- John Thelwall in the Wordsworth Circle: The Silenced Partner by Judith Thompson
In the prologue to John Thelwall in the Wordsworth Circle: The Silenced Partner Judith Thompson asks us to revisit the road between Alfoxden and Nether Stowey where ‘according to the now-famous story of literary origins’ William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge ‘set the terms and mapped the territory of English Romanticism’. Thanks in large part to critics such as Nicholas Roe, Michael Scrivener and Thompson herself we now more fully appreciate the crucial role that John Thelwall played in this formative period in the origins of Romanticism. Thompson’s ambitions, however, go far beyond the two weeks that Thelwall spent at Alfoxden in the summer of 1797 and pursue the influence of Thelwall on Coleridge and Wordsworth prior to this meeting and well into the nineteenth century. Here, Thelwall is convincingly presented as an obscured and disturbing presence in the lives of the two poets over a much longer period. This new work attempts to redress an artistic and academic imbalance that Thompson eloquently marks out in the opening pages of what is a hugely important contribution to Thelwallian and Romantic studies alike.
Thompson constructs this ambitious study from work that has been informed ‘in part from recently discovered archives, in part from radically dialogic re-readings of established primary texts’. It is no small accolade to Thompson that she is successful in marrying these two approaches and providing varied and engaging insights into Thelwall’s literary output and its influence on both Coleridge and Wordsworth. Over eleven chapters Thelwall’s recently enlarged oeuvre is considered in astute detail next to that of his more eminent contemporaries and some truly compelling insights are provided. The danger inherent in such sustained and close reading is that occasional conjectural conclusions could be drawn in terms of the on-going interchange of influence between these three men. Such dangers are, however, largely avoided. It is further credit to Thompson that any such limitations do little to injure a work that consistently provides convincing and often unrecognized readings of Thelwall’s influence upon the lives and careers of Wordsworth and Coleridge. The work also, for perhaps the first time, offers a sustained examination of these more famous poetic figures’ influence on Thelwall’s own literature. [End Page 204]
For example, Thompson’s close analysis of the reciprocal dialogue between Thelwall’s and Coleridge in the 1790s is of great importance to our understanding of Romantic poetry and is hugely successful as an exercise in both close reading and literary recovery. Starting with an in-depth evaluation of the surviving correspondence between the two men in the mid-1790s the book then moves onto the consideration of the development of Coleridge’s conversation poems and makes real and significant contributions to our understanding of their genesis. The reading of Thelwall’s poetry examined in conjunction with Coleridge’s verse shows a clear interchange of ideas. Thompson clarifies these findings with an ambitious premise: ‘[i]t is only because Coleridge’s poems are so well known and that Thelwall’s almost completely unknown, that we have failed to hear correspondences’. We can only be thankful to Thompson’s impressive scholarship that such correspondences are thoroughly recovered and examined.
Thompson, for instance, clearly shows the beginning of Coleridge’s disillusionment with Thelwallian activism within ‘Fears in Solitude’:
Associations and societies,A vain, speech-mouthing, speech-reporting guild[…] Yet bartering freedom, and the poor man’s lifeFor gold, as at a market!
Such recantation would ultimately result in Coleridge rejecting the shared values that Thompson charts and analyses in the chapters ‘Corresponding Society’ and ‘Sweet Converse’. Thompson’s work is, however, successful in more than exposing such references alone, and serves as a hugely engaging delineation of the sounds, images and words that comprised the mutual formation of both Coleridge’s and Thelwall’s poetry at this time. Such close reading is so convincing that when Thompson closes the chapter ‘Sweet Converse’ with the...