Tourism then and now: Sublimity, Science, Superstition

me at stonehenge closer up

May 1-3, 2018 // July 2-4, 1797

After taking a coach from Whitchurch to Salisbury on the afternoon of Sunday July 2 (succumbing to the effects of a “hearty dinner of animal food” which made them too drowsy to walk, but made me feel slightly less guilty about my eating habits and method of transportation), Thelwall and Wimpory spend two full days in the vicinity of Salisbury Plain, then as now an epicentre of English heritage and tourism, though for somewhat different reasons. Unlike millions of global visitors today, Stonehenge was not Thelwall’s priority (though he comments briefly), but he covers a lot of the same ground in other respects, visiting noted landmarks such as Salisbury Cathedral, Old Sarum and Wilton House. He also visits some nearby villages (Quidhampton and Winterton Stoke), commenting as usual on housing, factories, wages, farms, and the availability of milk.

I spent as long in the area as he did, staying at inns that date back to the eighteenth-century (The King’s Head in Salisbury, the George Inn in Amesbury); but since Thelwall does not specify here, it is hard to know how closely I managed to follow in his footsteps. (I wonder whether whatever he did at his inn matched the the full-screen Liverpool-Roma UEFA semi-final that I ended up enjoying in spite of myself, trapped as I was behind a raft of fans as I ate a delicious traditional roast dinner in a packed pub, texting my soccer-fan son the play-by-play). In other ways, too, I disposed of my time somewhat differently: having never visited Stonehenge, I couldn’t help lingering there much longer than Thelwall did, but I spent no time at either Amesbury House (now a nursing home), nor Wilton House (not yet open for the season, though I returned on my way home, and will discuss it in a later entry). I did, however, make Thelwallian enquiries at Amesbury, and had my longest, most satisfying socio-economic conversations with local people, who were genuinely interested in my project, as was I in theirs.

george inn amesbury

The George Inn, Amesbury

Upon entering Salisbury, I was struck by a random but rather chilling parallel between then and now: long after leaving Salisbury, Thelwall discovered that his visit had been “the town’s talk” and he was being followed by a spy; when I arrived, the talk in Salisbury was the attempted assassination of a spy two month’s before, and my route from parking lot to hotel was blocked by security tape and a heavy police presence. It cast rather a gothic shadow over the rest of the stay.

Leaving espionage behind, first stop for both Thelwall and myself was Salisbury Cathedral, where we both were impressed by its sublime size, heightened by the “confused idea of danger” created by the spectacular spire pressing down and inexorably shifting the structure, founded on a gravel riverbed only a few feet deep, which our guides (his a book, mine a pleasant volunteer) played up: yet still it stands, accounted by some a medieval miracle. The “sombrous gloom” of stained glass added to the effect, although the Resurrection window that Thelwall comments upon (apparently by Sir Joshua Reynolds?) is nowhere to be seen, having been replaced in the 1980s by a modern one dedicated to prisoners of conscience. An apt substitution, I think, of whose subject Thelwall would no doubt approve, although judging from his comments about gaudy daubing here and elsewhere, he would probably find its postmodern style incomprehensible. During my visit I was also given the opportunity to fold an origami dove, which they were preparing to mount for a display intended to bring hope and comfort in the wake of public trauma due to the spy poisoning incident. I had no idea how beautiful they would look (until a friend posted the following on Facebook!)

salisbury peace cranes

Enter a caption


In Salisbury, as in Basingstoke, Thelwall also spends considerable time looking for bookstores and enquiring into the woeful state of print culture (including newspapers), mourning that in this cathedral town “the demand is principally for novels. Politics are little read, and history still less; works of philosophy and profound inquiry scarcely at all.” I duly browsed a Waterstones near the Cathedral, and purchased a work of profound enquiry that reads like a novel: Zora Neale Hurston’s newly-published Barracoon: the Story of the Last Slave, which I like to think would have pleased Thelwall the abolitionist.

