Poem of the Day: ‘Mists in Autumn’

In the brief halcyon moment before the advent of Robert Burns and his wee, sleekit, cowrin’, tim’rous beastie, James Thomson was the Scots poet of the eighteenth century.

Via Wikimedia Commons
Stephen Slaughter: portrait of James Thomson, detail, 1736. Via Wikimedia Commons

For better or worse, we’re far likelier to know the chorus to “Rule Britannia” (which appeared as Poem of the Day this time last year) than we are to know its author’s name. Rather like the verses in that song, which hardly anyone knows the words to, James Thomson (1700–1748) has faded in the collective Anglophone memory to a sort of human mumble between shouted rounds of the famous refrain. 

Yet in his day, that brief halcyon moment before the advent of Robert Burns and his wee, sleekit, cowrin’, tim’rous beastie, Thomson was the Scots poet of the eighteenth century. His long four-part poem, “The Seasons,” from which today’s Poem of the Day is excerpted, was an enduring best-seller, with one of its editions gorgeously illustrated by Joshua Reynolds. The poem sold so well, in fact, that after Thomson’s death, its success gave rise to a dispute over the publishing rights and, in 1774, a ruling in the House of Lords declared statutory limits to copyright — which is why the poetry editors of the New York Sun can commemorate Thomson’s birthday by reprinting this section of his bestselling publication.

Like all of “The Seasons,” this relatively short excerpt demonstrates both Thomson’s facility with blank verse and his dramatist’s sense of a landscape. The poem unrolls like a stage setting moved into place, its actors taking their positions. It’s intensely visual, but visual in the way that drama, a kinetic art, is visual: its initial composition continually generating new compositions as its elements shift and change. Though no humans are present in this landscape, other than the speaker who narrates it, everything about it is infused with human feeling and consciousness. Though the speaker, like the author himself, remains offstage and anonymous, still he is present in everything he sees. 

Mists in Autumn
by James Thomson

Now, by the cool, declining year condescend,
Descend the copious exhalations, check’d,
As up the middle sky unseen they stole,
And roll the doubling fogs around the hill.
No more the mountain, horrid, vast, sublime,
Who pours a sweep of rivers from his sides,
And high between contending kingdoms rears
The rocky long division, fills the view
With great variety; but in a night
Of gath’ring vapour from the baffled sense
Sinks dark and dreary; thence expanding far,
The huge dusk gradual swallows up the plain:
Vanish the woods; the dim-seen river seems
Sullen and slow to roll the misty wave.
Ev’n in the height of noon, oppress’d, the sun
Sheds weak and blunt his wide-refracted ray,
Whence glaring oft with many a broaden’d orb
He frights the nations. Indistinct on earth,
Seen through the turbid air, beyond the life
Objects appear, and, wilder’d o’er the waste,
The shepherd stalks gigantic: till at last,
Wreath’d dun around in deeper circles, still
Successive closing, sits the gen’ral fog
Unbounded o’er the world, and, mingling thick,
A formless gray confusion covers all.

With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by Joseph Bottum with the help of the North Carolina poet Sally Thomas, the Sun’s associate poetry editor. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems are drawn from the deep traditions of English verse: the great work of the past and the living poets who keep those traditions alive. The goal is always to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul.

The New York Sun

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