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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

§ 7. His frequent vagueness of Description, and striking Incidental Digressions

It is true that the poetry of nature, even where deeply imbued with the spirit of place, frequently shows a tendency to vagueness of description. Wordsworth’s Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey, or the sonnet Composed after a journey across the Hambleton hills, are records not of the peculiar beauties of particular spots, but of the emotions which they kindle in an individual mind. With Thomson, the external aspect of nature was never made sublime by intensity of spiritual feeling. We, who have never known Lyttelton or held converse with Pitt, or had the privilege of directing the downcast eyes of Amanda to the dwelling of Pope or the shades where “the worthy Queensb’ry yet laments his Gay,” may admire the pictures of Hagley or Stowe or the Thames near Richmond as skilful arrangements of colour, but cannot regard them as expressions of the permanent element in nature. They are interesting landmarks in the history of poetic taste; but their emotional quality, such as it is, is slight, and typical of a state of mind which had not yet recognised in nature the presence of a being independent of period and place. Nevertheless in common with his generation, Thomson had his conventional philosophy of nature. Just as Milton’s habit of generalised description had tinged the verse of his successors with a pale reflection, so his devout conception of a controlling Deity manifesting Himself in nature had left its impression upon his imitators. Thomson, with a reminiscence of Vergil, pays repeated tribute to the Divine force which

  • pervades,
  • Adjusts, sustains, and agitates the whole,
  • and writes of it with a reverence which indicates the effect upon his thought of the Miltonic idea of the Creator, limited by a general agreement with the deism of his own day. The “Source of Being” has touched “the great whole into perfection.” Supreme Perfection attracts “life rising still on life, in higher tone” into Its own Being. As we gaze on nature, “we feel the present Deity,” and know it to be full of a “mighty Breath,” an “inhaling spirit.” The seasons in their course embody this pervading energy, and “are but the varied God.” The paragraphs of The Seasons which contain such sentiments, or the hymn which is their most eloquent expression at the end of the poem, leave us in doubt as to Thomson’s actual adherence to any connected system of religion or philosophy. Deism alternates with a vague pantheism according to the feeling of the moment; and, in one place, at any rate, there are signs of a leaning towards Pythagorean doctrines. Thomson himself might have found it hard to define the religious emotion which nature excited in him. His sincere gratitude to the Creator is at times prompted by a sense of duty, when its terms unconsciously resemble those in which he recognised the disposing hand of Lord Cobham at Stowe or saw the “pure Dorsetian downs” at Eastbury decorated by the union of human graces in Bubb Dodington. The greater patron and the wider area of power called for the more elaborate compliment.

    Such temperate rhapsodies are, in fact, among the digressions of The Seasons. Thomson felt the necessity of giving some relief to description, and, in the successive revisions to which The Seasons was subjected, the poem gained in arrangement and in variety of surface. The most striking digressions are, undoubtedly, those surveys of foreign scenery which provide necessary contrast to the limited area of Thomson’s own experience. The longest and best of these, in Summer, was remodelled and transformed in the later editions, when Thomson removed from it the eloquent and highly coloured picture of the African city buried in the sand—an alteration which probably involved some self-sacrifice. We have already noticed Lyttelton’s treatment of the hunting episode in Autumn, a digression which arises naturally out of the subject. The most popular passages of The Seasons, which were long the admiration of English readers and did much to gain the poem its vogue on the continent, were those episodes which take the form of sentimental anecdotes appropriate to the season under discussion. Of these, three in number, two are in Summer. A description of a thunderstorm suggests the story of Celadon and Amelia, the lovers separated by a fatal thunderbolt. This is quickly succeeded by a passage on summer bathing, illustrated by the tale of Damon and Musidora, which, in its present form, is entirely altered, and altered for the worse, from the form which it assumed in the earliest draft of the poem. The episode of Palemon and Lavinia in Autumn is a tale of harvest, modelled upon the history of Boaz and Ruth. At their best, these stories are merely elegant decorations of Thomson’s verse. Their popularity in their own day was due to an artificial taste which sought in such poetry the distractions of an unreal world, and tolerated the questionable morality and spurious sentiment of the story of Damon and Musidora, for the sake of its superficial prettiness.