Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Commemorating James Thomson, the Seasons in Scotland, and Scots Poetry

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Commemorating James Thomson, the Seasons in Scotland, and Scots Poetry

Article excerpt

The Seasons is a text as influential in James Thomson's Scotland in the eighteenth century and beyond as much as anywhere else. Thomson, however, is one of several hugely successful Scottish writers whose apparent "Britishness" or internationalism have left them in an uneasy situation within, or rather outwith, the canonical confines of Scottish literature. (1) A similar problem exists, for example, with other emigres such as James Boswell, Thomas Carlyle, or Muriel Spark. The charge of being "unnatural,'" "inorganic," "disconnected," ironically enough for the author of The Seasons, has long hung over Thomson. For instance, Duncan Glen identifies him as one of the two most "careerist" Scottish writers (along with Walter Scott) ("James Thomson" 4). (2) As part of this suspect "center" to the writer, Thomson's influence on two strands of powerfully approved eighteenth-century Scottish literary creativity--Gaelic and Scots poetry--has historically been undervalued and downplayed. In the case of the former, the work of Derick Thomson, Ronald Black, and others has done something to redress the situation (see Black 45-56). Eighteenth-century poetry in Scots, however, remains inadequately linked to Thomson's example, especially with regard to The Seasons. An additional part of the Scottish discounting of Thomson is that he is an "Augustan" writer, for which read "mannered," "neo-classical," and "soon to become completely outmoded" in the wake of the Romantic movement. (3) From one perspective, this is a rather odd judgment given Thomson's discernible influence on Wordsworth, Byron, and Keats, to say nothing of Robert Burns, but again is explicable within the context of a canonical formation in mainstream Scottish literary history (most especially during the twentieth century) that over-privileges a post-Romantic conception of--yet again--the natural as the supposed "real language of men," which is also thirled to a similarly post-Romantic idea of organic, "national" creativity (Wordsworth 595). This essay seeks to point out some of the ways in which Thomson is part of the creative lexicon of the eighteenth-century Scots poetry "revival," but not necessarily to imply in the process that he is therefore "fully" "Scottish," a stance which would be merely to take the essentialist coin here being argued against. Stating what should be fairly obvious, that Thomson's literary identity is multiform, or cross-borders, remains even now a position that is likely to be met with the charge of a political, perhaps especially British, agenda. The discussion that follows will examine Thomson's reception by eighteenth-century Scots-language poets pointing to his important influence, especially with regard to The Seasons, while at the same time highlighting the roots of his invidious nineteenth-and twentieth-century Scottish reputation.

From the late nineteenth century, Scottish criticism reads a bifurcation in eighteenth-century Scottish literature between the "Anglo-Scottish" and "Scots" modes for which James Thomson and Allan Ramsay are the opposing fathers. For William Bayne in 1898, Thomson's "most formidable competitor ... in the claim to leadership in the Nature renaissance of his day ... is ... Allan Ramsay" (15). Ramsay and Thomson were contemporaries in Edinburgh in the second decade of the eighteenth century, and it is certainly true to say that they differed politically. Ramsay in his membership in the Easy Club and, related to this, his attachment within the circles of the publisher, Thomas Ruddiman, and the scientist and Latinist, Archibald Pitcairne, was a Jacobite who opposed the Union of Parliaments of 1707. He was outspoken against the Whig outlook, implying both the British party political interest of that appellation and also, in the particular Scottish context, the Calvinist cultural tincture of the Scottish capital and of the nation more widely. Thomson, on the other hand, was a candidate initially for the Presbyterian ministry at Edinburgh College and also subject there to a Newtonian curriculum, largely in keeping with the progressive, early phase Scottish Enlightenment which, in its mainstream institutional context at least, tended toward satisfaction with British political union (Scott 13). …

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