The charge of ignorance that Thelwall levels against Salisbury (implicit in the juxtaposition of bookstore and cathedral) becomes more pointed in several other sites they visit on July 3rd and 4th: the ruins of Old Sarum (the most notorious “rotten borough” in Britain); Salisbury Plain (whose pathless wastes they cross by night), a fashionable convent at Amesbury House (once the estate of the Duke of Queensborough, where the poet Gay allegedly composed the Beggar’s Opera) and finally Stonehenge (where Darwin meets Druids). Together it makes for a complex, multi-layered history and analysis of the conflict between barbarous superstition and civilized enlightenment, as manifested in social, political and religious institutions. This reaches its climax at Amesbury House, whose gothic décor and catholic rituals prompt Thelwall to a strong defense of religious tolerance, freedom of conscience and public education, in a manner that harmonizes with his earlier opposition to child labour and the suppression of women’s voices.

Far be it from me to be the advocate of intolerance. Every individual ought to be at liberty to follow, without restraint or disqualification, whatever religion or opinion he thinks fit. Nay, leave but the devotee at liberty to quit her retirement whenever her mind revolts against it, and I see no objection to the building of convents in every district. But it is not liberty, to give to any set of people the means of kidnapping the young, the simple, and inexperienced, into indissoluable bondage. It is not toleration, to suffer designing priests to enchain the consciences of their deluded votaries with oaths that prohibit the progress of inquiry, and institutions that annihilate the free agency of reason …. Let the nation awaken to a sense of duty. Let us recollect, that the children of the people are the posterity of the state; and that civilised society owes instruction, at least, to all its offspring, as a compensation for those natural rights which its necessary institutions have taken away.


amesbury house

Amesbury House, now a retirement and nursing home

For me one of the most interesting aspects of his commentary on Amesbury House was the revelation that this convent had once been a tourist attraction, though by 1797 it was losing its popularity; this is followed by a remarkably modern reflection on the effect of heritage tourism on local economies.

The principal support of the town is the curiosity of travellers; and some little time ago, when the nunnery was first established there, the number of visitors was very considerable, and Amesbury had a transient gleam of reviving prosperity. But the edge of curiosity is now worn off. The nunnery has ceased to be the rage, and the town is again declining. The neighbourhood of Stone Henge is its only prop; which, though inadequate to uphold its prosperity, is sufficient to secure it from dissolution.

From today’s perspective, when Stonehenge brings in over a million people and close to 10 million pounds a year, Thelwall’s prediction might seem wildly off base, but it is ironically true, as I learned during a long morning’s linger in Amesbury. First I stopped at a modest storefront information centre run by volunteers from the town council (taking the place of a tourist information centre that had closed due to government cuts), and then talked to volunteers at the rather inconspicuous local history centre located in the dowdy postwar hall of the parish church that had once been part of a Saxon abbey. In both I was showered with information and conversation, which told me that Amesbury doesn’t see much of the traffic that crams the A303 bypass to Stonehenge; though ideally positioned to be a service centre, they have been sidelined, not only by the bypass but by the operators of Stonehenge (combined National Trust and English Heritage) who, they told me, refuse to post in the snazzy new visitor centre any information about other local collections or attractions, even though these might complement and enhance tourists’ experience of Stonehenge. The little local history collection at Amesbury includes some spectacular archeological finds (including the “Amesbury Archer” and the ancient hot-spring of Blick Mead) that predate Stonehenge by thousands of years, and prove Amesbury to be the longest continuously occupied settlement in Europe! Perhaps a more spacious new local-history centre will make a difference (plans for which they proudly showed me, but with some skepticism, born of long experience, about when the ground might actually be broken).

In the meantime, however, Amesbury remains little different from what it was in 1797, except for new housing estates stretching eastwards, generic testament to a commuter/call-centre/retiree economy that owes much to the military that still occupies much of the Plain, and was at its peak during the First World War, to which current council members seem to look back with some of the same nostalgia that villagers showed towards the days of the Duke in Thelwall’s time. I was struck once again by parallels between ancient and modern feudalism, and the way the multinational industries that now dominate Amesbury (tourism/heritage, nursing/retirement, military and agricultural) have become increasingly consolidated and monopolized, leaving locals struggling for autonomy and agency in the face of the same monstrous market forces that Thelwall perceived in his analysis of American avidity, or his devastating comments, here in Amesbury, on the agricultural “cannibalism” that has “devoured” the population and its former prosperity.

Gothic allusions like that one also pervade the episodes that precede and follow Thelwall’s stay in Amesbury, in which he first visits Old Sarum, then crosses Salisbury Plain, and finally describes Stonehenge. But their tone is quite different. At Old Sarum, icon of government corruption (as a “rotten borough” with two members of parliament but no actual voters), it is, unsurprisingly, the politics of the gothic that he highlights, but with a tongue-in-cheek tone that recalls his radical satires on Burke’s “gothic customary”.

