The Pen of Thomson

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portrait of James Thomson

James Thomson
from an engraving
after a drawing
by T. Unwins,
an original miniature
inserted in the lid of
the poet's snuff box.

. Link to sound file,

"The Romantic Water-Fall"
ead by
Joseph Mussulman

James Thomson's most ambitious, popular and durable work was the epic blank-verse poem, The Seasons, published in four episodes between 1726 and 1730, and frequently revised by the poet until 1741.1 Unlike his urbane and witty British contemporary, Alexander Pope (1688-1744), Thomson focused his poetic vision on rural scenes, from mountains to plains, from the Arctic to the Tropics, as the seasons reflect the pulse of Nature, of which humans are portrayed as patient and dutifully worshipful observers. Dispensing with the Aristotelian principle of beginning-middle-end, he allowed his subject to dictate a linear, sequential form, and in that regard The Seasons was a triumph of sustained style, the four sections extending to a total of 5,541 lines.

Thomson's poem reflected three aspects of the new popular attitude toward wilderness that emerged during the eighteenth century. First, it gave meaning to the concept of the sublime. Previous generations had been hostile toward untamed places, regarding wilderness in general as chaotic, ugly, accursed. Mountains, for instance, were earth's deformities, and forests, like all unpeopled and uncivilized realms, were feared and despised. According to the concept of the sublime, however, settings that were solitary, awesome, mysterious, or even terrifying were considered, as Lewis was to describe the second of the five falls on the Missouri, "pleasingly beautiful."2 Second, The Seasons embodied the principle of deism, a system based on belief in a creator who set the universe in motion to operate forever as a beautiful machine. Thomson recognized the divine creator everywhere.

Hail Source of Beings! Universal Soul
Of heaven and earth! Essential Presence, hail!
To Thee I bend the knee; to Thee my thoughts,
Continual, climb; who, with a master-hand
Hast the great whole into perfection touch'd.3

He concluded his poem with a long and resonant "Hymn to Nature."

Finally, it was Thomson's style of writing about nature that readers like Lewis admired. With the eye of a painter, Thomson studied the forms, colors, motions, temperatures and textures of rural nature, and recorded them faithfully and objectively. Nearly every phrase captures a detail in vivid, crystalline clarity.

We have no clue that Lewis had read, much less remembered, the passage about "The Romantic Water-Fall," but we may surmise that all he finally wished for after contemplating the Great Falls of the Missouri for four hours that day, was a Thomsonian power with words--the capacity to see every detail, and the eloquence to turn a phrase spontaneously, with passion and simplicity.

The Seasons was published often in Great Britain until the 1860s, and reprints appeared in the United States beginning in 1797, with several more American editions following during the next seventy years. Some editions included woodcuts or etchings, always focusing on people, such as farmers or lovers whose lives are more or less dramatically affected by seasonal weather. Meanwhile, the poem was the inspiration for the oratorio of the same name composed in 1801 by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), which was a musical testament to his own profound love of nature.

1. The excerpt quoted above is from The Seasons, containing Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, by James Thomson, with the life of the author, by Dr. Samuel Johnson. Philadelphia, printed by John Bioren...for Benjamin and Jacob Johnson, 1801.

2. Meriwether Lewis, June 14, 1805. On the evolution of the concept of the sublime, see Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (rev. ed., 1973; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), Chapter 3, "The Romantic Wilderness." In 1803 Ludwig van Beethoven, the composer who linked the the musical style of the Enlightenment (specifically Viennese) with that of the Romantic era, wrote a song for solo voice with piano accompaniment entitled Ehre des Gottes aus der Natur – "The Glory of God in Nature" – to a poem by Thomson's German contemporary, Christian Gellert (1715-1769). Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, the "Pastoral," composed in 1807, was an orchestral ode to the Sublime in Nature.

3. Thomson, The Seasons (Philadelphia, 1801), 38.