James Thomson

James Thomson (1700-1748) was perhaps the eighteenth-century author most responsible for the tradition we now think of as “nature poetry” in British literature. His long poems, particularly The Seasons and The Castle of Indolence had an incalculable influence on the writers of the nineteenth century. He was born in 1700 amid the pastoral landscapes of Roxburghshire in Scotland and left the University of Edinburgh for London in 1725. The first complete edition of The Seasons appeared in 1730, collecting rural and naturalistic verses that derived from his Thomson’s childhood in the Scottish border country and his widespread reading. As his editor J. Logie Robertson notes, “Thomson’s great merit lies in his restoration of nature to the domain of poetry from which it had been banished by Pope and his school” (viii). Thomson’s poetic achievement rests largely on his powerful descriptions of  scenes drawn directly from his own experience of the natural world:

I solitary court
The inspiring breeze, and meditate the book
Of Nature, ever open, aiming thence
Warm from the heart to learn the moral song.
And, as I steal along the sunny wall,
Where Autumn basks, with fruit empurpled deep,
My pleasing theme continual prompts my thought–
Presents the downy peach, the shining plum
With a fine bluish mist of animals
Clouded, the ruddy nectarine, and dark
Beneath his ample leaf the luscious fig.
The vine too here her curling tendrils shoots,
Hangs out her clusters glowing to the south,
And scarcely wishes for a warmer sky. (“Autumn,” 669-82)

He was equally accomplished, however, at producing vivid descriptions of exotic climes which he had never visited but had only read as described by others:

The tiger, darting fierce
Impetuous on the prey his glance has doomed;
The lively-shining leopard, speckled o’er
With many a spot and beauty of the waste;
And, scorning all the taming arts of man,
The keen hyena, fellest of the fell–
These rushing from the inhospitable woods
Of Mauritania, or the tufted isles
That verdant rise among the Libyan wild,
Innumerous glare around their shaggy king
Majestic stalking o’er the printed sand . . . (“Summer,” 916-26)

The greater and lesser Romantic writers all owe a debt to Thomson’s blank verse cadences, his visual clarity, and his suggestion that the universe beyond the human world contains objects and events of value. Here is Thomson himself: “I know no subject more elevating, more amusing, more ready to awake the poetic enthusiasm, the philosophical reflection, and the moral sentiment than the works of nature. Where can we meet with such variety, such beauty, such magnificence–all that enlarges and transports the soul? . . . But there is no thinking of these things without breaking into poetry.”  Thomson died in 1748 and was buried in Richmond, memorialized in Collin’s “Ode.” Without Thomson’s verse, “nature” in the English speaking world would seem to be a different world. (A.N.)

Thomson Links:

Nature as described in The Seasons

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