Recently, literary critics have increasingly drawn on methods of quantitative analysis to understand the readers and literature of the eighteenth century. Ironically, however, the eighteenth century is home to debates concerning the nature and usefulness of number, counting, and therefore, on some level, quantitative analysis. Eighteenth-century questions of number form an important part of the intellectual history of this period; these questions of number, in turn, hold important implications for language and the period's literature. I argue that the far-reaching influence of eighteenth-century questions of number can be seen especially well in the nature poetry of James Thomson. To explore this influence, I first discuss the problems of number presented to eighteenth-century mathematicians and philosophers by George Berkeley's critique of the infinitesimal calculus popularized by Isaac Newton. I then further explain the problems of number for eighteenth-century thinkers by drawing on philosopher Alain Badiou's theorization of the collapse of number in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This background brings to light connections between eighteenth-century questions of number and similar questions philosophers, such as John Locke, asked of language. These connections set the stage to discuss number in Thomson's The Seasons. Because of Thomson's rather unique exposure to the Newtonian tradition through his Edinburgh education, he was introduced not only to Newton's more popular discoveries, but also the mathematical and philosophical debates that swirled around Newton's methods. Coming out of this environment, Thomson's The Seasons display a particular kind of interest in number at its limits—infinity and zero. This paper will explore Thomson's tropological expressions of infinity and zero in the poem and note how these tropes replicate the logic of the sublime. Ultimately number at its limits in Thomson suggests the problems of expression, and, reading against traditional interpretations of Thomson, the limits of the Enlightenment project.
College and Department
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Wirkus, Jessie Leatham, "Number, Newtonianism, and Sublimity in James Thomson's The Seasons" (2010). Theses and Dissertations. 2462.
number, Isaac Newton, James Thomson, eighteenth-century poetry