1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Thomson

Thomas Campbell, in Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 402-03.



It is singular that a subject of such beautiful unity, divisibility, and progressive interest as the description of the year, should not have been appropriated by any poet before Thomson. Mr. Twining, the translator of Aristotle's Poetics, attributes the absence of poetry devoted to pure rural and picturesque description among the ancients, to the absence or imperfection of the art of landscape painting. The Greeks, he observes, had no Thomsons because they had no Claudes. Undoubtedly they were not blind to the beauties of natural scenery; but their descriptions of rural objects are almost always what may be called sensual descriptions, exhibiting circumstances of corporeal delight, such as breezes to fan the body, springs to cool the feet, grass to repose the limbs, or fruits to regale the taste and smell, rather than objects of contemplative pleasure to the eye and imagination. From the time of Augustus, when, according to Pliny, landscape painting was first cultivated, picturesque images and descriptions of prospects seem to have become more common. But on the whole there is much more studied and detailed description in modern than in ancient poetry. There is besides in Thomson a pure theism, and a spirit of philanthropy, which, though not unknown to classic antiquity, was not familiar to its popular breast. The religion of the ancients was beautiful in fiction, but not in sentiment. It had revealed the most voluptuous and terrific agencies to poetry, but had not taught her to contemplate nature as one great image of Divine benignity, or her creatures as the objects of comprehensive human sympathy. Before popular poetry could assume this character, Christianity, philosophy, and freedom, must have civilised the human mind.

Habits of early admiration teach us all to look back upon this poet as the favourite companion of our solitary walks, and as the author who has first or chiefly reflected back to our minds a heightened and refined sensation of the delight which rural scenery affords us. The judgment of cooler years may somewhat abate our estimation of him, though it will still leave us the essential features of his poetical character to abide the test of reflection. The unvaried pomp of his diction suggests a most unfavourable comparison with the manly and idiomatic simplicity of Cowper; at the same time the pervading spirit and feeling of his poetry is in general more bland and delightful than that of his great rival in rural description. Thomson seems to contemplate the creation with an eye of unqualified pleasure and ecstasy, and to love its inhabitants with a lofty and hallowed feeling of religious happiness; Cowper has also his philanthropy, but it is dashed with religious terrors, and with themes of satire, regret, and reprehension. Cowper's image of nature is more curiously distinct and familiar. Thomson carries our associations through a wider circuit of speculation and sympathy. His touches cannot be more faithful than Cowper's, but they are more soft and select, and less disturbed by the intrusion of homely objects. Cowper was certainly much indebted to him; and though he elevates his style with more reserve and judgment than his predecessor, yet in his highest moments he seems to retain an imitative remembrance of him. It is almost stale to remark the beauties of a poem so universally felt; the truth and genial interest with which he carries us through the life of the year; the harmony of succession which he gives to the casual phenomena of nature; his pleasing transition from native to foreign scenery; and the soul of exalted and unfeigned benevolence which accompanies his prospects of the creation. It is but equal justice to say, that amidst the feeling and fancy of the Seasons, we meet with interruptions of declamation, heavy narrative, and unhappy digression — with a parhelion eloquence that throws a counterfeit glow of expression on common-place ideas — as when he treats us to the solemnly ridiculous bathing of Musidora; or draws from the classics instead of nature; or, after invoking Inspiration from her hermit-seat, makes his dedicatory bow to a patronising countess, or speaker of the House of Commons. As long as he dwells in the pure contemplation of nature, and appeals to the universal poetry of the human breast, his redundant style comes to us as something venial and adventitious — it is the flowing vesture of the druid; and perhaps to the general experience is rather imposing: but when he returns to the familiar narrations or courtesies of life, the same diction ceases to seem the mantle of inspiration, and only strikes us by its unwieldy difference from the common costume of expression. Between the period of his composing the Seasons and the Castle of Indolence, he wrote several works, which seem hardly to accord with the improvement and maturity of his taste exhibited in the latter production. To the Castle of Indolence he brought not only the full nature, but the perfect art, of a poet. The materials of that exquisite poem are derived originally from Tasso; but he was more immediately indebted for them to the Fairy Queen: and in meeting with the paternal spirit of Spenser he seems as if he were admitted more intimately to the home of inspiration. There he redeemed the jejune ambition of his style, and retained all its wealth and luxury without the accompaniment of ostentation. Every stanza of that charming allegory, at least of the whole of the first part of it, gives out a group of images from which the mind is reluctant to part, and a flow of harmony which the ear wishes to hear repeated.