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WHEN publishing, last year, the first collected edition of the poems of James Thomson, I expressed a hope that it might soon be followed by a collection of his prose writings. I hoped then that there would have been a somewhat more general welcome accorded to the poems than has proved to be the case, for though the zeal of Thomson's admirers leaves nothing to be desired, it must yet be confessed that their number is at present rather limited. It is, moreover, rather unfortunate that to the general public he is still known almost exclusively as the author of "The City of Dreadful Night,” so that it is difficult to gain a hearing for him except as a poet, notwithstanding the remarkable excellence of his prose writings. It is the desire, however, of his publishers to issue a collected edition of his prose works which shall comprise all that seems to be of permanent value in his remains. Such an edition, if carried out as intended, will extend to four volumes of original matter, and another containing his translations from Leopardi and Novalis. The book now issued is intended to form the first volume of the proposed collection. But it must be understood that it will depend upon the reception of the present volume whether the publication of the remainder is proceeded with. The publishers, who, sixteen years ago, gave Thomson his first chance of appealing to the book-buying public, are anxious to see their work crowned during their lifetimes by a definitive edition of his works; but if it should prove that there is no corresponding desire on the part of the reading public for such an edition, they can hardly be censured if they do not proceed with their enterprise. If not now, the work will some day be accomplished; and it will matter little, so the work be done, by whom it is carried to completion.
The contents of the present volume consist chiefly of writings which have not hitherto been collected. The only articles included here which have previously appeared in book-form are the essays on “The Poetry of William Blake” and on Shelley. I have included these, not only because I think they show Thomson at his best as a critic, but also because I was anxious to bracket them and the article on Garth Wilkinson (“A Strange Book”) together. The three essays, though written at wide intervals of time, will be found to be linked together, not only because they deal with the fundamental questions of poetical criticism, but because they unfold with a fair degree of completeness the views of a true poet upon the methods and
aims of his art. It will be well, however, to remember that the essay on Shelley was written when the author was still in his early manhood, and it may therefore require some slight allowance to be made on that account.* But the essays, taken together, are not more remarkable for their eloquent expression than for their entire sanity of judgment and sureness of appreciation of the distinctive qualities of the three poets, so like in some respects, and yet so entirely different in others. The article on Garth Wilkinson will be found to be of peculiar interest, since it is, so far as I know, the only article dealing with that remarkable writer which is in any degree adequate or satisfactory.
As to the other contents of this volume, it will be well for the reader to bear in mind that the articles on Rabelais, Saint-Amant, Ben Jonson, John Wilson, and James Hogg, are reprinted from Cope's Tobacco Plant. This will account for the rather frequent references in those articles to the subjects which would naturally interest the readers of that periodical. Almost one-half of the article on Ben Jonson, indeed, is devoted to the references in that author's writings to the practices of smoking and snuff-taking. Possibly this portion of the essay might have been omitted
* Thomson would not in later life have spoken of Carlyle's “French Revolution" as "the unapproached model of history," nor would he have spoken in quite such enthusiastic terms of Ruskin and Emerson as he employs in this early essay.
without much loss; but looking at the curiosity of the subject, and its illustrations of Jonson's character and manner of workmanship, I was very unwilling to sacrifice it. All smokers will be interested by it; and as they far out-number (amongst the male sex, at the least) non-smokers, I need make no further apology for its retention
I have experienced no small degree of pleasure in editing this volume; and now that my task is completed, I feel assured that the book is one which will receive a warm welcome from its fit audience—few or many, as the case may be. So much good English, good sense, good criticism, and keen thinking is not often to be found within the covers of a single book. I will not assert that it contains Thomson's finest work in prose; for, no doubt, the volume called “Essays and Phantasies,” which was published during his lifetime, is his greatest achievement outside his verse. Nevertheless, it contains some things as fine as he ever accomplished; and if here and there a suspicion may arise that some passages were not so much the outcome of the author's peculiar temperament as of the struggle for subsistence, the candid and generous critic will hasten to make the proper allowances for them. But such passages are, after all, very few; and Thomson's task-work, however distasteful it may have been to him, was always honestly and conscientiously performed.
I have already enumerated the articles in this volume which appeared originally in Cope's Tobacco Plant. As for the rest, the articles on Shelley (with the exception of the review of Symonds” “Life of Shelley," which appeared in Cope) and on William Blake first appeared in the National Reformer; the “Notes on the Genius of Robert Browning” in the Transactions of the Browning Society, Part I.; the article on “The Ring and the Book” in the Gentleman's Magazine; and the notice of “Pacchiarotto” in the Secularist. I have to thank the editors or proprietors of these various papers and periodicals for the permission kindly given to reproduce the various articles.