Of the borough itself about half a cartload of stones, in two separate heaps, where the castle once stood, and the old spreading oak under which the representatives of these stones are chosen and returned to parliament, are all that remains.

 Today the overgrown historic site that Thelwall saw is considerably neater, having been excavated and interpreted thoroughly, with outlines and functions of castle rooms easy to trace, along with the original cathedral below. But in all the interpretive materials that I saw, its significance as a rotten borough is barely mentioned, and some might consider this another aspect of continuing idealization of the feudal within the British heritage industry and the tourists it serves, and the relative lack of interest in popular and radical history.


Thelwall’s slightly cheeky gothic continues in the rest of the paragraph, which “toys with the dangers” of their nighttime walk across Salisbury Plain, gently mocking the melodrama of other contemporary accounts, especially Wordsworth’s Salisbury Plain poems, to whose relentless details of lost landmarks and guideposts he alludes.

We had heard dismal tales of people being lost and famished on Salisbury plain; the moon promised us but little light; and we had not proceeded above a mile before the road appeared to be lost in inextricable labyrinths. The directing-posts were broken off or defaced; and if we deviated from the track, house or human being to set us right was no where to be expected: yet our animal spirits were uncommonly high; and the merriest part of our journey was certainly the walk from Old Sarum to Amesbury. In the language of superstition, the omen was fair; and the event was equally propitious.

Thelwall goes out of his way to explode all superstition at Stonehenge as well, where he maintains an air of rational skepticism, waxing analytical about public curiosity rather than indulging his own as he introduces the latest theories as to its origins from Darwin.

On the date and materials of this gigantic and venerable ruin, I am not antiquary enough to enter into any dispute … Perhaps, however, it may be worth observing, that, while I was in Derby, I understood, from Dr. Darwin, that we are about to be favoured with another hypothesis upon the subject … A young man devoted to the study of natural philosophy … thinks he can demonstrate Stone-Henge to have been a sort of astronomical temple, or architectural orrery; designating the position and revolutions of the planets, and connected with some system of religion, which must, of course, have prevailed in this country at the time when it was founded … at least, as far back as the time of Druidical superstition;–if not to a date even more remote than the earliest of our authentic records. But perhaps I injure an ingenious discovery by inaccurate representation; and on a subject so curious, I would sharpen, not blunt, the edge of public curiosity.

       Of course with the latest carbon dating and other scientific tools, we like to think of our records as more advanced and accurate. But theories still proliferate, and Stonehenge still mystifies. Then as now it stands on, and is one of the world’s great monuments to, the uneasy border between history, science and mythology. The increasingly scrupulous, methodical management and study of the site, its results on display in an excellent visitor centre, is still challenged, not only by new discoveries (like those at Amesbury), but by increasingly active, assertive and varied cultures of alternate knowledge and belief, whose proponents cluster around the monument in their minivans, their costumes and banners, demanding public access, promoting new-age ideologies, or simply waiting for the druidical second-coming. I suppose I should have entered into conversation with these colourful folks, but I was too busy enjoying the breezy sunshine at the time, walking barefoot in the lovely turf to and from the monument, glad that the parking lot is now two miles away, and wishing that the perpetual traffic jam on the nearby A303 might magically be obliviated (as a new highway tunnel soon may do, though I gather those plans too are being protested by a curious alliance of “druids, archeologists and conservation experts”). Even if/when this happens, one way or another, for me the crowds will always obstruct the sense of wonder that I seek. Nevertheless Stonehenge still has the capacity to take us out of ourselves and marvel at our insignificance, which will always be a good thing.

And ultimately I think it was for Thelwall too. For all his apparent disdain of superstition and inexorable rationalism, he shows signs of a susceptibility to romance on Salisbury Plain, at least judging by his comments on a painting of St. Theresa he saw at Amesbury House, which is “in a considerable degree allegorical” and “very interesting, even to such heretical feelings as hours.” He pays particular attention to symbols of metamorphosis , and this opens into a lengthy digression on portraiture and sublimity with references to the enchantments and necromancers in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, which remind us that Thelwall’s own “ethical romance” The Rock of Modrec, published only five years before the “Pedestrian Excursion,” was full of magical transformations and gruesome violence as any gothic fiction.

