The Seasons is arguably the most important long poem of the eighteenth century. Expansive in scale, ambitious in scope, it is the one poem written in the century following Paradise Lost that can lay genuine claim to epic status. During the first three decades of the eighteenth century admiration for Milton's great epic had become widespread. Addison's Spectator essays on Paradise Lost had rehabilitated the republican Milton for "polite" audiences, and critical writings by a sequence of Whig authors such as John Dennis and Sir Richard Blackmore had affirmed Milton as the greatest and most sublime of modern poets. Yet serious attempts at the blank verse epic were few and far between. Blackmore's efforts to appropriate Miltonic blank verse for his politicized historical epics such as Prince Arthur and Eliza were greeted with admiration by some but mockery by many. Pope and Arbuthnot's mock-critical treatise Peri Bathous; Or the Art of Sinking in Poetry (1728) represented the culmination of a new trend for the "mock-Miltonic" which teetered on the precarious boundary between sublimity and bathos. The humor of John Philips's influential pastiche The Splendid Shilling (first published in 1701) hinged on the application of a faux-Miltonic style to such pedestrian matters as a gaping hole in the poet's trousers:
An horrid Chasm disclose, with Orifice Wide, Discontinuous; at which the Winds Eurus and Auster, and the dreadful Force Of Boreas, that congeals the Cronian Waves, Tumultuous enter with dire chilling Blasts, Portending Agues. Thus a well-fraught Ship, Long sail'd secure, or thro' th'^gean Deep, Or the Ionian, 'till Cruising near The Lilybean Shoar, with hideous Crush On Scylla, or Charybdis (dang'rous Rocks) She strikes rebounding, whence the shatter'd Oak, So fierce a Shock unable to withstand,
Admits the Sea; in at the gaping Side The crouding Waves Gush with impetuous Rage, Resistless, Overwhelming; Horrors seize The Mariners . . .
Philips exploits the opportunity to rehearse the Miltonic grand mode without seriously committing himself to it. A quarter of a century later, Thomson reclaimed the Miltonic high ground with the first version of "Winter" (January 1726). Thomson's account of seasonal severity crescendos to a peak in describing a winter storm at sea:
Prone, on th'uncertain Main, Descends th'Etherial Force, and plows its Waves With dreadful Rift: from the mid-Deep, appears, Surge after Surge, the rising, wat'ry, War. Whitening, the angry Billows rowl immense, And roar their Terrors, thro' the shuddering Soul Of feeble Man, amidst their Fury caught.
And hark! — the length'ning Roar, continuous, runs Athwart the rifted Main; at once, it bursts, And piles a thousand Mountains to the Clouds! Ill fares the bark, the Wretches' last Resort, That, lost amid the floating Fragments, moors Beneath the Shelter of an Icy Isle; While Night o'erwhelms the Sea, and Horror looks More horrible.
