Epic, Ode, or Something New: The Blending of Genres in Thomson's Spring

Article excerpt

The mid-eighteenth-century long poem is best and in greatest complexity represented by James Thomson's The Seasons and its revisions. While the idea of the long poem as a poetic genre is a twentieth-century effort of scholars to come to terms with an elusive form that finds a variety of expressions in the eighteenth century, there has never been a sustained attempt at defining the generic hybridity of the poem, its formal characteristics, or its poetic techniques. (1) Alastair Fowler, like John Chalker, understands The Seasons in terms of the "modal extensions of georgic" (108). (2) Others have related the poem to the epic tradition and especially to Milton. (3) Ralph Cohen, on the other hand, notes that it "was not [...] either a Georgic or a scientific-didactic poem, and, although it had features of the epic, it was not an epic in any traditional sense" (92). Fowler reaches the conclusion that Thomson "invented [a] strikingly novel 'species'" that was "nevertheless acceptable to neoclassical critics" (29), thereby placing him at the center of the monogenesis of the long poem. The novelty of the genre Thomson created with The Seasons, however, reflects the scholarly dilemma that a "new genre almost ipse facto lacks any agreed label" (Fowler 131).

While a genre is characterized by a number of typical modal qualities, its validity also depends on inherent requirements of form that are prominently used in any denominated genre. Fowler in Kinds of Literature insists that "the kinds, however elusive, objectively exist. Their boundaries may not be hard-edged, but they can nonetheless exclude. This is shown by the fact that features are often characteristic through their absence" (73). In that respect, Barbara Kiefer Lewalski has usefully reconsidered Paradise Lost and its uses of genre. She holds that Milton included a "panoply of kinds" (114) in Paradise Lost that was not conceived of as a "mausoleum of dead forms" but with the belief that his "imaginative energy [...] profoundly transforms the genres themselves, creating new models which profoundly influenced English and American writers for three centuries" (115). Richard Terry, in a similar way, speaks of the ability of the long poem "to embrace and harmonize contradictions" (496).

Critics from the eighteenth century to the present day have censured the formal and methodical heterogeneity of The Seasons. Samuel Johnson, for instance, observed that the

great defect of The Seasons is want of method; but for this I know not
that there was any remedy. Of many appearances subsisting all at once,
no rule can be given why one should be mentioned before another; yet the
memory wants the help of order, and the curiosity is not excited by
suspense or expectation. (2: 292)

David Mallet, author of the long poem The Excursion, is equally criticized for his "desultory and capricious view of such scenes of Nature as his fancy led him, or his knowledge enabled him, to describe" (2: 366). Johnson remarks that Mallet's The Excursion "has Thomson's beauties and Thomson's faults" (2: 366). These faults are explained in Johnson's "Life of Savage" when he contextualizes The Wanderer against the background of a similar poetics of methodical irregularity:

It has been generally objected to The Wanderer, that the disposition of
the parts is irregular; that the images, however beautiful, succeed each
other without order; and that the whole performance is not so much a
regular fabric, as a heap of shining materials thrown together by
accident, which strikes rather with the solemn magnificence of a
stupendous ruin, than the elegant grandeur of a finished pile. (2: 92)

Johnson, however, makes a distinction between the (imaginative) long poems of Thomson, Mallet, and Savage and Pope's "arbitrary and immethodical" technique of the didactic Essay on Criticism. He thereby--implicitly at least--acknowledges (and legitimises) what Edward Young termed "the bright walks of rare Imagination, and singular Design" as well as the "fresh untrodden ground" (37) that Thomson explored in his long poem. …