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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: July 2011

20 - Longer eighteenth-century poems (Akenside, Thomson, Young, Cowper and others)

Summary

The opening of ‘Summer’ in James Thomson’s The Seasons (1730) finds the narrator hastening into the umbrageous depths of ‘the mid-wood Shade’ in order to sing ‘the Glories of the circling Year’. Embosomed in darkness, he petitions the spirit of ‘Inspiration’ to infuse him with creative ecstasy. The effect of the passage is to announce a new manifesto for poetry, sharply at odds with the aesthetic principles upheld by most major poets of Thomson’s day. Pope, for example, in his Epistle to Arbuthnot (1735) justifies his own compositional practices on the grounds

That not in Fancy’s Maze he wander’d long,

But stoop’d to Truth, and moraliz’d his song.

Pope portrays ‘Fancy’ (or imagination) as a treacherous labyrinth into which any poet who forsakes truth and morality is all too easily lured, there to be undone. Not for him Thomson’s heady description of creativity in terms of heightened emotions and mental entrancement.

From ‘Summer’, the poem returns to the narrator in his nocturnal wanderings: ‘STILL let me pierce into the midnight Depth’ (line 516). It is only now that he enters the haunts, and feels the dusky presence, of ‘antient Bards’ (line 523), with whom he inwardly communes. These bards are not named, but may well be intended as Druids, who, in the terms of one popular poetic myth, had become identified as founding fathers of the British poetic tradition.