Showing posts with label rain. Show all posts
Showing posts with label rain. Show all posts

Saturday, 2 July 2016

'The Seasons' - James Thomson


Gradual sinks the breeze
Into a perfect calm; that not a breath
Is heard to quiver through the closing woods,
Or rustling turn the many twinkling leaves
Of aspen tall.  The uncurling floods diffused
In glassy breadth, seem, through delusive lapse,
Forgetful of their course.  ‘Tis silence all,
And pleasing expectation.  Herds and flocks
Drop the dry sprig, and, mute imploring, eye
The falling verdure.  Hush’d in short suspense,
The plumy people streak their wings with oil,
To throw the lucid moisture trickling off;
And wait the approaching sign to strike, at once,
Into the general choir.  E’en mountains, vales,
And forests seem impatient to demand
The promised sweetness.  Man superior walks
Amid the glad creation, musing praise,
And looking lively gratitude.  At last,
The clouds consign their treasures to the fields;
And, softly shaking on the dimpled pool
Prelusive drops, let all their moisture flow
In large effusion o’er the freshen’d world.
The stealing shower is scarce to patter heard,
By such as wander through the forest-walks,
Beneath the umbrageous multitude of leaves.
But who can hold the shade, while Heaven descends
In universal bounty, shedding herbs,
And fruits, and flowers on Nature’s ample lap?
Swift Fancy fired anticipates their growth;
And, while the milky nutriment distils,
Beholds the kindling country colour round.
   Thus all day long the full-distended clouds
Indulge their genial stores, and well-shower’d earth
Is deep enrich’d with vegetable life;
Till, in the western sky, the downward sun
Looks out, effulgent, from amid the flush
Of broken clouds, gay-shifting to his beam.
The rapid radiance instantaneous strikes
The illumined mountain; through the forest streams,
Shakes on the floods, and, in a yellow mist,
Far-smoking o’er the interminable plain,
In twinkling myriads lights the dewy gems.
Moist, bright, and green, the landscape laughs around.
Full swell the woods; their every music wakes,
Mix’d in wild concert with the warbling brooks
Increased, the distant bleatings of the hills,
Engraved title-page for 'Spring' in the 1876
illustrated edition of Thomson's Seasons 
The hollow lows responsive from the vales,
Whence, blending all, the sweeten’d zephyr springs.
Meantime, refracted from yon eastern cloud,
Bestriding earth, the grand ethereal bow
Shoots up immense, and every hue unfolds,
In fair proportion, running from the red,
To where the violet fades into the sky.
Here, awful Newton, the dissolving clouds
Form, fronting on the sun, thy showery prism;
And, to the sage-instructed eye, unfold
The various twine of light, by thee disclosed
From the white mingling maze.  Not so the boy:
He wondering views the bright enchantment bend,
Delightful, o’er the radiant fields, and runs To catch the falling glory; but amazed
Beholds the amusive arch before him fly,
Then vanish quite away.

(Excerpt from ‘Spring’)
The Seasons James Thomson (1700-1748)
1728-30


Engraved frontispiece for 'Spring' from the 1876
illustrated edition of Thomson's Seasons.
You might be wondering why today’s quotation is so long.  Well, quite simply it’s because this is something of a tricky poem to get hold of (and I didn't want folks put off reading it by its eulsiveness).  Published in 1730, James Thomsons’s Seasons would have a profound effect on English Literature throughout the remainder of the eighteenth century.  Sadly, however, like many great eighteenth-century poets, his works are not always remembered today.  Indeed, my attention was only drawn to this talented poet and his work through my investigations into pre-chapter quotation, since extracts from Thomson’s Seasons frequently appear in the works of Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe (whose novels I am currently researching).  It’s a fantastic example of how an interest in one thing can stimulate a love of something else in literary studies!
Divided into four sections, each corresponding to a specific season, Thomson’s Seasons is a lush, and glorious poem.  It’s also rather long, so for the purposes of this blog post I’ll focus on the extract I’ve typed up above.  This section is taken from ‘Spring’, and narrates the approach and arrival of a brief spring shower, finishing with the inevitable rainbow splashed across the sky.  Thus it begins with a sense of anticipation: ‘‘Tis silence all, / And pleasing expectation’.  The herds stop their grazing, and ‘The plumy people [the birds] streak their wings with oil’ in preparation for the forthcoming rain.  Importantly, the rain is also seen as a good thing here as ‘E’en mountains, vales, / And forests seem impatient to demand / The promised sweetness’ that the rain will bring.

