Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 56.djvu/254

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

pieces, ‘A Poem sacred to the Memory of Isaac Newton,’ with an extravagant dedication to Sir Robert Walpole. Next year the poet changed his publisher, and it was Andrew Millar (1707–1768) [q. v.] who in 1728 issued ‘Spring,’ dedicated to the Countess of Hertford. The first edition of ‘Autumn’ (inscribed to Arthur Onslow) was that which appeared in ‘The Seasons’ (London, 1730, 4to), of which some 454 copies were subscribed for at one guinea, among the subscribers being Arbuthnot, Bolingbroke, Pope, Somerville, Spence, and Young. Prefixed is an engraving after William Kent, the well-known gardener. The copy of this scarce edition in the university library at Edinburgh is that which was pompously crowned by the Earl of Buchan at Ednam on 22 Sept. 1791 [see Erskine, David Steuart, eleventh Earl of Buchan]. ‘Autumn’ was subsequently issued separately (price one shilling) by Millan. The poems sold well in the separate form, and Thomson is said to have reaped over 1,000l. profit from them before he sold the copyright to Millar in 1729 (cf. Morel, pp. 46, 47; Speeches and Arguments before the Court of King's Bench, ‘Millar v. Taylor,’ 1771; Putnam, Copyright, 1896, p. 413). To the subscription volume of the ‘Seasons’ (1730), in addition to the fine ‘Hymn’ (which seems to adumbrate much of the pantheistic philosophy of Wordsworth), was appended a patriotic poem of considerable length, which had passed through two editions during 1729, under the title ‘Britannia, a Poem, written in 1719.’ The last date is a mistake apparently for 1727; ‘the most illustrious of patriots’ (as Walpole had formerly been styled) was now severely rebuked for submitting to the indignities of Spain; it contains a good deal of fustian.

In 1730 Thomson appealed to the public in another literary capacity. On 28 Feb. of that year his first play, ‘Sophonisba,’ was produced at Drury Lane. The curiosity of the public was powerfully roused, and many gentlemen are stated to have sought places in the footmen's gallery (Shiels; cf. Doran, London in Jacobite Times). Mrs. Oldfield was especially fascinating in the title-part, and the piece was played ten times with success during the season. It was a poor imitation of Otway, and there was little opportunity in it for the display of the poet's characteristic excellences; it was nevertheless sold to Millar for 130 guineas, and went through four editions during the year (several translations appeared, a Russian one in 1786). One line of ‘Sophonisba’ at least has defied oblivion. Nat Lee had written ‘O Sophonisba, Oh!’ Thomson expanded the sentiment in the verse

    Oh! Sophonisba, Sophonisba, Oh!

the inanity of which was pointed out, not at the theatre, as has generally been assumed, but in an envious little squib, called ‘A Criticism of the New Sophonisba’ (1730). The quick eye of Fielding soon detected the absurdity, which was paraded in his ‘Tom Thumb the Great,’ the line ‘Oh! Huncamunca, Huncamunca, Oh!’ appearing as a kind of refrain (act i. sc. v.). It is noticeable that the line ‘O Sophonisba, I am wholly thine,’ was not substituted by Thomson until after 1738 (Morel).

In the autumn of 1730 Thomson announced to his friend Mallet that he was going to hang up his harp in the willows. His five years' sojourn in London had been eminently successful, and he was now appointed travelling tutor and companion to Charles Richard Talbot, the son of the future chancellor. In December 1730 he was at Paris. There he saw Voltaire's Brutus, and was amused by the old Roman's declamation on liberty before a French audience. The more he saw of foreign countries the more he became confirmed in the opinion that liberty was the monopoly of Great Britain. At Lyons he met his friendly critic Spence. Thence he proceeded to the Fontaine de Vaucluse (‘the shut valley of Petrarch’), of which he had promised Lady Hertford a poetical description. During his travels he received the high honour of a ‘poetical epistle’ from Pope, but he was probably deemed by the author to have undervalued the distinction, for the best part of the material was subsequently incorporated in the ‘Epistle to Arbuthnot.’ At Rome in November 1731 he was in correspondence with his old patron Lord Binning, who died two years later, and before the end of 1731 he was back again at Ashdown Park in Berkshire. His pupil died on 27 Sept. 1733; but Thomson retained the favour of the father, and he was at the end of the same year appointed to the sinecure office of secretary of briefs with an income of 300l. a year. Such a post brought perfect contentment to Thomson. In May 1736 he moved from a modest apartment in Lancaster Court to a cottage in Kew Foot Lane with a pretty garden, in which he subsequently employed a cousin Andrew as gardener. There he lived for the rest of his life. He was passionately fond of long walks, and among his pilgrimages the most frequent was probably that to Pope's house at Twickenham; he also went frequently to Mallet's