I like to tell poetry students about pleasures that are “on reserve” for them—meaning pleasures they’re too little to have now, but which they will have, someday, if they just stick with it. Good example of this: owning other poets.
How can you own a poet? Simple. You have to find a poet whom no one has read in a long time, a poet with no living fans. Then you have to sincerely love that poet’s work. That’s the hard part. But if you love the poet’s poems, and no one else has even read them, there’s your opportunity to plant your flag. That poet is now your private property. Your interpretation of that poet’s work is by definition correct. Your right to be there is indisputable.
And why can’t beginners have this pleasure? That’s easy. ’Cuz they cannot bring themselves to read material that’s “not gonna be on the test.” And even if they do somehow read such material, they do not love it. They are beginners; they love each other. Everything else is homework.
James Thomson (1700–1748) is my private property. I keep him in my pocket and take him out and look at him sometimes. He always looks good. There are many James Thomson poems that I have never read. Consequently, those pieces do not exist. The ones I have read I have read many times. I’m talking about The Seasons, a 5,500-line poem that used to be approximately as famous as the Aeneid or whatever. It was translated into a bunch of different languages, Goethe revered it, it was imitated all over the place. People used to sit there, stunned or rocking back and forth, muttering “Oh man, oh man, oh man!” about The Seasons. These days, however—2019—the sun has quite gone down on this great poet.
It’s not hard to see why. His stuff doesn’t sound like it’s going to be good, at all. Number one, it was written in the eighteenth century. Nobody likes that century’s poetry. Number two, it’s in twisted-up Miltonic blank verse. In other words, it’s hard. Number three, it’s 5,500 lines of nature imagery. There’s no plot, no characters—it’s nature imagery, floor to ceiling.
Do not adjust your laptop. That sound you hear is fleeing multitudes.
But! It’s one of the best and most moving poems I’ve ever read or ever hope to read. There are parts that cause me to rain tears.There are parts whose eloquence is right up there with Shakespeare and company. Let me show you a handful of passages.
Exhibit A: This is just to give you an idea what kind of diction-syntax we’re talking about. This is really early 0n in the poem, and Thomson has been talking about how the coming of spring affects the air and the wind; now he draws your attention to the soil and leaves:
Nor only through the lenient air this change
Delicious breathes: the penetrative Sun,
His force deep-darting to the dark retreat
Of vegetation, sets the steaming power
At large, to wander o’er the vernant earth
In various hues …
For God’s sake, look at the word lenient there; the word penetrative; the word retreat. And the construction “sets the steaming power at large.” But, more subtly, consider the strange way that this:
Nor only through the lenient air this change delicious breathes,—
is so much better than:
Not only does this delicious change breathe through the lenient air,—
This latter point instantiates a deep mystery. In 2019, no one would dare Latinize their syntax like that. It would look like if you went to school one day in an Elizabethan ruff. And even in the eighteenth century, this wasn’t always done with grace and élan. Thomson, however, has the touch. He always knows when it would be better to say “Something wicked this way comes” rather than “Something wicked comes this way” (which, incidentally, has the exact same scansion).
Exhibit B. Example of how, to Thomson, everything in nature is a person:
Hushed in short suspense,
The plumy people streak their wings with oil
To throw the lucid moisture trickling off,
And wait the approaching sign to strike at once
Into the general choir.
The “plumy people”! He’s talking about birds. Elsewhere, fish are the “finny race.” Flowers are “summer’s musky tribe.” And so on. (Cf. Holden Caulfield famously saying “At least a horse is human.”)
Exhibit C. A soaring description of a rainbow:
Meantime, refracted from yon eastern cloud,
Bestriding earth, the grand ethereal bow
Shoots up immense; and every hue unfolds,
In fair proportion running from the red
To where the violet fades into the sky.
Here, awful Newton, the dissolving clouds
Form, fronting on the sun, thy showery prism;
And to the sage-instructed eye unfold
The various twine of light, by thee disclosed
From the white mingling maze. Not so the swain;
He wondering views the bright enchantment bend
Delightful o’er the radiant fields, and runs
To catch the falling glory; but amazed
Beholds the amusive arch before him fly,
Then vanish quite away.
