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MR. Thomson was born at Ednam, in the shire of Roxburgh, on the 11th of September, in the year 1700. His father was a minister of that place : A man little known beyond the narrow circle of his co-presbyters, and to a few gentlemen in the neighbourhood ; but justly respected by them for his piety, and his diligence in the pastoral duty. His mother, whose maiden name was Hume, was co-heiress of a small estate in that country : A person of uncommon natural endowments ; possessed of every social and domestic virtue ; with an imagination for vivacity and warmth, scarce inferior to her son's, and which raised her devotional exercises to a pitch bordering on enthusiasm.
Our author received the rudiments of his education at a private school in the town of Jedburgh ; and, in the early part of his life, so far from appearing to possess a sprightly genius, he was considered by his schoolmaster, and those who directed his education, as being without even a common share of parts.
But his merit did not long lie concealed. The reverend Mr. Riccarton, minister of Hobkirk, in the same presbytery, a man of uncommon penetration and good taste, very soon discovered, through the rudeness of
young Thomson's puerile essays, a fund of genius well deserving culture and encouragement's He undertook, therefore, with the father's approbation, the chief direction of his studies, furnished him with the proper books, and corrected his performances/ It is not to be doubted but our young poet greatly improved while under the care of Mr. Riccarton, who, as he was a philosophic man, inspired his mind with a love for the sciences. Nor were the reverend gentleman's endeavours in vain; for Mr. Thomson has shewn in his works, how well he was acquainted with natural and moral philosophy ; a circumstance which, perhaps, is owing to the early impressions he received from Mr. Riccarton. | Sir William Bennet, likewise, well known for his gay humour and ready poetical wit, was highly delighted with Mr. Thomson, and used to invite him to pass the summer vacation at his country seat : a scene of life which our author always remembered with particular pleasure. But what he wrote during that time, either to entertain Sir William and Mr. Riccarton, or for his own amusement, he destroyed 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 humourously recited the several grounds of their condemnation. After spending the usual time at school in the acquisition of the dead languages, Mr. Thomson was removed to the university of Edinburgh. Here, as at the country school, he made no great figure; his companions thought contemptuously of him ; and the master, under whom he studied, had not a higher opinion of our poet's abilities, than the pupils. o In the second year after his admission, his studies were for sometime interrupted by the death of his father ;
who was carried off so suddenly, that it was not possible for Mr. Thomson, with all the diligence he could use, to receive his last blessing. This affected him to an uncommon degree ; and his relations still remember some extraordinary instances of his grief and filial duty on that occasion. Mrs. Thomson, burdened as she was with a family of nine children, did not, however, sink under this misfortune. She consulted with her friend, the Reverend Mr. Gusthart, what was most proper for her to do in her particular situation. This reverend gentleman, one of the ministers of Edinburgh, and senior of the Chapel-Royal, was always extremely serviceable to her in the management of her little affairs. By his advice, having mortgaged her moiety of the farm of which she was co-heiress, she repaired with her family to Edinburgh, where she lived in a decent and frugal manner, while her favourite son was attending his academical courses. After having gone through the several classes of philosophy, Mr. Thomson was entered in the divinity-hall, as one of the candidates for the ministry, where the students, before they are admitted to probationary trials, must give six years’ attendance. The divinity chair 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 affability. 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 paraphrase and illustration, as the nature of the exercise required; but in a style so highly poetical, as surprised the whole audience. Some of his fellow students, envying him the success of this discourse, and the admiration it procured
him, employed their industry to trace him as a plagiary ; for they could not be persuaded, that a youth, seemingly so much removed from the appearance of genius, could compose a declamation, in which learning, genius, and judgment had a very great share. Their search, however, proved fruitless ; and Mr. Thomson continued, while he remained at the university, to possess the honour of that discourse, without any diminution. Mr. Hamilton acted a more noble and friendly part. As his custom was, he complimented the orator upon his performance, and pointed out to the students the most striking parts of it; but at last, turning to Mr. Thomson, he told him, smiling, that if he thought of being useful to 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 expectations from the study of theology might be very precarious, even though the church had been more his free choice than probably it was ; but perhaps he might still have pursued the clerical profession, had not the following accident opened up more extensive views.
About this time Mr. Thomson had written a paraphrase on the 104th Psalm, which, after it had received the approbation of Mr. Riccarton, he permitted his friends to copy. By some means or other, this paraphrase fell into the hands of Mr. Auditor Benson, who, expressing his admiration of it, said he doubted not that if the author was in London, he would meet with encouragement equal to his merit. This observation of Benson was communicated to Thomson by a letter, probably from a lady of quality, a friend of his mother, then in London ; and, no doubt, had its natural influence in inflaming his heart, and hastening his journey to the metropolis. a