I shall have more to say about portraiture, physiognomy, history and landscape interpretation in a later entry. This one is long enough. Next time, as we forge off the beaten track on rural routes from Wylye to Fonthill, Tisbury, East and West Knoyle, and Mere, I will gather some thoughts on mapping and methods of transportation.

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“What is to become of these children …?”

May 1 // July 1-2

Part of the pleasure of this excursion so far is in searching and finding Thelwall’s landmarks, and making them mine, having experiences that sometimes deviate from, but more often uncannily duplicate, those of two centuries ago. Sometimes I stumble upon things I didn’t expect, and I try to let myself stay open to the random and eccentric, to which Thelwall too was devoted, for all his rationalism.

Nevertheless I did not set forth without ample preparation. One of my key tools of research and route-finding, which Thelwall lacked, is the power of the internet in my pocket. All along I have been delighted by what I find by plugging the names of villages or landmarks into Wikipedia, and zooming in and out on Googlemaps. With wonderful irony, for example, I discovered that the headquarters of Eli Lilly, makers of Prozac, Cialis and other necessities for modern ladies and gentlemen, is embowered in the exclusive woodlands across from the gentrified appetites of the Windmill pub where I ate the other day (the Red Lion in Cow-worth , whose beds, Thelwall found, repaired but imperfectly the fatigues of the day). Where Thelwall relied on locals for directions, I have a world of information at my fingertips. But is the internet as democratic as it was intended to be, or as trustworthy as locals in its advice? I do not have satnav in the car, and I always take Googlemaps with a grain of salt, especially in areas off the beaten track, knowing the cock-up it has made in the past of my own local landmarks in rural Nova Scotia. For more precise mapping I trust the Ordnance Survey (aware as I am of its imperialist origins and apparatus). If I’d trusted Google, I would never have found the church at Squires just before Basingstoke, which is 2 kilometres away, and on the opposite side of the A30, from where Google told me I’d find it. The ordnance survey also revealed that the settlement that Thelwall satirically named “Squires” is actually called “Nately Scures.” But in order truly to understand the meaning of Thelwall’s encounter with the thresher, juxtaposing rural labour, country squires and the established church, you have to go there. Only then do you realize that St. Swithun’s curiously decorated church in Nately Scures, with its distinctive carved Anglo-Saxon doorway, its squat shape, and its melancholy yew-treess, is actually located in the farmyard. No thresher was in sight when I pulled up, but I did have to negotiate my way past a flock of suspicious geese.

The lesson of all this is that you cannot really understand any place, or any text based upon or descriptive of it, except by engaging physically with it, three-dimensionally, on foot. Thelwall’s Pedestrian Excursion, as event and text, embodies and consciously advocates this peripatetic philosophy; and of course I distort it by driving, and approaching it through a screen or on paper. More reflections upon this, and on mapping as a research method, will follow in a future blog post.

In the meantime, thinking about embodied experience and multidimensional engagement with landscape, I want to note that one of the great pleasures of May 1 (a celebration that combines spring fertility rites and international labour rights in true Thelwallian fashion) was that of finding, and having lunch at, the White Hart Inn, where Thelwall had one of his happiest encounters. This was the place he stayed on the night of July 1, a “decent, humble, but comfortable house” at the entrance to Basingstoke:

 “… just such a one as the pedestrian may regard as a prize in the lottery. No swaggering post-boy to jostle him from the fire, no powdered waiter to sneer at his dusty garb, no pursey landlady to measure him, with her eye, from head to foot, and inquire for his horses, or his carriage! and, on the other hand, no drunken rabblement from the forge or factory to stun his senses with obscene oaths and low scurrility.”

Instead, it is notable for its domesticity: its landlady is a handsome “housewifely woman, soft of speech, gentle of manners,” who sits with her modest 10 or 12 year-old daughter in the parlour, knitting. Thelwall is aware of, and expresses nuanced, proto-feminist sympathy for, the daughter’s repressed situation: “She looked as if she thought that, at her time of life, more ought to be given to play, and less to work. I thought so too; but the distributions of society (not her mother) were to blame, and I smothered my sympathy in silence.” Later that daughter waits upon them with “almost obtrusive civility,” while two “sweet little ruddy babes amused us with their infant pranks”; one of the little girls, about four years old, shares the name and age of Thelwall’s own daughter, Maria (whom he allowed to wear trousers and run free), which prompts him to sit her on his knee and kiss her with paternal emotion while feeling “how painful it is to be one hundred miles from all that is dearest to the social heart.”