("Winter" , ll. 163—70, 334—41)
Both Philips and Thomson display a fondness for the adjectival sublime — "terrors," "horrid," "horror," "horrible," "dreadful," "immense," "overwhelming." But whereas Philips's poem exploits the gap between low subject matter and high style to satirize poets who generate a sonorous epic "sound" without having the epic conceptions necessary to justify it [see ch. 26, "Epic and Mock-Heroic"], Thomson's The Seasons is founded on a grand epic conception. In the words of Martin Price, it is a "visionary history without a hero — the hero being Providence working through the forces of Nature" (Price 1964: 357). The Seasons is a paean to the wonder, terror, beauty, and unfathomable mystery of the natural world; but it is also a tough theodicy which attempts to "justify the ways of God to men" by arguing for a benevolent deity and a harmonious universe whose order is only rarely visible to suffering mankind. Although The Seasons draws heavily on other modes and genres, especially the Virgilian georgic [see ch. 29, "The Georgic"], this epic intent was present even in the earliest version of "Winter." Although Thomson had initially expressed diffidence to his friend William Cranstoun about the piece he was writing
("tis ten to one but I drop it when e'er another fancy comes cross") his latent sense of poetic vocation emerges in the poem's Miltonic emphasis on chastity, purity, and election: preconditions for the high calling of the poet (Thomson 1958:17). Just as Milton in the opening lines of Paradise Lost had offered himself to the Holy Spirit "that dost prefer / Before all Temples th' upright heart and pure," so Thomson in the opening of "Winter" emphasized his youthful chastity: "Trod the pure, virgin, Snows, my self as pure" ("Winter" , l. 11). In The Prelude, that other great appropriation of Miltonic epic, Wordsworth also avowed his purity: "If in my youth I have been pure in heart . . . and have liv'd / With God and Nature communing"
"Winter" may have entered the world as a comparatively short (405-line) poem, but in the second edition, which appeared only three months later, Thomson declared his seriousness and ambition to the world in a justly famous preface. The preface to the April 1726 "Winter" was effectively a "Defense of Poetry" for the 1720s, ringing with the reformist rhetoric which Thomson had imbibed from his friendships with the Whig critic John Dennis and the poet and literary patron Aaron Hill [see chs. 5, "Poetic Enthusiasm," and 37, "The Sublime"]. Thomson voiced his impatience with the "little, glittering Prettinesses; mixed Turns of Wit" that he thought characterized Augustan social verse, and demanded that Poetry "be restored to her antient Truth, and Purity." He wanted poetry to exchange its trivial subject matter for subjects that were "fair, useful, and magnificent," and anticipated a time when poets would once again become "the Delight and Wonder, of Mankind." Thomson's conception of the poet drew on the twin roles of priest-prophet and legislator, images derived from Milton and from the biblical prophets, who were at this time being hailed as poets in their own right. Thomson's self-declared poetic legacy runs from "Moses down to Milton." Yet although the early "Winter" is a devotional poem that accords with the vogue for the mode of religious sublime championed by Dennis and by Hill and his circle, Thomson declares, unusually, that his central subject will be "the Works of Nature." "Where can we meet with such Variety, such Beauty, such Magnificence? All that enlarges, and transports, the Soul" (Thomson 1981: 303-7). This declaration in itself marks a radical departure from contemporary poetry that described the works of nature, often from a scientific perspective, to illustrate God's divine power. It is primarily as a poem about Nature that The Seasons won its enduring popularity.
By the time Thomson published "Summer" the following year (1727), he had already begun to incorporate into his poem a wider range of subjects and elements: interpolated narratives, set descriptive "prospect" pieces, geographical excursions to torrid zones, scientific analysis, and political and social comment. This very eclecticism, an eclecticism shared by other long eighteenth-century poems inspired by Virgil's Georgics, is intrinsic to an appreciation of The Seasons' complex and multifocal vision. But the original January 1726 "Winter," which confines itself almost entirely to native landscapes and is essentially descriptive and meditative in character, has an independent literary significance which merits recognition.
