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IT is commonly said, that the life of a good writer is best read in his works; which can scarce fail to receive a peculiar tincture from his temper, manners, and habits; the distinguishing character of his mind, his ruling passion, at least, will there appear undisguised. But however just this observation may be, and although we might safely rest Mr. Thomson's fame, as a good man, as well as a man of genius, on this sole. footing; yet the desire which the public always shews of being more particularly acquainted with the history of an eminent author, ought not to be disappointed; as it proceeds not from mere curiosity, but chiefly from affection and gratitude to those by whom they have been entertained and instructed.
To give some account of a deceased friend is often a piece of justice, likewise, which ought not to be refused to his memory ; to prevent or efface the impertinent fictions which officious biographers are so apt to collect and propagate.
And we may add, that the circumstances of an author's life will sometimes throw the best light upon his writings; instances whereof we shall meet with in the following pages.
Mr. Thomson was born at Ednam, in the shire of Roxburgh, on the 11th of September, in the year 1700. His father, minister of that place, was but little know?
bevond the narrow circle of his co-presbyters, and to a few gentlemen in the neighbourhood ; but highly respected by them, for his piety, and his diligence in the pastoral duty, as appeared afterwards in their kind offices to his widow and orphan family.
The Rev. Messrs. Riccarton and Gusthart particularly took a most affectionate and friendly part in all their concerns. The former, a man of most uncommon penetration and good taste, had early discovered, through the rudeness of young Thomson's puerile essays, a fund of genius well deserving culture and encouragement. He undertook, therefore, with the father's approbation, the chief direction of his studies, furnished him with proper books, corrected his performances, and was daiiy rewarded with the pleasure of seeing his labour so happily employed.
Sir William Bennet well known for his gay humour and ready poetical wit, was highly delighted with our young Poet, and used to invite him to pass the summer vacation at his country seat, a scene of life which Mr. Thomson always remembered with particular pleasure: but what he wrote during that time, either to entertain Sir William, or for his own amusement, he desvoyed every new-year's day, committing his little pieces to the flames in their due order, and crowning the solemnity with a copy of verses, in which were humorously recited the several grounds of their condemnation.
After the usual course of school education, under an able master at Jedburg, Mr. Thomson was sent to the University of Edinburg. In his first pieces, the Sea. sons, we see him at once, assume the majestic freedom of an Eastern writer, sei the grand ages as they rise, cloathing them in his own expressive language, and preserving, throughout, the grace, the variety, and the dignity, which belong to a just composition, unhurt by the stiffness of formal method.
About this time the study of poetry was become general in Scotland, the best English authors being universally read, and imitations of them attempted. Addison having lately displayed the beauties of Milton's immortal work, and his Remarks on it, together with Mr. Pope's celebrated Essay, had opened the way to an acquaintance with the best poets and cri. tics.
But the most learned critic is not always the best judge of poetry, taste being a gift of Nature, the want of which Aristotle and Bossu cannot supply, nor even the study of the best originals, when the reader's faculties are not tuned in a certain consonance to those of the poet; and this happened to be the case with cer: tain learned gentlemen into whose hands a few of Mr. Thomson's first Essays had fallen. Some inaccuracies of style, and those luxuriancies which a young writer can hardly avoid, lay open to their cavils and censure: so far, indeed, they might be competent judges, but the fire and enthusiasm of the poet had entirely escaped their notice. Mr. Thomson, however, conscious of his own strength, was not discouraged by this treatment, especially as he had some friends on whose judgment he could better rely, and who thought very differently of his performances.
From that time Mr. Thomson began to turn his views towards London, where works of genius may always expect a candid reception and due encouragement: and an accident soon after entirely determined him to try his fortune there.
The divinity chair at Edinburg was then filled by the reverend and learned Mr. Hamilton, a gentleman universally respected and beloved, and who had particularly endeared himself to the young divines under his care by his kind offices, his candour and affabi.ity. Our author had attended his lectures for about a year, when there was prescribed to him, for the subject of an exercise, a psalm in which the power and majesty of God are celebrated. Of this psalm he gave a para, phrase and illustration, as the nature of the exercise required, but in a style so highly poetical as surprised the whole audience. Mr. Hamilton, as his custom was, complimented the orator upon his performance, and pointed out to the students the most masterly, striking parts of it; but, at last, turning to Mr. Thomson, he told him, smiiing, that if he thought of being useful in the ministry, he must keep a stricter rein upon his imagination, and express himself in language more intelligible to an ordinary congregation.
This gave Mr. Thomson to understand that his ex. pectations from the study of theology might be very precarious; he therefore quitted his situation and went to London.
His merit did not long lie concealed. Mr. Forbes, afterwards Lord President of the Session, then attend. ing the service of Parliament, having seen a specimen of Mr. Thomson's poetry in Scotland, received him very kindly, and recommended him to some of his friends, particularly to Mr. Aikman, who lived in great intimacy with many persons of distinguished rank and worth. This gentleman, from a connoisseur in painting, was become a professed painter; and his taste being no less just and delicate in the kindred art of descriptive poetry than in his own, no wonder that he soon conceived a friendship for our Author. What a warm return he met with, and how Mr. Thompson was affected by his friend's premature death, appears in the copy of verses which he wrote on that occasion.
Our Author's reception wherever he was introduced, emboldened him to risque the publication of his Poem of winter, which was published in March 1726 : it was no.sooner read than universally admired, those only excepted who had not been used to feel or to look for any thing in poetry beyond a point of satirical or epigram