The word awful, there, of course meant something like “full of awe.” Sounds bad now, but that’s not Thomson’s fault. (He originally had the word mighty there.)
Pleasant to note that Sir Isaac Newton had only recently died (1727) at the time the first version of these lines was published (1728). British intellectuals were proud Newton was on their team. Newton’s Opticks (1704) had correctly explained for the first time in human history the rainbow phenomenon, but, as the lines point out, the word hadn’t gotten out to everybody just yet. Anyhow, will you please take a second to consider the construction “dissolving clouds form, fronting on the sun, thy showery prism” and also: “unfold the various twine of light.”
Exhibit D. Thomson’s persuasive call for vegetarianism:
The wolf, who from the nightly fold
Fierce drags the bleating prey, ne’er drunk her milk,
Nor wore her warming fleece: nor has the steer,
At whose strong chest the deadly tiger hangs,
E’er plowed for him. They too are tempered high,
With hunger stung and wild necessity,
Nor lodges pity in their shaggy breast.
But man, whom Nature formed of milder clay,
With every kind emotion in his heart,
And taught alone to weep,—while from her lap
She pours ten thousand delicacies, herbs
And fruits, as numerous as the drops of rain
Or beams that gave them birth,—shall he, fair form!
Who wears sweet smiles, and looks erect on Heaven,
E’er stoop to mingle with the prowling herd,
And dip his tongue in gore? The beast of prey,
Blood-stained, deserves to bleed: but you, ye flocks,
What have you done? ye peaceful people, what,
To merit death? you, who have given us milk
In luscious streams, and lent us your own coat
Against the Winter’s cold? And the plain ox,
That harmless, honest, guileless animal,
In what has he offended? he whose toil,
Patient and ever ready, clothes the land
With all the pomp of harvest; shall he bleed,
And struggling groan beneath the cruel hands
Even of the clowns he feeds? And that, perhaps
To swell the riot of the autumnal feast,
Won by his labour? This the feeling heart
Would tenderly suggest …
Come on; you must have a heart of stone if you don’t respond to the bit beginning “But you, ye flocks, / what have you done?”
Thomson is always like this. And don’t even start with me about sentimentality. It’s not sentimental; it’s sentiment. I’ll show you sentimental …
Exhibit E. This will be the last exhibit. Here, Thomson has been describing birds taking care of their young. This long passage, a cornucopia of goodies, culminates in an excellently observed bit about fledgling birds first leaving the nest:
’Tis on some evening, sunny, grateful, mild,
When nought but balm is breathing through the woods
With yellow lustre bright, that the new tribes
Visit the spacious heavens, and look abroad
On Nature’s common, far as they can see
Or wing, their range and pasture. O’er the boughs
Dancing about, still at the giddy verge
Their resolution fails; their pinions still,
In loose libration stretched, to trust the void
Trembling refuse—till down before them fly
The parent-guides, and chide, exhort, command,
Or push them off. The surging air receives
The plumy burden; and their self-taught wings
Winnow the waving element. On ground
Alighted, bolder up again they lead,
Farther and farther on, the lengthening flight;
Till, vanished every fear, and every power
Roused into life and action, light in air
The acquitted parents see their soaring race,
And, once rejoicing, never know them more.
That makes me cry!
The little birds refuse, trembling, to trust the void. (I don’t trust it either!) but then their wings “winnow the waving element,” which sounds like Dickinson. (I don’t know, but I pretty much guarantee Dickinson knew her Thomson.) And then the “acquitted” parents see their “soaring race,” and, once rejoicing, “never know them more.”
All of my exhibits are from the “Spring” section of The Seasons, which naturally comes first. I confined myself to that section quite on purpose, so that if anyone should choose to trace my steps back into this excellent piece of superannuated art, that person will find these now-familiar bits right away.
To that person, I say: Wait till you see the thing about fly fishing. You’re not gonna believe your eyes. And also: Don’t miss Dr. Johnson’s “Life of Thomson” in the Lives of the Poets. It’s probably the most charming of the middle-length lives, and it includes a funny letter from Thomson to his sister. Great stuff.
Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.