For many years, the 1778 Aikin edition was the edition of Thomson’s Seasons. John Aikin (1747–1822) was one of those men the word “polymath” was made for: surgeon, MD, Unitarian divine, botanist . . . . It must have run in the family. His sister was poet and editor Anna Laetitia Barbauld; his daughter was biographer Lucy Aikin.
The text of this essay is taken from the 1811 London edition of the Seasons. I have retained the pagination (xxvii–lii) in case anyone wants to check up on me.
When a work of art to masterly execution adds novelty of design, it demands not only a cursory admiration, but such a mature inquiry into the principles upon which it has been formed, as may determine how far it deserves to be received as a model for future attempts in the same walk. Originals are always rare productions. The performances of artists in general, even of those who stand high in their respective classes, are only imitations; which have more or less merit, in proportion to the degree of skill and judgment with which they copy originals more or less excellent. A good original, therefore, forms an era in the art itself, and the history of every art divides itself into periods xxviii comprehending the intervals between the appearance of different approved originals. Sometimes, indeed, various models of a very different cast may exercise the talents of imitators during a single period; and this will more frequently be the case, as arts become more generally known and studied; difference of taste being always the result of liberal and varied pursuit.
How strongly these periods are marked in the history of poetry, both ancient and modern, a cursory view will suffice to shew. The scarcity of originals here is universally acknowledged and lamented, and the present race of poets are thought particularly chargeable with this defect. It ought, however, to be allowed in their favour, that if genius has declined, taste has improved; and that if they imitate more, they choose better models to copy after.
That Thomson’s Seasons is the original whence our modern descriptive poets have derived that more elegant and correct style of painting natural objects which distinguishes them from their immediate predecessors, will, I think, appear evident to one who examines their several casts and manners. That none of them, however, have yet equalled their master; and that his performance is an exquisite piece, replete with beauties of the most engaging and delightful kind; will be sensibly felt by all of congenial taste:—and perhaps no poem was ever composed which addressed itself to the feelings of a greater number of readers. It is, therefore, on every account, an object well worthy the attention xxix of criticism; and an enquiry into the peculiar nature of its plan and the manner of its execution may be an agreeable introduction to a re-perusal of it in the elegant edition now offered to the public.
The description of such natural objects as by their beauty, grandeur, or novelty, agreeably impress the imagination, has at all times been a principal and favourite occupation of poetry. Various have been the methods in which such descriptions have been introduced. They have been made subservient to the purposes of ornament and illustration, in the more elevated and abstracted kinds of poetry, by being used as objects of similitude. They have constituted a pleasing and necessary part of epic narration, when employed in forming a scenery suitable to the events. The simple tale of pastoral life could scarcely without their aid be rendered in any degree interesting. The precepts of an art, and the systems of philosophers, depend upon the adventitious ornaments afforded by them for almost every thing which can render them fit subjects for poetry.
Thus intermixed as they are with almost all, and essential to some species of poetry, it was, however, thought that they could not legitimately constitute the whole, or even the principal part, of a capital piece. Something of a more solid nature was required as the ground-work of a poetical fabric; pure description was opposed to sense; and binding together the wild flowers which grew obvious to common sight and xxx touch, was deemed a trifling and unprofitable amusement.
Such was the state of critical opinion, when Thomson published, in succession, but not in their present order*, the pieces which compose his Seasons; the first capital work in which natural description was professedly the principal object. To paint the face of Nature as changing through the changing seasons; to mark the approaches, and trace the progress of these vicissitudes, in a series of landscapes all formed upon images of grandeur or beauty; and to give animation and variety to the whole by interspersing manners and incidents suitable to the scenery; appears to be the general design of this poem. Essentially different from a didactic piece, its business is to describe, and the occupation of its leisure to teach. And as in the Georgics, whenever the poet has, for a while, borne away by the warmth of fancy, wandered through the flowery wilds of description, he suddenly checks himself, and returns to the toils of the husbandman; so Thomson, in the midst of his delightful lessons of morality, and affecting relations, recurs to a view of that state of the season which introduced the digression.
* They appeared in the following order: Winter, Summer, Spring, Autumn.
It is an attention to this leading idea, that in this piece there is a progressive series of descriptions, all tending to a certain point, and all parts of a general plan, which alone can enable us to range through the xxxi vast variety and quick succession of objects presented in it, with any clear conception of the writer’s method, or true judgement concerning what may be regarded as forwarding his main purpose, or as merely ornamental deviation. The particular elucidation of this point will constitute the principal part of the present essay.
