1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Thomson

Allan Cunningham, in Songs of Scotland, Ancient and Modern (1825) 1:199-201.



Of the lyric powers of the author of The Seasons little more can be said than that his songs are distinguished for softness and grace — for an easy and equable flow of elegant language; and that, amid much kindliness of nature, and concise propriety of expression, he is seldom warm or impassioned. It is unfortunate for his fame as a lyric poet, that he wrote The Seasons and the Castle of Indolence. His Muse loved what was magnificent more than what was minute, and excelled in scenes of natural grandeur more than in images of domestic endearment and homely delight. The splendour of his other works eclipses the light of his songs. In looking on the rose, we forget the daisy; in gazing on the rising sun, we forget the beauty of the stars; in admiring a colossus, we turn not aside to examine a head carved out of a cherry-stone. He had a deeper sympathy with nature, and found more solace in following her through all the changes of place and season, than in what a Cameronian not unwisely called "woman worship." Nature he loved to pursue "through summer's heat and winter's snow," — through vales of spice, and over the mountains and the waves; but woman he was content to admire at a safer distance; he perhaps knew her fondness to be, as the poet found it, "a lovely and a fearful thing," and continued heart-free, though not fancy-free. His Amanda cannot be blamed for keeping her feet in spite of the witchery of songs which were more sweet than sincere, and had little warmth and less passion. He perhaps loved woman as he loved fruit, which he liked to come drop-ripe to his lips, without the trouble of plucking — and admired her as he did the apple, when he ate it off the branch with his hands in his waistcoat pockets.

His songs are indeed the careless productions of one employed on higher things, and express the feelings of a kind rather than of a warm heart, of a cultivated rather than of a gifted mind. He seeks not to embellish humble life, to picture out homely enjoyments, or to extract poetical grace and lyric beauty from the common employments and conditions of the people of his native land. His heart is not with Scotland when he sings; and though sprung from humble life himself, he shows no marks of his original condition — he is silent on the subject of the peasantry of his country — he has added nothing to their winter evening mirth or joy, and is almost the only instance of a northern poet whose songs are not heard among the cottages of his dwelling place. But he has bequeathed us something better than song in those scenes of inspired description and sublime morality which make him an inmate of every house, and a benefactor to mankind.