One of the more divisive critical debates that has characterized the reception of James Thomson’s famous locodescriptive poem The Seasons (1726–30) has centered around the question of the poem’s social vision. One strain of critical responses sees the poem indulging a solipsism that obscures the suffering of the poor in a newly commercialized Britain, whereas other responses see the poem as setting forth a vision of social harmony and a critique of social conditions. In this piece, I argue that, for Thomson, the feeling of melancholy—a mood that performs solitude, genial pensiveness, and sympathy—stages the difficulty of knowing how to sympathize with the rural poor or how to protest the social conditions that lead to poverty, and aestheticizes social life so as better to understand it. To abstract social conditions under the aegis of a stylized melancholy is to run the risk of mischaracterizing or even evading those conditions. Crucially, though, for Thomson, melancholic feeling is not in itself the solution to social problems, but is important because of its staging of the difficulties of critical responses to those problems. The lesson of Thomson’s melancholy is that solutions to social problems do not always emerge straightforwardly, but instead in awkward fits and starts. In this way, I argue, the potentially inoperative nature of the critical positions put forth by the melancholic mood may also be the very sign of their force.
Williams, Jonathan C.
"Melancholy's Ends: Thomson's Reveries,"
Criticism: Vol. 64:
1, Article 3.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.wayne.edu/criticism/vol64/iss1/3