Study Guide

The Seasons

by James Thomson

The Seasons Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

A cycle of four long poems in blank verse with a brief concluding hymn, The Seasons celebrates the magnificence and harmony of nature as a manifestation of the Supreme Being. It embodies literary, philosophical, and theological ideas characteristic of the eighteenth century, yet it also prefigures the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century, particularly in its depictions of storms and wilderness. It enjoyed extraordinary popularity and influence in both centuries, and its impressive, picturesque landscapes made it a favorite text for illustration.

The poem evolved gradually, beginning with a short piece called “Winter,” published in 1726. As he expanded and revised the work, James Thomson adopted the Georgics (c. 37-29 b.c.e.; English translation, 1589) of the ancient Roman poet Vergil as his literary model, finding there a precedent for his subject matter (nature), his four-part structure, and his elevated style. Standing in the middle ground between the pastoral and the epic, “georgic” verse was expected to use lofty diction in celebrating the earth’s bounty. Whereas pastoral poetry uses nature artificially as stage scenery for the philosophizing of urbane shepherds, georgic poetry draws inspiration from the noble labors of the farmer. Thomson by no means restricts himself to the farm, however; he seeks in untamed nature a special quality that fascinated his age: the “sublime,” the paradoxically uplifting experience of awe and even of terror.

Each of the four poems opens with conventional elements: an invocation to the poet’s muse and an elegant address to his patron. Thereafter, each loosely adheres to a different structural principle. The first poem, “Spring,” celebrates the influence of the season over the whole Chain of Being, starting with the lowest, inanimate matter, and ending with the highest of beings on earth, “Man.” Thomson prefers not to depict nature for its own sake but to do so for what it teaches, and many of its glories become occasions for edifying digressions. After describing the breezes warming the soil, the poet argues for the dignity of his theme, for agriculture crowns the British Empire as it once crowned the Roman Empire. Describing a rainbow after a spring shower, he contrasts the scientific theory of Sir Isaac Newton with the dumb amazement of the ignorant swain. The thought of the virtues in herbs provokes a long discussion of humanity’s lost innocence. In days of old, reason governed passion and even the lion was gentle, but, since the Flood, afflictions have beset humanity. Yet, humankind still neglects the “wholesome Herb” and consumes the flesh of harmless animals. Some readers have criticized the looseness that results from this circuitous method, and no doubt the long, cumulative process of composition worked against the development of a rigid structure, but this lack of architecture reflects Thomson’s sense of nature, for the poem possesses an underlying coherence that may be discerned only intermittently beneath the wonderful variety of the surface.

Birds follow vegetation; the poem relates how, infused with love from the “Source of Beings,” they mate and build nests, brood over their eggs, and at last teach their offspring the art of flight. This springtime diffusion of amorous passions dominates the rest of the poem, but it refuses to conduct—out of respect for female readers, says the poet—a detailed discussion of animals and gives rise instead to a lecture on the torments that befall youthful lovers and the happiness of those who join in marriage and bring forth a delightful “human blossom.” Moralizing or “didactic” verse of this kind (besides being sanctioned by Thomson’s literary model) was considered to be an integral part of the “topographical” poem, in which an impressive landscape becomes the occasion for profound and edifying meditation. Indeed, The Seasons inseparably intertwines description and didacticism, arguing throughout that our experience of nature inspires feeling, feeling inspires thought, and thought inspires praise of God.

“Summer,” the longest of the four poems, traces a single day from morning to night, but it also uses the eye of imagination to describe the harsh climate of the tropics. The sun rules majestically over the summer day. All beings are its courtiers; his reign extends even to shining metals and gems that lie within the earth; ponds and oceans glitter with the sun’s reflected light, yet...

(The entire section is 1851 words.)