Although each of the Seasons appears to have been intended as a complete piece, and contains within itself the natural order of beginning, middle, and termination, yet as they were at length collected and modelled by their author, they have all a mutual relation to each other, and concur in forming a more comprehensive whole. The annual space in which the earth performs its revolution round the sun is so strongly marked by nature for a perfect period, that all mankind have agreed in forming their computations of time upon it. In all the temperate climates of the globe, the four seasons are so many progressive stages in this circuit, which, like the acts in a well-constructed drama, gradually disclose, ripen, and bring to an end, the various business transacted on the great theatre of nature. The striking analogy which this period with its several divisions bears to the course of human existence, has been remarked and pursued by writers of all ages and countries. Spring has been represented as the youth of the year—the season of pleasing hope, lively energy, and rapid increase. Summer has been resembled to perfect manhood—the season of steady warmth, confirmed strength, and unremitting vigour. Autumn, xxxii which, while it bestows the rich products of full maturity, is yet ever hastening to decline, has been aptly compared to that period, when the man, mellowed by age, yields the most valuable fruits of experience and wisdom, but daily exhibits encreasing symptoms of decay. The cold, cheerless, and sluggish Winter has almost without a metaphor been termed the decrepid and hoary old age of the year. Thus the history of the year, pursued through its changing seasons, is that of an individual, whose existence is marked by a progressive course from its origin to its termination. It is thus represented by our poet; this idea preserves a unity and connection through his whole work; and the accurate observer will remark a beautiful chain of circumstances in his description, by which the birth, vigour, decline, and extinction, of the vital principle of the year, are pictured in the most lively manner.
This order and gradation of the whole runs, as has been already hinted, through each division of the poem. Every season has its incipient, confirmed, and receding state, of which its historian ought to give distinct views, arranged according to the succession in which they appear. Each too, like the prismatic colours, is indistinguishably blended in its origin and termination with that which precedes, and which follows it; and it may be expected from the pencil of an artist to hit off these mingled shades so as to produce a pleasing and picturesque effect. Our poet has not been inattentive to these circumstances in the conduct of his plan. His xxxiii Spring begins with a view of the season as yet unconfirmed, and partaking of the roughness of Winter*; and it is not till after several steps in gradual progression, that it breaks forth in all its ornaments, as the favourite of Love and Pleasure. His Autumn, after a rich prospect of its bounties and splendors, gently fades into “the sere, the yellow leaf,” and, with the lengthened night, the clouded sun, and the rising storm, sinks into the arms of Winter. It is remarkable, that in order to produce something of a similar effect in his Summer, a season which, on account of its uniformity of character, does not admit of any strongly marked gradations, he has comprised the whole of his description within the limits of a single day, pursuing the course of the sun from its rising to its setting. A summer’s day is, in reality, a just model of the entire season. Its beginning is moist and temperate; its middle, sultry and parching; its close, soft and refreshing. By thus exhibiting all the vicissitudes of Summer under one point of view, they are rendered much more striking than could have been done in a series of feebly contrasted and scarcely distinguishable periods.
With this idea of the general plan of the whole work and of its several parts, we proceed to take a view of the various subjects composing the descriptive series of which it principally consists.
* A descriptive piece, in which this very interval of time is represented, with all the accuracy of a naturalist, and vivid colouring of a poet, has lately appeared in a poem of Mr. Warton’s, entitled “The First of April.”
