Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 9. The Castle of Indolence, its points of contact with Spenser, and the commonplace character of its Allegory

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

§ 9. The Castle of Indolence, its points of contact with Spenser, and the commonplace character of its Allegory

Although Liberty was a failure, Thomson evidently intended to try his fortune once more with a patriotic poem. The ominous promise, recorded in The Castle of Indolence, was not fulfilled, for a reason which must be found in The Castle of Indolence itself. The elaboration of this short poem occupied many years, and, even in its final condition, bears signs of incom pleteness. Each of the two cantos ends abruptly with a homely realistic simile which forms an inappropriate conclusion to a romantic allegory. The poem might, indeed, have been extended to an indefinite length: its merit lies, not in the story which it contains, but in the polish of its style and the success with which Thomson, following a fixed model, contrived to display in it his own best qualities.

  • This poem (says the advertisement prefixed to it) being writ in the manner of Spenser, the obsolete words, and a simplicity of diction in some of the lines, which borders on the ludicrous, were necessary to make the imitation more perfect. And the stile of that admirable poet, as well as the measure in which he wrote, are, as it were, appropriated by Custom to all allegorical Poems writ in our language; just as in French the stile of Marot, who lived under Francis i, has been used in tales, and familiar epistles, by the politest writers of the age of Louis xiv.
  • Already, in 1742, Shenstone had attempted, in The SchoolMistress, to imitate Spenser’s
  • language, his simplicity, his manner of description, and a peculiar tenderness of sentiment remarkable throughout his works.
  • Thomson’s poem, however, had been conceived at an earlier date than Shenstone’s. It shows, not merely an admiration of the external qualities of Spenser’s verse, but some intimacy with his methods of description and personification. At the same time, the use of the Spenserian stanza, of obsolete words and of a studied simplicity of diction, could not repress the characteristic tastes of the poet of The Seasons. In the habit of poetical inversion Milton stood between Spenser and Thomson; and Thomson had assimilated this habit so thoroughly that The Castle of Indolence could hardly fail to be leavened with it. With Spenser, the employment of obsolete words, if, primarily, an affectation, became an essential feature of his poetry. With Thomson, it was purely a quaint imitation of Spenser: his old-fashioned words were dragged in as a necessity, and the poem would lose none of its attractiveness without them.

    The point at which Thomson most closely approaches Spenser is in the deliberate movement and varied melody of his stanza. Otherwise, it may fairly be claimed that his resemblance to his model is of the most general kind. The landscape with which the poem opens is his highest achievement in that type of description, combining soft colour with suggestions of perfume and sound, with which The Seasons has made us familiar. There is little emphasis on small details: effects of colour, of light and shadow, are conveyed in such general and inclusive phrases as

  • gay castles in the clouds that pass,
  • For ever flushing round a summer-sky.
  • If, in such passages, the luxurious beauty of Spenser’s descriptions is reflected, it is rather in their form than in their contents. Here, once more, the influence of Milton in poetry, of “savage Rosa” and “learned Poussin” in painting, are too strong to make insistence on detail possible. In his personifications, Thomson comes nearer to Spenser. The incidental persons, the “comely full-spread porter” and his “little roguish page,” the diseases of body and mind in the dungeon of the castle, “the fiery-footed boy, benempt Dispatch,” who is page to the Knight of Arts and Industry, are portraits which have Spenser’s power of giving individual being to abstract qualities. On the other hand, the chief portraits of The Castle of Indolence, the sketches of the friends of the poet as inhabitants or visitors of the castle, suggested though they may have been by Spenser’s habit of interweaving traits of his contemporaries with his personified abstractions, were drawn with a personal feeling which owed little to imitation. Written by one who has himself fallen under the dominion of the enchanter, the poem has a note of confession and complaint which gives its contents a special interest, apart from questions of derived form and style.

    The slightness of The Castle of Indolence and its allegory do not bear comparison with the sustained complication of the fable which Spenser made the vehicle of his high philosophy. Thomson’s imagination was unrefined by exalted philosophical thought, and his poem is certainly not improved by excursions into conventional moralising. The eleven stanzas of perverted morality, which are sung with an energy foreign to his character by Indolence as he sits at the gate of his castle, do not add anything to the allegory, but simply mark a breathing-space between the opening description and the admirable remainder of the first canto. With the appearance, in the second canto, of the “generous imp of fame” whose vigorous accomplishments are to be fatal to the wizard’s abode, Thomson was easily betrayed into paths which his muse had trodden bare. After a life passed in varied climes, the Knight of Arts and Industry has at length found his proper home in Britain, encircled by the protection of Britannia’s thunder on the main, and aided in his efforts by Liberty, “th’ Eternal Patron,” who handsomely atones for her overpowering egoism in an earlier poem by allowing him to encroach upon her extensive functions. The mechanic arts, the learning, the constitution of Britain, meet with due compliment. Threatened by the minions of Indolence, they are protected by the kinght, who sets out to overthrow the castle. The song of the bard Philomelus, tuned to the British harp, stands in contrast to the song of Indolence, and proceeds through its fifteen stanzas with equal smoothness and fluency. Supreme Perfection is invoked from the point of view which, in the concluding hymn of The Seasons, sees “life rising still on life, in higher tone” to absorption with deity. The examples of Greece and Rome and of the great poets are cited to encourage the energy which is the antithesis to slothful repose. A contrast is drawn between health and disease, and a final exhortation to the use of godlike reason has the desired effect of stirring the knight’s followers to the attack. While these sentiments are polished with the care which distinguishes the whole poem, they are drawn from a stock-in-trade which Thomson and his contemporaries had well-nigh exhausted, and their commonplace nobility is at the very opposite pole to the grave philosophy of Spenser or to Milton’s lofty morality.