Over the past twenty years, anthologies of and critical works on early eighteenth-century poetry have qualified traditional conceptions of a dominant "Augustan" mode concerned primarily with social manners and mores, politics and the town. Charles Peake's influential anthology Poetry of Landscape and of the Night (1967) introduced many students of the 1970s and early 1980s (including the present author) to a different kind of eighteenth-century poetic — meditative, descriptive, melancholic, and subjective. Poems such as Anne Finch's "A Nocturnal Rêverie" (1713), Pope's "Eloisa to Abelard" (1717), Parnell's "A Night-Piece on Death" (1722), or Aaron Hill's "Whitehall Stairs" (1721) differ markedly from the public spaces and "nature methodised" of the Tory-inspired loco-descriptive tradition exemplified by Sir John Denham's Cooper's Hill, Waller's St James's Park, and Pope's Windsor-Forest. David Fairer has recently defined this as a distinctive "romantic" mode characteristic of the period 1700—30, influenced in part by Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In such poems the self-aware subject dissolves the boundaries between the outer and the inner worlds and the landscape registers an intense subjectivity (Fairer 2003: 102—21). The earliest version of "Winter" embodies this "romantic" mode. In a letter to Cranstoun written while composing the poem, Thomson imagines his friend in the poetic landscape, "seized with a fine romantic kind of a melancholy . . . wandering philosophical, and pensive, amidst the brown, wither'd groves" (Thomson 1958: 17). There are echoes throughout "Winter" of Milton's "Il Penseroso." Landscape mirrors states of mind — the chiasmus of "trod the pure, virgin, Snows myself as pure" is almost an extension of Marvell's "green thought in a green shade." The circling motions of the wasps around the poet's head, their departure and return, function as a half-formed metaphor for the poet's thoughts in contemplation of the landscape, circling and finally ascending hesitatingly to loftier heights of poetic rapture along with the wheeling and departing woodcocks.
. . . the well-poised Hornet, hovering, hangs, With quivering Pinions, in the genial Blaze; Flys off, in airy Circles: then returns, And hums, and dances, to the beating Ray: Nor shall the Man, that, musing, walks alone, And, heedless, strays within his radiant Lists, Go unchastis'd away.
Then list'ning Hares forsake the rusling Woods And, starting at the frequent Noise, escape To the rough Stubble, and the rushy Fen. Then Woodcocks, o'er the fluctuating Main, That glimmers to the Glimpses of the Moon, Stretch their long Voyage to the woodland Glade: Where, wheeling with uncertain Flight, they mock The nimble Fowler's aim.
There is a delicacy and fluidity in Thomson's evocation of mood and movement which recall Finch's "Nocturnal Rêverie." Yet even in this early version Thomson, a former student and instructor of natural philosophy (what we would call science) at Edinburgh University, saw nature not merely as a mirror of mind, but as a world charged with the mystery and grandeur of objectively registered scientific process. Thomson includes a description of autumnal fogs, illustrating how the sun's rays "draw" vapor which is then condensed by the coolness of the evening:
. . . humid Evening, gliding o'er the Sky, In her chill Progress, checks the straggling Beams, And robs them of their gather'd, vapoury, Prey, Where Marches stagnate, and where Rivers wind, Cluster the rolling Fogs, and swim along The dusky-mantled Lawn: then slow descend, Once more to mingle with their Watry Friends.
Yet the description is not prosaic. The italicized "Evening," "Fogs," and "Watry Friends" suggest animation, if not personification — with an effect different from that of the more conventional Augustan personifications subsequently used by Thomson, such as "The Power of Cultivation" and "Industry." Verbs such as "straggling" and "swim" imply a process carried out in the realms of animal life: "humid Evening' becomes a maternal figure who "checks" or controls her "straggling" brood and taken from them the "Prey" they have picked up on their wanderings.
As The Seasons expanded it became a far more overtly scientific poem. Thomson was profoundly influenced by Isaac Newton's discoveries, particularly the Principia (1687), which explained the gravitational pull on planets and comets, and the Opticks (1704), with its explanation of the behavior and content of light. The Principia supplied the world and the universe with an organizing principle: the laws of gravity permeated both the microscopically small and the unfathomably immense. Thomson's "To the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton" (1727) hailed Newton as a hero, and in "Summer" the same year he included an account of Newton's theories of gravitation and projection, the description of the refraction of light from the Opticks, descriptions of the aurora borealis, and praise of the great scientific figures Newton, Boyle, and Bacon. For Thomson, knowledge of the physical laws that created the optical effect of the rainbow made it more, not less, beautiful.
