Five Questions: Judith Thompson on John Thelwall

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Judith Thompson - John Thelwall in the Wordsworth Circle

Judith Thompson is Professor of English at Dalhousie University and is, in her own words a ‘Romanticist by profession and predilection’.  Over the course of her career she has written on a wide range of topics including Wordsworth, Coleridge, poetics, literary couplings, cultural geographies, archival work, genre and historicism, but, as most readers of this blog will know, the lodestar of her research is the orator, writer and elocutionist John Thelwall, on whom she has published a series of groundbreaking studies, articles and editions.  In the interview below, we discuss her work on Thelwall: past, present and forthcoming.

1) How did you first become interested in John Thelwall and his works?

I first heard of Thelwall as a grad student, while reading Kenneth Johnston for my PhD dissertation on Wordsworth and wandering.  I read The Peripatetic, found it fascinating, and decided to propose an edition for my first new project after getting the degree.  The text was remarkably hard to access (misindexed in the microfilm collection I consulted), which introduced me to another intriguing but frustrating feature of Thelwall’s oeuvre; I was amazed by how much of the archive was missing, whether due to political suppression or sheer bad luck.  But that too was part of what makes his story so compelling: how could such a working-class hero, prolific writer, original thinker and energetic polymath be so thoroughly forgotten?  As I got deeper into my research, more stimulating prospects kept opening up (including the Wordsworth Circle connection).  I also adopted the peripatetic method that I have used ever since, following in his footsteps and venturing out from the major libraries into little local studies collections in places where he lectured, like Huddersfield.  In so doing, I began to realize that Thelwall was like a thread connecting disparate communities of discourse (metropolitan and provincial, romantic and radical, artisan and professional, oral and written) within and between his own time and place, and our own.  The big pay-off of that method came in 2004, when in the space of two weeks I found both the site of Thelwall’s “Llyswen Farm” in Wales, with its hidden waterfall and hermitage still visible, and the archival treasure-trove of the heretofore unnoticed 1000-page “Derby Manuscript.”  By that time I was completely hooked, and I’ve become increasingly, almost uncannily, obsessed, as if I’m living out A.S. Byatt’s Possession (though sadly, the older I get, the more I’m like Beatrice Nest rather than Maud Bailey).

2) In John Thelwall in the Wordsworth Circle: The Silenced Partner, you examine Thelwall’s practices as they ‘emerge in reciprocal relationship with those of Wordsworth and Coleridge’.  What do you think were Thelwall’s most important contributions to this occluded collaboration, and why do you think Wordsworth and Coleridge were so keen to write him out of the picture?

Thelwall’s contributions were both formal and philosophical, valuable both in their own right and for the new perspectives they offer on Coleridge and Wordsworth.  Probably his most important contribution is to the development of the ode (including the sonnet, which he defined as an ode of a single stanza), a genre with whose prosodic and conversational possibilities he was experimenting well before he met Coleridge, but which was enriched through their conversational exchange, both intimate and antagonistic, between 1796 and the late 1820s.  His work offers valuable new contexts for rereading both the structure and the substance of the conversation poems, odes and sonnets of Coleridge and Wordsworth, and of romanticism in general.  He articulates a philosophy of correspondence (sympathetic exchange or “action and reaction”) that rivals and reshapes the “one-life philosophy,” and a materialist poetics that challenges but also complements both Coleridgean metaphysics and Wordsworthian naturalism.  Another influential contribution by Thelwall is his technique of seditious allegory, which provides a kind of language theory in practice to counter Coleridgean symbolism, and opens up exciting new ways to read the ballads of Wordsworth in particular.  As to why Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote their friendship with Thelwall out of history: with Coleridge, the motives were obviously political: Thelwall was the embodiment of his own Jacobin past, from which he went out of his way to distance himself, by dissing Thelwall and destroying his letters.  I think there’s a certain psychological contest and contortion involved there too, consistent with his other male friendships.  That same battle of egos is evident with Thelwall and Wordsworth, but for him, I think the repudiation was based more on changing class allegiance than political ideology: as Wordsworth entered a higher social sphere and scorned the mass marketplace, he was embarrassed by Thelwall’s brash vulgarity, autodidact ambition and commercial success.  But Wordsworth’s manner was more genteel: he did not disavow or condemn his old friend, just damned him with faint praise (as he did with others like Charlotte Smith).  In fact, probably the best evidence of Wordsworth’s unique brand of seditious allegory is the retroactive image-management of his Fenwick notes.  Posterity has proven him a better spin-doctor than either Coleridge or Thelwall.

3) You’ve been an instrumental figure in the foundation of the John Thelwall Society, have been involved in pioneering productions of Thelwall’s drama, and have worked closely with other scholars on Thelwall on a number of projects, most recently co-editing The Daughter of Adoption with Michael Scrivener and Yasmin Solomonescu.  How important have these collaborations been for you in seeking to recapture Thelwall’s importance?

