Saturday, July 26, 2008

Brightening fields of ether fair-disclos'd

'From brightening fields of ether fair-disclos'd, /Child of the sun, refulgent Summer comes...' Hot sunny weather today beings to mind these opening lines of James Thomson's poem 'Summer' (1730).  In his enjoyable survey Lives of the Poets (1998), Michael Schmidt devotes a whole chapter to Thomson, but calls it 'Dead Pastoral'. Here are some of his arguments against Thomson:

  • He is now 'primarily read by scholars who prefer dust to living dirt'
  • His verse was once as ubiquitous in inns and cottages as Gideon bibles and was similarly 'reassuring and instructive but never taxing'
  • He was fashionably up-to-date on philosophy and science, but this modernity now dates him
  • His language is derived from Milton - he 'vulgarized Milton as he vulgarized the new science'
  • There is verbal exuberance but 'it is hard at times to see through the adjectival undergrowth to a subject'
  • He forfeits our attention by ascending to generalization. Gilbert White's prose conveys far more because he addresses a subject whereas Thomson addresses an audience
  • Although there are good lines there is 'want of method', in Dr Johnson's judgement
  • Nevertheless, Johnson admired Thomson, a misjudgment Schmidt puts down to his enthusiasm for the novelty of Thomson's subject matter
  • And yet Thomson's approach wasn't that new -he revived the georgic, but others had already done this
  • Thomson's countryside is recognisable rather than mythic, but it is still an optimistic, idealised view that celebrates commerce an enterprise - The Seasons is a Whig epic
  • The best thing he occasioned was William Collins' Ode on Thomson's death
Pretty damning. Of course Schmidt does credit Thomson with a few good moments, like these delicious lines from 'Summer':
'Bear me, Pomona! to thy citron groves;
To where the lemon and the piercing lime,
With the deep orange glowing through the green,
Their lighter glories blend. Lay me reclined
Beneath the spreading tamarind, that shakes,
Fanned by the breeze, its fever-cooling fruit.'
Schmidt argues that Thomson can only really be enjoyed in odd lines. 'He lacks Wordsworth's engagement. His is an enthusiasm of the various senses, but the whole man is withheld. Wordsworth's imagination is continuous with the experienced world, Thomson's tangential to it.' But Thomson has always been dipped into for the poetic fragments, like the quotations that artists like Turner appended to their paintings. Turner went so far as to paint a tribute to the poet, Thomson's Aeolian Harp (1809), showing an ideal memorial to the poet in which a harp placed on his tomb could respond to the cycle of the seasons. Turner wrote lines to accompany the painting: '... Let Summer shed her many blossoms fair, / to shield the trembling strings in noon-tide ray; / While ever and anon the dulcet air / shall rapturous thrill, or sigh in sweets away...'

The James Thomson memorial in Richmond

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