Thomson and the Problems of the “Literal”

Excuse the belatedness of this post, as I’m still returning to normalcy after finishing up my last classes yesterday. I also wish that my comments could be better informed by a careful study of Parker’s entire work, but at the very least I’ll indirectly address some of the engaging blogging on the earlier chapters.

The highlight of this chapter is a shrewd reading of Thomson’s Summer as the most daunting experiment in the expansion of Augustan “literalism,” including a widened range of subject matter and an associative and accretive (or perhaps one could substitute “metonymic”) basis for the juxtaposition of its positivistic scenes. Parker applies his thesis quite deliberately to Summer, the one book of Thomson’s poem that is most free of moralistic, religious, or generically-encoded overtones and can thus serve as a test case for the limits of a purely empirical poetics. The metaphysical and analogical traces in the book of nature have been emptied out, along with the significations of classical literary tradition. Milton, whose influence is also challenged, is said to be competing with Newton for priority in Thomson’s representations of the summer sun, a poetic source of both “a neutral, mechanistic view and a traditional dramatic one” that emphasizes the fallen nature of the heterocosm. Thomson has already benefited from the satirical assaults on the Baroque aesthetic and its theological residue; thus the ground is cleared for what is by far the most naturalistic mode of poetic representation at this point in history and arguably the forerunner of modern conceptions of nature poetry–a bold move to make at this point after the dominance of Wordsworth—whom I’ll return to later—in this dimension of lit history, and the related dominance of Romantic aesthetics in defining modern critical formations of nature poetry.

At the same time, the application of the book’s larger thesis to Thomson strikes me as a somewhat insular, not only in eliding new historicism, as others have remarked, but also in the way that it engages with the critical practices one might associate with Earl Wasserman, an interweaving of close reading with what was then called the history of ideas, the way a single work is a synecdoche for a governing epistemological formation. Granted, we now recognize elements of continuity and change in formations consisting of works that overlap with and distance themselves from earlier norms. Perhaps, as Marshall Brown put it in Preromanticism, we may also sense that a such works are “on their way” to an emergent formation, remaining in a halfway house between the neoclassical and the Romantic, while still cohering as a viable epistemological construct with its own identity.

In response to earlier blog discussion, this chapter leaves me with no doubt that scientific and intellectual developments had to precede the literary innovation. For instance, one of Parker’s most incisive remark on the impossibility of a Lockeian poetry of pure sensation (160) enters his discussion as part of an elaborate concession to the various forms of abstraction inherent in the nature of language and in Thomson’s moralizing or other generalizing tendencies that may obscure the visual power, immediacy, and “physical verisimilitude” of the poetry. As Parker admits, he’s “running counter” to the major critics on Thomson who have focused on his “moral generalization, classical abstraction, and Christian theodicy” when he asserts that these are the “least important and the least representative qualities in Thomson” (159) and chooses to emphasize the poet’s extensive array of “neutral description” as his most genuinely innovative development. It may be of value to bracket this quality of Thomson, but Parker’s choice foregrounds the problems of selection, exclusion, prioritization, and driving home an overarching thesis in any literary history that attempts to define a “period.” When Wordsworth enters the discussion in rather flat ways that suggest a “resymbolization” and moral elevation of the literally descriptive poetry he had read in his youth but refused to acknowledge in his 1798 Preface, he and the other Romantics are reduced to the equivalent of contrasting boundary-markers; nor do we need to trot out Geoffrey Hartman to prove that Wordsworth and the other Romantics did not simply fall back on “intervening abstractions” to “color and direct” what would otherwise be the more purely empirical “concentrated description” of Pope and Thomson. Even given the concession above, what happens to the problem of poetic diction or the ways that nature turns into an ontology of poetic form and composition? It was Donald Davie who said that one finds Miltonic diction in Thomson, not Milton.

It’s a testimony to the book’s power and erudition that the Thomson chapter left me with several questions I feel rather uneasy in answering without further investigation. One is whether there really is such a thing as “purely literal” poetry. Can the literary historian clear an empirical space untarnished by metaphysical presence between the Baroque and the Romantic? It would also be a curious exercise—perhaps I’ll suggest it to a theoretically inclined grad student–to reflect on the elements of Bate’s Burden of the Past that trickle down into both Harold Bloom and Parker, and the polarized ways that they see poetic influence and originality panning out.

