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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

§ 4. Thomson’s interest in Nature

The poetry of Thomson’s day had ceased to hold direct communion with nature. Occasional contact, however, could not be avoided. Dyer’s Grongar Hill (1727) showed a spontaneous attitude to nature which was too exceptional to capture the public taste at once: the age preferred the conventional and generalised descriptions in which poets not preoccupied with nature were accustomed to indulge—descriptions on which the example of Milton, who regarded nature through the medium of literary reminiscence, had a far-reaching effect. It is Thomson’s peculiarity that the description of natural phenomena, in an age which overlooked their artistic value, was his chief concern. His observation was keen and intelligent. His eye, in the phrase of Wordsworth, was “steadily fixed upon his object”; his feelings “urged him to work upon it in the spirit of genuine imagination.” The spectacles of books enlarged his range of vision; but his commerce with the more familiar aspects of nature was direct and unimpeded. This process marks a point of departure from the fashion set by the commanding genius of Milton, and a return to earlier methods. But, for the expression of his genuine, though limited, imagination, he was bound by the necessities of a diction which had become formal and stereotyped. What he saw with his own eyes, he conventionalised in terms which were the common property of his age. No one, however, since Milton had given so much attention to the varied aspects of nature, and, consequently, Thomson’s description of the stock elements of conventional scenery, of

  • hill and dale, and wood and lawn,
  • And verdant field, and darkening heath between,
  • And villages embosom’d soft in trees,
  • And spiry towns by surging columns mark’d
  • Of houshold smoak,
  • was governed by an accuracy of observation and depth of enjoyment which, while perpetuating the Miltonic tradition in poetry, distinguished Thomson from poets who, without observation and feeling for nature, had passively accepted the superficial qualities of that tradition.