The Poet as Surveyor of Britain and the Globe

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In general, James Thomson's The Seasons (1725-30, and subsequently revised) might well be the best single poem in which to chart the broad themes of, and eccentric overlaps between, the eighteenth-century nationalist and imperial imaginaries. Long, and encyclopedic in scope, the poem is a repository of a great many of the local and global observations and comparative meditations that define the poetic exploration of nation and empire. To take one instance, critics have pointed to the fact that Thomson, like most educated people, was familiar with many travelogs, and such writing feeds his description of major rivers in Egypt, other parts of Africa, India, Thailand, and the Americas, all of which grant an effortless fecundity and an "untoil-ing harvest" to those who live on their banks ("Summer," l. 831). This observation functions as the prelude to a comparative survey of symbols of national wealth (and the kinds of social and ethical mores they encourage), in which Chinese silk, Indian diamond mines, Andean silver mines, African ivory and wood are pitted against all that makes Britain special:

the softening arts of peace,

Whate'er the humanizing Muses teach,

The godlike wisdom of the tempered breast,

Progressive truth, the patient force of thought,

Investigation calm whose silent powers

Command the world, the light that leads to Heaven,

Kind equal rule, the government of laws,

And all-protecting freedom which alone

Sustains the name and dignity of man -

These are not theirs.

Britain's civic and "civilizational" blessings - it is home to "the saving Virtues" of Peace, "social Love," Charity, "Undaunted Truth, and dignity of mind," Courage, "sound temperance," "clear Chastity," "Rough Industry; Activity untired," and "Public Zeal" - are the products of its temperate weather, its rural, agrarian strengths, and its mercantile prowess. The poem elaborates on these themes repeatedly, and at length. No matter that Thomson, over the course of the poem, also elaborates a wide variety of historical and contemporary ills that beset Britain; the kernel of the poem's celebration of Britain is its affirmation of the island nation, its impregnable separateness and its ability to project its military might across the oceans:

Island of bliss! amid the subject seas That thunder round thy rocky coasts, set up,

At once the wonder, terror, and delight, Of distant nations, whose remotest shore Can soon be shaken by thy naval arm; Not to be shook thyself, but all assaults Baffling, like thy hoar cliffs the loud sea-wave.

In this passage Thomson continues a long tradition of nationalist self-representation (we can think of John of Gaunt's lyrical lines in Shakespeare's Richard II: "this little world, / This precious stone set in the silver sea, / Which serves it in the office of a wall, ... This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England": II. i. 45-50), but renders the whole more belligerent, more certain that the providential gift of the surrounding waters is not an encouragement to defensiveness or insularity alone, but to a more self-assured projection of national power overseas.

In this account so far we have traced poetic trends that feature poets as critics or propagandists of empire, and as commentators on political and economic policies that have a bearing on the commercial and colonial practices of the nation. Often, its cultural cachet, and its epic and inspirational capacities, encouraged writers to turn to poetry, rather than to prose, when they wished to explore ideas that would lead them across the length and breadth of the British Isles, or when they wished to consider or enact the uneven relation between the Celtic cultures of Scotland and Ireland and that of England, as James Macpherson did when he forged a cultural prehistory for Britain in his Ossianic "translations." In each case, poets played a consequential role - greater than that played by novelists or, after 1700, by playwrights - in forging the mythology and iconography of nationalism. For instance, when the Welshman John Dyer wished to highlight an industry that he thought most important for the socio-economic well-being of Britain, he wrote The Fleece (1757), in which the rearing of sheep and the wool trade are considered fit subjects for a national georgic. Indeed, the poem performs one function that we associate with the epic, which is that its account of sheep-rearing, shearing, wool-making and weaving in different parts of the country becomes a knitting together of different subnational communities of shepherds, lathe- and loom-makers, dyers, weavers, and consumers into the fabric of nation ("Various professions in the work unite: / For each on each depends," iii. 119-20). In order to show just how important the entire sociology and economy of the wool trade is, Dyer's poem contains meditations on the civic values, the technology, and the mercantile practices that allow for widespread domestic and overseas consumption. In doing so, he elevates sheep and their fleece into a viable symbol of cooperative national achievement. His poem thus has a collective subject - Britons who learn the "wide felicities of labour" (i. 9) and, in doing so, confirm that sheep are in fact Britain's natural wealth:

Hail, noble Albion; where no golden mines, No soft perfumes, nor oils, nor myrtle bowers, The vigorous frame and lofty heart of man Enervate.

See the sun gleams; the living pastures rise, After the nurture of the fallen shower, How beautiful! how blue th' ethereal vault, How verdurous the lawns, how clear the brooks! Such noble warlike steeds, such herds of kine, So sleek, so vast; such spacious flocks of sheep, Like flakes of gold illuminating the green, What other Paradise adorn but thine, Britannia?

Dyer remarks in line 152 on the absence of gold mines in Britain, but then, in the kind of alchemical sublimation poetry makes possible, finds in the "spacious flocks of sheep" the "flakes of gold" that make Albion a paradise. At this moment, as in so many others in this long poem, Dyer produces images and longer accounts of national singularity and blessedness that all go towards the creation of what David Shields has called the poem's "theology of trade" (Shields 1990: 65). As this brief account suggests, however, it is not only a providentialist poetics, but a longer, more considered historical and geographical survey of global commodities and of British economy and society that shapes The Fleece and structures its vision of all nations joined by British trade:

Rejoice, ye nations, vindicate the sway Ordain'd for common happiness. Wide, o'er The globe terraqueous, let Britannia pour The fruits of plenty from her copious horn.

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