The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
V. Thomson and Natural Description in Poetry
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 5. Nature pictures in The Seasons, and the Human Element in these pictures
At the same time, Thomson’s obedience to the conventional diction of poetry was in no sense reluctant. The broad view of the general aspects of nature which such a diction reveals was essential to his habit of mind. His observation, if accurate, shared the tendency inherent in the art of the later seventeenth century to group details in broad masses of colour and striking contrasts of light and shadow. The pictorial medium through which he approached scenery is indicated by a stanza in The Castle of Indolence:Sometimes the pencil, in cool airy halls,Bade the gay bloom of vernal landskips rise,Or autumn’s varied shades embrown the walls:Now the black tempest strikes the astonish’d eyes;Now down the steep the flashing torrent flies;The trembling sun now plays o’er ocean blue,And now rude mountains frown amid the skies;Whate’er Lorrain light-touch’d with softening hue,Or savage Rosa dash’d, or learned Poussin drew.Of such pictures, Thomson was the receptive recorder. His intelligence was not of that vigorous and active type which searches in nature for a life instinct with emotions akin and responsive to his own. Nature, to him, is a succession of phenomena of varied form and colour which compose a series of landscapes, as they affect the senses with their charm. Beneath the changes of the sky, he notes with delight the changes of colour of the earth. Over the country-side in spring,One boundless blush, one white-empurpled showerOf mingled blossoms,rise the clouds, big with rain, “a dusky wreath … scarce staining ether,” gathering quickly until the massed vapour “sits on th’ horizon round a settled gloom.” At evening, the clouds lift; the sunset casts its light on mountains and rivers, and tinges the mist which rises from the soaked plain with yellow, while every blade of grass sparkles with raindrops, and the rainbow is refracted from the eastern sky. In summer, when night gathers over the hot day, the glow-worm twinkles in the hedges, and the evening star rises in the calm sky, as black vesper’s pageants dissolve. In autumn, truthful observation notes the gathering mists through which the sun “sheds, weak and blunt, his wide-refracted ray,” the shower of meteors in the night-time, the heavy dews of morning, and the “peculiar blue” of the midday sky. If, in winter, the rich colours, congenial to Thomson’s fancy, of “Autumn beaming o’er the yellow woods,” give place to more livid hues, yet there remain the red sunset which precedes the frosty night, the “blue film” breathed by the icy wind over pool and stream, the “crystal pavement” of the arrested water-course, the glitter of the stars, the pallor of the dawn which reveals the “dumb cascade” of icicles hanging from the eaves and the arabesque of frostwork woven over window-pane and frozen soil, the cold gleam of the icebound brook and the “plumy wave” of white snow on the forest trees.
Nor is sight the only sense which is alive to the charm of the progress of the year in earth and sky. In the spring garden, the violet, polyanthus, hyacinth and tulip, “the yellow wallflower, stain’d with iron brown,” combine their bright colour with the scent of the stock and jonquil, while sight and touch alike combine in the note ofauriculas, enrich’dWith shining meal o’er all their velvet leaves.Sensitive to perfume, Thomson invites Amanda to walkWhere the breeze blows from you extended fieldOf blossom’d beans,or wanders in the spring morning from the fragrant garden into country lanes, among sweet-briar hedges, or “tastes the smell of dairy” as he walks past a farm. The fisherman, when the noonday sun scatters the light clouds borne across the sky before the west wind, may retire with a book to the shady bank where sight is attracted by the purple violet, and the air is scented by the “balmy essence” of the lily of the valley, or beneath the shade of a mountain ash where “the sounding culver” builds its nest in the cliff. Few of Thomson’s pictures are without their accompaniment of sound. The silence of the winter morning is broken by the foot-fall of the shepherd on the hard crust of frozen snow. The song of birds in spring, which forms the subject of one of the most attractive passages in The Seasons, intensifies, as it ceases, the stillness of autumn, when the only sound is that of the distant gun or of the woodman’s axe in the “sadden’d grove.” Such sounds are used chiefly to give emphasis to quiet and solitude. His happiest effects in this direction are summed up in a stanza of The Castle of Indolence beginningJoin’d to the prattle of the purling rills,Were heard the lowing herds along the vale.