Thomson's interest in science extended beyond astronomy and physics into "earth sciences" such as botany, geology, and mineralogy. The "world beneath the world" fascinated him — the origins of gemstones, the structure of caves and mountains, the sources of rivers. In 1730 he added a remarkable passage to "Autumn" on theories of percolation and the origins of rivers (a hard subject for a poetic tour de force) which conveys the author's excitement with geological process (Spacks 1967: 34—5). Thomson shares his fascination in science with other scientific poets of the period, collectively sometimes known as "physico-theological poets." Poems such as
John Reynolds's Death's Vision (1709), Blackmore's Creation (1712), Richard Collins's Nature Display'd (1727), and Brooke's Universal Beauty (1735) extolled the wonders of God's natural world and man's intellectual superiority (epitomized by Newton) in finding the key to God's wisdom. Yet Thomson differs from these poets in significant ways. Whereas Brooke, Collins, and Blackmore exalt Nature as a "grand machine," and God as a "great master mechanic," Thomson rarely conceptualizes nature in mechanistic terms, in 1744 finally deleting The Seasons' single reference to the universe as a "vast Machine" (Thomson 1981: 61). Thomson would almost certainly have appreciated Pope's ridicule in Peri Bathous of Blackmore's attribution to the deity of the metaphoric roles of divine weaver, architect, and builder (Gerrard 2005: 218—19). Whereas John Reynolds locates the mysteries of precipitation in "Heaven's shops . . . and workhouses," with their "tight mills," "cool alembic," "lathe," and "loom," Thomson as a scientific writer reveals a world silently animate with the subtle mystery of creation. Nothing in The Seasons is static. Every natural process, from a summer storm to the creation of frost to the making of rivers, is depicted as a tension, charged with energy, between competing elements. Patricia Spacks's masterly account of the frost passage in "Winter," ll. 714—59, "What art thou Frost?," shows how it hinges on the conflict between the "energy which produces stasis and that which maintains motion" (Spacks 1967: 39). The process of freezing is dramatized as a struggle between the flowing water and the force that seeks to capture it, the frost which "arrests the bickering Stream" until, "seiz'd from Shore to Shore, / The whole imprison'd River growls below." The tension is created by Thomson's use of dynamic verbs — "seiz'd," "growls," "arrests," "shakes."
Thomson alone among the physico-theological poets manages to convey the excitement of science and the exuberance of the natural world. We can almost hear the hushed, rhapsodic tones of a David Bellamy in Thomson's account of the botanist in search of his prize:
Then spring the living Herbs, profusely wild, O'er all the deep-green Earth, beyond the Power Of Botanist to number up their Tribes: Whether he steals along the lonely Dale, In silent Search; or thro' the Forest, rank With what the dull Incurious Weeds account, Bursts his blind Way; or climbs the Mountain-Rock, Fir'd by the nodding Verdure of its Brow.
"Fir'd" captures the sense of excitement; the alliterative "Bursts his blind Way" the sheer impenetrability of the natural world. No matter how hard man searches, nature's plenitude and variety will always overwhelm the human intellectual desire to collect, categorize, and classify. And it is this sense of plenitude, of nature pressing almost unbearably on the senses, which characterizes Thomson's treatment of the natural world in The Seasons. In "Spring" the catalogue of spring flowers, beautifully individuated by texture and hue ("The yellow Wall-Flower, stain'd with iron Brown," "Auriculas, enrich'd / With shining Meal o'er all their velvet Leaves") piles up into a crescendo of colors and shapes that "break / On the charm'd Eye" (the italicized "break" seems epiphanic). There are "Infinite Numbers, Delicacies, Smells, / With Hues on Hues Expression cannot paint, / The Breath of Nature and her endless Bloom" ("Spring," ll. 553-5). In a passage in "Summer" (ll. 287-317) influenced by Fontenelle's theory of the plurality of worlds via Spectator, no. 519 - the innumerable microscopic worlds that might exist within the "blue" or "sheen" of a plum - Thomson uncharacteristically depicts the limitations of man's senses as a blessing in disguise. Could man see the "Millions of unseen People" and "nameless Nations" hovering round his porridge bowl, he would "abhorrent turn; and in dead Night, / When Silence sleeps o'er all, be stun'd with Noise." There is more going on in nature than can ever meet the eye, be heard by the ear, or declared by the tongue. Thomson more frequently sees the limitations of the receptive and expressive powers of man as a source of frustration. Words fail as Thomson resorts to synaesthesia to express the inexpressible.
