facts are hard to come by but there is a colourful local legend that he died whilst performing an exorcism.
In 1719 Thomson completed his arts course but rather than graduate he instead entered Divinity Hall to become a minister.
However Thomson was also keen on literary pursuits. He managed to obtain publication of several of his poems in the ‘Edinburgh Miscellany’. With this as his calling card he followed Mallet to London in February 1725 in an attempt at further publishing success. For Thomson a career as a minister was now behind him.
In London, Thomson became a tutor to the son of Charles Hamilton, Lord Binning, via connections on his mother's side of the family. Through David Mallet, who by 1724 was now also a published poet, Thomson met the great English poets of the day including Richard Savage, Aaron Hill and Alexander Pope.
Beatrix, Thomson's mother died on 12th May 1725, around the time of his writing ‘Winter’, the first poem of ‘The Seasons’. ‘Winter’ was first published by John Millian in 1726 with a second edition incorporating revisions, additions and a preface later that same year.
By 1727, Thomson was working on ‘Summer’, which he published in February, whilst working at Watt's Academy, a school for young gentlemen and a centre of Newtonian science.
That same year Millian published Thomson’s ‘A Poem to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton’ in memory of the great scientist who had passed in March.
Thomson now left Watt's academy hoping to further pursue his career. This was greatly helped by finding several patrons including Thomas Rundle, the countess of Hertford and Charles Talbot, 1st Baron Talbot.
Thomson worked hard to complete ‘The Seasons’ during the late 1720’s. ‘Spring’ was completed in 1728 and finally Autumn in 1730. Now the complete set of four could be published together as ‘The Seasons’.
During this period he also wrote other poems, as well as a play, his first, ‘The Tragedy of Sophonisba’ in 1729. The latter is best known today for its mention in Samuel Johnson's Lives of the English Poets, where Johnson records that one 'feeble' line of the poem – "O, Sophonisba, Sophonisba, O!" was parodied by the wags of the theatre as, "O, Jemmy Thomson, Jemmy Thomson, O!"
In 1730, he was appointed tutor to the son of Sir Charles Talbot, his patron and also Solicitor-General. Thomson would spend nearly two years with the young man on ‘the grand tour’ of Europe. On his return Talbot graciously arranged for Thomson to become a secretary in chancery, which gave him financial security during until Talbot's death in 1737. Meanwhile, in 1734 Thomson’s major work ‘Liberty’ was published.
In 1740, he collaborated with Mallet on the masque ‘Alfred’ which was first performed at Cliveden, the country home of Frederick, Prince of Wales. Thomson's words for ‘Rule Britannia’, from that masque, and set to music by Thomas Arne, became one of the best-known British patriotic songs. The Prince settled on him a pension of £100 per annum. He also introduced him to George Lyttelton, who became his friend and patron.
In later years, Thomson lived in Richmond upon Thames, and it was there that he wrote his final work ‘The Castle of Indolence’, which was published just before his untimely death on 27th August 1748. Johnson writes on Thomson's death that "by taking cold on the water between London and Kew, he caught a disorder, which, with some careless exasperation, ended in a fever that put end to his life".
He was buried in St. Mary Magdalene church in Richmond.
Publisher: Copyright Group