Balliol College, Oxford
Readers have often noticed that something odd keeps happening in Thomson’s The Seasons. A poem supposedly devoted to the Newtonian excellences of order and proportion keeps surprising itself with the counter-experience of disorderliness and unruly profusion. These glimpses of covert chaos prove no less absorbing for their being so obviously troublesome to the poem’s tidy-minded Deist agenda:
Nor undelighted by the boundless Spring
Are the broad monsters of the foaming deep:
From the deep ooze and gelid cavern roused,
They flounce and tumble in unwieldy joy.
Dire were the strain and dissonant to sing
The cruel raputures of the savage kind …
In his excellent English Poetry of the Eighteenth Century, David Fairer describes very well the odd power that attends such moments of lost ‘poise’: with an inspired sort of waywardness, the poetry fleetingly includes within its ambit just the sort of bewildering scenario that it was originally devised to redeem. Kevis Goodman is evidently fascinated by such moments too, and her clever and tenacious book builds upon her sense that they represent a crisis of genre: the genre in question is georgic. That the Augustans had a long puzzling love affair with Virgil’s Georgics is a staple of literary history, the grounds for their attraction usually said to be the astonishing directness with which georgic poetry could represent the banal paraphernalia of workaday reality (dung-heaps and so on) which lay excitingly beyond the pale of good judgment. Goodman maintains here something like the opposite: what really matters about georgic, she says, is not its unassuming ordinariness but its intense and bookish self-consciousness, the self-advertising verbalism by which it conjures – she would say ‘mediates’ – humdrum things into the stuff of art, so as to ‘beautifie the vilest dirt’ (as she nicely quotes one commentator) and ‘enliven the deadest Lump’. What charms us is not so much the dung-heap that is being portrayed, Addison says, as the beauty of its portrayal. When Thomson loses his georgic poise, the improving virtue of his art fails: an alternative kind of perception gets into the poetry, as though to reveal a complicating life beneath the surface calm. Goodman calls this effect a ‘clash between rival mediations of the social field’, and the example which strikes her with special force occurs when Thomson makes a tentative descent to the world of the microscopic:
Where the pool
Stands mantled o’er with green, invisible,
Amid the floating verdure millions stray.
Each liquid too, whether it pierces, soothes,
Inflames, refreshes, or exalts the taste,
With various forms abounds. Nor is the stream
Of purest crystal, nor the lucid air,
Though one transparent vacancy it seems,
Void of their unseen people. These, conceal’d
By the kind art of forming Heaven, escape
The grosser eye of man: for, if the worlds
In worlds inclosed should on his senses burst,
From cates ambrosial, and the nectar’d bowl,
He would abhorrent turn; and in dead night,
When silence sleeps o’er all, be stunn’d with noise.
Goodman plausibly connects the animation of that passage with a lively debate within empiricist writings of the period about magnification: concealed beneath the normal range of human perception, but suddenly discovered by the new science, lurked a giddy plurality of worlds, diversely scaled. Thomson is responding to that kind of troubling new awareness as surely as does Swift in the first two books of Gulliver’s Travels.
Now, you could follow the magnificent sweep of Lovejoy (The Great Chain of Being) and identify in Thomson’s lapses signs of a momentous and encompassing confrontation between two concepts of nature – the one, unified, lawful, divinely regulated, the other, diverse, individualistic, anarchically self-governing. But Goodman, as befits the historicist credentials of the Cambridge series in which her book appears, doesn’t go along with that – or, anyway, wants to join that good old argument about plurality to a newer one about history: ‘this act of poetic seeing’, she says, ‘working as microscopic eye, reverses direction and opens out to an influx of the historical world’. The world in question here is the world of food production in an imperial age: mentioning ‘unseen people’, for example, is said to imply a whole obscured background of human relations. I suppose you could hardly say that The Seasons was a poem about the empire; but you might well agree that it is a poem with the empire behind it: stylishly, Goodman calls that background awareness ‘the noise of history’.