- John Thelwall and the Materialist Imagination by Yasmin Solomonescu, and: John Thelwall: Selected Poetry and Poetics ed. by Judith Thompson
Is it any wonder that the author of The Peripatetic should have lived a life that was not the shortest distance between two points? The young John Thelwall was a silk merchant, tailor's apprentice, and articled clerk. Later he was a poet, painter, actor, playwright, editor, journalist, occasional lecturer at Guy's Hospital, and more-than-occasional tribune for political reform, electrifying voice of the working class (or, to the British government, utterer of treason), "acquitted felon," and "Jacobin fox" who longed to be a West Country farmer. Then, at the new century's dawn, he was a trailblazing "Professor of the Science and Practice of Elocution." This is a potted sketch. Perhaps the only descriptor that has not been attached to Thelwall is the one given to many of his fellow survivors of the turbulent 1790s: political apostate. His consistent advocacy for political reform, freedom of speech, and human rights more broadly has provided us a thread for sewing together Thelwall's remarkable pandisciplinarity. [End Page 179]
In this regard, not least among the achievements of Yasmin Solomonescu's new study is her persuasive claim that it is Thelwall's commitment to materialism that might in fact best reveal the consonance of his thinking. As Thelwall grew more interested in science in the later 1780s, new discoveries were pointing, as Alan Richardson has shown in British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind, to the corporeality of mind. Guided by a regard for how Thelwall's "scientific materialism merged with his radical politics and literary imagination," Solomonescu's six chapters describe an arc from his early 1790s scientific lectures to his poetry and journalism of the 1820s (p. 4). The anterior of this arc is crucial to her account, for here she shows the importance of the materialism Thelwall learned (and promoted) at Guy's Hospital. Particularly illuminating in this respect is The Peripatetic, the generic hybrid that Thelwall published in 1793 (the year of his lecture on animal vitality). Solomonescu finds here a telling example of the "alliance among materialist science, radical politics and literary imagination" in Thelwall's inscriptions of social care, which "go beyond 'radical sensibility' to affirm the material roots of sympathy" (pp. 35, 39). Solomonescu's concern for sympathy carries over into her account of Thelwall's friendship with Peter Crompton, who refused to abandon him as others like Coleridge and Wordsworth grew wary of the political costs of his acquaintance. I pause to mention this moment in Solomonescu's study because it exemplifies how approaching Thelwall through the lens of materialism leads her to some interpretive peripeteia of her own, which in turn generate fresh ways to think about Thelwall's life and work.
Across Solomonescu's first five chapters we are struck by Thelwall's interest in the complex traffic between the starry heavens above and the moral law within. No wonder her closing chapter is so engaging, for it calls to our notice Thelwall's captivating 1825 poem, "The Star That Shone When Other Stars Were Dim." Solomonescu offers a sharp close reading of this poem both on its own terms and as a virtual lyricization of her argument for Thelwall's abiding belief in the materialist imagination, even as the poem demonstrates that this belief can still allow for "transcendental perspectives" (p. 139). Performing the materialist imagination, "The Star" also anthologizes Thelwall's varied disciplinary pursuits, and so serves as an apt conclusion to Solomonescu's argument for the coherence of his endeavors.
"The Star" is among the many compelling poems included in Judith Thompson's John Thelwall: Selected Poetry and Poetics. A modern edition of Thelwall's poetry has been much needed, not only to join other scholarly editions—The Politics of English Jacobinism: Writings of John Thelwall (Claeys...