« PreviousContinue »
verse seriously for everyday subjects. Most writers, rolling tamely in the rut of neo-classicism, never thought of doing so, others may have agreed with Pope that it was “quite wrong” to employ Milton's style for such themes, and many presumably doubted their ability to handle topics of the kind in a measure not yet domesticated.
For Milton's example, together with the praise of Roscommon, Dennis, Addison, and similar critics of rank, had made blank verse respected, admired, — and shunned. Paradise Lost was so remote, so unlike other poetry, that men stood in awe of it; they did not know how to adapt its lofty language, involved style, and strange irregular prosody to their humbler and less imaginative themes. In a word, blank verse seems to have been regarded in 1725 much as the telephone was in 1875, as a remarkable toy which it was interesting to experiment with but of which only a few enthusiasts expected to make any real use; or, to choose an illustration from the field of literature, its position in 1725 was similar to that of vers libre in 1900, - it could no longer be called a novelty but was by no means a popular meter. Cordially disliked and vigorously assailed by many, warmly admired and eloquently defended by others, Milton's measure, like Whitman's, seemed so ill adapted to the purposes and methods of most poetry that there was apparently little prospect of its coming into general use. Very few, to be sure, had so high an opinion of Leaves of Grass as Pope's contemporaries had of Paradise, Lost, but in each case there was general doubt whether the new meter could be effectively employed by any save the master who invented it.
There was certainly no reason why the partisans of the couplet should be alarmed if a period of sixty years produced only one hundred and fifty unrimed poems, nearly half of which did not extend beyond a few lines. Indeed, at the end of the first quarter of the eighteenth century neo-classicism was seated firmly on the throne of public opinion with the closed couplet as its scepter; English num-, bers were being, if they had not already been, refined to the highest possible point, and sacrifices were constantly offered before the altars of Reason, Propriety, and Elegance, whose supremacy no one seemed seriously to question.
When the fortunes of English verse seemed to be thus comfortably settled for some time to come, there appeared in the London bookshops a thin shilling folio of sixteen pages, one of which announced in large type, “Winter, a Poem, by James Thomson, A.M.” The work gave rise to little comment, but must have found not a few readers, since it was reprinted within three months and passed through two more editions before the year was out. Encouraged by this reception, the author issued in the following year, 1727, a companion poem, Summer, in 1728 a third, Spring, and in 1730 the completed Seasons. The work came eventually to include 5,541 lines, but the germ of the whole and all its significant features are to be found in the 405 lines of the original Winter, which may fairly be termed “an epoch-marking work.” Yet, as is often the case, the marking was done so quietly that no one seems to have been conscious of anything unusual about the poem. Even Thomson himself, a few months before composing it, wrote to a friend, “I firmly resolve to pursue divinity as the only thing now I am fit for,” and after it was partly finished referred to it as “only a present amusement,” which he should probably drop before long.?
Nor is the real significance of Winter generally understood at the present time. The poem is supposed to be one of the earliest and most important manifestations of what has unfortunately been termed the “beginnings of the romantic movement”; but such "beginnings" may be found at almost any time and place one chooses to look for them, and all who know Thomson best are agreed as to his essential classicism. The importance of the use of blank verse in The Seasons has often been emphasized, but without sufficient realization of the number of unrimed poems that preceded it or of its differences from them. As regards nature poetry also Thomson's
Since 1907, when this chapter was first written, a number of what seemed to be its more novel points of view have appeared in G. C. Macaulay's James Thomson (English Men of Letters, 1908). The delay has, however, enabled me to take advantage of various suggestions in that sound and discriminating study.
· Letters to Dr. Cranston, April 3, and September, 1725, Poetical Works (Aldine ed. 1847), vol. i, pp. xvi, xxiii.
contribution has frequently been misunderstood; for, though he is a figure of the first importance in this field, he did not create the taste by which he was appreciated. The feeling for the beauty of the external world revealed in Lady Winchilsea's Nocturnal Reverie, Gay's Rural Sports, Shaftesbury's Characteristics, and other works published before 1726 has been pointed out by various scholars; and it is noteworthy that a genuine love of nature is apparent in Ramsay's Gentle Shepherd, Dyer's Grongar Hill, and John Armstrong's description of winter, all of them published, or composed, in the years 1725 and 1726, when Winter was being written. Accordingly, while Thomson is the most important nature poet before Wordsworth, he was by no means the first writer of his time to feel, or the first to give effective expression to the feeling, that ‘night and day, sun, moon, and stars, likewise a wind on the heath, are all sweet things.'
a The principal significance of The Seasons lies in its popularity. Blank verse as good as Thomson's had been written before Winter appeared; Philips had employed it for familiar themes, and Watts had arrived at a style, diction, and prosody much nearer to those in vogue to-day than what the Scottish poet made use of. Yet English literature went on unchanged. Poetry far more romantic, with a finer feeling for nature expressed in nobler, more lyric verse, pieces, that is, not unlike the “Songs of Innocence" or the best of the “Lyrical Ballads,” — might conceivably have been written in 1725; ; but they would almost certainly have left as few traces on the century which gave them birth as did Blake's work and Thomson's own Castle of Indolence./The Seasons accomplished two things of the highest importance. It showed how real nature could be dealt with effectively in poetry, and how blank verse could be successfully devoted to the treatment of everyday subjects; but it did both by virtue of its popularity, by being enjoyed by all, the people as well as the poets. It might have contained twice as many faults and half as many excellences as it did and still, had it remained equally popular, have lost none of its historical significance. What was needed was success, and Thomson's success was due in part to his limitations and , in part even to his very faults. It was only a road which "got somewher” that would have been followed, one that seemed both to readers and to poets clearly to lead well up towards the summit of
Wordsworth held that what the eighteenth century principally admired in Thomson was “his false ornaments," which "are exactly of that kind ... most likely to strike the undiscerning” (Prose Works, ed. Grosart, 1876, ii. 119). Miss Reynolds's remark is better, “A touch more of subtlety, of vision, of mystery, of the faculty divine, and Thomson might have waited for recognition as Wordsworth did" (Nature in English Poetry, 2d ed., Chicago, 1909, p. 101).
