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He then retired to his living, a place very pleasing by its situation, and therefore likely to excite the imagination of a poet; where he passed the rest of his life, reverenced for his virtue, and beloved for the softness of his temper, and the easiness of his manners. Before strangers he had something of the scholar's timidity or distrust; but, when he became familiar, he was, in a very high degree, cheerful and entertaining. His general benevolence procured general respect; and he passed a life placid and honourable, neither too great for the kindness of the low, nor too low for the notice of the great.
At what time he composed his 'Miscellany,' published in 1727, it is not easy or necessary to know: those which have dates appear to have been very early productions; and I have not observed that any rise above mediocrity.
The success of his 'Vida' animated him to a higher undertaking; and in his thirtieth year he published a version of the first book of the 'Eneid.' This being, I suppose, commended by his friends, he some time afterward added three or four more, with an advertisement, in which he represents himself as translating with great indifference, and with a progress of which himself was hardly conscious. This can hardly be true, and, if true, is nothing to the reader.
At last, without any farther contention with his modesty, or any awe of the name of Dryden, he gave us a complete English Æneid,' which I am sorry not to see joined in this publication with his other poems. It would have been pleasing to have an opportunity of comparing the two best translations that perhaps were ever produced by one nation of the same author.
Pitt, engaging as a rival with Dryden, naturally observed his failures, and avoided them; and, as he wrote after Pope's 'Iliad,' he had an example of an exact, equable, and splendid versification. With these advantages, seconded by great diligence, he might successfully labour particular passages and escape many errors. If the two versions are compared, perhaps the result would be, that Dryden leads the reader forward by his general vigour and sprightliness, and Pitt often stops him to contemplate the excellence of a single couplet: that Dryden's faults are forgot in the hurry * It has since been added to the collection.
of delight, and that Pitt's beauties are neglected in the languor of a cold and listless perusal, that Pitt pleases the critics, and Dryden the people; that Pitt is quoted, and Dryden read.
He did not long enjoy the reputation which this great work deservedly conferred; for he left the world in 1748, and lies buried under a stone at Blandford, on which is this inscription:
In Memory of
CHR. PITT, clerk, M. A.
for his talents in poetry;
for the universal candour of
He lived innocent;
Apr. 13. 1748,
JAMES THOMSON, the son of a minister well esteemed for his piety and diligence, was born September 7, 1700, at Ednam, in the shire of Roxburgh, of which his father was pastor. His mother, whose name was Hume,* inherited as coheiress a portion of a small estate. The revenue of a parish in Scotland is seldom large; and it was probably in commiseration of the difficulty with which Mr. Thomson supported his family, having nine children, that Mr. Ric carton, a neighbouring minister, discovering in James uncommon promises of future excellence, undertook to superintend his education and provide him books.
He was taught the common rudiments of learning at the school of Jedburg, a place which he delights to recollect in his poem of Autumn;' but was not considered by his mas ter as superior to common boys, though in those early days he amused his patron and his friends with poetical compositions; with which, however, he so little pleased himself,
His mother's name was Beatrix Trotter. His grandmother's name was Hume.-C
that on every new-year's day he threw into the fire all the productions of the foregoing year.
From the school he was removed to Edinburgh, where he had not resided two years when his father died, and left all his children to the care of their mother, who raised upon her little estate what money a mortgage could afford, and, removing with her family to Edinburgh, lived to see her son rising into eminence.
The design of Thomson's friends was to breed him a minister. He lived at Edinburgh, as at school, without distinction or expectation, till, at the usual time, he performed a probationary exercise by explaining a psalm. His diction was so poetically splendid, that Mr. Hamilton, the Profes sor of Divinity, reproved him for speaking language unintelligible to a popular audience; and he censured one of his expressions as indecent if not profane.
This rebuke is reported to have repressed his thoughts of an ecclesiastical character, and he probably cultivated with new diligence his blossoms of poetry, which, however, were in some danger of a blast; for, submitting his productions to some who thought themselves qualified to criticise, he heard of nothing but faults; but finding other judges more favourable, he did not suffer himself to sink into despondence.
