Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Rhetoric of Disclosure in James Thomson's the Seasons; or, on Kant's Gentlemanly Misanthropy

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Rhetoric of Disclosure in James Thomson's the Seasons; or, on Kant's Gentlemanly Misanthropy

Article excerpt

... the sun appears. In order to disappear. It is there, but as the invisible source of light, in a kind of insistent eclipse, more than essential, producing the essence--Being and appearing--of what is. One looks at it directly on pain of blindness and death.

--Jacques Derrida (1)

I. INTRODUCTION

One best begins a meditation on James Thomson's The Seasons with critical indictments of the fragmentary, unreadable, or otherwise less-than-fortuitous features of the poem--at least, this seems to have been the standard practice since A. D. McKillop's excavatory work of 1942, The Background of Thomson's Seasons. For a beginning, I will alter this lofty tradition only slightly by reproducing the indictments of others, rather than articulating any of my own. McKillop:

   we have seen that his [Thomson's] flights in science and philosophy
   can best be understood by allowing for the natural drift of his
   mind, the association, whether rigorously logical or not, of his
   ideas.... (2)

Patricia Meyer Spacks:

   It is manifestly impossible to "rescue" Thomson's diction for the
   modern reader: its remoteness, its air of contrivance, its
   frequently unjustified portentousness are all profound obstacles.
   Only in isolated passages is Thomson a readable poet for a
   twentieth-century audience. (3)

Ralph Cohen attempts to work with such indictments, justifying the fragmentation of the poem in terms of a fallen world of perception--a kind of unity in disunity argument:

   though each season is rhythmically, associatively, and thematically
   connected with the preceding and following, the whole reveals the
   inevitable fragmentation of man's knowledge of the world. (4)

David R. Anderson returns to the earlier thinking of Spacks:

   Thomson's poem is an ominum gatherum, and for that reason it is
   practically impossible to see it as a coherent whole by attempting
   to reconcile the many topics it undertakes to discuss. The subjects
   the poem treats are too many and too disparate; none can subsume
   and order the others. (5)

Perhaps as a result of the techniques espoused by recent trends in critical theory, these pronouncements upon the poem have become firmly grounded signposts as to the ways in which The Seasons can be approached, and the theoretical work it can be called on to perform. Indeed, as a kind of cultural document par excellence, The Seasons has more recently been the focal point for discussions of class relations, (6) geopolitics, (7) and Enlightenment philosophy. (8) Such discussions of the poem's pertinence to various other historical, aesthetic, and political discourses (to name just a few), as valuable in themselves as they clearly are, nevertheless foreground a critical practice that sees The Seasons not as a poem at all, but as a dense site of discursive exempla from which certain passages can be strip-mined and made to serve certain ends. To be sure, any text in our current theoretical climate must invite this kind of treatment. But The Seasons in particular no longer seems to be susceptible of any other kind of inquiry--as the critics above make all too clear, Thomson's poem borders on sheer illegibility qua poetry, and seems no longer to be of interest to critics except in the degree to which it is able to provide chunks of text ready-made for any of a number of contemporary theoretical or critical agendas. As such, the question of discussing the poem in its entirety, as a poem, seems no longer to be an issue.

Of course, to invoke the concept of "entirety" as a description of The Seasons is in the first instance misplaced--Thomson continuously revised his magnum opus all his life, and as John Barrell points out, there is no reason to suspect that had Thomson lived longer, he would not have continued to do so. (9) It is precisely the notion that The Seasons somehow should be complete, and therefore coherent, that occasions our outrage when faced with its seemingly random concatenation of subjects. …

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