- Design, Media, and the Reading of Thomson’s The Seasons
I. The Seasons as Commodity
James Thomson’s The Seasons is one of a very few texts which enjoyed an unusually long cultural life as desirable commodity and which brought lucrative profits to enterprising individuals investing in the production and marketing of visual media and material culture inspired by the work. Andrew Millar, Thomson’s original bookseller-publisher, following the success of the 1730 edition of the poem, exploited its economic capital by establishing a copyright monopoly that allowed him to remain the exclusive beneficiary of sales of editions until the mid-1760s, when his copyright control was challenged through the publication of a pirated edition issued by Alexander Donaldson. Once copyright to Thomson’s text was, through court action, successfully contested in 1774, The Seasons—now that it could be reprinted freely—was assigned an even more significant economic value than before that was negotiated fiercely in the competitive marketplace for printed text objects. The Seasons’ status was being redefined throughout the second half of the eighteenth century, when it transformed from the production of a contemporary poet to a canonic work of national importance. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was metatextually revised by the critical paratexts that were added to new editions. This metatextual engagement with the work was a by-product of the commodification of the text as marketable object that could be shaped through the addition of paratexts such as critical introductions, memoirs, and glossaries. This rewriting of the poem by means of paratexts was part of the accretion process that refashioned the text and characterized the multifarious “commodity phase” of The Seasons (Appadurai 13).
The commodification of the poem both as text and as cultural property resulted in numerous medial renderings that exemplify the processes that made possible the appropriation of the work to different audiences and purposes in the nineteenth century. These appropriations drew on the flexibility of the textual condition of Thomson’s work, which lent itself to [End Page 139] multifarious adaptation facilitated by its commodity state. Like the textual condition, the commodity state of an object is a dynamic one, with objects moving into and out of it continuously. For the literary historian, the commodity status of a text object is less important than the affective presence conveyed and mediated by material culture drawing on associations of the character, reputation, and text of The Seasons. It is this affective presence, if active, which will induce consumers to identify an intertextual link between the text or redacted textual version (as part of an anthology excerpt) of Thomson’s work—with which they may have become familiar through past reading experience—and its commodified spin-offs. Such recall of previous reading can trigger a process by which memories of the poem are reactivated and feed into a novel reading of such Seasons-inspired material culture as enameled watchcases featuring illustrations of popular iconographic moments from the work. The consumer makes sense of the new medium through the lens of a past reading but generates a new meaning that reflects the medial accretion of the text, which was originally encountered typographically only. Up until the first half of the nineteenth century, an active affective presence associated with Thomson’s poem was the result of continuously published new editions, which offered ever novel paratexts to the printed text and conditioned the ways in which readers could make sense of the poem.
Once new editions of the poem, with new paratexts, including illustrations, were produced, the cultural status of and the economic value identified in The Seasons transformed the work into symbolic capital. This, in turn, facilitated the popularization of the text not merely in text-only editions but also in illustrated editions and other media such as paintings, especially those concerned with centralizing the literary characters of Thomson’s tragic-sentimental interpolated episodes (Jung, “Print Culture” 506–11). Through the successful efforts of booksellers recruiting members of the British royal family as patrons of particular edition ventures, the poem soon acquired a reputation of cultural prestige that was then capitalized on and marketed again through both...