- “The well-dissembled Mourner”:Lightning’s (Dis)course in the Still Lives of Thomson’s “Celadon and Amelia”
What a poor Substitute for a Set of memorable Actions, is polished Alabaster, or the Mimickry of sculptured Marble!—James Hervey 44–45
This essay considers the lives—and deaths—of the characters in the “Celadon and Amelia” episode of James Thomson’s The Seasons, in which two lovers are parted when “the beauteous Maid” is struck by lightning (“Summer” 1216).1 The instantaneous tragedy caused by the thunderbolt turns the couple into figurative statues, and interrupts the poem’s “memorable actions” with a poetic rendering of what James Hervey would later term, with scornful emphasis, the “Mimickry of sculptured Marble” (45). Mimesis, as we will see, is in fact a key theme in the episode, where repeated uses of terms denoting semblance—especially in the competing senses of “likeness, image or copy” and “outward seeming of something which is not actually there”—prompt us to examine and compare the relative memorial and mimetic authenticity of poetry and funerary sculpture, as well as to appreciate Thomson’s imitation of stone’s stillness in the medium of verse (“Semblance,” defs. n.5 and n.4a). But the pair were also extremely mobile, and lived many lives and deaths, both before the earliest publication in 1727, in verses, letters, and newspaper articles on the unlucky Oxfordshire couple who inspired the episode, and after the poem’s completion in 1746, in the anthology pieces, allusions, and visual art through which Celadon and Amelia lived on in the British imagination. Siting Thomson’s episode between its multifarious sources and an important later incarnation, and paying close attention to the discourses of lightning in the text and its contexts, I suggest, allows us to comprehend the significance of statuesque or sculptural semblances in The Seasons as [End Page 19] a whole, and to find in Thomson’s careful balancing of stasis and process, ethics and aesthetics, a valuable example of how mid-century poets were deploying the resources of their genre to incorporate and even dominate alternative discourses and media.
A number of the later incarnations have been discussed productively in recent scholarship, which has traced the way in which Thomson’s interpolated narratives, as reader favorites, took on semi-independent existences beyond the poem itself. The frequent excerption and illustration of Thomson’s tragic-sentimental tales endowed the episode (and its protagonists) with new life, whether as a specimen of the best British poetry in a pedagogical anthology, as an inducement to taking proper precautions against lightning strikes, or as a sublime icon in Romantic-era paintings and engravings.2 As Sandro Jung argues, the shifts in criticism, anthologizations, and illustrations of the tale from the poem’s publication in 1730 through to the end of the eighteenth century reveal a transformation in reading practices whereby, broadly speaking, moral and religious interpretations give way to readings that stress the story’s sentiment and sublimity.3
These re-appropriations and re-contextualizations are apt, given Thomson’s own methods of composition, which involve the careful assemblage and poetic transfiguration of materials from a wide variety of sources.4 By returning to some of the numerous depictions of the lightning-struck lovers, my aim here will be to consider what particular sources and adaptations can tell us about the tale’s balance between narrative and description, progress and stasis, and to probe the modes of representation and interpretation described in the verse itself, particularly in the final, 1746 text. In the process, I hope further to elucidate the tale’s “complex syntax of ideologies,” with particular reference to Thomson’s sources for his account of lightning, in which religious, natural scientific, and sentimental discourses mingle in ways that prefigure the monumental fate of Celadon and Amelia (Jung, “Painterly” 72). This composite discourse, I argue, is used by Thomson to claim for his poetry the kind of function and eminence associated with the funerary monument.
We begin with a sculpture in Petworth House, Sussex, currently sited in a corridor of the North Gallery alongside a collection of antique statuary...