Ah what shall Language do? Ah where find Words Ting'd with so many Colours; and whose Power, To Life approaching, may perfume my Lays With that fine Oil, those aromatic Gales That inexhaustive flow continual round?
Often Thomson invites us to "see" things that are not visible to the naked eye, processes either microscopic or concealed. "See, where the winding Vale its lavish Stores, / Irriguous, spreads. See, how the Lily drinks / The latent Rill, scare oozing thro' the Grass" ("Spring," ll. 494-6). Or how each "attractive Plant . . . sucks, and swells / The juicy Tide; a twining Mass of Tubes." For all its limitations, however, language has the potential for precision and exactitude: Thomson's Latinate words such as "detruded" and "irriguous" are drawn, as Sambrook notes, from the regular, exact vocabulary of scientific writing (Thomson 1981: xxi). Words used metaphorically even in Thomson's time, such as "attractive," "latent," and "lucid," have for Thomson a precise scientific meaning. Nor is Thomson afraid of being deliberately "unpoetic" - the "twining Mass of Tubes" as a description of plant stems is strikingly unconventional.
The isolated botanist who "Bursts his blind Way" through the forest is mirrored in numerous other (less scientific) human figures overshadowed by nature's immensity. Despite The Seasons' indebtedness to Virgil's Georgics, with its emphasis on an earth which welcomes human interaction in a symbiosis of nature and nurture, Thomson's The Seasons shares something of the arch-atheist Lucretius' sense in De Rerum Natura of nature's formidable violence and unpredictability. All too often Thomson's man on the landscape looks like a tiny Lilliputian perched precariously on the bosom of an indifferent if not downright hostile Gulliver (Swift, like Thomson, was influenced by the challenges to perspective offered by both telescope and microscope). Admittedly, Thomson at times shares the optimism of the physico-theological poets in exalting both the discoveries of Newtonian science and man's capacity to understand the operations of the world that surrounds him. "Man superior walks / Amid the glad Creation, musing Praise, / And looking lively Gratitude" ("Spring," ll. 170—1). Yet Thomson (unlike Brooke and Blackmore) is drawn almost obsessively to apocalyptic scenes of natural devastation that sweep away the works of men as if they themselves were "but the Beings of a Summer's Day" ("Spring," l. 61). Just as the "quivering Nations" [insects] sport in the sun until "Fierce Winter sweeps them from the Face of Day," so too mankind flutters on "From Toy to Toy, from Vanity to Vice; / Till, blown away by Death, Oblivion comes / Behind, and strikes them from the Book of Life" ("Summer," ll. 342—51). There is a biblical cadence to this familiar conceit, a recollection of vanitatis mundi which betrays the origins of the original "Winter" in the religious sublime movement championed by Dennis, Hill, Young, and Mallet (Thomson's immediate literary friends) as well as an earlier generation of devotional poets such as Isaac Watts [see ch. 4, "Poetry and Religion"]. Biblical paraphrases, particularly of the Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Job, were popular, and it is no accident that Thomson's early preface to "Winter" exalts the Book of Job as "that noble, and antient, Poem, which, even, strikes so forcibly thro' a mangling Translation, [and] is crowned with a Description of the grand Works of Nature" (Thomson 1981: 305). In the second edition of "Winter" Thomson added one of the age's favorite instances of Old Testament sublimity from Psalm 104, the image of God walking on the wings of the wind — a passage that had previously influenced Addison's Whig heroic poem The Campaign [see ch. 32, "Whig and Tory Poetics"]. In the first version of "Spring" Thomson had included a description of the Deluge as a punishment for man's sin, and a paean to a thunderbolt-throwing Old Testament-style Jehovah who "takes the solid Earth, / And rocks the Nations," as well as an account of an atheist seeking shelter in a cave from God's wrath until "entering just the Cave, / The Messenger of Justice glancing, comes, / With swifter sweep. Behind, and trips his Heel" (Thomson 1981: 291).