Every grand and beautiful appearance in nature, that distinguishes one portion of the annual circuit from another, is a proper source of materials for the poet of the seasons. Of these, some are obvious to the common observer, and require only justness and elegance of taste for the selection: others discover themselves only to the mind opened and enlarged by science and philosophy. All the knowledge we acquire concerning natural objects by such a train of observation and reasoning as merits the appellation of science, is comprehended under the two divisions of natural philosophy and natural history. Both of these may be employed to advantage in descriptive poetry: for although it be true, that poetical composition, being rather calculated for amusement than instruction, and addressing itself to the many who feel rather than to the few who reason, is improperly occupied about the abstruse and argumentative parts of a science; yet, to reject those grand and beautiful ideas which a philosophical view of nature offers to the mind, merely because they are above the comprehension of vulgar readers, is surely an unnecessary degradation of this noble art. Still more narrow and unreasonable is that critical precept, which, in conformity to the received notion that fiction is the soul of poetry, obliges the poet to adopt ancient errors in preference to modern truths; and this even where truth has the advantage in point of poetical effect. In fact, modern philosophy is as much superior to the ancient in sublimity as in solidity; and the most vivid xxxv imagination cannot paint to itself scenes of grandeur equal to those which cool science and demonstration offer to the enlightened mind. Objects so vast and magnificent as planets rolling with even pace through their orbits, comets rushing along their devious track, light springing from its unexhausted source, mighty rivers formed in their subterranean beds, do not require, or even admit, a heightening from the fancy. The most faithful pencil here produces the noblest pictures; and Thomson, by strictly adhering to the character of the Poet of Nature, has treated all these topics with a true sublimity, which a writer of less knowledge and accuracy could never have attained. The strict propriety with which subjects from astronomy and the other parts of natural philosophy are introduced into a poem describing the changes of the seasons, need not be insisted on, since it is obvious that the primary cause of all these changes is to be sought in principles derived from these sciences. They are the ground-work of the whole; and establish that connected series of cause and effect, upon which all those appearances in nature depend, from whence the descriptive poet draws his materials.
Natural history, in its most extensive signification, includes every observation relative to the distinctions, resemblances, and changes, of all the bodies, both animate and inanimate, which nature offers to us. These observations, however, deserve to be considered as part of a science only when they refer to some general truth, xxxvi and form a link of that vast chain which connects all created beings in one grand system. It was my attempt, in an essay lately published*, to show how necessary a more accurate and scientific survey of natural objects than has usually been taken, was to the avoiding the common defects, and attaining the highest beauties, of descriptive poetry; and some of the most striking examples of excellence arising from this source were extracted from the poem now before us. It will be unnecessary here to recapitulate the substance of these remarks, or to mark out singly the several passages of our author which display his talents for description to the greatest advantage. Our present design rather requires such a general view of the materials he has collected, and the method in which he has arranged them, as may show in what degree they forward and coincide with the plan of his work.
* Essay on the Application of Natural History to Poetry.
The correspondence between certain changes in the animal and vegetable tribes, and those revolutions of the heavenly bodies which produce the vicissitudes of the seasons, is the foundation of an alliance between astronomy and natural history, that equally demands attention, as a matter of curious speculation, and of practical utility. The astronomical calendar, filled up by the naturalist, is a combination of science at the same time pregnant with important instruction to the husbandman, and fertile in grand and pleasing objects xxxvii to the poet and philosopher. Thomson seems constantly to have kept in view a combination of this kind; and to have formed from it such an idea of the economy of nature, as enabled him to preserve a regularity of method and uniformity of design through all the variety of his descriptions. We shall attempt to draw out a kind of historical narrative of his progress through the seasons, as far as this order is observable.
Spring is characterised as the season of the renovation of nature: in which animals and vegetables, excited by the kindly influence of returning warmth, shake off the torpid inaction of winter, and prepare for the continuance and increase of their several species. The vegetable tribes, as more independent and self-provided, lead the way in this progress. The poet, accordingly, begins with representing the reviviscent plants emerging, as soon as genial showers have softened the ground, in numbers “beyond the power of botanist to reckon up their tribes.” The opening blossoms and flowers soon call forth from their winter retreats those industrious insects which derive sustenance from their nectareous juices. As the beams of the sun become more potent, the larger vegetables, shrubs and trees, unfold their leaves; and, as soon as a friendly concealment is by their means provided for the various nations of the feathered race, they joyfully begin the course of laborious but pleasing occupations, which are to engage them during the whole season. The delightful series of pictures, so truly expressive of that genial xxxviii spirit that pervades the Spring, which Thomson has formed on the variety of circumstances attending the Passion of the Groves, cannot escape the notice and admiration of the most negligent eye. Affected by the same soft influence, and equally indebted to the renewed vegetable tribes for food and shelter, the several kinds of quadrupeds are represented as concurring in the celebration of this charming season with conjugal and parental rites. Even man himself, though from his social condition less under the dominion of physical necessities, is properly described as partaking of the general ardour. Such is the order and connexion of this whole book, that it might well pass for a commentary upon a most beautiful passage in the philosophical poet Lucretius; who certainly wanted nothing but a better system and more circumscribed subject, to have appeared as one of the greatest masters of description in either ancient or modern poetry. Reasoning on the unperishable nature, and perpetual circulation, of the particles of matter, he deduces all the delightful appearances of spring from the seeds of fertility which descend in the vernal showers:
—— pereunt imbres, ubi eos pater Æther
In gremium matris Terraï præcipitavit.
