Collins, Thomson, and the Whig Progress of Liberty
Levine, William, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
Liberty, James Thomson's nearly 3500-line blank verse "poetical vision" that recounts the Whiggish progress of European civilization and the triumphs of British freedom, has been almost unanimously viewed as one of his greatest aesthetic failures, a poem that Johnson once "tried to read, and soon desisted."(1) To this day, interest in the poem remains mostly historical, perhaps unjustly. For not only did Thomson incorporate sections of this panoramic didactic poem into his later, expanded versions of The Seasons, but mid-eighteenth-century British poets also acknowledged this most extensive of progress pieces as a central work of patriotic poetry. In December 1746, twelve years after the first books of Liberty were published, William Collins offered his 144-line Pindaric "Ode to Liberty," one of the more ambitious pieces in his collection, Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegoric Subjects. Although it is indebted at various points to Pope, Dryden, Spenser, the lyrical (as opposed to Thomson's epic) Milton, and writers of the classical and native British Pindaric traditions, Collins's ode borrows and transforms substantial parts of Liberty as its most important recent influence, especially as a model of patriotic poetry whose progressive Whig ideology is no longer tenable. The "Ode to Liberty" redirects pivotal themes, settings, and language in Thomson, resulting in a progress poem that fully responds to new crises in international politics and redefines the poet's role as spokesman for the English national conscience.
The progress piece assumed various forms, but, as developed by Thomson and Collins, among others, it featured an imaginary westward and northward journey of an allegorical entity such as Liberty, though both poets also incorporate an important alternative tradition of a northern Liberty that progresses southward. A typical "progress" of power or knowledge (translatio imperil or translatio studii) traces the birth and historical manifestations of its subject from classical times to the present, conveniently ending in contemporary Britain, the last and therefore best model of civilization and government. Yet, despite the connotations of cultural "advancement" that progress poems suggest (besides their primary meaning, "to travel"), mid-eighteenth-century poets are aware of at least two problems related to this scheme of world history. One is that England, like Greece, Rome, the medieval Italian city-states, and most of northern Europe, will enjoy the fruits of Liberty for only a limited time in history, before the spirit migrates further westward, even, in one of Bishop Berkeley's poems, as far away as America:
There shall be sung another golden age, The rise of empire and of arts. . . .
Not such as Europe breeds in her decay; Such as she bred when fresh and young, When heavenly flame did animate her clay, By future poets shall be sung.(2)
Berkeley's poem suggests one further problem of cultural progress and refinement: a certain loss of native, foundational energy, whether this is the visionary power of the first "Druid" poet-priests, or the vigorously participatory government of an idealized Gothic state (a Whig model which, J.G.A. Pocock remarks, conveniently omitted serfdom).(3) As will be shown, Collins recognizes the limitations and even contradictions in the ways that a partisan writer like Thomson approaches these problems, and accommodates the progress piece to a different set of contemporary political crises: whereas the corruption, luxury, and self-interest exemplified by Walpole is the main enemy of Liberty for Thomson, Collins more typically places responsibility on the entire nation, which needs to be purged of such ills as the Pretender's 1745 uprising and British involvement in the unpopular, unsuccessful War of Austrian Succession.
Despite their distinct forms and different political contexts, an overlapping stock of Whig poetical commonplaces suggests a …
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Publication information: Article title: Collins, Thomson, and the Whig Progress of Liberty. Contributors: Levine, William - Author. Journal title: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Volume: 34. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 1994. Page number: 553+. © 1999 Rice University. COPYRIGHT 1994 Gale Group.
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