Parnassus. Less obvious ways, that wound past shyer flowers, or through valleys overflowing with a more haunting melody of birds, or by cliffs affording wider views of the might and mystery of "old ocean's gray and melancholy waste,” would to us be more alluring; but in Pope's day their beauty would have been seen by few, and without the sanction of popular approval they would have been little used. For the eighteenth century did not share our interest in lovely by-ways that lose themselves in woods. The cult of the minor poet had not yet risen; revivals of perverse but powerful writers, or of rapturous but formless and obscure ones, were unknown. It was a period when bards were unusually willing to follow a leader, and this was true not only of the Augustans but of those who were stirred by vague feelings which they hardly understood and to which they were unable to give poetic voice.
The enthusiasm and rapidity with which Thomson's example was followed illustrates how ready poets were for a clear path into new fields. In the sixty years before Winter appeared there were only some hundred and fifty unrimed pieces, whereas over a hundred were printed in the fifteen years (1731-45) that followed the completion of The Seasons and about seventy in the next five years. Among the poems that came after 1726 were a number of the most widely-read works of the century, Somervile's Chace (1735), Glover's Leonidas (1737), Young's Night Thoughts (1742–6), Armstrong's Art of PreServing Health (1744), and Akenside's Pleasures of Imagination (1744). Thomson is, of course, not responsible for all the blank verse published between 1731 and 1750, but he had some effect on most of it, and without his example many of the pieces that employed it, particularly the longer works, would never have been written. Furthermore, his influence had only begun to make itself felt by 1750, for it persisted well into the nineteenth century, even after the shores of England had slipped forever from the straining eyes of'Byron and Keats and the bay of Spezzia had closed over the restless heart of Shelley.
The vogue of The Seasons was far greater than is generally realized. Winter went through four editions the year it was published, and was reprinted in 1728, 1730, and 1734; Summer reached five sep. arate editions, Spring three, Autumn one; the collected Seasons was printed three times in 1730 and forty-seven times more before the end of the century, besides being included in twenty-two editions of the poet's works: that is, it was published in whole or in part no less than eighty-eight times in the seventy-four years after it was first printed. Nor did its popularity cease then. Four editions
appeared in each of the years 1802 and 1803, five in 1805, and, counting those included in the works and the three printed in America, there were forty-four in the first two decades of the century." It was some seventy years after the first of the “Seasons" was written that Coleridge, seeing a much-worn copy of the poem lying on
a the window-seat of an obscure inn, exclaimed, “That is true fame!” 2
Tributes to the poem are so embarrassingly abundant that there is room to quote only a few of the later ones. In 1774 the author of the Sentimental Sailor declared that Thomson's "matchless song" would last as long as "the circling seasons still appear.” 3 In 1781 the Critical Review remarked, “The beauties of spring have already been so amply described, and so nobly treated by Thomson, that few readers will bring themselves to imagine that any other writer can treat this subject with equal force, elegance, and propriety." 4 This comment occurs in a review of an anonymous poem on spring, the author of which “adores” the “amazing heights, by thee (Thomson] alone attain'd."6 The Monthly Review asserted in 1793 that, to be effective, descriptive poetry needed to be "written by a master hand, little inferior to Thomson himself," and six years later mentioned certain requisites without which “the finest passages in Homer, Virgil, Milton, and Thomson, would excite no emotion.” 6 In view of these commendations and the opinion of James Grahame-himself no mean nature poet - that Thomson's descriptions have “a genius and felicity which none of his followers need ever hope to equal,” ? it is not strange that John Aikin affirmed in 1804, “The Seasons . yields, perhaps, to no other English poem in popularity.” 8 One is somewhat surprised, however, to find Hazlitt remarking fourteen years later that Thomson was “perhaps, the most popular of all our poets, treating of a subject that all can understand, and in a way that
1 These figures are taken mainly from the Caxton Head sale catalogue (No. 556, Feb. 19, 1912, which lists “nearly 150 different editions ” of The Seasons), with additions from the British Museum catalogue, and some from the Cambridge History of English Literature (English ed., X. 446–7). An episode in Autumn was developed into "a legendary tale” (Philemon and Lavinia) by David Mountfort in 1783; Gleanings from Thomson, or the Village Muse, appeared about 1800 (see Mo. Rev., enl. ed., xxxi. 323), and a professed imitation so late as 1808 (see Europ. Mag., liv. 218).
2 Hazlitt, Lectures on the English Poets, 1818 (Works, 1902, v. 88). 3 Quoted, Mo. Rev., li. 342.
4 lii. 201.
Quoted, ib. 203. 6 Enlarged ed., xii. 222, xxix. 337; cf. vi. 455. 7 Preface to his British Georgics (Edin., 1809).
8 Letters on English Poetry (2d ed., 1807), 164. In the Cabinet of Poetry (ed. S. J. Pratt, 1808), which professes to include “only the best and most exquisite pieces," Milton occupies one whole volume (351 pages), Thomson 184 pages, and Pope 144.