1842 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Thomson

Robert Story, in Love and Literature; being the Reminiscences, Literary Opinions, and Fugitive Pieces of a Poet in Humble Life (1842) 152-56.



"My next favourite was a poet of a very different character. He delighted to paint Nature as she is — beautiful amidst her grandeur, and grand amidst her beauty. He 'skimmed the gay spring' — lingered on the birth of flowers, the loves of birds, and the happiness of the human race. He 'rose on eagle pinions through the summer blaze' — and a world, cheerful with the sounds of 'happy labour,' unfolded itself beneath his eye. He 'swept o'er autumn with the shadowy gale' — and not a fading grace escaped his notice. And 'rolled in the doubling storm' of winter, he soared among its clouds and its vapours with the unflagging strength of the tempest. I need not say that I allude to THOMPSON; for to whom could this description be applicable, but to the tender, the elegant, the sublime poet of the 'Seasons?'

"When I became familiar with the works of Thompson, I had attained to the eighteenth year of my age. My taste had been gradually, though imperceptibly, improving. Superfluous branch after branch had been lopped away, and the tree began to give something like a promise of future strength and gracefulness. I could now distinguish the natural from the extravagant in composition. I had begun to look round on the world, and to examine my own heart; and I was no longer satisfied with giving a new dress to the thoughts and feelings of others. I watched the clouds and the stars — observed the streams and the woods — ransacked the garden and the wild — for untried similes and new illustrations. In a word, I had begun to feel my own strength — I was determined to be independent of all but my own resources — and the perusal of Thompson at once confirmed my resolutions, and stimulated my efforts. My reading having lain principally among poets, my information was, of course, but scanty. I had a general knowledge of most subjects, but an intimate and solid acquaintance with very few. The philosophic Muse of the 'Seasons' taught me to look not only on the surface of things, but beneath it. She taught me that

The flowery leaf
Wants not its soft inhabitants. Secure
Within its winding citadel, the stone
Holds multitudes. But chief the forest boughs,
That dance unnumbered to the playful breeze,
The downy orchard, and the melting pulp
Of mellow fruit, the nameless nations feed
Of evanescent insects.

By such minute developments I was prompted to the study of natural history, which opened to me a fresh fountain of ideas. The description of the rainbow and the comet turned my attention to the sciences of optics and astronomy. The various powerful pictures of foreign regions excited a desire for more extended information respecting them; and thus I was induced to read geographical details, and to devour the accounts of travellers. I was led to the history of my own country by the brief, but animated sketches of her kings, her statesmen, and her warriors. In short, for almost all I know, I am indebted, directly or indirectly, to the 'Seasons' of Thompson. But my chief obligation remains yet to be stated.

"By reading certain authors, whom, however, it is not necessary to specify, my first religious impressions had been almost entirely effaced. Burns has emphatically said, 'An irreligious poet is a monster.' A bright imagination, refined feelings, a warm heart — these are all requisites in the poetic character. That all these should co-exist in the same individual, and yet that individual be defective in the noblest of all feelings — devotion to his God, is an anomaly that would appear almost too monstrous for belief, were we not possessed of many evidences of its possibility. Had Thompson's design been, professedly, to inculcate religions sentiments, his efforts, with me, would have been unavailing; for I was impenetrably steeled against argument. But he caught me through the medium of the feelings. He exhibited in succession the beauties and wonders of creation; and then, unexpectedly but naturally, broke out into pious ejaculations that struck at once to my heart. The passage in 'Spring' beginning 'Hail, Source of Being, universal Soul!' and that in 'Summer,' where, after singing of the sun, he exclaims, 'How shall I then attempt to sing of Him?' are but two of numerous instances of his power in this way. These, with the crowning Hymn on the Seasons — in itself one of the finest poems in our language — exerted an influence on my heart which I feel at this moment. I do not mean to ascribe miracles to Thompson. Years, and sufferings, and blessings, certainly deepened his salutary impressions; yet it was by him that the change was originated — and it is a change which has doubled every pleasure. When I contemplate the appearances of nature, I have the same intense feeling of beauty or magnificence as before; but I have also something better. My thoughts are raised thence to Him from whom everything proceeds. Not a sun-gleam passes over the landscape — not a flower blooms in the dew-drop — not a cloud reflects the tints of the morning — without reminding me of the invisible Source both of beauty and goodness!"