Finally ‘The clouds consign their treasures to the fields’, and the world is ‘freshen’d’.  In just three lines, Thomson forms an exquisite and evocative image of wandering beneath the trees as the rain falls overhead:
 
‘The stealing shower is scarce to patter heard,
By such as wander through the forest-walks, Beneath the umbrageous multitude of leaves.’

(I had to look up what ‘umbrageous’ means, so just in case you’re not sure either it means ‘shady’, or ‘shaded’.  Good word to use at parties, and in crosswords.).  Yet neither is this just a romantic description of the countryside: there’s a practical side to it too.  This ‘universal bounty’ or ‘milky nutriment’ will call to life ‘herbs, And fruits, and flowers’; that the rain also causes ‘the kindling country [to] colour round’ is simply an added bonus.  It’s like when you think of how vibrantly green the beautiful hills of Wales always look, because of the rain from the mountains.  Here too, the rain is bringing out all the glorious colours of nature.

In Thomson’s poem, the rain lasts ‘all day long’, spreading its goodness around until the ‘well-shower’d earth / Is deep enrich’d with vegetable life’.  Only as the day draws to a close does the sun peek out ‘effulgent’ or radiant from the clouds.  It’s sunset, and the light ‘instantaneous strikes / The illumined mountain’, glowing ‘in a yellow mist’ as it ‘In twinkling myriads lights the dewy gems’ of all the settled raindrops clinging to the plants.  Beautiful, isn’t it?  And then, ‘Moist, bright, and green, the landscape laughs around’, and the birds sing as in the woods ‘every music wakes’ to blend with ‘the distant bleatings’ of sheep and the ‘hollow lows’ of cattle in the valleys.  And crowning all, a rainbow appears:
Engraving from 'Spring' in the 1876 illustrated
edition of Thomson's Seasons.
‘Meantime, refracted from yon eastern cloud,
Bestriding earth, the grand ethereal bow
Shoots up immense, and every hue unfolds,
In fair proportion, running from the red,
To where the violet fades into the sky.’


The reference to Newton alludes to his discovery of the refractive properties of light, in which a glass prism can separate ‘The various twine of light, […]/ From the white mingling maze’.  It’s a nice touch of science in this otherwise eminently poetic description.  But the last word goes not to Newton, but to the ‘wondering’ boy who longs to catch hold of the rainbow, which fades and pulls away as he tries to grasp it.  It’s a good image for the whole purpose of this kind of nature poetry, which aims to capture the intangible beauty of a world that must be experienced to be fully enjoyed and appreciated.  Through the words of Thomson, even those not fortunate enough to live in the countryside can capture a sense of that experience of the natural environment.

Happy Reading!!

You can find this poem…
…with great difficulty.  For some strange reason, it doesn’t seem to be in popular print anymore.  Which is a huge shame because it’s an absolute masterpiece!!  Here are a few suggestions of starting points, though:

(Not perhaps the most attractive font in the world, but this does seem to include the whole poem!  And lots of other lovely Thomson material too!! Go forth and read folks!)

http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-four-seasons-summer/
(This only contains one of Thomson’s four seasonal poems, ‘Summer’, but still it’s a start!)

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/james-thomson#about
(Poetry foundation: contains extracts from ‘Spring’ and ‘Winter’.  Also includes Thomson’s other famous poem, ‘Rule Britannia’, from which comes the seminal Last of the Proms anthem!)

There are also umerous old/antique copies of this poem available from second-hand retailers online and on the high street, some of them not too expensive.  There was an annotated Oxford edition of the text published in the 1980s, but even today this is priced for only the most enthusiastic of readers.
 
