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us long.1 They attracted few readers when they appeared and have had no willing ones since. Historians of literature and biographers of the poet have felt constrained to say something about the pieces and have tried to find something good to say, but it has been wasted labor. Johnson records that he attempted to read Liberty when it came out, but "soon desisted" and "never tried again." Those who have tried again have usually desisted as soon. When Thomson left nature inspiration left him, and in Liberty even the descriptions are tame. Of course the poems contain a number of excellent lines and some good passages; but on the whole they have very few of the virtues of The Seasons and all of its vices, - the roaring of the British lion, the obvious moralizing, the shallow pessimism, the fulsome commendation of friends, the tumidity, and the contorted wordorder. They tend towards flattery and didacticism, and even when they spring in part from a worthy impulse the impulse has not been so deeply felt by their author as to give rise to poetry. Thomson's mind may have been in them, but his heart was not; and his mind, like that of many another bard, was by no means remarkable. It is to be regretted that he did not rise above his fellow-mortals by recognizing this fact and by realizing the questionable efficacy of moralizing in verse; but if he had done so he would not have been James Thomson.
It is easy to find fault with Thomson's work. His painting of nature is never ennobled by intensity of spiritual feeling; he has many tedious passages and more errors of taste both in subject-matter and in expression, and a hasty reading brings these defects into prominence. The poem (or extracts from it) is frequently studied for one purpose or another; but since large portions are seldom read for their own sake, and since those who judge it are often more fastidious than robust in their taste and rarely are so familiar with it that the faults no longer obscure the virtues, Thomson suffers much from being damned with faint, patronizing praise. One may even be tolerably well acquainted with his work and yet remember little save its obvious merits and defects, and consequently may think that the
1 See Bibl. I, 1713 w., c. 1718 w., 1727, 1729, 1734, 1737; App. B, 1726. The first two are juveniles, the second being an unsuccessful attempt at the mock-heroic. That to James Delacour, which is omitted from most editions of the poet's works, was first printed in the London Magazine for November, 1734, over the signature "J. Thompson," and was attributed in Delacour's Poems (Cork, 1778, p. 54) to "J. Thomson, author of the Seasons." Mr. Robertson (Oxford edition of Thomson, pp. 457, 462) gives several reasons for thinking that the Poem to the Memory of Mr. Congreve, which has on slender grounds been attributed to Thomson, is not really his. The abrupt, ejaculatory style seems to me not that of The Seasons.
2 Lives (ed. Hill), iii. 301.
author always paints with a broad brush and only the beauties which every one sees. But let such a reader return to The Seasons with a fresh and open mind and he will be struck with the closeness of observation it frequently exhibits, its fine feeling for shy loveliness in nature and for the "beauty, which, as Milton sings, hath terror in it." He can hardly fail to admire the poet's healthy manliness and human sympathy, the excellence of many of his single lines, and the sonorous pomp, breadth, and Byronic power of his larger pictures. He will have a far better understanding of the eighteenth century after he has come to see these qualities in Thomson and to realize that they are features of a piece which, from the days of Pope and Young, through the dictatorship of Johnson and the increasingly romantic times of Gray, Cowper, and Burns, and even to the stirring years of Wordsworth, Shelley, Lamb, and Hazlitt, was the most popular and perhaps the most influential poem in English.
ONE of the earliest and most important results of Thomson's popularizing blank verse was the appearance, in 1742, of the first part of The Complaint, or Night Thoughts, by Edward Young. There is, to be sure, no proof that it was Thomson's example which led his fellow-poet to use the new measure; but since The Seasons was at the time in the flush of its first popularity, and since The Complaint is very different in character from anything its author had written before, there must have been some connection, and perhaps not a slight one, between the two works.
It is Young's good fortune that he is little read. Most lovers of poetry who know the eighteenth century only through anthologies think of The Seasons, the Night Thoughts, and The Task as esthetically on the same low plane, an estimate that does great injustice to Thomson and Cowper, who, notwithstanding their defects, had genuine inspiration. Young lacked this and had little to offer in its place. The Night Thoughts is one of the dullest and falsest poems that ever achieved fame. It is rhetorical and declamatory in style, unpoetic in both conception and expression, commonplace in thought, sentimental, insincere, and lugubrious in its insistent religion. To the modern reader the hollow theatricality of its parade of gloom is particularly repellent because of the smug piety which is supposed to inspire it. The poem excites no admiration for its author, who, one is not surprised to learn, spent the best part of his life seeking those tinsel trappings which it belittles. The gross flattery contained in the dedications of his works and in his poetic references to persons of influence prepare us to hear that for years he danced attendance on two of the most profligate and unscrupulous noblemen of the time, and that he even stooped to beg aid of the king's mistress for advancement in the church! There can be no question that the gloom of his poetry is in part due to disappointed
1 For an admirable analysis of Young's character, see George Eliot's essay, Worldliness and Other-worldliness. H. C. Shelley's brief for Young (Life and Letters, 1914) seems to me to avoid, or to touch lightly, on everything in the poet's life or writings that would produce an unfavorable impression.
ambition, and that his scorn of worldly pleasures and honors rings hollow from a man who strove hard to obtain them.