The episode as a whole is one of Thelwall’s best, combining Fieldingesque satiric observation, Wordsworthian romantic sensibility and Wollstonecraftian feminist awareness.

I too found the White Hart to be a prize, tidy and well-preserved on the London Rd in Basingstoke, although in some respects very different from what Thelwall found. The new ring-road entrance to the town centre has taken it off the beaten track; and with its video lottery terminals, pool table and slightly scruffy young barmen, it had nothing of the domestic about it. But it was also as remote from the modern equivalent of pursey, powdered pretension that I had found at the Windmill, as it was from obscene oaths and drunken rabblement. Instead it was just a real pub with real food and real people; quiet on a Tuesday lunchtime, but pleasantly modest in décor and menu, with a nice home-cooked cheese pizza taking the place of Thelwall’s eggs and bacon, delivered by an equally attentive, albeit heavily tattooed, young man. And just as I began to tuck in, all of a sudden two little girls showed up, daughters of a customer in the other room. Aged about 8 and 6, they were dressed in full princess mode, with bright tulle dresses, white anklets, party shoes and big bows in their long hair. One of them was named Kitty; I like to think the other may have been Maria. Shy but in no way repressed, they were happily given to play, as they ran about the empty tables and nooks, playing “restaurant” by taking food orders from one another. Of course I would never kiss or take them on my knee, stranger as I am, and they were impossible to engage in conversation; I feared that if I paid too much attention or even tried take a photo, it would be taken amiss. But I took as much pleasure in their play, and thought as much of my faraway home, as Thelwall had done.

white hart basingstoke

Children come to the foreground in two other important episodes in the Pedestrian Excursion around Basingstoke on July 2, 1797: the morning meeting with the mother who cannot find milk for her child, and the afternoon visit to Overton silk mill nearby. In the first, Thelwall identifies with the mother because he too is seeking “a breakfast of new milk,” but is unable to find any, and must walk five miles, “inquiring at every habitation we came to, before we met either with a cottager who could, or a farmer who would, sell us a bason of this beverage… at one of the cottages in particular, where we repeated our enquiry, the answer thrilled us to the heart. ‘Milk! Milk! Exclaimed the poor woman, with a sort of frenzy of irritation, ‘I have a sick child, and there is not a drop of milk to be had.” Like the meeting with the tenement tenant in Hook, this is of those sharply-observed encounters where Thelwall’s political analysis is complemented and heightened by a poor woman’s own words and concrete experience; the availability of milk becomes a repeated motif, and an index of economic and physical health throughout the rest of the excursion:

 “the cottagers keep no cows; scarcely a little cabin is to be found that has a bit of a field, or privilege of pasture; and the great, monopolizing, calculating farmer has discovered, that it is to his interest to use up his who dairy in butter and cheese, and feed his pigs with the whey; and as for the children of the poor, they must make shift with parsley, or suet-broth, i.e. a handful of suet or parsley thrown into a cauldron of water, with a little salt, and a few bread crumbs.”

This episode leads seamlessly into the next, a critique of the factory system and especially child labour. The wretchedness and misery they find in the next village, Overton, “a long, straggling, populous, wretched-looking place,” a few miles from Basingstoke, is due to its landmark silk-mill, which strikes another thematic keynote of the excursion, with a familiar metaphor and question that he shared with his romantic-era contemporaries:

 “The misery of Overton ceased to surprise us, when we learned that it was a manufacturing village; and, turning to the right, beheld two stately edifices (a silk-mill, and a spacious dwelling house) in one of which the multitude produce, while in the other a single family enjoys, what we call the wealth and prosperity of the nation … What is a huge manufactory, but a common prison-house, in which a hapless multitude are sentenced to profligacy and hard labour, that an individual may rise to unwieldy opulence?”

That question is sharpened as he itemizes wages, including of “a still greater number of children, from 5 years of age to 14 or 15” who work 11 or 12 hours a day for 1 shilling a week.:

 “And what is to become of these children when grown to man’s estate?—so many of them, at least, as survive the contagion of their prison-house, their confinement, and sentence of premature application!”

