Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. III. The Eighteenth Century: Addison to Blake
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
James Thomson (17001748)
[James Thomson was born at Ednam in Roxburghshire on the 11th of September, 1700, and died at Kew on the 27th of August, 1748. His first published work, Winter, appeared in 1726. The next year Summer, Britannia, and a few minor poems followed. Spring was not published till 1728, and Autumn in 1730 completed The Seasons. Sophonisba, the first of several dramas, appeared in the same year as Spring. The first three parts or cantos of Liberty were given to the world in 1735, the two last in 1737. The Castle of Indolence appeared in 1746, two years before Thomsons death.]
NO competent criticism of any school has ever denied Thomsons claim to a place, high if not of the highest, among poets of the second order. His immense and enduring popularity would settle the question, if it had ever been seriously debated. For the orbis terrarum may indeed judge without hesitation on such a point, when its judgment is ratified beforehand by many generations. Popularity which outlasts changes of manners and fashions is a testimony to worth which cannot be left out of the account, and Thomsons popularity is eminently of this kind. Neither the somewhat indiscriminate admiration of the romantic style, of which Percy set the fashion, nor the naturalism of Cowper, nor the great revolution championed in various ways by Scott, by the Lakists, and by Byron, nor the still more complete revolution of Shelley and Keats, availed to shake the hold of The Seasons on the popular mind. Every one knows Coleridges remark on seeing a dogs-eared copy on an inn window-sill. During the last century the reading of poetry, except that of contemporary authors, has somewhat gone out of fashion, yet no one who does read The Seasons, much more The Castle of Indolence, fails to admit their charm. It would hardly be too much to say that, making allowance for the time over which his influence has extended, no poet has given the special pleasure which poetry is capable of giving to so large a number of persons in so large a measure as Thomson.
A critical examination of the characteristics of his poetry enables us at once to justify and explain this widespread popularity. Like many of his contemporaries, Thomson is a very unequal poet. Every one who has really endeavoured to read his favourite Liberty must endorse Johnsons contemptuous verdict on it. It is not only not good as a whole, but (which is more remarkable) it is scarcely even good in parts. It is with considerable difficulty that one is able to pick out a few lines here and there where the admirable descriptive faculty of the writer has had room to make itself felt. Most of the minor poems (it is true there are not many of them) are also quite devoid of poetical merit. The graceful Tell me, thou soul of her I love is perhaps the only exception to the rule worth mentioning, and certainly the only one worth quoting. It is curious too that on the few occasions on which Thomson attempted the heroic couplet, the special and favourite metre of his time, he produced very bad work. Blank verse and the Spenserian stanza he understood admirably, and his blank verse in especial cannot receive too much commendation. With that of Milton, and that of the present Poet Laureate, it must rank as one of the chief original models of the metre to be found in English poetry. Nothing again can be more exquisite than the opening stanzas of The Castle of Indolence in respect of metrical proficiency. Now this excellence of form, whatever some critics may think, is a very important element in enduring popularity, because it is not liable to danger from changes of fashion. The qualities which strike the ear pleasantly remain very much the same at all times, unlessand sometimes even whenthe language employed has become hopelessly dead. We have at this moment (with the good leave of certain persons of distinction) hardly the faintest idea how the opening of the De Rerum Natura sounded when Lucretius read it, and still less of what the choruses of the Agamemnon conveyed to the ears of an Athenian audience. But the abiding charm of their form is not lost for us. How much more must this be the case in such work as Thomsons, when the language has undergone merely unimportant modifications. But the metrical charm of Thomson is not his only or indeed his chief one to the general. He has the peculiar merit of choosing a subject which appeals to and is comprehensible by everybody; which no one can scorn as trivial and yet which no one can feel to be too fine or too esoteric for him. And though he treats this in the true poetical spirit of making the common as though it were uncommon, he does not make it too uncommon for the general taste to relish. No spread of culture, no pressure of fashion, will ever make The Witch of Atlas genuinely