As early as 1726, a critic in the London Journal commented on the unique and original kind of image that James Thomson had fashioned in the first version of Winter: A Poem, the nucleus of what was to be published, in 1730, as the century’s most influential descriptive long poem, The Seasons. He likened the images of the poem to “a Cluster of Jewels” which, owing to their artful cutting and arrangement, reflect advantageously upon each other and produce a strikingly novel effect (London Journal 1). Over the next 250 years, critics extensively examined the visual poetics of Thomson’s work, and it has become a critical commonplace to commend the descriptive and painterly qualities of the poem. Many scholars, including Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Jean Hagstrum, and John Dixon Hunt, have interpreted Thomson’s production in terms of the sister arts of poetry and painting as well as their interrelationship as engendered in the ut picture poesis tradition. But no extended study of Thomson’s construction of the poetic image has been produced that explores the poet’s verbal art without relying on the unhelpful painterly rubric that readers from the eighteenth century to the present have usually deployed to comprehend Thomson’s ubiquitous descriptiveness.
In his monumental The Art of Discrimination: Thomson’s The Seasons and the Language of Criticism, Ralph Cohen embedded Thomson’s work within the complex eighteenth-century debate of poetic description. He examined the extensive body of criticism published in response to Thomson’s work and its fashioning of a pictorial language and theories of the visual descriptive. Moving deliberately away from formalist criticism, Cohen concerned himself with charting the contexts conditioning the text’s critical reception and history, especially those elucidating Thomson’s descriptions. As a critical category to understand the sophisticated language and images that Thomson fashioned for his image-making, however, the descriptive is limited in that it does not help to explain and understand Thomson’s image-making processes (Jung 583–99).
Thomson embedded clusters of images in his landscapes and offered a contrasting vision of natural and sentimental or moral reflection. His periphrastic language, with the combined use of prosopopoeia, offered [End Page v] him the potential to create novel images pregnant with allusive potentiality and obscurity. John More characterizes the Celadon and Amelia tale by pointing out its “beautiful assemblage of the most luxuriant images” (43). These “luxuriances” entail original and meaningful combinations of ideas which generate complex images that are tonally and modally different from the natural description and passages of political discourse of the poem. At the same time, they provide effective media of balance in the overall descriptive-digressive structure of The Seasons. More states that: “Ideas never come into the mind alone. They have all their circumstances and sentiments, which like the accompanyments [sic] of music, are inseparable from their being. To exhibit our conceptions justly, these must have a share in our expression. Thus, the diffuseness of our Author, is never without a meaning” (89). It is part of Thomson’s theory of the mul-tidimensional nature of the poetic image and the reinvigorated use of personification, which he illustrates extensively in the interpolated episodes.
Thomson’s ability to generate strikingly memorable images distinguished his descriptive verse from his contemporaries’. Samuel Johnson insists: “The reader of the Seasons wonders that he never saw before what Thomson shews him, and that he never yet has felt what Thomson impresses” (3: 103). Because of their anthropocentric inscription, Thomson’s complex interconnected images in the interpolated episodes recommended themselves to anthologists who excerpted them and popularized The Seasons through a selection of its parts. The tragic-sentimental stories, through repeated selection and reprinting, reshaped the critical and cultural afterlife of Thomson’s poem. They would be presented in such a way that they served as metonymical placeholders for readers inferring the entire text through those parts that were privileged by textual and visual interpreters (who would frequently use these tales as epitextual spin-offs). Until very recently, however, these interpolated stories were not given serious attention by literary scholars—even though it was these tales by which The Seasons was widely popularized...