At nitidæ surgunt fruges, ramique virescunt
Arboribus; crescunt ipsæ, fœtuque gravantur:
Hinc alitur porro nostrum genus, atque ferarum;
Hinc lætas urbeis pueris florere videmus,
Frondiferasque novis avibus canere undique sylvas:
Hinc fessæ pecudes pingues per pabula lætaxxxix
Corpora deponunt, et candens lacteus humor
Uberibus manat distentis; hinc nova proles
Artubus infirmis teneras lasciva per herbas
Ludit, lacte mero menteis percussa novellas.
Lib. I. 251, &c.
The rains are lost, when Jove descends in showers
Soft on the bosom of the parent Earth;
But springs the shining grain; their verdant robe
The trees resume; they grow, and pregnant bend
Beneath their fertile load: hence kindly food
The living tribes receive: the cheerful town
Beholds its joyous bands of flowering youth;
With new-born songs the leafy groves resound;
The full-fed flocks amid the laughing meads
Their weary bodies lay, while wide-distent
The plenteous udder teems with milky juice;
And o’er the grass, as their young hearts beat high,
Swelled by the pure and generous streams they drain,
Frolic the wanton lambs with joints infirm.
The period of Summer is marked by fewer and less striking changes in the face of nature. A soft and pleasing languor, interrupted only by the gradual progression of the vegetable and animal tribes towards their state of maturity, forms the leading character of this season. The active fermentation of the juices, which the first access of genial warmth had excited, now subsides; and the increasing heats rather inspire faintness and inaction than lively exertions. The insect race alone seem animated with peculiar vigour under the more direct influence of the sun; and are therefore with equal truth and advantage introduced by the poet to enliven the silent and drooping scenes presented by xl the other forms of animal nature. As this source, however, together with whatever else our summers afford, is insufficient to furnish novelty and business enough for this act of the drama of the year, the poet judiciously opens a new field, profusely fertile in objects suited to the glowing colours of descriptive poetry. By an easy and natural transition, he quits the chastised summer of our temperate clime for those regions where a perpetual summer reigns, exalted by such superior degrees of solar heat as give an entirely new face to almost every part of nature. The terrific grandeur prevalent in some of these, the exquisite richness and beauty in others, and the novelty in all, afford such a happy variety for the poet’s selection, that we need not wonder if some of his noblest pieces are the product of this delightful excursion. He returns, however, with apparent satisfaction, to take a last survey of the softer summer of our island; and, after closing the prospect of terrestrial beauties, artfully shifts the scene to celestial splendors, which, though perhaps not more striking in this season than in some of the others, are now alone agreeable objects of contemplation in a northern climate.
Autumn is too eventful a period in the history of the year within the temperate parts of the globe, to require foreign aid for rendering it more varied and interesting. The promise of the Spring is now fulfilled. The silent and gradual process of maturation is completed; and human industry beholds with triumph the rich products of its toil. The vegetable tribes disclose their infinitely xli various forms of fruit; which term, while, with respect to common use, it is confined to a few peculiar modes of fructification, in the more comprehensive language of the naturalist includes every product of vegetation by which the rudiments of a future progeny are developed, and separated from the parent plant. These are in part collected and stored up by those animals for whose sustenance during the ensuing sleep of nature they are provided. The rest, furnished with various contrivances for dissemination, are scattered, by the friendly winds which now begin to blow, over the surface of that earth which they are to clothe and decorate. The young of the animal race, which Spring and Summer had brought forth and cherished, having now acquired sufficient vigour, quit their concealments, and offer themselves to the pursuit of the carnivorous among their fellow-animals, and of the great destroyer man. Thus the scenery is enlivened with the various sports of the hunter; which, however repugnant they may appear to that system of general benevolence and sympathy which philosophy would inculcate, have ever afforded a most agreeable exertion to the human powers, and have much to plead in their favour as a necessary part of the great plan of Nature. Indeed, she marks her intention with sufficient precision, by refusing to grant any longer those friendly shades which had grown for the protection of the infant offspring. The grove loses its honours; but before they are entirely tarnished, an adventitious beauty, arising from that gradual decay xlii which loosens the withering leaf, gilds the autumnal landscape with a temporary splendor, superior to the verdure of Spring, or the luxuriance of Summer. The infinitely various and ever-changing hues of the leaves at this season, melting into every soft gradation of tint and shade, have long engaged the imitation of the painter, and are equally happy ornaments in the description of the poet.