Thelwall’s facts are confirmed, and their commonplace horror intensified, in a book of local history I found at Basingstoke museum. Quoting an unpublished “History of Hampshire 1807-1813” by one William Bingley, found in the Hampshire Record Office, Richard Waldram’s Overton in Regency Times (2008) reveals that the owner of the silk Mill, Thomas Streatwell, operated a nursery to provide a constant stream of new labour : “Mr. Streatwell … constantly maintains in an adjoining building another little group of about fifty children, whom he likewise protects, from their infant state; women he appoints to take care of them; and they are fed and clothed, at his expense, until they are capable of work, when they are entered upon the loom and receive a regular stipend for their daily labours.” Bingley applauds Streatwell for his Christian benevolence; we are likely to be chilled by his complacency, and to admire Thelwall all the more for recognizing and calling out oppression when he sees it (he does not attack Streatwell personally, but argues that the system is at fault). Waldram’s history also confirms Thelwall’s point about agricultural monopoly, contrasting a map of 1795, which shows 25 small tenants sharing 85 fields, with 40% of them owned by only 4 gentlemen, with a map of 1843, in which small subsistence strip fields have disappeared altogether, and all the land in the parish is leased by 12 farmers, with 86% of it in the hands of one man.

Next stop is Salisbury Plain, where Thelwall has more to say about politics, agriculture and children, in the context of education, science and superstition. In the meantime, here are some photos from Basingstoke and the road to Salisbury: the delightful statue of Jane Austen at the Basingstoke museum (she was born in Steventon nearby, and may have been more radical than we think, as I’ve argued recently)   and the Kings Arms in Whitchurch, where Thelwall had lunch (and caught the coach) on the way to Salisbury.

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Politics and Picnics

April 30  // June 29-30 continued

While socio-economic commentary takes an increasingly central position in Thelwall’s Pedestrian Excursion, he continues to respond aesthetically to landscape, and to describe it using the popular conventions of the “picturesque and romantic,” sometimes in ways that are rather absurd (eg. his rant on the tastelessness of painting houses green, which he regards as a kind of overkill that detracts from nature’s fertility).

But one significant absence in the Pedestrian Excursion’s descriptions of landscape, especially when compared with its prototype The Peripatetic, is the relative lack of reference to history, the kinds of associations that are now pointed out in every road sign, with National Trust or English Heritage designation. As I noted in my first entry, this silence is first evident in his transit of the Royal Parks, at Richmond and then Windsor. But the most surprising, especially given Thelwall’s political opinions, was the complete lack of any commentary when his route went right by one of the most cherished monuments to English liberty and democracy: the fields of Runnymede, just past Staines, where King John signed the mighty Magna Carta, usually taken to be the beginning of a move towards parliamentary democracy in England. Here he draws attention to Cooper’s Hill (at whose bottom the document was signed) and a house with contemporary political associations (with the scandalous Warren Hastings, the poster boy for colonial corruption in the late 18th century), but he neglects to even mention King John and the Magna Carta. Could it be that he didn’t know the significance of these fields? Certainly he was familiar with King John (whom he satirizes in The Peripatetic), and the Magna Carta was a common point of reference for parliamentary reformers like Thelwall. It is true, however, that he does not often mention it in his political lectures, preferring to emphasize older Saxon heroes and traditions of law, liberty and parliamentary democracy (Alfred, Edwin, the witenagemot). So it may be that his silence here is deliberate, and that the somewhat facetious reference to Hastings may be part of his ongoing, wholesale criticism of the entire system of government and property inherited from the Normans. Or it may simply be an accidental oversight.

runnymede sign

At any rate, with all the attention given to the Magna Carta since its 800th birthday three years ago, I was pretty excited to visit Runnymede, though as it was raining I did not bother to walk to the actual site, resting content with the visitor centre and tea shop (with their charming sign about Politics and Picnics). There I overheard another amusingly Thelwallian, one-sided political “discussion,” as a young man held forth to his mother-in-law about the deep financial implicatons of Brexit, and was largely ignored by her and his wife, who were preoccupied with their utterly charming toddler—as was I, I must admit. I must also confess to swerving from Thelwallian values by becoming quite excited as I passed through Royal Windsor and its Great Park, gasping at the beauty of the Long Walk (whose sublimity Thelwall grudgingly allows, though disapproving of the impression of infinity it creates as a kind of trickery he is eager to expose). But I was even more happy to note the preparations for the Royal Windsor Horse show happening next week; to see the “rides” cut into the woodlands above, half-hoping to see the 92-year-old Queen ambling on her pony; and then a few moments later, after taking a wrong turn, to happen upon the spectacular Royal Ascot racetrack (and in the village nearby, a shop selling fascinators). I can’t help it; I’ve been horse-crazy since seeing “National Velvet” at the age of 3. In this I am very un-Thelwallian, since he cultivated a reputation of equestrian fear and incapacity.