He easily discovered that the only stage on which a poet could appear with any hope of advantage was London; a place too wide for the operation of petty competition and private malignity, where merit might soon become conspicuous, and would find friends as soon as it became reputable to befriend it. A lady who was acquainted with his mother advised him to the journey, and promised some countenance or assistance, which at last he never received; however, he justified his adventure by her encouragement, and came to seek in London patronage and fame.
At his arrival he found his way to Mr. Mallet, then tutor to the sons of the Duke of Montrose. He had recommendations to several persons of consequence, which he had tied up carefully in his handkerchief; but as he passed along the street, with the gaping curiosity of a new-comer, his attention was upon every thing rather than his pocket, and his magazine of credentials was stolen from him.
His first want was a pair of shoes. For the supply of
all his necessities, his whole fund was his Winter,' which for a time could find no purchaser; till, at last, Mr. Millan was persuaded to buy it at a low price; and this low price he had for some time reason to regret; but, by accident, Mr. Whatley, a man not wholly unknown among authors, happening to turn his eye upon it, was so delighted that he ran from place to place celebrating its excellence. Thomson obtained likewise the notice of Aaron Hill, whom, being friendless and indigent, and glad of kindness, he courted with every expression of servile adulation.
'Winter' was dedicated to Sir Spencer Compton, but attracted no regard from him to the author, till Aaron Hill awakened his attention by some verses addressed to Thomson, and published in one of the newspapers, which censured the great for their neglect of ingenious men, Thomson then received a present of twenty guineas, of which he gives this account to Mr. Hill:
'I hinted to you in my last, that on Saturday morning I was with Sir Spencer Compton. A certain gentleman without my desire spoke to him concerning me: his answer was, that I had never come near him. Then the gentleman put the question, If he desired that I should wait on him? He returned, he did. On this, the gentleman gave me an introductory letter to him. He received me in what they commonly call a civil manner; asked me some common-place questions, and made me a present of twenty guineas. I am very ready to own that the present was larger than my performance deserved; and shall ascribe it to his generosity, or any other cause, rather than the merit of the, address.'
The poem, which, being of a new kind, few would venture at first to like, by degrees gained upon the public; and one edition was speedily succeeded by another.
Thomson's credit was now high, and every day brought him new friends; among others Dr. Rundle, a man afterward unfortunately famous, sought his acquaintance, and found his qualities such, that he recommended him to the Lord Chancellor Talbot.
'Winter' was accompanied, in many editions, not only with a preface and dedication, but with poetical praises by Mr. Hill, Mr. Mallet (then Malloch), and Mira, the ficti tious name of a lady once too well-known. Why the dedi
cations are to Winter' and the other Seasons, contrarily to custom, left out in the collected works, the reader may inquire.
The next year (1727) he distinguished himself by three publications: of Summer,' in pursuance of his plan; of ⚫ A Poem on the death of Sir Isaac Newton,' which he was enabled to perform as an exact philosopher by the instruction of Mr. Gray; and of Britannia,' a kind of poetical invective against the ministry, whom the nation then thought not forward enough in resenting the depredations of the Spaniards. By this piece he declared himself an adherent to the opposition, and had therefore no favour to expect from the court.
Thomson, having been some time entertained in the family of the Lord Binning, was desirous of testifying his gratitude by making him the patron of his 'Summer;' but the same kindness which had first disposed Lord Binning to encourage him determined him to refuse the dedication, which was by his advice addressed to Mr. Doddington, a man who had more power to advance the reputation and fortune of a poet.
'Spring' was published next year, with a dedication to the Countess of Hertford; whose practice it was to invite every summer some poet into the country, to hear her verses and assist her studies. This honour was one summer conferred on Thomson, who took more delight in carousing with Lord Hertford and his friends than assisting her ladyship's poetical operations, and therefore never received another summons.
'Autumn,' the season to which the 'Spring' and 'Summer' are preparatory, still remained unsung, and was delayed till he published (1730) his works collected.
He produced in 1727 the tragedy of 'Sophonisba,' which raised such expectation, that every rehearsal was dignified with a splendid audience, collected to anticipate the delight that was preparing for the public. It was observed, however, that nobody was much affected, and that the company rose as from a moral lecture.
It had upon the stage no unusual degree of success. Slight accidents will operate upon the taste of pleasure. There is a feeble line in the play:
O Sophonisba, Sophonisba, O!