- Versions of Damon and Musidora:The Realization of Thomson’s Story in Revisions and Illustrations
Revisions and illustrations occupy a space between primary creation and secondary criticism. Authorial revision may slide more toward the former category and illustrations by others toward the latter, but both interrogate and respond to an original text while also forming part of a new or modified text, for other readers to respond to accordingly. In The Art of Discrimination, Ralph Cohen has argued that Thomson’s revisions act as a form of secondary criticism upon his own work, as well as a central feature of his creative process; meanwhile, the primary nature of paratextual material such as illustrations is best defended by Gérard Genette, and in relation to Thomson has been most extensively explored by Sandro Jung. These critics have demonstrated the necessity of the study of revisions and illustrations and laid the crucial foundations for understanding how these “paratextual” contexts can create, reinforce, or modify the text’s own meaning. I intend to focus on one particular episode of The Seasons, the Damon and Musidora story from “Summer,” and to show that the ways in which it was revised and illustrated are intrinsically related to its literary themes of change, development, and reciprocity.
One question from which this study emerged, and which it seeks to address, is that of how textual and paratextual history, like that of revisions and illustrations, can contribute to the aesthetic understanding of a work of literature. My approach requires the application of aesthetic and usually ahistoricist techniques of analysis to historical processes, but this should not be controversial: these processes are, after all, realized in the aesthetic objects of texts and paratexts. However, it is not my intention to subordinate the historical to the aesthetic, but rather to insist upon the relevance of those historical processes, as historical processes, to aesthetic appreciation. The historical and aesthetic are, from this point of view, both mutually formative and enlightening. Historical processes of work produced The Seasons as we know it and as past readers knew it, and aesthetic judgments (primarily Thomson’s, but also publishers’ and illustrators’) informed those historical processes. It is only with reference to an abstract [End Page 47] concept of the poem that we can unite the different versions and editions of the poem into one stable though consistently evolving object; but, as I hope to show here, that evolution can and should itself be abstracted and subject to aesthetic examination, by which means it can and should be assimilated into our abstract, aesthetic, and otherwise ahistorical concept of The Seasons.
Sebastian Mitchell recently took a similar approach in his “mediated reading” of The Castle of Indolence and Liberty, where he is careful to balance “between historical context and continuing aesthetic affect” (329); he considers historical and literary contexts that informed Thomson’s writing, but does so for the sake of understanding how the poems came to be compelling today as well as in the eighteenth century. The Seasons is a work that particularly rewards such an approach because of its rich compositional and publication history, and also because of the neat parallels between this way of reading and the poem’s subject-matter. Thomson’s poem is about the intersection of, and balance between, temporal processes and eternal forms; between the ever-changing face of nature and the abstract “seasons” such changes represent: “Shade, unperceiv’d, so softening into Shade; / And all so forming an harmonious Whole” (A Hymn 25–26). We must seek to strike the same balance in our reading, respecting both the historical, material processes of writing and publishing that made The Seasons, and the timeless identity of the poem as a work of art abstracted from that historical “work.”
The Seasons has not been read as a work of “continuing aesthetic affect,” despite its historical composition, its publication history, its internal structures, and its themes all inviting such a reading. Aesthetic readings of processes of revision have mainly been offered in studies of Romantic and Modernist poets by scholars such as Zachary Leader, William H. Galperin, and Christopher Ricks. Critics have been interested in Thomson’s revisions insofar...