However, as The Seasons evolved Thomson gradually removed the sense of divine agency behind such cataclysmic events as storms, deluges, and typhoons, while at the same time increasing their prominence within his poem. In this tendency he was reflecting the growing eighteenth-century interest in the sublime as a secular aesthetic rather than as a spur to religious devotion. Mankind's attempt to grasp that which is too vast and too painful to comprehend causes the frisson of pleasure which Thomson defines in an early letter to David Mallet on the sandstorm scene in Mallet's geological apocalyptic poem The Excursion. "I am not only chill'd, but shiver at the Sight" (Thomson 1958: 49). The effect of such overwhelming scenes of human suffering in the face of apparently random acts of destruction is complex. Tim Fulford has persuasively argued that such passages, embodying what Shaun Irlam in this volume usefully calls "the sacrificial sublime" [see ch. 37, "The Sublime"], always focus on victims of lower social status — unindividuated "swains," the poor and innocent (Fulford 1996:
22-8). As Jennifer Keith shows (ch. 9, "Poetry, Sentiment, and Sensibility"), part of what has been seen to corrupt the literature of sensibility is the way it directs the reader to gaze upon, and therefore objectify, the sufferer: a "theatrics of virtue" which invites readers to participate covertly in a submerged sadism. The famous scene in "Winter" of the shepherd lost in the snowstorm shows Thomson exploiting the subject for maximum pathos:
In vain for him th'officious Wife prepares The Fire fair-blazing and the Vestment warm; In vain his little Children, peeping out Into the mingling Storm, demand their Sire, With Tears of artless Innocence. Alas! Nor Wife, nor Children, more shall he behold, Nor Friends, nor sacred Home.
The passage stirs the emotions of pity and pathos: powerful feeling displaces the need to act, and thus, argues Fulford, "No specific remedies for the rural poverty that made shepherds more vulnerable to natural disaster than gentlemen are offered" (Fulford 1996: 25). As such, passages like those describing the snowstorm or the lightning bolt — which inexplicably strikes not the rich and powerful in their country houses but the rural laborers out in the fields gathering the harvest - reinforce the class hierarchies of Thomson's vision of Britain.
The episode of Celadon and Amelia in "Summer" (ll. 1169—1222) is obviously modeled on the story of the two rustic lovers John Hewit and Sarah Drew, struck dead at Stanton Harcourt in July 1718, an episode which Pope himself had already commemorated in an unusually (for him) sentimental epitaph of that year. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's tart response to such literary sentimentalizing ("Now they are happy in their Doom / For P. has wrote upon their Tomb") exposes the self-serving nature of such representations of rural suffering (Montagu 1977: 216). Yet Thomson's "victims" are not merely poor shepherds or ignorant rustics. All those whose occupations expose them to the forces of nature — this includes sailors, explorers, scientists, and merchants — become vulnerable to such devastation. Rather than enabling the reader to enjoy a comfortable displacement of responsibility, such scenes in fact remain disturbing and inexplicable, reminders of a world in which the "smiling God" ("Spring," l. 862) is rarely present, perhaps even a deus absconditus. If Thomson's The Seasons belongs to a tradition of theological poems arguing for the presence of a providential deity, then it would be hard to imagine a poet who so insistently presses the question which perplexes even the best of Christians: "Why does God allow the innocent to suffer?" In this respect The Seasons speaks in a curiously modern way to a twenty-first-century audience whose access to global media coverage exposes them to the tragic consequences of natural disasters such as the tsunami of December 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Thomson's "Nature," indifferent to its victims, is unpredictable and terrifying. If Thomson objectifies its victims, it is in their final transformation at the end of such passages into mute monuments, silently asking the endless question "Why?"
