James Thomson (1700-1748) Analysis
by James Thomson

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James Thomson (1700-1748) Analysis

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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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 spreading corruption of Prime Minister Robert Walpole’s government of arbitrary and abusive power. This corruption is literally covering the landscape, attacking both natural freedom and the civil freedoms of a just society. In Winter, Thomson describes the arrogance and barbarism of corrupt power: “Ah little think the gay licentious Proud,/ Whom Pleasure, Power, and Affluence surround,” while others “feel, this very Moment, Death/ And all the sad Variety of Pain.” Thomson, in trying to marry religious and political commitments in his presentation of natural and cultivated landscapes, risks both the unity of his poem and the integrity of his poetic vision.

Liberty

Thomson’s time in France and Italy inspired him to write what he regarded as his most important poem, Liberty. Thomson originally intended Liberty to be a “poetical landscape of countries, mixed with moral observations on their governments and people.” This approach would have identified the poem as by the author of the highly successful The Seasons, but Thomson did not follow this plan. The poet who reestablished natural description in English poetry in The Seasons barely mentions nature in Liberty, which was an utter failure with the public. It was published in separate parts: Three thousand copies of part 1 were printed, two thousand copies of parts 2 and 3, and only one thousand copies of parts 4 and 5, indicating the failure of the poem. However, Thomson considered it his most important and finest poem. Scholar Samuel Kliger feels that it is understandable that Thomson considered it his greatest poem; he said, Liberty “could be considered great because its theme—the increment of history turned back to enrich the lives of England’s humblest citizens—was great.”

Liberty argues against luxury and corruption as the causes of tyranny. This 3,378-line poem describes the cyclical rise and fall of freedom in various states, principally Greece and Rome. Thomson feared that Great Britain was beginning to decline because of indulgence in luxury and party faction by eminent Britons. The poem is a dissuasion against self-interest, attempting to show that freedom is a delicate condition that must be nurtured and maintained with great care. The poem deals with the necessity of harmonizing all aspects of the personality so that one will not be susceptible to corruption in any of its forms. Liberty is a fable about political virtue that embodies Thomson’s conception of spiritual evolution and that holds up the ideal of “boundless Good without the power of Ill.”

The Castle of Indolence

In April, 1748, Thomson wrote a letter to his friend William Paterson about what would be Thomson’s last major poem: “after fourteen or fifteen Years, the Castle of Indolence comes abroad in a Fortnight.” Thomson’s friend Patrick Murdoch described the genesis of the poem as a mockery of himself and some friends whom he thought indolent. This playful origin of the poem and a more serious application of the moral of the poem—to live an active life of public service—are both present in the tone of The Castle of Indolence. In the same letter about the poem, Murdoch added: “But he saw very soon, that the subject deserved to be treated more seriously, and in a form fitted to convey one of the most important moral lessons.”

The Castle of Indolence consists of two cantos. It is a poem of 1,422 lines. The first canto is composed of seventy-seven Spenserian stanzas, or 693 lines. The Spenserian stanza uses 8 iambic lines of ten syllables and a ninth line of twelve syllables, and its rhyme scheme is ababbcbcc. Canto 1 describes a castle where imagination and romantic images create earthly paradises suggested by the Bower of Bliss in Spenser’s Faerie Queene. This castle is ruled by the Wizard of Indolence, who uses Nepenthe, the drink from the Faerie Queene, to enchant people and draw them into the luxurious ease of the castle. The influence of the drink is to provide “sweet Oblivion of vile earthly Care;/ Fair gladsome waking Thoughts, and joyous Dreams more fair.” The inhabitants of the castle, however, become ill and are left in a dungeon to languish.

The second canto is composed of eighty-one stanzas, or 729 lines. It presents the Knight of Arts and Industry destroying the romantic imagination and replacing it with moral responsibility and hard work. This commitment to hard work, public service, and progress leads to eternal activity: “Heirs of Eternity! yborn to rise/ Through endless States of Being, still more near/ To Bliss approaching, and Perfection clear . . .”

The Castle of Indolence was praised by Wordsworth. Another nineteenth century English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, said that “the Enchanter in the first canto was a true philanthropist, and the Knight in the second an oligarchical imposter, overthrowing truth by power.” Sambrook argues that the achievement of Thomson’s poem “is to make us feel the power of romanticism and respond with delight to its appeal, while at the same time we judge it, and know the dangers of its rejection of responsibility and reality.”