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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

V. Thomson and Natural Description in Poetry

§ 3. Influence of Milton

The body of Thomson’s poetry, excluding the dramas, is not large, and, historically, The Seasons is his most important poem. Its form of The Seasons was suggested by the example of Vergil’s Georgics: Thomson expressly reminds his readers of the similarity of his themes to those of Vergil, of whom he imitated more than one famous passage. In this respect, he had a conspicuous forerunner in John Philips, author of Cyder, and it is impossible to overlook the debt which Thomson owed to the older writer. Philips was an imitator of Milton’s poetic manner, and it may have been through Philip’s poetry that Thomson first felt that Miltonic influence which moulded his style and the characteristic shape of his phrases. Johnson, it is true, denied the influence of Milton upon Thomson:

  • As a writer, he is entitled to one praise of the highest kind: his mode of thinking, and of expressing his thoughts, is original. His blank verse is no more the blank verse of Milton, or of any other poet, than the rhymes of Prior are the rhymes of Cowley. His numbers, his pauses, his diction, are of his own growth, without transcription, without imitation.
  • This criticism can be justified only to a limited extent. Thomson’s characteristic modes of thought were too much those of his age to bear a very close resemblance to those of Milton. His choice of blank verse, while sanctioned by Milton’s authority, was, on the other hand, natural to a poet whose language was too voluble and ornate to be easily confined within the couplet. Its regular flow and even beat imply a strictly limited command of those musical resources of which Milton was master. Thomson’s prosody is adequate to the contents of his verse; but it would be difficult to cite a passage of The Seasons in which the sound becomes a direct echo of the sense. Yet, if we allow these differences and admit a limitation of thought and a florid expansiveness of language which afford a strong contrast to Milton’s pregnancy of thought and phrase, there cannot be any question as to the attraction which Milton exercised upon the method of natural description and upon the diction of The Seasons.

    In the second of these relations, the likeness is at once evident. Such passages as the contrast in Winter between the studious retirement of the scholar and the diversions of the village and the town are reminiscent in phrase, as in subject, of L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. The love of inversion which provoked Thomson’s boldest experiments in style, the constant and frequently adverbial use of epithets derived from Latin sources, are Miltonic characteristics. That rich literary imagery in which Milton excelled quickened Thomson to bring into contrast with the more homely scenes of his poem the unfamiliar scenery of the tropics, and to enrich his verse with the ornament of carefully chosen proper names. Lines such as these,

  • All that from the tract
  • Of woody mountains stretch’d thro’ gorgeous Ind
  • Fall on Cormandel’s coast, or Malabar;
  • From Menam’s orient stream, that nightly shines
  • With insect-lamps, to where Aurora sheds
  • On Indus’ smiling banks the rosy shower,
  • are one instance out of many in which Thomson echoed harmonies which Milton had awakened. To reproduce the full charm, the magic melody of the original, was impossible for a poet who had no great reserve of imagination on which to draw; but the imitation is obvious and its effect is, to some extent, a success.