These unvarying symptoms of approaching Winter now warn several of the winged tribes to prepare for their aerial voyage to those happy climates of perpetual Summer, where no deficiency of food or shelter can ever distress them; and about the same time other fowls of hardier constitution, which are contented with escaping the iron Winters of the arctic regions, arrive to supply the vacancy. Thus the striking scenes afforded by that wonderful part of the economy of Nature, the migration of birds, present themselves at this season to the poet. The thickening fogs, the heavy rains, the swoln rivers, while they deform this sinking period of the year, add new subjects to the pleasing variety which reigns throughout its whole course, and which justifies the poet’s character of it, as the season when the muse “best exerts her voice.”
Winter, directly opposite as it is in other respects to Summer, yet resembles it in this, that it is a season in which Nature is employed rather in secretly preparing for the mighty changes which it successively brings to light, than in the actual exhibition of them. It is xliii therefore a period equally barren of events; and has still less of animation than Summer, inasmuch as lethargic insensibility is a state more distant from vital energy than the languor of indolent repose. From the fall of the leaf, and withering of the herb, an unvarying death-like torpor oppresses almost the whole vegetable creation, and a considerable part of the animal, during this entire portion of the year. The whole insect race, which filled every part of the summer-landscape with life and motion, are now either buried in profound sleep, or actually no longer exist, except in the unformed rudiments of a future progeny. Many of the birds and quadrupeds are retired to concealments, from which not even the calls of hunger can force them; and the rest, intent only on the preservation of a joyless being, have ceased to exert those powers of pleasing, which, at other seasons, so much contribute to their mutual happiness, as well as to the amusement of their human sovereign. Their social connexions, however, are improved by their wants. In order the better to procure their scanty subsistence, and resist the inclemencies of the sky, they are taught by instinct to assemble in flocks; and this provision has the secondary effect of gratifying the spectator with something of novelty and action even in the dreariness of a wintry prospect.
But it is in the extraordinary changes and agitations which the elements and the surrounding atmosphere undergo during this season, that the poet of nature xliv must principally look for relief from the gloomy uniformity reigning through other parts of the creation. Here scenes are presented to his view, which, were they less frequent, must strike with wonder and admiration the most incurious spectator. The effects of cold are more sudden, and in many instances more extraordinary and unexpected, than those of heat. He who has beheld the vegetable productions of even a northern Summer, will not be greatly amazed at the richer, and more luxuriant, but still resembling, growths of the tropics. But one, who has always been accustomed to view water in a liquid and colourless state, cannot form the least conception of the same element as hardened into an extensive plain of solid crystal, or covering the ground with a robe of the purest white. The highest possible degree of astonishment must therefore attend the first view of these phenomena; and as in our temperate climate but a small portion of the year affords these spectacles, we find that, even here, they have novelty enough to excite emotions of agreeable surprise. But it is not to novelty alone that they owe their charms. Their intrinsic beauty is, perhaps, individually superior to that of the gayest objects presented by the other seasons. Where is the elegance and brilliancy that can compare with that which decorates every tree or bush on the clear morning succeeding a night of hoar frost? or what is the lustre that would not appear dull and tarnished in competition with a field of snow just glazed over with frost? By the vivid description of such objects xlv as these, contrasted with the savage sublimity of storms and tempests, our poet has been able to produce a set of winter-landscapes, as engaging to the fancy as the apparently happier scenes of genial warmth and verdure.
But he has not trusted entirely to these resources for combating the natural sterility of Winter. Repeating the pleasing artifice of his Summer, he has called in foreign aid, and has heightened the scenery with grandeur and horror not our own. The famished troops of wolves pouring from the Alps; the mountains of snow rolling down the precipices of the same regions; the dreary plains over which the Laplander urges his rein-deer; the wonders of the icy sea, and volcanoes “flaming through a waste of snow;” are objects judiciously selected from all that Nature presents most singular and striking in the various domains of boreal cold and wintry desolation.