Young's first published volume appeared when he was thirty, and from that time until he was fifty-nine he issued a book of verse nearly every year. With the exception of a few stanzaic odes and three tragedies, all these poems are written in couplets of the most pronounced pseudo-classic type. The best of them, and in some respects the best of all his work, is Love of Fame, the Universal Passion (1725-8). The seven satires that make up this volume possess a finish, brilliance, and epigrammatic point which render them at times but little inferior to those of the "wasp of Twickenham," which they antedate.1 Quite fittingly, therefore, Young's last work in the couplet consisted of two laudatory "Epistles to Mr. Pope" (1730).
Between the satires and his later writings lies "a gulf profound as that Serbonian bog"; for, after fifty-nine years of life and thirty in the service of the couplet, Young suddenly threw in his lot with the poetical insurgents by renouncing "childish shackles and tinkling sounds" and all that went with them. The Night Thoughts, his most famous production, is in blank verse. No mere change of theme was responsible for his transferred allegiance, but a real change of heart. "What we mean by 'blank verse,'" he wrote at the age of seventy-six, "is, verse unfallen, uncursed; verse reclaimed, reenthroned in the true language of the gods: who never thundered, nor suffered their Homer to thunder, in rime. . . . Must rime, then, say you, be banished? I wish the nature of our language could bear its entire expulsion; but our lesser poetry stands in need of a toleration for it." 3
Few men of sixty undertake new things, still fewer gain a mastery of them. No wonder, then, that Young never learned to write good blank verse. In his thirty years of practice he had acquired admirable dexterity in handling the heroic couplet, but his fingers had become so adapted to the material with which they worked that they involuntarily shaped the new product with the old touch. In the early eighteenth century, good blank verse and good couplets stood leagues apart and generally implied quite dissimilar conceptions of poetry, much as the tango and the court minuet are not merely
1 According to Pope's editor (Works, Elwin-Courthope ed., vi. 340 n.), the Essay on Man, which was published anonymously, was thought to be by Young, and the Dublin reprint was advertised with his name.
2 Conjectures on Original Composition (1759, reprinted by M. W. Steinke, 1917), 58. 3 Ib. 58-9, 65.
different dances but expressions of different civilizations. Young was too old to gain facility in the free, new measure; his verse always tends to be choppy and ejaculatory,1 to fall into a series of individual lines or to read like prose. The following is a fair example:
Surely there is nothing of Milton here, or in hundreds of similar lines in the Night Thoughts. Yet there can be no question of Young's familiarity with Paradise Lost or of his willingness to borrow phrases from it. "Milton! thee," he exclaimed, "ah could I reach your strain!" But there was the trouble, he couldn't. Even if he had wanted to copy the style and versification of Paradise Lost, he could not have freed himself from the shackles of the couplet. He had written lines and pairs of lines too long to roll on "in full flow, through the various modulations of masculine melody"; he had been brilliant and incisive too long to become sonorous and majestic. Besides, since the Night Thoughts is a series of versified sermons, its style is probably similar to that Young employed in the pulpit. Declamatory, ejaculatory, abounding in short rhetorical questions, direct appeals, and exclamatory words and phrases, it is quite unlike the stately involutions of the Miltonic sentence. Hence the influence of the epic upon the Night Thoughts may have been greater than appears at first sight. The extent of a change depends not so much
1 This is due in part to the punctuation. In forty lines of book ix there are 33 marks of exclamation, and in thirteen lines 15 marks of interrogation; in eight lines of book vii there are 10 marks of interrogation and one of exclamation; and spots no less bristling may be opened to almost anywhere in the work.
2 Night Thoughts, p. 24. As no edition of Young with numbered lines is easily accessible, the references will be to the pages in the Aldine edition of the Poetical Works (1852).
3 This is shown in his epigram on Voltaire in defense of the allegory of Sin and Death in Paradise Lost (see Works, Aldine ed., vol. i, p. xxxiv, n.); in his remark that "these violent and tumultuous authors put him in mind of a passage of Milton, ii. 539" (ib. pp. xxxvii–xxxviii, n.); in his prefixing an extract from Paradise Lost (ix. 896–900) to the fifth satire of his Love of Fame, and in definitely referring to an incident in the epic at the close of the sixth satire and again in the Night Thoughts (Works, ii. 95, 132–3, i. 124); but most of all in his numerous borrowings from Milton (see Appendix A, below). Night Thoughts, p. 15.
• Conjectures on Original Composition (reprint of 1917), 58.