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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

§ 6. Thomson’s objective attitude towards Nature

In all the scenes to which this stanza makes reference, the part of man is incidental. The poet roams with “eye excursive” for the sake of the varied pleasure to be derived from his wanderings. He has his own stock of readily awakened sentiment, susceptible to the gloom and terror of storm, or to the coming of the “Power of Philosophic Melancholy” in autumn; but there is no subjective sense of revolt in his own breast to make his spirit at one with the warring elements, no natural melancholy which colours Nature with its own hue and translates her death into personal terms. Similarly, man is introduced only so far as he forms a telling feature in the landscape, just as the human element in Salvator Rosa’s pictures is subordinated to a position which gives scale to nodding rocks and adds terror to frowning forests. The village haymaking and sheepwashing in Summer are mild attempts at genre pictures; the “rural smell” of the harvest, the “dusky wave” of mown hay on the meadow, the “russet hay-cock” of the one, the “pebbled shore” and “flashing wave” of the washing-pool in the other, meant more to Thomson than the perfunctory rustics who form part of the scene. His one elaborate picture of the pursuits of his fellowmen is the description of the feast after a day’s hunting; and this, conceived in a spirit of heavy playfulness, was transferred by his executor Lyttleton, as unworthy of The Seasons, to a place by itself in his collected works, where it appears as The Return from the Fox-Chace, a Burlesque Poem, in the Manner of Mr. Philips. More characteristic is his introduction of the horseman, vainly awaited by his wife and children, and perishing in the swamp, to heighten the terrors of the marsh, lit by treacherous wildfire, on an autumn night. A parallel tragedy adds effect to the description of the snowdrift. The famous picture in Summer of the caravan swallowed in the sandstorm ends with lines which, in pointing a contrast to the scene described, are invested with an unusual element of human interest—an element which, in the scene itself, is entirely subject to the irresistible power of nature.

In this objective attitude to nature, which, while recognising her power, dissociates her from an active participation in the interests and emotions of man, Thomson stands midway between two periods. Milton, a lover of nature less for her own sake than for the echoes of poetry and music which she aroused in him, felt in her being the breath of an animating and sustaining creative power. Twenty-one years after Thomson’s death, Gray, travelling in north-west Yorkshire, as he looked on Ingleborough wrapped in clouds and stood “not without shuddering” in the gloomy ravine of Gordale scar, felt the presence of a sentient life in nature responding to his own thought and quickening his emotions. The chief characteristic of this point of view is the local colour which it lends to description, its attempt to register every shade of subjective emotion by a definition of the spirit of place which gives it its special hue. Thomson’s descriptions of individual scenes are guiltless of local colour. Most of them were introduced into later editions of The Seasons, and, in these, the thought of the patron or friend whose “hospitable genius” presides over the landscape inspires the passage, while the details of the landscape itself are characterised in the most general terms. The prospect from Richmond hill is described with affection and with a keen sense of its natural beauty. From the hill above Hagley park, the Welsh mountains are noted in the western distance, and, at Stowe, the poet’s eye is quick to mark the autumnal colour of the woods. But it is precisely in such places, with their memories of friendship and social pleasure, that Thomson is most in harmony with the poetic taste of his day. The landscape is merely the setting to a compliment or a tribute of personal regard. An enumeration of the general features of the landscape, a ready perception of points of colour, the occasional introduction of a place-name, are indicative of the poet’s personal enjoyment, but do not by themselves evoke the special qualities of the prospect. And, if these passages have a certain prominence in The Seasons, it must be owned that, as pictures of nature, they are inferior to passages, such as that which describes the eagle rearing its young “on utmost Kilda’s shore,” where Thomson’s imagination, although untouched by personal experience, is unfettered by the claims of man upon its object.