James Thomson was born in Ednam, near Kelso in the Scottish Borders, the son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister. Soon after James’s birth the family moved to Southdean, near Hawick when James’s father was appointed to a new parish. At the age of eleven he attended the grammar school in Jedburgh and from there went on to Edinburgh University. Whilst at school he had been encouraged by his father and literary family friends to write poetry.
After completing his course in !719 he chose not to graduate but instead entered Divinity Hall to become a minister.on a four year bursary. After his father died in 1716 his mother was obliged to leave the manse and moved to Edinburgh. She died in 1725. Whilst at university he published some poems and made friends with fellow poet David Malloch (who later anglicised his surname to Mallet). In 1727 he followed him to London where he got a job as tutor to the son of Charles Hamilton, Lord Binning. He was never to set foot in Scotland again.
In 1726 the first poem, Winter, of his masterpiece, Seasons, was published, followed by Summer a year later, Spring in 1728 and Autumn in 1730, the year in which he became tutor to the son of Sir Charles Talbot, the Solicitor General. He spent the next two years touring Europe with Talbot’s son and on his return, having been found a position by Talbot as secretary in the Court of Chancery, began work on the poem Liberty, a monologue in five parts narrated by the Goddess of Liberty, which was published in 1734.
His later works include The Castle of Indolence, an allegory written in Spencerian stanzas, and a masque, Alfred, in honour of Frederick, Prince of Wales, which he produced in collaboration with David Mallet. This includes the well-known Rule Britannia which was later set to music. This led to his receiving a pension of £100 a year and the Prince introducing him to Lord Lyttleton, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who became his patron. He also wrote two plays, Tancred and Sigismunda and Coriolanus.
James Thomson died a bachelor in 1748 after catching a chill which turned into a fever. His poetry covered a wide range of themes and included elegies and odes, many on the subject of nature. He is one of the sixteen poets whose names appear on the Scott Memorial in Edinburgh and there is also a memorial to him in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey.