- James Thomson and the Affective Body in/of The Seasons
From the moment of its publication, James Thomson’s poem The Seasons both transfixed and transported its readers. In her 1796 novel Camilla, Frances Burney fictionalizes a young scholar’s ecstatic reading of “Spring.” Melmond becomes so enraptured by the “truly elegant and feeling description” of the poem that he “perceive[s]” and “regard[s] nothing but what he was about,” every so often punctuating his otherwise silent reading with “passionate ejaculations,” crying out that Thomson’s language is “too much! too much!” for him to bear physically (99–100). Similarly, in his Life of Thomson, Dr. Johnson muses that “the reader of the Seasons wonders that … he has never yet felt what Thomson impresses,” and John Aikin also observed in 1778 that “no poem was ever composed which addressed itself to the feelings of a greater number of readers” (4: 272; v). All three descriptions conjure the effects of Thomson’s “feeling description” on the susceptible and enthusiastic sentiments of the reader. For Johnson and Aikin, this is an emphatically physical process in which the poem “impresses” and “addresses” its readers; particularly intriguing is Johnson’s use of the verb “impress,” which analogizes the physical process of printing the published poem to the (presumably no less physical) imprinting of emotions onto the transported reader. Indeed, as eighteenth-century readers like Burney, Johnson, and Aikin strove to register the enormity of the public response to The Seasons, they did so by depicting an intimate and yet forceful relationship between reader and text: the active, pressing, material body of the poem colliding with the sentimental, felt body of the reader.1 The present essay extends their premise that Thomson’s poem behaves like a physical body: I argue that The Seasons, constantly reshaped and represented by Thomson’s obsessive revisions, reacts like the affective bodies introduced in the poem. The dominant sexual and sentimental experiences of Thomson’s own life are not only figured in the poem’s many sentimental episodes, but are also embodied in the poem’s dynamically responsive text.
Though Thomson’s poetry has repeatedly and rightly been associated with the sentimental culture of eighteenth-century Britain, the notion of [End Page 1] Thomson himself as a sentimental figure has been mostly lost to critics. Contemporaries described him as a boorish, awkward man, and he never married and rarely courted.2 Yet there is ample evidence to suggest that many romantic and sentimental episodes in The Seasons were not only inspired by Thomson’s own singular experience of love and loss, but also repeatedly revised to correspond to significant shifts in his amorous allegiances. Thus, The Seasons—as evidenced by the numerous revisions that shaped later versions in the 1740s, including the final version in 1746— remained a deeply personal testament to Thomson’s attachments, even as it sought, more publicly, to inspire what G. Gabrielle Starr calls “affective consensus,” a form of “shared sensibility” enabled by lyric poetry (64). That The Seasons incorporates Thomson’s own affections has been recognized by Ralph Cohen, who, in calling “Spring” Thomson’s “love-song,” explicitly connects the poet’s emotions with his aesthetics, and also by Douglas Grant, who describes The Seasons as a form of “sentimental autobiography” (201). But scholarship has generally overlooked Thomson’s personal life in focusing on his extensive revisions of The Seasons, instead attributing these revisions to a lack of success in other writing and professional projects (see Sambrook and Grant, especially chap. 5). This essay will connect Thomson’s compulsive practice of revision to the dominant affective experiences in his life.
Thomson’s practice of revision was legendary. From the initial publication of Winter in 1726 to the posthumous edition of Thomson’s Works supervised by George Lord Lyttelton in 1750, the four poems of The Seasons underwent very extensive revisions. Spring, for example, was initially published in 1728 and was transformed by at least three significant revisions in Thomson’s life, in 1730, 1744, and 1746. One identifiable effect of these revisions, as Sandro Jung has noted, is the condensing and tightening of the sentimental episodes that appear throughout the...