Poem of the Week #23 – From “Spring” by James Thomson (1700-1748)

Fox with Cubs (Bruno Liljefors) - Nationalmuseum - 23476 - PICRYL Public  Domain Search
Fox and Cubs by Bruno Liljefors

This is an extract from part of a larger poem by Thomson entitled The Seasons. The entirety can be read here: https://www.lookingtoleeward.se/james-thomson-1700-1748/

And yet the wholesom herb neglected dies
In lone obscurity, unpriz’d for food;
Altho’ the pure, exhilerating soul
Of nutriment and health, salubrious breathes,
By Heaven infus’d, along its secret tubes.
For, with hot ravine fir’d, ensanguin’d man
Is now become the lyon of the plain,
And worse. The wolf, who from the nightly fold
Fierce-drags the bleating prey, ne’er drunk her milk,
Nor wore her warming fleece: nor has the steer,
At whose strong chest the deadly tyger hangs,
E’er plow’d for him. They too are temper’d high,
With hunger stung, and wild necessity,
Nor lodges pity in their shaggy breasts.
But Man, whom Nature form’d of milder clay,
With every kind emotion in his heart,
And taught alone to weep; while from her lap
She pours ten thousand delicacies, herbs,
And fruits, as numerous as the drops of rain,
Or beams that gave them birth: shall he, fair form!
Who wears sweet smiles, and looks erect on heaven,
E’er stoop to mingle with the prowling herd,
And dip his tongue in blood? The beast of prey,
‘Tis true, deserves the fate in which he deals.
Him, from the thicket, let the hardy youth
Provoke, and foaming thro’ the awakened woods
With every nerve pursue. But you, ye flocks,
What have ye done? Ye peaceful people, what,
To merit death? You, who have given us milk
In luscious streams, and lent us your own coat
Against the winter’s cold? Whose usefulness
In living only lies? And the plain ox,
That harmless, honest, guileless animal,
In what has he offended? He, whose toil,
Patient and ever-ready, cloaths the land
With all the pomp of harvest; shall he bleed,
And wrestling groan beneath the cruel hands
Even of the clowns he feeds? And that perhaps
To swell the riot of the gathering feast,
Won by his labour? This the feeling heart
Would tenderly suggest: but ’tis enough,
In this late age, adventurous to have touch’d,
Light on the numbers of the Samian sage.
High Heaven beside forbids the daring strain,
Whose wisest will has fix’d us in a state,
That must not yet to pure perfection rise.

James Thomson’s The Seasons was included in Oscar Wilde’s list of “Books not to be read at all”. I am not sure to what extent this was seriously meant (it is hard to imagine Wilde ever being serious about anything at all), nor on what grounds he included it, though I hope it wasn’t purely aesthetically motivated. One of the most popular poets of his day, I believe he has been unjustly forgotten. He is one of the finest and most fluent craftsmen of blank verse in English (as good as any) and in contrast to the age in which he lived–bountenous of wit yet barren of soul–Thomson’s poetry stands out by containing a sensibility and humanity that presages the romantic movement that would kick off towards the end of his century.

Thomson’s artistic sensitivity also extends to an ethical one in the extract above. It is naïve to assume that a good poet must also be a good human being, yet poetry in its best manifestations is always one that exudes feelings and thoughts that are morally noble, upright and universally humane. It is hard in those moments to not see those qualities as grafted to the very fibre of their human vehicle, and so I cannot help when reading the lines above but imagine that Thomson was anything other than a good bloke.

Where love dwells it must also extend beyond itself to encompass all forms of life. A compassion that does not do so is tainted and incomplete. Think of how inhumane–not to mention psychopathic–we consider someone who remains cold-blooded and unflinched in the face of a suffering animal. And in regard to mankind’s relation to animals, particularly in our slaughtering and eating of them, Thomson points out one the most infuriating hypocrisies of our condition. The predating animal does not pity his prey, yet Man, born

With every kind emotion in his heart,
And taught alone to weep (…)
..shall he, fair form!
Who wears sweet smiles, and looks erect on heaven,
E’er stoop to mingle with the prowling herd,
And dip his tongue in blood?

How much more infuriating this is when one considers how far humanity has morally progressed today and yet how, with the industrialisation of agriculture, our treatment of animals has at the same time become far worse, with unprecedented levels of brutality on scales that are almost unimaginable–beyond homeric, beyond biblical: https://www.anonymousforthevoiceless.org/kill-counter. I cannot think of a greater example of callous, hypocritical human selfishness when I remind myself that we do this because our tastes take precedence over our moral responsbilities.

There will, mark my words, come a time when mankind superates this stumbling block in our development and we will look back at our current complacency and complicity in this crime with bafflement and horror, much as we look back today in shock at the complacency and complicity of good, ordinary people in the perpetuation of slavery.

I hope my reader will in the end stand on the right side of history in this question. Who knows–if the book-burnings of cancel-culture are still ablaze at that time to engulf all the authors who ate meat and did not repent of their ways, perhaps it will at least spare the works Thomson at the unfortunate expense of just about everyone else.

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