1814 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Thomson

Thomas Barnes, "Portraits of Authors. James Thomson" The Champion (13 November 1814) 366.



Descriptive poetry is seldom allowed to take quite so high a rank as it deserves: its apparent facility is so tempting, that almost every idler who has learned to rhyme seizes some unfortunate mountain or stream as a subject for poetic eulogy, as every girl who has been taught to sketch is always pestering her friends with real views from nature. This alone might serve to bring this species of writing into contempt, for who can bear that a vulgar mind should presume to hold converse with the Muses. Any body may write satire, as any body may write a sermon: but poetry is too sacred a thing to be attempted by rhymesters, and to extend our disdain of presumptuous impertinence to the art which it dares to invade: Homer and Milton will hardly be considered to have chosen a despicable province, because Mr. Pye and Sir James Bland Burgess have thrust their unhallowed feet upon it, instead of falling down and worshiping at the barrier: the admirers of Handel need not blush for him, because Dr. Busby is so portentously fearless as to compose oratorios; and Raphael may be allowed to have been actuated by an elevated ambition, though something calling itself "Stroehling" has chosen the profession of an historical painter. After all it must be confessed, that mere descriptive poetry does not seem to demand such high powers of intellect or imagination as are associated with our idea of a great poet, nor is it able to effect its proposed object with that certainty which ensures respect for an undertaking. It requires taste rather than invention, and a good eye rather than a reflecting mind: and language with all the combinations which ingenuity can form can never give an exact picture, though exactness is the chief is not the only beauty here expected. Here I must own, that something like a feeling of remorse comes across me while I am pronouncing this depreciating sentence, when I call to mind the thousand vivid landscapes which adorn the poem of Spenser: Claude never painted with such revelling and luxuriant fancy, nor Poussin with such refinement and delicacy of taste. Yet, on consideration, I believe I am right: the pleasure felt in the perusal of those exquisite passages is something very distinct from the admiration of a beautiful scene: the poet indeed surrounds us with enchanting objects but we think of them less than of the stupendous power of the enchanter. In other words, though our very senses are refreshed by reading his descriptions, yet in a few moments every other sensation is absorbed in wonder at that inexhaustible stream of which we can neither fathom nor follow. We fairly stop to take breath: we look around with astonishment, and are ready to venerate what is so utterly beyond the understood capabilities of mankind. It is quite obvious, that in such a case the subject is a matter of very inferior consideration: that instead of its being the prominent idea we scarcely think of it, except out of curiosity to see what has been the material on which such a sublime exercise of power has been displayed.

The obvious facilities and the real difficulties of this branch of poetry may have been the reason that the ancients, so rarely, if at all, attempted it: and that it was not till modern times when saturated taste began to search for new sources of delight, that description of external objects became a distinct district of the art. It was hardly considered as of sufficient dignity: it had too little to do with the passions and intellect of man: it was without action, and the strongest impressions which it could produce would be exceeded by the first walk into the next field. Thus there is very little of pure description either in Homer and Virgil, and though Ovid, whose imagination had more of what moderns call romance about it than any other ancient writer, has given us some delicious scenes of rural beauty which Ariosto has known how to copy, yet his scenery is always subordinate to his tale: it is never the predominant, much less the sole object of a single page.

Thomson then may be considered as the first writer who has introduced the art of painting in verse: his powers were too great to allow a complete failure yet his success has not been such as to induce any great poet to imitate him. Cowper, indeed, and Wordsworth have both written descriptive poetry, but the one has made it the vehicle of moral and domestic observation, the latter of sublime and awful contemplation. Thomson alone, for pages together, has given mere details of external objects without an episode or a reflection. He seems to have been fully aware of the main difficulty of his subject, the impossibility of giving a full, clear, and exact idea of a natural landscape: and his method of surmounting this grand obstacle is perhaps his greatest fault. Finding that his resources in received phraseology were not sufficient for his purpose, and not having like Spenser any skill in the picturesque combination of terms, he tries to compensate for the quality by the quantity of his diction: he heaps word upon word, and each word is more obscure and harsh than its precursor, thus involving, in the confusion and perplexity of numerous and unintelligible phrases, what could scarcely be rendered perceptible through the medium of the most accurate and chosen language. His page presents almost always an image of cumbrous and dull magnificence, like the unwieldy majesty of my lord mayor's coach. There is also a want of spirit and energy in the conduct of the poem, which makes it almost impossible to read two hundred lines of it together without yawning. Thomson was personally an indolent man: such men are generally remarkable for extraordinary energy of intellect on a favourite subject: but those who peruse the Seasons may discover that the mind of the author was as indolent as his body, and subject to long fits of oscitancy. His understanding seems scarcely ever awake: he goes on at jog-trot, pointing out the beauties of nature, with the laziness, though certainly not with the indifference, of an old porter shewing a picture-gallery: and if he now and then thrusts in a moral reflection or a critical remark, it is done with such drowsiness that it seems an invitation to sleep, like the spiritual application at the end of a tabernacle sermon. But though I think this is to be the general truth with respect to the Seasons, yet I am anxious to acknowledge that there are some glorious exceptions, where the poet has shaken off his benumbing sluggishness, and has shewn all the elastic and mighty energy of genius, where he has proved that he had a heart which could feel deeply and truly all sublimity and beauty, whether natural or moral. I allude particularly to the description of the summer in the torrid zone, and of winter in the frigid zone. Their grand productions of nature, vegetable and animal, the tremendous visitations to which they are subject, which seem too much either for the enjoyment or the sufferance of the imbecile man of civilized nations, have together roused the sluggard into the dignity of intellectual poetry: his soul expands at the magnificence of the new world around him: his language becomes free and unencumbered as the theme, and partakes of the elevation of his excited feelings. He is no longer the country-gentleman lounging along his familiar walk with loose gown and dragging slippers: he strides along with the alacrity and vigour of a son of nature, exulting in that comprehensive capacity of enjoyment which is as sublime as the scene which he enjoys. Some have praised Thomson for the episodical stories in his poem: they always appeared to me very dull and uninteresting. Two of them are tales which the least skill in the pathetic would have rendered a perpetual fund of tenderness and sorrow: but Thomson had no pathos: he seems never to have studied the human heart with its sources of grief and agony. Thus his tragedies, though all founded on the most distressing events, never draw a tear: the love of Tancred, the despair of Sigismunda, are equally untouching, because they are equally passionless. This want of passion is the defect which makes his other poems perfectly unreadable. Dr. Johnson frankly confessed that he could not read the poem on Liberty, and I believe that every other person who has attempted the task has been compelled to abandon it. It sounds rather badly for this production, when one of Thomson's biographers, who is loud in its praise, can only produce one specimen to be admired, which is equally tawdry and common. One poem, however, Thomson appears to have written con amore, with that fondness for the subject which supplies the means of succeeding in it. It is the Castle of Indolence, where he has shewn a variety and richness of fancy that had never before been excited, because he never before was so profoundly interested, and also a gentleness and benevolence and tenderness of character, which although they were not sufficient to make him a pathetic tragedian, must have made him a warm, faithful, and affectionate friend.