You can find out more about Thomson and his work:

https://www.britannica.com/biography/James-Thomson-Scottish-poet-1700-1748
(A biography in Encyclopaedia Britannica that is shockingly short for such an important chap!  But it does have lots of the most important dates)

(Wikipedia – a rather longer biography, so might actually be more interesting than Britannica’s entry)

(Interesting blogpost about illustrated versions of Thomson’s poem)

(Another nice blogpost about the influence of Thomson’s Seasons upon later romantic poets to whom time has been somewhat kinder, such as Coleridge)

https://www.waterstones.com/book/weatherland/alexandra-harris/9780500292655
(I believe there's also a rather nice section on Thomson in Alexandra Harris's fab new award-winning book Weatherland.  The link connects to Waterstones website, though of course it is available at all good bookstores, online and on the high street!! I haven't read this yet, but it's on my list... )

Copyright notice: All images used in this blogpost are the property of the author.  I'm happy for others to use these images for educational or research purposes free of charge, on condition that due acknowledgement is given.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

'A Description of a City Shower' - Jonathan Swift


‘Careful observers may foretell the hour
(By sure prognostics) when to dread a shower:
While rain depends, the pensive cat gives o’er
Her frolics, and pursues her tail no more.’

‘A Description of a City Shower’
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)
1710

Familiar to many as the author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift was in fact a writer of many and various talents.  It might be his tiny Lilliputian people that has secured him a place in popular culture, but in the realm of eighteenth-century literature Swift is an absolute giant.  A member of the Scriblerus Club, he was friends with some of the most influential writers and politicians of the early eighteenth century, including Alexander Pope, Dr. John Arbuthnot, Thomas Parnell, John Gay, and the Earl of Oxford, Robert Harley (who effectively headed Queen Anne’s government for a time). 

In this poem, Swift seems to be in one of his merrier moods.  Originally published in a periodical journal by Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, The Tatler (1709-1711), this is a poem about one of the simplest and most ordinary occurrences: a shower of rain in town.  It starts in a delightfully gloomy manner: ‘Careful observers may foretell the hour / (By sure prognostics) when to dread a shower’.  It’s so deliciously melodramatic, with its heightened sense of ‘dread’.  Then Swift details these ‘prognostics’, such as ‘the pensive cat’ who, with that innate sense animals seem to have of changes in the weather, has stopped playing and probably found somewhere cosy and sheltered to sit.  The ‘sink’ that is next alluded to refers to the local cesspool, which possibly smells stronger because of the increased humidity in the air.  Then comes the warning: ‘If you be wise, then go not far to dine; / You’ll spend in coach hire more than save in wine’.  This assumes of course that the most obvious reason for the reader to eat out is to dine at his friends’ expense; the threatening rain would negate this benefit because the mercenary diner would then have to pay to hire a coach home afterwards.  Next come more traditional signs of changing air pressure as ‘Old aches throb’.  The ‘Dulman’ seen sauntering in the coffeehouse is simply an instance of the splendid practise of naming a character after their character-type: ‘Dulman’ is exactly what he sounds like. 

The second section of the poem brings the approaching rain a step closer, as the personified ‘South’ comes sweeping in ‘with dabbled wings’.  It’s just typical Swift that after this beautiful image he brings the whole thing crashing back to earth again with the much less attractive image of the ‘sable cloud’ as a drunkard ‘That swilled more liquor than it could contain’ and yes, you guessed it, ‘gives it up again’.  Fortunately, we can hurry on swiftly (pun absolutely intended) to the image of the maid who ‘whips her linen from the rope’ as the rain finally arrives.  At the moment, it is only a slight shower, ‘Such is that sprinkling which some careless quean / Flirts on you from her mop, but not so clean’.  Here ‘quean’ also refers to a maid, here flicking dirt from a mop onto a passerby. Gritty realism continues as Swift describes the ‘dust’ and dirt from the street getting muddled with the rain.  Relating this in terms of a conflict, this dust ‘aided by the wind, fought still for life’ until ‘’Twas doubtful which was rain and which was dust’.  The hapless passerby is simply caught in the crossfire, whilst ‘dust and rain at once his coat invade’.  The practical effect of this is to ruin his only coat by leaving dirty stains. 

