Landscapes "Dynamically in Motion": Revisiting Issues of Structure and Agency in Thomson's the Seasons
Kinsley, Zoe, Papers on Language & Literature
Eighteenth-century poetry has recently been celebrated as a field that is becoming increasingly exciting to work in, that has "opened out in several directions," and in which "new [poetic] voices" have begun to be heard. This recognition of the diversity of eighteenth-century poetry, argues David Fairer, requires a new kind of critical response, one that is more flexible and varied: "It became clear that the best way to understand all this was to move around and take a better look from different angles" (ix). This call for a new approach, for a criticism that experiments with different perspectives, is one that had been made a few years earlier to readers of James Thomson. As the poet's tercentenary was celebrated, Richard Terry asked for Thomson's literary achievement to be reconsidered and redefined (6). Thomson's most popular poem, The Seasons, should be reconsidered in this new and positive school of criticism. The Seasons has, in recent years, been the subject of a range of politicized readings. Thomson's poetry has been productively explored within the wider context of his patriotism and opposition politics, and there has been a strong trend for reading the passages of landscape description within The Seasons as ideologically infused, an approach that marks the prospect view as a mode of disinterested vision available only to the landowning aristocracy. (1) This current reading of Thomson's prospect descriptions further explores issues concerning the authority of the text, focusing in particular on how Thomson's poetic language seeks to represent the author's visual and experiential engagement with the natural landscape. The Seasons is a poem that, in its framing apparatus and in numerous passages of the text itself, declares itself to be engaging with the contemporary political scene. It is also, however, one of the most important nature poems of the eighteenth century. Looking in detail at the passages of natural description in Thomson's poem I will scrutinize the ways in which the author's views on authority and agency, which are so prevalent in the more directly political sections of The Seasons, are explored and articulated within the descriptive language chosen to represent the English landscape. This reading draws on a tradition of Thomson scholarship that began by fighting hard to rescue The Seasons from the clutches of those who criticized the poem for its lack of a "unifying vision" (Cohen, The Unfolding of The Seasons 1). In particular the argument is influenced by the writing of Ralph Cohen, whose now seminal studies of Thomson--The Art of Discrimination (1964) and The Unfolding of The Seasons (1970)--celebrated the poem as one that "urges upon the reader the need to understand the environment by plunging into it not merely by seeing, but by tasting, smelling, hearing and touching it" (The Unfolding of The Seasons 2). The reading also engages with the work of Patricia Meyer Spacks, whose Poetry of Vision (1967) explored Thomson's struggles with the linguistic representation of landscape and emphasized his preoccupation with the "revelation of pattern" (39). As a development of that earlier work it will be argued that when considering questions of structure and agency in the landscape descriptions of Thomson's Seasons, we should note not only the detachment of the prospect scenes, but also the dynamic interplay between that distant vision and the minute detailing of the movements and forms that make up the texture of the landscape.
Much of the writing on Thomson's prospect description within The Seasons has characterized it as demonstrating a triumph of authority over nature that inevitably involves the detachment of the speaker from the scene described. John Barrell, for example, argues that Thomson uses the eminence as a vantage point from which he can monopolize nature: "Thomson [...] feels he must control nature in order not to be controlled by it, and it is in this respect that the, so to speak, moral significance of his insistence on describing landscape from a high viewpoint is best understood" (24). …