While Parker abundantly provides Arnoldian touchstones that contrast analogical Renaissance depictions of nature with the empirical literalism of Thomson’s, I find it hard to abstract even a few lines from any book of The Seasons that are not already infiltrated by some anterior form of discourse that secures moralistic, classical, secularized-theodical holism, or, alternatively, inductive-scientific closure of the sort that confers systematic meaning upon any individualized natural object as part of a metonymic chain of signifiers. Admittedly, the system of signification has drastically altered by the c18, as the taxonomic plenitude suggested by, for instance, Thomson’s “naturalistic” catalog of morning birds and their calls proceeds by a kind of overdetermined inductive process to signify the providential abundance of the world; it “shows” rather than “tells” as a more traditional hymn would do via openly allegorical “correspondence,” and it’s underwritten more by scientific certainty than by the implied or openly declared presence of a god. Indeed, as Parker clearly argues, the abundance of description threatens to overwhelm the elements of moral closure, but this observation may belong more to the reception aesthetic of the poem (the article on Thomson’s uses of contradiction that John Barrell and Harriet Guest contributed to the New Eighteenth Century collection, e.g.) than a historically-sensitive reconstruction of Thomson’s plan or poetic tendencies. As much as I appreciate Parker’s identification of “downward metaphors of modern positivism” (172) in The Seasons that suggest the affinities between humanity and a natural world denuded of analogical traces, I would ask whether the inductive leaps of science and empirical philosophy serve as the a posteriori God-term in this poetry of Newtonian discovery. Does a new, secularized sign-system (nature as a mechanistic process, e.g.) ever completely supplant its metaphysical predecessor or does it still depend on rewriting or re-allegorizing a continuous cultural heritage preserved in classical and Judeo-Christian texts, albeit approached “scientifically”?

One segment of Parker’s nuanced reading raised doubts about the “literal” that he made generous concessions to without quite establishing or modifying his main argument. Thomson depended on anthropological writings and natural histories in order to envision both edenic and chaotic scenes of life in Africa (165-67), and I agree that he deserves credit for his “studied prospect of minute detail,” even if this prospect relies on literary mediation and its allusive, mostly Miltonic bedrock, as well as elements of fantasy that supplement his factual sources. Yet even if we grant such descriptions the same “literal” status as the images of flora and fauna that his reputedly nearsighted vision could directly detect, the extensive descriptions of African nature indirectly underwrite a teleology of Whiggish progress, latch georgic cultivation (a mode that Parker had earlier discounted as a means of organizing sight and space in Summer [159]), onto the “Progressive Truth” of scientific inquiry, and justify imperial domination.

Finally, to quibble with one example from what I generally find to be his illuminating analogies to the history of painting at this time: How can West’s Death of Wolfe be said to treat its subject in a way that “yields no figurative depth” (156) when there’s an obvious attempt to parallel this hero of secular, modern imperial history with those of the past? It’s not necessary to compare Wolfe with Jesus to see that it’s more than a “merely structural” pose that is indebted to a “mechanical” tradition of history painting that had been emptied of its analogical or typological force. One problem here is that “structural” cannot be equated with “literal”; another is that the moral dimension of this scene has to come from somewhere: is it only “modern” British history or is some level of analogy with classical and biblical culture inevitable, however much their “absence” is now supplanted by the presence of the present. And does even the most “mechanical” of traditions (which gives short shrift to West’s innovations) carry with it some overtones of prior figurations; let’s call it intertextuality if we don’t like the evaluative assumptions inherent in the word “depth.”

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4 responses to “Thomson and the Problems of the “Literal”

  1. The Death of General Wolfe
    Benjamin West
    1770
    Oil on canvas, 152,6 x 214,5 cm
    National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

  2. Above…a link to the Benjamin West painting; I hope it works. I agree with Bill Levine on this remark–but would love to hear more from the group as a whole on the notions of “intertextuality” and “depth”–since they are relevant to all of BP’s remarks about the classical inheritance in the Augustan period.

  3. Bill,

    I really enjoyed this post, but there’s so much to discuss in it, I can only take on one issue at a time.

    This passage of Bill’s I found key:

    Does a new, secularized sign-system (nature as a mechanistic process, e.g.) ever completely supplant its metaphysical predecessor or does it still depend on rewriting or re-allegorizing a continuous cultural heritage preserved in classical and Judeo-Christian texts, albeit approached “scientifically”?

    This seems a more accurate way to articulate Thomson’s relation to the past than a relatively flat Deus Absconditus narrative of wholesale secularization.

    I agree with Matt that Raymond Williams’ categories of dominant, emergent, and residual would work better to describe this kind of “survival” by reconstruction, but even better, I think, would be Mark Salber Phillips’ notion of “reframing” via Society and Sentiment, where innovation does not take place through unambiguous novelty, “but through a repositioning that responds to changing contexts and needs” (13). In an example that might answer Bill’s query, Phillips goes on to say that “Reconfigurations of this kind may well be the result of a desire to accommodate new discoveries (e.g., the expanded geographical and ethnographical knowledge of the eighteenth century), but at a more profound level they are also a reflection of the hermeneutics of historical interpretation as it shapes our conversation with history and tradition. In the process, familiar but subordinated notions may acquire a new centrality, thereby taking on new meaning and seriousness in relation to other concerns.”

    Bill, do you think Phillips’ passage is pertinent to your example of the African materials?

    DM

  4. I was also hoping you could fill out the comments on Wordsworth’s rather flat role in this narrative. How does poetic diction fit into this picture, esp. in regards to Milton?

    Best wishes,

    DM