James Thomson and the Romantics

By Tess Somervell
On a trip to Linton, Hazlitt tells us, he and S. T. Coleridge found a worn-out copy of The Seasons lying in an inn window-seat. Coleridge exclaimed, ‘That is true fame!’
James Thomson’s long blank verse poem, published and revised between 1726 and 1746, is little read today, but was one of the most popular books of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Each of the four books – ‘Spring’, ‘Summer’, ‘Autumn’, and ‘Winter’ – intersperse descriptions of the British countryside and rural life with reflections on varied topics such as prison reform, international trade, and the ethics of hunting.

Up until 1880 The Seasons went into a new edition almost every year, and extracts featured frequently in anthologies and school textbooks. At its first appearance Thomson (1700-1748), a clergyman’s son from Roxburghshire, became the toast of literary London, and befriended Alexander Pope amongst others. He also wrote a popular poem in Spenserian stanza, The Castle of Indolence, some fairly successful plays, and the lyrics to Rule Britannia (now his most famous work, though few know him as its author). But it’s The Seasons which really gained Thomson his reputation, and which was of most interest to the Romantic poets.

As the foremost example of nature poetry in the eighteenth century, it had an enormous influence on all the major Romantics, and particularly Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Clare. It was in fact after reading The Seasons that Clare was inspired to write his own poetry: a friend showed him a copy, he rushed out to buy his own, and on his way home from the bookshop he sat down in a field to pen his very first poem, ‘The Morning Walk’. Wordsworth writes of Thomson’s ‘genius as an imaginative poet’. Hazlitt calls him ‘the best and most original of our descriptive poets’. He was Burns’s ‘sweet Poet of the Year’.

Why is it, then, that Thomson’s poetry has fallen so badly out of favour with readers today? One reason is suggested by Wordsworth’s Essay, Supplementary to the Preface: there Wordsworth complains that, in spite of his genius, Thomson ‘writes a vicious style’, which ‘abounds with sentimental common-places’ and ‘false ornaments’. Thomson’s diction is ornate, Latinate, consciously ‘poetic’ – everything which was fashionable in the eighteenth century, but which Wordsworth teaches us, in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads and elsewhere, to despise. When Thomson describes fish as ‘finny tribes’, birds as ‘the plumy nations’, or leftover rainwater as ‘a glittering robe of joy’, we are more likely to laugh or grimace than to delight at his ‘power of viewing everything in a poetical light’ as did Dr Johnson.

Still, even if it’s largely thanks to them that Thomson’s poetry is no longer to our taste, the Romantics found plenty to value in it. To see what they and so many of their contemporaries saw, we have to try to clear our minds of the Romantic and post-Romantic prejudice against ‘poetic diction’, and our expectations about what nature poetry should do and be. For Thomson, nature is not a symbol or sounding board for a poet’s subjectivity, as it became in the Romantic imagination. Though he narrates the movement of his ‘Eye’ over the landscape, his focus is not on his inner self, his feelings or his psychology. Often he draws social, political, or theological morals from what he sees, but even more often nature seems to be delineated, and celebrated, simply for its own sake. This is his remarkable depiction of a summer sunset:

Low walks the sun, and broadens by degrees,
Just o’er the verge of day. The shifting clouds
Assembled gay, a richly-gorgeous train,
In all their pomp attend his setting throne.
Air, earth, and ocean smile immense. And now,
As if his weary chariot sought the bowers
Of Amphitritè and her tending nymphs,
(So Grecian fable sung,) he dips his orb;
Now half-immersed; and now a golden curve
Gives one bright glance, then total disappears.

The conscious classicism may seem affected, but there’s no denying the power in Thomson’s natural description, and the surprising, empiricist precison with which he narrates this natural process. Despite the mythological decoration, this is not a sunset as imagined from a study, learned from ‘Grecian fable’, and penned as an allegory or lazy ornament. It is a real sunset.
The Romantics perceived that Thomson had an ear not just for a beautiful phrase, but for an accurate and expressive one. Wordsworth directly borrows from The Seasons such eloquent terms as ‘bending sky’, ‘dripping fogs’, and a ‘dimpling’ river. It’s not hard to see a source for Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’ in Thomson’s account of icicles forming:

Then appears
The various labour of the silent night:
Prone from the dripping eave, and dumb cascade,
Whose idle torrents only seem to roar,
The pendant icicle; the frost-work fair,
Where transient hues, and fancied figures, rise…
Or a source for Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ in Thomson’s ‘Autumn’:
  let us tread the maze
Of Autumn, unconfined; and taste, revived,
The breath of orchard big with bending fruit,
Obedient to the breeze and beating ray,
From the deep-loaded bough a mellow shower,
Incessant melts away.

The Seasons is undeniably of its time. But it was hugely original in that, even as it aimed to celebrate Britain, empire, and God, it didn’t lose the reality of nature in symbol or allegory, as almost all previous nature poetry had done. This is something that resonated with the Romantic poets, even as they found new meanings in nature. As modern readers, if we take the time to appreciate the accuracy of vision and sincere enthusiasm behind his affected diction, we can begin to see why Thomson’s poetry was so popular and influential. Above all, it was his recognition that nature could be the primary subject of poetry – relished for its symbolic value, but also for its own sake – which was his greatest legacy to the Romantics.

Tess Somervell is a PhD candidate at Clare College,University of Cambridge. Her research is on the intersection between time and eternity in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Thomson’s Seasons, and Wordsworth’s Prelude.