James Thomson (1700-1748) Critical Essays

James Thomson


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

The plays of James Thomson are largely forgotten, as is the poem Thomson regarded as his finest work, Liberty. His reputation rests on The Seasons and, to a lesser extent, The Castle of Indolence. Thomson critics and scholars generally agree, as Richard Terry puts it, that there is no doubt that “Thomson is a major poet of his time . . . but there is still scope for the nature of his individual achievement to be redefined.” Whatever redefinition future scholarship on Thomson attempts, The Seasons will remain his distinctive contribution to English poetry.

The Seasons

The main debate in Thomson scholarship about The Seasons concerns whether or how thoroughly this long poem is unified. Scholar David Anderson claims that the poem demonstrates a structural principle that gives an effective direction to the reader about how to comprehend the many topics that appear in Thomson’s poem. Anderson describes the structure of the poem as leading readers from “landscape description, through emotional response to landscape, to enthusiastic praise of the landscape’s Creator.” He names this structure an “emotive theodicy.” Since any theodicy attempts to justify the ways of God to human beings, Anderson is being logical when he argues that the central fact of The Seasons is contained in the following lines: “. . . tho’ conceal’d, to every purer Eye/ Th’ informing Author in his Works appears:/ Chief, lovely Spring, in thee, and thy soft Scenes,/ The Smiling God is seen. . . .”

The first collected edition of The Seasons was published in 1730. Its total length was 4,569 lines. Thomson produced a major revision of his most famous poem, which appeared in 1744; this edition is a quarter longer, adding about 1,000 lines. These are certainly not two different poems, but much changed in the intervening fourteen years. The 1744 edition makes Spring and Autumn only about 100 lines longer. About 300 lines are added to Winter, and approximately 600 to Summer. Scholar James Sambrook notes that the later edition extends the historical and geographical material. He also notes that in Winter Thomson doubles the number of ancient heroes and makes the passage five times longer than in the 1730 text. Sambrook emphasizes that in Summer, the 1744 edition more evenly balances pleasures and pains as well as horrors and delights in nature. This attempt at a balancing act in the revisions of The Seasons serves both a religious and a political purpose.

If religion and praise of God are important to The Seasons, so is politics. Scholar Tim Fulford emphasizes that Thomson’s landscapes in The Seasons, especially in the 1744 edition, are imagined by the poet as political spaces. Thomson sees wild landscapes as bastions of natural British freedom, and he presents cultivated landscapes as indexes of the virtues of the patrons whose political commitments Thomson shared. The poet perceives this wild native freedom and cultivated virtues of British landscapes as threatened by the...

(The entire section is 1301 words.)