Thus have we attempted to give a general view of those materials which constitute the ground-work of a poem on the Seasons; which are essential to its very nature; and on the proper arrangement of which, its regularity and connexion depend. The extent of knowledge, as well as the powers of description, which Thomson has exhibited in this part of his work, is, on the whole, truly admirable; and though, with the present advanced taste for accurate observation in natural history, some improvements might be suggested, yet he certainly remains unrivalled in the list of descriptive poets.xlvi
But the rural landscape is not solely made up of land and water, and trees, and birds, and beasts; man is a distinguished feature in it; his multiplied occupations and concerns introduce themselves into every part of it; he intermixes even in the wildest and rudest scenes, and throws a life and interest upon every surrounding object. Manners and character therefore constitute a part of a descriptive poem; and in a plan so extensive as the history of the year, they must enter under various forms, and upon numerous occasions.
The most obvious and appropriated use of human figures in pictures of the seasons, is the introduction of them to assist in marking out the succession of annual changes by their various labours and amusements. In common with other animals, man is directed in the diversified employment of earning a toilsome subsistence by an attention to the vicissitudes of the seasons; and all his diversions in the simple state of rustic society are also regulated by the same circumstance. Thus a series of moving figures enlivens the landscape, and contributes to stamp on each scene its peculiar character. The shepherd, the husbandman, the hunter, appear in their turns; and may be considered as natural concomitants of that portion of the yearly round which prompts their several occupations.
But it is not only the bodily pursuits of man which are affected by these changes; the sensations and affections of his mind are almost equally under their influence; and the result of the whole, as forming the xlvii enamoured votary of Nature to a peculiar cost of character and manners, is not less conspicuous. Thus the poet of the seasons is at liberty, without deviating from his plan, to descant on the varieties of moral constitution, and the powers which external causes are found to possess over the temper of the soul. He may draw pictures of the pastoral life in all its genuine simplicity; and assuming the tone of a moral instructor, may contrast the peace and felicity of innocent retirement with the turbulent agitations of ambition and avarice.
The various incidents, too, upon which the simple tale of rural events is founded, are very much modelled by the difference of seasons. The catastrophes of Winter differ from those of Summer; the sports of Spring from those of Autumn. Thus, little history-pieces and adventures, whether pathetic or amusing, will suggest themselves to the poet; which, when properly adapted to the scenery and circumstances, may very happily coincide with the main design of the composition.
The bare enumeration of these several occasions of introducing draughts of human life and manners, will be sufficient to call to mind the admirable use which Thomson, throughout his whole poem, has made of them. He, in fact, never appears more truly inspired with his subject, than when giving birth to those sentiments of tenderness and beneficence, which seem to have occupied his whole heart. A universal benevolence, extending to every part of the animal creation, manifests itself in almost every scene he draws; and xlviii the rural character, as delineated in his feelings, contains all the softness, purity, and simplicity, that are feigned of the golden age. Yet, excellent as the moral and sentimental part of his work must appear to every congenial mind, it is, perhaps, that in which he may the most easily be rivalled. A refined and feeling heart may derive from its own proper sources a store of corresponding sentiment, which will naturally clothe itself in the form of expression best suited to the occasion. Nor does the invention of those simple incidents which are most adapted to excite the sympathetic emotions, require any great stretch of fancy. The nearer they approach to common life, the more certainly will they produce their effect. Wonder and surprise are affections of so different a kind, and so distract the attention, that they never fail to diminish the force of the pathetic. On these accounts, writers much inferior in respect to the powers of description and imagery, have equalled our poet in elegant and benevolent sentiment, and perhaps excelled him in interesting narration. Of these, it will be sufficient to mention the ingenious author of a French poem on the Seasons; who, though a mere copyist in the descriptive parts, has made many pleasing additions to the manners and incidents proper for such a composition.