popular. No degeneracy of education or of fashion, short of an absolute return to barbarism, can prevent The Seasons from attracting admiration as soon as they are read or heard. They are not perhaps in any single point possessed of the qualities of the highest poetry. But such poetry as they do possess is perfectly genuine and singularly suitable for its purpose. Literal accuracy and poetical truth are blended in Thomsons descriptions in a way rarely to be found. Every one feels that he has seen what Thomson has put into words for him: every one also feels that Thomson has added a charm for him to the scene when he shall happen to see it again. Although his style is too often deformed by the prevalent Latinisms in language and construction, his reader soon feels that he is after all independent of them. They are not a crutch to him, hardly even a staff, whereby he hopes to climb Parnassus, but a mere clouded cane which, as he mistakenly thinks, is an appropriate ornament. His single phrases, by which a poet is perhaps most safely to be judged, stamp him at once to all who have eyes to see and ears to hear. It is bad enough no doubt that any man of Thomsons genius should give us the words
See where the winding vale its lavish stores
in which the whole poetical capital is to be found in the use of the fine word irriguous, and the artificial derangement of the epithets, but that this is a mere accident of his time must strike every one who turns the page and finds
The yellow wallflower stained with iron-brown.
Here there is not a single violence done to language or arrangement, and yet the effect is as good as it can be. Even where the words are unnecessarily grandiose, and the images not such as in strict nature or art would present themselves, the stamp of poetry is usually on them in a wholly reconciling degree, as in the lines
On utmost Kildas shore whose lonely race
Resign the setting sun to Indian worlds.
Passing from isolated phrases to longer passages, we may point out that the power of composition which Thomsons landscapes display is very remarkable. Owing to this faculty, no poet perhaps is seen to such advantage in extracts of moderate length as Thomson. His narrative episodes, which used to be the most popular, are perhaps not so good as some of the descriptive passages, because instead of being painted in with lasting colours they show too often the mere varnish of the sensibility of the time which has now ceased to appear sensible. To the charge of mannerism he must indeed plead guilty. A poet who caps the climax of three several descriptive passages with three such lines as
And Egypt joys beneath the spreading wave,
And Mecca saddens at the long delay,
And Thule bellows through her utmost isles,
all within the compass of half a dozen pages, may be accused with some justice of taking too literally the legendary advice to stick to the coo. But this, and the occasional ponderosity of his language, are almost the only charges of any weight that can fairly be brought against The Seasons.
The Castle of Indolence is even better. The second book does not indeed deserve quite so much praise as the first, being written evidently with less relish, and containing a good deal of otiose and conventional matter. But the first book is not only Thomsons best work, but is one of the very best things of its kind to be found either in English or in any other literature. For it possesses, what The Seasons almost of necessity lack, a coherent plan and scheme which are fully and successfully carried out. It is quite complete in itself, and needs no sequel as a work of art. Nor does it need any internal addition. The picture of the castle and its demesne, with the portraits of the chief sojourners, are quite sufficient for the canvas, and few persons will find any fault with the manner in which they are put upon it. Although the archaisms are not always used quite according to knowledge, the slips in this respect are neither in nature nor degree sufficient to interfere with the enjoyment of the piece. The four final stanzas, which are attributed to Armstrong, are perhaps not wholly in character; but even this is a point on which it is difficult to pronounce decidedly, and with hardly another detail of the book can any fault be found. The opening stanzas, the speech of Indolence, the striking passage where the shepherd of the Hebrid Isles appears, and that describing the fancies that visit the inmates during their sleep, could not be better. How far the occasional touches of burlesque injure the claims of the piece to high poetical rank, is a very intricate question of poetical criticism upon which there is no need to enter here. It is sufficient to say that of the peculiar faculty which we have claimed for Thomson, the faculty of exhibiting specially poetical quality in a form capable of being enjoyed by everybody, there are few better examples in our language than The Castle of Indolence.