But who can paint the Lover, as he stood, Pierc'd by severe Amazement, hating Life, Speechless, and fix'd in all the Death of Woe! So, faint Resemblance, on the Marble-Tomb, The well-dissembled Mourner stooping stands, For ever silent and for ever sad.
Similarly "frozen" or marmoreal figures recur throughout The Seasons — the inhabitants of a north African city petrified by a sandstorm, the pilot frozen to the helm, the "blank Assistants" in "sad Presage" on the plague ship in "Summer" — testament to Thomson's concern with emblems and memorials of human suffering.
The rural subjects represented in The Seasons were far from accusing Thomson of social quietism and moral complacency. Coleridge famously proclaimed "true fame" for Thomson on finding a copy of The Seasons in a remote rural cottage; and, as John Strachan shows, it was to poets in the "self-taught" tradition, such as John Clare and Robert Bloomfield, that Thomson spoke uniquely (Strachan 2000). The enduring popularity of The Seasons among literate rural people derived in large part from his representations of the hardships and pleasures of their lives. Thomson's social connections during the 1730s with the "cousinhood" — the aristocratic Whig family of the Cobhams and Lytteltons (George Lyttelton was his patron) may have placed him in contact with a wealthy governing elite. Yet this did not permit complacency. During the 1730s the Cobhams and the Lytteltons were themselves out of office, vocal opponents of the Walpole administration. If Thomson's eulogistic paean to George Lyttelton and his wife Lucy at home in the paradisal gardens of Hagley Hall ("Spring," ll. 904—62) smacks of a Country Life feature, Thomson nevertheless praises Lyttelton for his crusading mission, planning with "honest Zeal unwarped by Party-Rage, / Britannia's Weal; how from the venal Gulph / To raise her Virtue, and her Arts revive." Thomson's Whiggism was reformist as well as oppositional in nature. In "Winter" (ll. 359—88) he praises the work of the Jail Committee, appointed in 1729 to investigate allegations of torture in English prisons. The committee was composed primarily of members of the opposition to Walpole, and it is to this "Patriot" cause that Thomson committed himself for the majority of his literary career (Gerrard 1994). Appearing on the literary scene in London in the mid-1720s, just as the opposition to Walpole was beginning to emerge as an active threat to the ministry, Thomson threw his energies into this campaign: Britannia of 1729 was his first outspoken condemnation of Walpole's pacific foreign policy. Other subsequent works, such as Liberty (1735—6), the Patriot drama Edward and Eleanora (the first play to be banned by Walpole's Stage Licensing Act of 1737), and Alfred (1740) with its famous lyric "Rule Britannia," share with The Seasons a sense of patriotism under threat. James Thomson as an "Anglo-Scot" joked to his fellow Scot David Mallet in the summer of 1726 (while composing "Summer") that his new drafts "contain a Panegyric on Brittain, which may perhaps contribute to make my Poem popular. The English People are not a little vain of Themselves, and their Country. Brittania too includes our native Country, Scotland" (Thomson 1958: 48). While other Scots felt less comfortable at submerging their sense of national identity within Hanoverian Britain after the Act of Union [see ch. 41, "Poetry B eyond the E nglish B orders"], Thomson as a lowland Scot seems to have embraced this sense of British patriotism fully (Carruthers 2000).