Since the beginning of my career, collaboration has been absolutely necessary for my work.  I think this is a result of my grad school experience: I was one of the last generation to apprentice under a system that taught us to do research in intellectual isolation, like the so-called solitary geniuses we studied, and I emerged hungry for Thelwall’s “sweet converse,” even though I had not met him yet.  When I did, my desperation was compounded by the almost complete absence of people who’d even heard of him.  All I ever really wanted was someone to talk to about my reading, to have the kind of casual critical conversation that is normal when researching other, canonical writers.  In the absence of a community of response and a body of known texts, I had to create the taste by which Thelwall was to be appreciated; hence my editorial and archival work, undertaken by default, simply as a way to start the conversation.  Anyone whose cursory query about Thelwall has been met with one of my long impassioned emails has seen how desperately I need to bounce ideas off someone; I apologize for cluttering your inbox but this is the only way I can develop intellectually, and I have a whole file of such messages, many of them like little mini-essays or abstracts.  Two of my earliest (and most reciprocally generous) email correspondents were Michael and Yasmin, so it was natural that we would extend this into more formal collaborations, and I do the same thing with my students.  Of course this complements Thelwall’s own modus operandi (as well as recent trends in Romantic studies, and our networked culture in general), and as Thelwall Studies has expanded, the collaborative, conversational method (between disciplines, between junior and senior scholars, between academic and activist publics) has become integral to the unique democratic mission of the Thelwall Society.

Judith Thompson - John Thelwall Selected Poetry and Poetics

4) What can we expect from your upcoming edition of Thelwall’s Selected Poetry and Poetics?

The book is coming out March 12, and I think that readers will be surprised by both the range and the quality of Thelwall’s poetry, which connects his many interests and identities: his poetic voices and forms are as various as his polymathic vocations.  The roughly 125 poems and essays I’ve selected draw equally from the unpublished Derby MS and his publications, which are more numerous than scholars have realized (five volumes of verse between 1787 and 1822, along with many periodicals, miscellanies and anthologies–and that doesn’t even include the poems he recited at thousands of lectures over more than 25 years).  I’m able to reprint only about a quarter of his total verse output, and there were so many really good pieces I was forced to cut or excerpt radically, but it is still broadly representative.  Loosely following Thelwall’s own instructions, the book is organized by genre and chronology into eight chapters, starting with pastorals, and moving through comic ballads and satires, sonnets, odes of various kinds, excerpts from his epic, and autobiographies.  Each chapter has a headnote introducing the genre, followed by a relevant essay by Thelwall, and there are brief headnotes to each poem or sequence, as well as explanatory footnotes.  Another surprising feature of the edition is the number of love poems Thelwall wrote; he looks ahead to Brecht by combining radical politics and eros in ways that beg to be explored further.  Much of his work is also autobiographical, and in the introductory chapter to the Poems edition I sketch the first complete biography of Thelwall, focusing on “the dawn and progress of a poetic mind.”  I also endeavour to explain his challenging and idiosyncratic elocutionary poetics.  This edition connects with other recent work on voice, sound and performance in romantic poetry, and will, I hope, inspire a reassessment of elocution as, among other things, part of an unacknowledged romantic ancestry for contemporary political spoken-word art.

5) What are you planning to work on once the poetry edition is complete?

I’ve already started my next (and final) big project, which is the first full biography of Thelwall.  I guess I’ve been working on it since I first started working on him, but it’s only recently that I’ve realized that this seems to be my destiny (if that makes Thelwall my Darth Vader, so be it).  It was long thought that the missing Cestre materials posed an insurmountable impediment to any Thelwall biography, but with the discovery of the Derby MS, and letters and other archival materials beginning to come out of the woodwork, I think the time is right—though obviously it is going to take me several more years of peripatetic research and lots of collaborative correspondence.  Hand in hand with the biographical project is a continuing editorial/archival one; with the help of grad students who I’m actively recruiting (here’s a shout-out to all prospective applicants reading this blog: Dalhousie wants you), I want to revive my dormant Thelwall website and begin to produce good digital critical editions of many of his works that remain unpublished, including poems I was not able to include in my forthcoming print volume.  I also have a embryonic plan to develop workshop-excursions and teaching resources, live and virtual, to explore and extend the possibilities of Thelwall’s methods of peripatetic, elocutionary reading and/in public activism.  Of course I will continue to cull and develop shorter articles from among that bulging sheaf of emails—right now I am writing a Thelwall ghost story, exploring the limits of historical biography by focusing on what we can and cannot know about what happened at #57 Lincoln’s Inn Fields in the haunted summer of 1816.  I am also exploring intersections of gender and genre in relation to Thelwall’s turn-of-the-century transition from seditious to seductive allegory.  All in all, there’s enough there to take me to retirement and beyond.