But there is a strain of sentiment of a higher and more digressive nature, with which Mr. Thomson has occupied a considerable portion of his poem. The fundamental principles of moral philosophy, ideas concerning xlix the origin and progress of government, and civilisation, historical sketches, and reviews of the characters most famous in ancient and modern history, are interspersed through the various parts of the Seasons. The manly, liberal, and enlightened spirit which this writer breathes in all his works, must ever endear him to the friends of truth and virtue: and, in particular, his genuine patriotism and zeal in the cause of liberty will render his writings always estimable to the British reader. But, just and important as his thoughts on these topics may be, there may remain a doubt in the breast of the critic, whether their introduction in a piece like this, do not, in some instances, break in upon that unity of character which every work of art should support. We have seen, from the general plan and tenor of the poem, that it is professedly of the rural cast. The objects it is chiefly conversant with are those presented by the hand of Nature, not the products of human art; and when man himself is introduced as a part of the group, it would seem that, in conformity to the rest, he ought to be represented in such a state only, as the simplest forms of society, and most unconstrained situations in it, exhibit. Courts and cities, camps and senates, do not well accord with sylvan scenery. From the principle of congruity, therefore, a critic might be induced to reject some of these digressive ornaments, though intrinsically beautiful, and doubtless contributing to the elevation and variety of the piece. His judgement in this respect l would be a good deal influenced by the manner of their introduction. In some instances this is so easy and natural, that the mind is scarcely sensible of the deviation; in others it is more abrupt and unartful. As examples of both, we may refer to the passages in which various characters from English, and from Grecian and Roman history, are displayed. The former, by a happy gradation, is introduced at the close of a delightful piece, containing the praises of Britain; which is itself a kind of digression, though a very apt and seasonable one. The latter has no other connexion with the part at which it is inserted, than the very forced and distant one, that as reading may be reckoned among the amusements appropriated to Winter, such subjects as these will naturally offer themselves to the studious mind.
There is another source of sentiment to the poet of the seasons, which, while it is superior to the last in real elevation, is also strictly connected with the nature of his work. The genuine philosopher, while he surveys the grand and beautiful objects every where surrounding him, will be prompted to lift his eye to the great Cause of all these wonders; the Planner and Architect of this mighty fabric, every minute part of which so much awakens his curiosity and admiration. The laws by which this Being acts, the ends which He seems to have pursued, must excite his humble researches; and in proportion as he discovers infinite power in the means, directed by infinite goodness in li the intention, his soul must be rapt in astonishment, and expanded with gratitude. The economy of nature will, to such an observer, be the perfect scheme of an all-wise and beneficent mind; and every part of the wide creation will appear to proclaim the praise of its great Author. Thus a new connexion will manifest itself between the several parts of the universe; and a new order and design will be traced through the progress of its various revolutions.
Thomson’s Seasons is as eminently a religious as it is a descriptive poem. Thoroughly impressed with sentiments of veneration for the Author of that assemblage of order and beauty which it was his province to paint, he takes every proper occasion to excite similar emotions in the breasts of his readers. Entirely free from the gloom of superstition and the narrowness of bigotry, he every where represents the Deity as the kind and beneficent Parent of all his works, always watchful over their best interests, and from seeming evil still educing the greatest possible good to all his creatures. In every appearance of nature he beholds the operation of a divine hand; and regards, according to his own emphatical phrase, each change throughout the revolving year as “but the varied God.” This spirit, which breaks forth at intervals in each division of his poem, shines full and concentred in that noble Hymn which crowns the work. This piece, the sublimest production of its kind since the days of Milton, should be considered as the winding up of all the variety of matter and design lii contained in the preceding parts; and thus is not only admirable as a separate composition, but is contrived with masterly skill to strengthen the unity and connexion of the great whole.
Thus is planned and constructed a poem which, founded as it is upon the unfading beauties of nature, will live as long as the language in which it is written shall be read. If the perusal of it be in any respect rendered more interesting or instructive by this imperfect Essay, the purpose of the writer will be fully answered.
The annual space in which the earth performs its revolution round the sun is so strongly marked by nature for a perfect period, that all mankind have agreed in forming their computations of time upon it.
[For all his erudition, John Aikin had never heard of the Islamic calendar.]
partaking of the roughness of Winter*
[Footnote marker positioned as shown. In all editions I checked, the marker is in the same place. It seems as if it ought to go further along in the paragraph, or even at the very end.]
[De Rerum Natura, Latin literature’s answer to Thomson’s Seasons, I.250-61. The quotation omits one and a half feet. (Pro tip: To get it to scan, elide the second syllable of “ubi”.)]
fruit; which term . . . in the more comprehensive language of the naturalist includes every product of vegetation by which the rudiments of a future progeny are developed
[For Aikin’s purposes, a tomato is a fruit.]
The original of this text is in the public domain—at least in the U.S.
My notes are copyright, as are all under-the-hood elements.
If in doubt, ask.