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  • Print publication year: 2000
  • Online publication date: November 2011

Thomson in the 1790s

from Part 2 - Posterity

Summary

This essay is not an attempt to discuss, in general terms, the reputation and reception of Thomson's poems in the 1790s. Indeed, it ignores completely what was certainly, to readers of that decade as of any other, the most important aspect of his writing, his descriptions of natural scenery. Instead the essay tries to exemplify, however selectively, how Thomson's poetry came to be taken up in the controversies of the 1790s. It argues, to begin with, that after 1789 the political passages and poems of Thomson, and Liberty especially, became briefly ‘readable’ in a way they had not been for decades: they were seen to offer an account of political virtue, and of the consequences of the lack of it, which could support a range of arguments, from liberal Whiggism to popular radicalism, by which the French Revolution, at least in its early stages, could be approved, and political reform, in some degree or another, could be advocated at home. The terms and conditions of this new readability, however, made it short-lived; in the late 1790s, when the movement for parliamentary reform was largely repressed, and the nation became arguably more unified under the threat of a French invasion, it disappeared as quickly as it had appeared, and Liberty never again achieved the importance it had briefly enjoyed. Throughout the decade, however, Thomson's reputation had also continued to be shaped by longer-term historical changes with an apparently more oblique relation to discourses of public politics: in particular perhaps the privatization, the sentimentalization, the feminization of literature, as opposed, in particular, to the discourses of politics itself.