And now we really get to the rainstorm, ‘Now in contiguous drops the flood comes down’.  No place for understatement here, as the idea of the rain ‘Threatening with deluge this devoted town’ creates an impression of a downpour of Biblical proportions.  The humour is maximised by positioning this grandiose image just before the description of the ‘daggled females’ rushing into shops to hide from the rain (as they ‘Pretend to cheapen goods, but nothing buy’).  The ‘Templar spruce’ mentioned next is a similarly grand way of referring to a law student who, ‘while ev’ry spout’s abroach’ with rain water, lingers indoors, only ‘seem[ig] to call a coach’.  This series of wet-weather vignettes is continued with the depiction of a ‘sempstress’ hurrying along beneath the cover of an umbrella.  Elsewhere the rain serves to dissolve social boundaries as ‘various kinds, by various fortunes led, / Commence acquaintance underneath a shed’.  Here, members of the two opposing political parties of the time, Tories and Whigs, have ‘join[ed] to save their wigs’, the obvious satire being that, when both are threatened with the destruction of their fashionable gear in the rain, they are content to ‘Forget their feuds’ and share the shelter.  The ‘chair’ in which the ‘beau’ (fashion-conscious young man) sits is a Sedan chair, quite literally boxed in on every side and carried by two chairmen.  Inside, the beau can hear the ‘frightful din’ of the rain on the leather roof of his vehicle, and ‘he trembles from within’.  Once more, Swift splices the everyday with the epic, as he likens the chair-men to the Trojans, carrying the wooden horse loaded with Greek soldiers into Troy at the end of the Trojan War. 

In the last section, Swift builds rapidly to the climax.  The ‘kennels’ alluded to are not dog houses, but open gutters running down the street and which are now overloaded with rainwater.  Like most gutters, they are also the lowest level of the street to which all the rubbish has descended: the ‘trophies’ which are carried along in the water.  With grim fascination, Swift almost admiringly notes how the ‘Filth of all hues and odors seem to tell / What street they sailed from, by their sight and smell’.  It’s gritty, unpleasant reading, designed to make the reader wince after having laughed at the scurrying gentry in the previous section.  The sense of unity that was cultivated there is here compounded, as various locations are listed to convey the course of the ‘torrent’, including Smithfield, Snow Hill ridge and Holborn Bridge.  I’m not a native Londoner, but I imagine these locations would probably mean something to those who are (not that I’m casting any aspersions upon the condition of the gutters in any of these places which, I am sure, has been vastly improved since the early 1700s).  The final three lines delineate the precise nature of the rubbish that is being swept along and ‘come tumbling down the flood’. Apologies to dog and cat lovers: this poem is not for the faint-hearted.  In a version of the poem published in 1735 a note was added stating that ‘These three last lines were intended against that licentious manner of modern poets, in making three rhymes together, which they call triplets.[…] They were the mere effect of haste, idleness and want of money; and have been wholly avoided by the best poets, since these verses were written’.  Perhaps, then, we can forgive Swift these last few lines, if it was in fact a satire against inartistic poetry rather than a frankly indulgent exploration of eighteenth-century garbage.

Distasteful imagery aside, there’s an immediacy to this poem that is simply magic.  For rather than narrating an epic tale or a mythological story, Swift takes an everyday occurrence and transforms it into something special purely through the way in which he describes it.  Pure genius!

Happy reading!

You can find a copy of this poem:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/180932
(Free copy of the poem online!!)

(This is a lovely annotated edition of the poem, but I’m afraid I have no idea who did the annotations as I found the pdf through Google; hats off to them anyway, it’s a lovely edition of the poem!!  Information from this edition was also used in the composition of the above blogpost.)

You can find out more about Swift:
 
(this poem is so famous it even has its own Wikipedia page!)

(Britannica!! Like Wikipedia…only makes you sound ever so much more intellectual when you quote from it at parties and quizzes!)

Resources about Swift:

(This looks new and very exciting!!  Still seems to be a work in progress, but very much worth a look!! Go on, you know you want to…)