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  • Online publication date: December 2014

11 - James Thomson's The Seasons and the Transformative Potential of Poetry in the Early Scottish Enlightenment

from III - Enlightenment and Romantic Poetologies


The purpose of this chapter is to examine and study an early example of the relationship between the poetry of the Scottish-born James Thomson and a number of references and ideas that later became the basis of the Enlightenment's Science of Man in Scotland. By the mid-eighteenth century, following Adam Smith's pioneering work in his first public lectures on rhetoric and belles lettres delivered at Edinburgh University in 1748, most Scottish thinkers had become aware of the fact that not only rhetorical or stylistic devices, but the whole province of imaginative writing exercised such an influence on the human psyche that they started studying them as an essential component of their programme. The term belles lettres, borrowed from seventeenth-century French usage by Smith himself, served, as the linguist Philippe Caron suggests, as a ‘temporary linguistic mediator as well as a general label to refer to the current reflection on the essential purpose of texts and on the interest that was seen in them’. Significantly, the original name of the French ‘Académie des inscriptions et médailles’, a royal institution created by Colbert in 1669 under Louis XIV for promoting knowledge and teaching moral examples from antiquity, had already been updated to the more comprehensive title of ‘Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres’. When Charles Rollin, professor at the prestigious Collège de France in Paris, published his major treatise on the rhetorical and moral education of youth, popularized as the Traité des études (1726–8), he chose the more comprehensive title De la manière d'enseigner les belles-lettres par rapport à l'esprit et au coeur [The Method of Teaching and Studying the Belles Lettres in Relation to the Mind and the Heart] which inspired Smith's title for the original Edinburgh lectures two decades later. In the ‘Discours préliminaire’ of the Traité, Rollin states his dual intention of ‘educating manners’ by ‘educating the minds’.