I am thinking of changing the name of my seasons book. As any reader of this blog knows, my book has long borne the same name as the blog—The Varied God. The name comes from a line of poetry by eighteenth century Scottish poet James Thomson, whose set of poems called ‘The Seasons’ was hugely popular, and had a great cultural influence. Many works of art portrayed scenes from Thomson’s poems, and pieces of music, such as Haydn’s ‘The Seasons’ oratorio, were set to it. To the larger work Thomson appended a short ode, in which he wrote:
‘ . . . these are but the varied god,
The rolling year is full of thee.’
I have used this working title for a long time, and been happy with it for a few reasons. But my thinking is changing for similar reasons.
Thomson was an early Enlightenment man, very interested in science. His admiration for the work of Sir Isaac Newton verged on idolatry, and some of the lines in his seasons poems rework theories about the causes of natural phenomena. But, like Newton, Thomson was also a man of great faith. He believed the purpose of science in these years was to discern the workings of God’s creation, that uncovering the deepest structure of the world was a pious enterprise. Over the course of time The Enlightenment began to challenge the religious stories about the creation of the world, its age, its structure, its mechanics. An invocation such as Thomson’s ‘these are but the varied god’ is historically transitional, and that’s one of the reasons I liked it.
But I am increasingly uncomfortable using anything that invokes superstition. Religion in our society goes from black to blacker, and is the basis for ever-increasing evil, violence, intolerance, and danger. Its adherents are way more interested in gaining political power and forcing their viewpoints on everyone else than on anything having to do with eternity, virtue, or human goodness, and I want nothing to do with it, even as a transitional reference.
This abiding distaste may be one of the reasons I refused, from the get-go, to use the famous lines from Ecclesiastes, ‘to everything there is a season.’ That and the fact that if you study the lines, you realize they have naught to do with the seasons as meteorological, environmental phenomena, merely using the word ‘season’ to mean a set period of time.
I am working now on the chapter in the book about art based on the seasons. There is a lot of it, in painting, sculpture, music, prose, and poetry. I have been reading many hundreds of pages of great nature writing from Hesiod to Annie Dillard. I kept thinking that surely someone, in such a profusion of great writing, would send forth a line that would appeal to me.
Then I revisited a sonnet from one of my favorite poets, John Keats. Keats was a genius, one of England’s greatest poets even though he only lived to be twenty-five. He was also a determined atheist, as testified by his sonnet ‘Written in Disgust of Vulgar Superstition.’ But he also wrote a lovely sonnet known as ‘The Human Seasons,’ in which he lays out the life of a human in terms of the four seasons—the youth of spring, ripeness of summer, maturity of autumn, and the inevitable death of winter. It’s an old trope, often exercised, but Keats does it beautifully. Who else would give us phrases like ‘Spring’s honied cud of youthful thought,’ or ‘Winter . . . of pale misfeature?’ The sonnet begins with the line,
‘Four seasons fill the measure of the year’
I am thinking now of calling my book The Measure of the Year, both as it says what I want it to say, and because the line comes from a poet who is a much more kindred soul. It is also more to the point of the book—the human experience of the seasons—rather than an abstract representation of them.