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A History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth

Who visited Lyttelton's country seat at Hagley in 1845


We

have grown so accustomed to a more intimate treatment and a more spiritual interpretation of nature, that we are perhaps too apt to undervalue Thomson's simple descriptive or pictorial method. Compared with Wordsworth's mysticism, with Shelley's passionate pantheism, with Byron's romantic gloom in presence of the mountains and the sea, with Keats' joyous re-creation of mythology, with Thoreau's Indian-like approach to the innermost arcana--with a dozen other moods familiar to the modern mind--it seems to us unimaginative. Thomson has been likened, as a colorist, to Rubens; and possibly the glow, the breadth, and the vital energy of his best passages, as of Rubens' great canvases, leave our finer perceptions untouched, and we ask for something more esoteric, more intense. Still there are permanent and solid qualities in Thomson's landscape art, which can give delight even now to an unspoiled taste. To a reader of his own generation, "The Seasons" must have come as the revelation of a fresh world of beauty. Such passages as those which describe the first spring showers, the thunderstorm in summer, the trout-fishing, the sheep-washing, and the terrors of the winter night, were not only strange to the public of that day, but were new in English poetry.

That the poet was something of a naturalist, who wrote lovingly and with his "eye upon the object," is evident from a hundred touches, like "auriculas with shining meal";

justify;"> "The yellow wall-flower stained with iron brown;"

or,

"The bittern knows his time, with bill engulfed, To shake the sounding marsh."[6]

Thomson's scenery was genuine. His images of external nature are never false and seldom vague, like Pope's. In a letter to Lyttelton,[7] he speaks of "the Muses of the great simple country, not the little fine-lady Muses of Richmond Hill." His delineations, if less sharp and finished in detail than Cowper's, have greater breadth. Coleridge's comparison of the two poets is well known: "The love of nature seems to have led Thomson to a cheerful religion, and a gloomy religion to have led Cowper to a love of nature. . . In chastity of diction and the harmony of blank verse, Cowper leaves Thomson immeasurably below him; yet I still feel the latter to have been the born poet."

The geologist Hugh Miller, who visited Lyttelton's country seat at Hagley in 1845, describes the famous landscape which Thomson had painted in "Spring":

"Meantime you gain the height from whose fair brow The bursting prospect spreads immense around, And, snatched o'er hill and dale and wood and lawn, And verdant field and darkening heath between, And villages embosomed soft in trees, And spiry town, by surging columns marked Of household smoke, your eye extensive roams. . . To where the broken landscape, by degrees Ascending, roughens into rigid hills, O'er which the Cambrian mountains, like far clouds, That skirt the blue horizon, dusky rise."

"That entire prospect," says Miller,[8]--"one of the finest in England, and eminently characteristic of what is best in English scenery--enabled me to understand what I had used to deem a peculiarity--in some measure a defect--in the landscapes of the poet Thomson. It must have often struck the Scotch reader that, in dealing with very extended prospects, he rather enumerates than describes. His pictures are often mere catalogues, in which single words stand for classes of objects, and in which the entire poetry seems to consist in an overmastering sense of vast extent, occupied by amazing multiplicity. . . Now the prospect from the hill at Hagley furnished me with the true explanation of this enumerative style. Measured along the horizon, it must, on the lowest estimate, be at least fifty miles in longitudinal extent; measured laterally, from the spectator forwards, at least twenty. . . The real area must rather exceed than fall short of a thousand square miles: the fields into which it is laid out are small, scarcely averaging a square furlong in superficies. . . With these there are commixed innumerable cottages, manor-houses, villages, towns. Here the surface is dimpled by unreckoned hollows; there fretted by uncounted mounds; all is amazing, overpowering multiplicity--a multiplicity which neither the pen nor the pencil can adequately express; and so description, in even the hands of a master, sinks into mere enumeration. The picture becomes a catalogue."


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