1836 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Thomson

L. L., in "English Poets" Southern Literary Messenger [Richmond] 2 (January 1836) 102.



His Seasons are too well known to call for comment — and his other works are (perhaps deservedly) out of the public recollection. The Castle of Indolence then, is a renewal of Spenser's best pictures — a renewal not only in its dreamy voluptuousness of character, but in its stanzaic peculiarities. It has been said that no other writers ever succeeded in acquiring the peculiar flow of Milton's blank verse, or the singular play of Spenser's old time rhythm. This is true with an exception. One half of the Castle of Indolence, if a little more antiquated, might be inserted among the cantos of the Faery Queene without detection. And this I hold to be no slight compliment to the later poet.

The Castle of Indolence was the work in which the idle Thomson gave words to his individual mood. A sluggard, he had a sluggard's visions. His visions of nature were nature lulled into quietude. His landscapes sleep under quiet skies — his winds came from "the land of Drowsy Head." He reared shadowy battlements, and planted "sleep-soothing groves," under which lay "Idlesse in her dreaming mood." And in such pictures the Poet rejoiced. But with this drowsy enchantment he mingled all the freshness of that age which, from its far distance in the past, takes upon itself the hue of far clouds — becoming in the eyes of men an age of gold. The freshness of which I speak is of the patriarchal age—

What time Dan Abraham left the Chaldee land,
And pastured on from verdant stage to stage,
Where fields and fountains fresh could best engage.

And this freshness retrieves the swooning and too sickly tone of a poem, all in all, inimitable.

If, reader, you wish an hour of forgetfulness, go to some quiet hollow, in the pleasant summer time, and after working thought and heart into the mood which can "Pour all the Arabian heaven upon our nights," hum such sleep-begetting verses as these:

Joined to the prattle of the purling rills
Were heard the lowing herds along the vale,
And flocks were bleating from the distant hills,
"And vacant shepherds piping in the dale:"
And now and then sweet Philomel would wail,
Or stock-doves plain amid the forest deep,
That drowsy rustled to the sighing gale;
And "still a coil the grasshopper did keep:"
Yet all these sounds yblent inclined all to sleep....

And up the hills, on either side, a wood
Of blackening pines aye waving to and fro,
Sent forth "a sleepy horror thro' the blood;"
And where this valley winded out below,
"The murmuring main was heard, and scarcely heard, to flow."
A pleasing land of drowsy-head it was,
Of "dreams that wave before the half-shut eye;"
And of gay castles in the clouds that pass,
Forever flushing round a summer sky:
There, eke "the soft delights that witchingly
Instill a wanton sweetness through the breast,"
And the calm pleasures always hovered nigh.

Such soporific verses are of more worth than all the narcotics ever squeezed from the pores of the poppy. They sound like the trickle of rain from the eaves, or like the hum of bees about a tulip-tree in early summer.