The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 8. Patriotic Reflections: Britannia and Liberty
Moral reflections, such as those upon love and jealousy suggested by the song of the birds in spring are among the incidental passages of The Seasons. No subject, however, was more congenial to Thomson than the glory of his country, and the patriotic enthusiasm excited by the prospect seen from Richmond hill in Summer was more than a conventional sentiment exacted by duty to the political sympathies of his friends and patrons. His convictions, on this head, found their earliest expression in the monologue Britannia, and were developed at tedious length in Liberty. In this poem, his art failed him, and the careful arrangement of topics which gave much variety to The Seasons was abandoned for the prolix discussion of a single theme. Stirred to his subject by the sight of the ruins of Rome, he indulged in a historical survey, related by Liberty herself, of her progress from Greece to Italy, her temporary eclipse in “Gothic darkness,” and her revival at the renascence to find in Britain a field for her untrammelled sway. In her autobiography, Liberty displays a remarkable lack of modesty, and the width of her claims is the only original feature of Thomson’s political philosophy. The poet himself plays the part of an admiring listener to her oration, making, from time to time, respectful interruptions which serve to let loose new floods of verbiage. He evidently grew weary of his task. The prophecy contained in the fifth book, awaited by a steadily decreasing number of subscribers, begins with an uninspired adaptation to Britain of Vergil’s famous tribute to Italy in the second Georgic, and “goes dispiritedly, glad to finish” to an abrupt and hurried end. After Thomson’s death, Lyttelton, following, as he said, the author’s own design, condensed the five books of Liberty into three. His rearrangement, when compared with the earlier text, is a symptom of the loose construction and redundancy of the original, which made such drastic treatment possible. Thomson’s friend Murdoch appears to have set his face against the application of a similar process to The Seasons; but it must be owned that, even after all the revision which it underwent from the author himself, The Seasons is not without a considerable amount of repetition, which testifies to the limitations of Thomson’s material.