The Seasons, oscillating between an optimistic vision of Britain crowned by London - the world center of commerce, industry, arts, and empire - and a pessimistic view of Britain as a nation in terminal decline captures as well as any oppositional poem of the 1730s the tensions and ambivalence inherent in most poets' view of Walpole's Britain. Only paid poets of the administration (and this included Thomson's friend Edward Young) could offer a confidently untroubled view of Britain's greatness. Such contradictions emerge most clearly in the final vision of Thomson's Liberty, where the goddess warns of imminent collapse unless Britons remains politically vigilant, ready to safeguard their ancient tradition of freedom. Within the looser fabric of The Seasons such moments of confident affirmation or of pessimistic prophecy remain disconnected, unqualified by the preceding passages, giving the poem at times a curiously self-contradictory, almost schizophrenic feeling. Hence lines 43-150 of "Autumn" contain an unqualified paean to Industry, claiming that the nurturing powers of work and civilization lead to the city, "Nurse of Arts," and that apotheosis of political liberty, the British parliaments: yet "Autumn" lines 1277 onwards beats a retreat from the corruptions of city life, with its fraud and rapacity (including the spoils of trade and colonial conquest), and extols instead the simple country life.
As Thomson expanded the poem over the course of a literary lifetime, he incorporated increasingly diverse material which lent itself to such contrasts. Yet the poem's internal contradictions are too obvious to be accidental. They reflect the essentially self-contradictory nature of the world in which the adult Thomson lived. While one shepherd is starving in the snow, another is enjoying a cosy evening by the fireside with his friends and family. While one nation rises to fame and prosperity, another declines into decadence, corruption, and eventual poverty. The tonal range of the poem is similarly varied: it incorporates moments of Miltonic high seriousness and lofty vision, moments of mock-heroic ("Autumn" ' s witty portrait of drunken rural squires recalls Thomson's youthful mock-Miltonic lines on venereal disease), public panegyric, private meditation, closely observed natural description, and exotic travelogue. The Seasons is a work of enormous energy and exuberance, and its capaciousness is a hallmark of the eighteenth-century long poem. William Wordsworth, himself profoundly inspired by Thomson, found it hard to reconcile Thomson's undisputed greatness with his equally undisputed popularity. Thomson reached out to a wider audience than any of his poetic contemporaries: unlike Pope's satires of the 1730s, The Seasons did not require detailed knowledge of London political life, its personalities and its disputes. Though twenty-first-century readers may prefer the wry ironies of a
Pope, Swift, or Montagu, or the more nuanced rural scenes of Anne Finch or Thomas Gray, it is no accident that The Seasons remained the most widely read and widely sold poem of the eighteenth century.
See also chs. 1, "Poetry, Politics, and the Rise of Party"; 2, "Poetry, Politics, and Empire"; 3, "Poetry and Science"; 4, "Poetry and Religion"; 5, "Poetic Enthusiasm"; 6, "Poetry and the Visual Arts"; 29, "The Georgic"; 32, "Whig and Tory Poetics"; 37, "The Sublime."
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Carruthers, Gerard (2000). "James Thomson and Eighteenth-Century Scottish Literary Identity." In Richard Terry (ed.), James Thomson: Essays for the Tercentenary, 165—90. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
Cohen, Ralph (1970). The Unfolding of "The Seasons." Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Doody, Margaret Anne (1985). The Daring Muse: Augustan Poetry Reconsidered. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Fairer, David (2003). English Poetry of the Eighteenth Century 1700-1789. London: Longman.
Fulford, Tim (1996). Landscape, Liberty and Authority: Poetry, Criticism and Politics from Thomson to Wordsworth. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Gerrard, Christine (1994). The Patriot Opposition to Walpole: Politics, Poetry, and National Myth, 1725-1742. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gerrard, Christine (2005). "Pope, Peri Bathous, and the Whig Sublime." In David Womersley (ed.), "Cultures of Whiggism": New Essays on English Literature and Culture in the Long Eighteenth Century, 208—26. Newark: University of Delaware Press.
Inglesfield, Robert (1990). "James Thomson, Aaron Hill and the Poetic 'Sublime.' " ' British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 13: 2, 215—21.
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