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  • Scotland, the Earl of Buchan, and Percival Stockdale’s 1793 Commentary to The Seasons
  • Michael Edson (bio)

Percival Stockdale, the poet, critic, and rival of Samuel Johnson, is better known today as a footnote within Johnson scholarship than for his own work as annotator.1 This essay will seek to recover something of Stockdale’s achievement as annotator by focusing on the notes, along with the dedication, that Stockdale contributed to Archibald Hamilton’s 1793 edition of James Thomson’s The Seasons. Although Stockdale was not offered the task until late 1792 when the edition was nearly ready to print, the paratexts won mention in the title when the first installment appeared in January 1793: The Seasons by James Thomson; with his Life, an Index, and Glossary. A Dedication to the Earl of Buchan, and Notes to the Seasons, by Percival Stockdale.2 Aimed less to explicate The Seasons than to refute Johnson’s unenthusiastic “Life of Thomson,” Stockdale’s notes construct Thomson as a “glorious Caledonian poet,” that is, as a poet operating in an anti-Unionist literary tradition rooted in a quasi-mythic past of Scottish independence. Stockdale was an Englander and no friend to Scotland, yet the need to distance himself from the notorious Scotophobe Johnson overruled Stockdale’s own anti-Scots prejudice, leading him to adopt a Scottish-nationalist rhetoric similar to that of his dedicatee, the antiquarian David Steuart Erskine, eleventh Earl of Buchan. A decade later, Stockdale renounced Buchan’s nationalism, implying that the 1793 paratexts did not reflect Stockdale’s personal attitudes on Scotland. But for reading audiences in 1793, this recantation came too late: as this essay will demonstrate, Stockdale’s paratexts encouraged readers to view Thomson as a Scottish poet and The Seasons as a specifically Scottish production.

Nationalism, Antiquarianism, and Stockdale’s Dedication

Stockdale’s writing of the notes and dedication in late 1792 coincided with a push among Scottish cultural nationalists to reclaim Thomson as a Scottish poet.3 Previously, Thomson, like many writers hailing from the Celtic fringe of Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, had been subsumed under [End Page 91] the Anglocentric headings of “English” or “British” literature. Even if Thomson self-identified as a “Briton” in order to preserve something of his non-English identity, as Robert Crawford argues, most of Thomson’s readers understood British and English as interchangeable terms, hence the unproblematic presence of Thomson’s “Life” in Johnson’s Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (Crawford, Devolving 47; Colley 116). Few of the critical essays on Thomson appearing before 1790, including essays by Scottish critics such as John More, seek to highlight the poet’s Scottish origins, despite Thomson’s popularity in eighteenth-century Scotland.4 Thomson himself invited this treatment through his avoidance of Scottish forms and dialect in his poetry, adopting instead Miltonic diction and, in the case of The Castle of Indolence, English Spenserian stanzas. Thomson was one of many Scots who, after the 1707 Union of Parliaments, sought his fortune in London and became a supporter of the Union and the Hanoverians at a time when claims to Scottish identity still depended on rejecting the Union and eulogizing the Stuarts (Carruthers, “James Thomson” 165–68).5 As a result, Scottish nationalists seeking to reclaim a “Scottish” Thomson faced a problem in wringing evidence from Thomson’s life and poetry to support their agenda.6 Nationalist critics and antiquaries needed creative strategies if they were to convince late-century readers that Thomson was in fact a Scottish poet when so little qualified him for the title.

One strategy of nationalist recuperation familiar to Stockdale’s readers was, perhaps surprisingly, to emphasize Thomson’s neglect of Scottish themes and language. In his 1793 “A Critical Essay on the Seasons,” Robert Heron questioned Thomson’s inclusion of the long panegyric to John Milton, Robert Boyle, and other illustrious Englanders in “Summer” (lines 1479–1579).7 A historian who offered a triumphalist account of Scottish history and nationhood in A New General History of Scotland, Heron presents a representative nationalist response to Thomson’s poetry. Why, Heron asks, was Thomson

so slavishly overawed by the national prejudices of our...


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