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A Wee Drop of Water
July/August 2014

Dr Johnson: Unconvinced by James Thomson's "florid" poetry in praise of drink

Dr Johnson was suspicious of the poetry of James Thomson. He recognised that Thomson had a particular and genuinely poetic gift: "His diction is in the highest degree florid and luxuriant." But Thomson's language was insufficiently disciplined: "It is too exuberant, and sometimes may be charged with filling the ear more than the mind." That want of a vigilant surveillance over diction was reflected, too, in a laxness over poetic structure. Johnson admitted that Thomson's best and most successful poem, The Seasons, brought before the reader "the whole magnificence of Nature". However, that profusion had overwhelmed the structural powers of the poet, and had resulted in a poetic weakness:

The great defect of The Seasons is want of method; but for this I know not that there was any remedy. Of many appearances subsisting all at once, no rule can be given why one should be mentioned before another; yet the memory wants the help of order, and the curiosity is not excited by suspense or expectation.

One does not lightly disagree with Dr Johnson, but it may be that those two features of The Seasons which he regarded as defects — its metaphorical luxuriance and its lack of an explicit analytical structure — can be viewed more positively. Thomson's metaphors bind together at least one of the poems which comprise The Seasons, and supply a subtle figurative coherence that does the work of more formal structure.

"Autumn" was the last of The Seasons to be composed and published, appearing first with its three companion poems in 1730.  Like all The Seasons, it has a loose contexture of episodes and descriptions.  One of the great set-pieces in the poem is the description of an epic drinking session which concludes a day spent fox-hunting. The debauch begins with milder liquors and innocent fun. But then the evening enters a more vicious phase:

At last these puling Idlenesses laid
Aside, frequent and full, the dry Divan
Close in firm Circle; and set, ardent, in
For serious Drinking.

The drinkers are initially riotous and animated:

                                       earnest, brimming Bowls
Lave every Soul, the Table floating round,
And Pavement, faithless to the fuddled Foot.
Thus as they swim in mutual Swill, the Talk,
Vociferous at once from twenty Tongues,
Reels fast from Theme to Theme; . . .

But eventually they succumb to the soporific effects of wine, and elation gives way to torpor:

                                          Their feeble Tongues,
Unable to take up the cumbrous Word,
Lie quite dissolv'd.  Before their maudlin Eyes,
Seen dim and blue, the double Tapers dance,
Like the Sun wading thro'  the misty Sky.
Then, sliding soft, they drop.  Confus'd above,
Glasses and Bottles, Pipes and Gazetteers,
As if the Table even itself was drunk,
Lie a wet broken Scene; . . .

The sole survivor is "some Doctor, of tremendous Paunch,/Awful and deep, a black Abyss of Drink", who wanders off into the night, deploring his companions' lack of stamina, and "the Weakness of these latter Times."

If one were to read this episode excerpted from the whole poem, it would be natural to see it as an exercise in satire. But when it is replaced in its context, Thomson's fox-hunting topers emerge in a more positive light; and the exuberance of the liquid metaphors in the passage hints at this redemptive possibility because of the way they tie this particular episode into the larger imaginative patterns of the poem.

"Autumn" imagines both nature and human history as vast hydraulic systems set in motion by the mysterious circulation of fluids. Later Thomson considers how water moves through the natural world, linking together the animate and inanimate:

These roving Mists, that constant now begin
To smoak along the hilly Country, These,
With weighty Rains, and melted Alpine Snows,
The Mountain-Cisterns fill, those ample Stores
Of Water, scoop'd among the hollow Rocks;
Whence gush the Streams, the ceaseless Fountains play,
And their unfailing Wealth the Rivers draw.

Thomson was writing at a moment when men's ideas about how the salt water of the oceans became converted into the fresh water of the lakes and rivers were changing.  The ancients believed that the salt water of the oceans percolated through layers of rock and sand and was eventually and mysteriously drawn up into mountain springs after all the salt had been filtered out. But Pierre Perrault and Edmond Halley had attacked the theory of percolation, arguing instead that condensation was the sole and sufficient mechanism for the production of fresh from salt water. Thomson is an anti-percolationist, but his imagination is nevertheless gripped by the idea that the circulation of water is the great motor of nature:

Say then, where lurk the vast eternal Springs,
That, like CREATING NATURE, lie conceal'd
From mortal Eye, yet with their lavish Stores
Refresh the Globe, and all its joyous Tribes?

It is the movement of liquid which, in the natural world, produces "a social Commerce" and "the full-adjusted Harmony of Things".  Even the progress of human history from savagery to Enlightenment, according to Thomson, can be assimilated to this metaphor and mechanism of the restless motion of fluids. In a spasm of patriotic fervour he reflects on Scotland's recent contributions to the intellectual life of Europe, which he imagines as a refreshing shower:

Hence of unequal Bounds
Impatient, and by tempting Glory borne
O'er every Land, for every Land their Life
Has flow'd profuse, their piercing Genius plan'd,
And swell'd the Pomp of Peace their faithful Toil,
As from their own clear North, in radiant Streams,
Bright over Europe bursts the Boreal Morn.

In the extravagant metaphorical economy of "Autumn", Thomson's fox-hunting drinkers also participate in the endless, providential circulation of liquids which comprises all life, natural and human. And in that enlarged perspective, their deep potations are to some extent redeemed from the taint of social vice.

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