I have also happily deviated from Thelwall’s route and preferences in other ways, for example by turning aside at Shepperton, the town where Thelwall began his phillipic on monopoly, in order to explore the famous Pinegrove Studio complex, on whose sound-stages so many memorable movies have been made, from “Dr. Strangelove” and “Lawrence of Arabia” to the Harry Potter films, several in the Marvel universe, and the upcoming “Mamma Mia” sequel. There wasn’t much to see, in the rain, as it is a dull, inconspicuous group of buildings, clustered around the original hall of an estate belonging to Thomas Wood MP (it must have been one of the mansions of opulence exploiting the workers in Thelwall’s time—and ironically, as a major landowner near Brecon Wales, Wood would soon be one of Thelwall’s hostile neighbours). But I was impressed by its very banality, in contrast to the pizazz and publicity surrounding Hollywood studios, with their bus tours. That is one of the things I’ve always liked about England (and English movies and television, compared to American ones). A sense of the quotidian. People who look like people, instead of ads for tooth whitener.

But I digress.

Yet every digression comes back around to Thelwall eventually. For one of the chief topics of his conversation on the following day, as he and Wimpory are walking from Windlesham over the barren heathland around Bagshot and Camberley, is America. Here again, Thelwall is uncannily prescient in his worries about the threat posed by American affluence and monopoly to the American democratic ideal:

“I cannot look towards that country with all the sanguine expectations so frequently cherished. I think I discover in it too much of the old leaven. Its avidity for commercial aggrandizement augurs but ill even for the present generation; and I tremble at the consequences which the enormous appropriations of land may entail upon posterity. Almost every circumstance I can collect makes me fear for the future, rather than exult in the present.”

Signs of the extent to which Thelwall’s worries have come true are everywhere on the route of his Pedestrian Excursion, especially in the ubiquity of the chain restaurants and hotels, many of which are American (the Sainsbury-Asda merger is itself an example, as Asda is owned by Walmart, notoriously hostile to labour). Perhaps the best symbol of American monopoly in English landscape, with one of the ironic juxtapositions that I keep finding along the route, is a modern landmark on the London Road where Bagshot turns into Camberley (exactly the spot where Thelwall and Wimpory have their conversation about America). It used to be a pub, called the Golden Farmer or Jolly Farmer to commemorate the achievements of a famous 17th century highwayman (a farmer with 18 children to support) who worked the turnpike in the area, before being hung near the site. Now the site of the gibbet, and the pub, with optimal road frontage, hosts the American Golf Discount Store.

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The Ills of Affluence and Monopoly

Monday April 30 // Fri June 30-Sat July 1, 1797

My first full day of Ped-Exing covered the second and third of Thelwall’s roughly 20-mile daily journeys: from Sunbury through Shepperton, Staines, Windsor, and Sunninghill to Windlesham (which Thelwall calls Cow-worth); and from Windlesham through Bagshot , Camberley, Blackwater, Hartfordbridge, Hook and Nately Scures (which Thelwall calls Squires) to Basingstoke. These  suburban locations host some of his most compelling episodes, politically, aesthetically and emotionally.


Thelwall strikes the keynote early in his narrative of the second day, when he highlights the contrast in the parish of Shepperton between “fertile and luxuriant pastures” overlooked by “mansions of opulence,” and the peasants who create the affluence but do not share in it, instead being careworn, toilworn, and ignorant, living in substandard housing and without either garden or cow to ensure basic food supplies. In short, he says “every thing has the appearance of that desolating monopoly which makes fertility itself a desert.” This contrast and this maxim will be applied to almost every village he passes, or person he meets on the rest of his Pedestrian Excursion, including a memorable encounter on the third day in which his abstract principles are powerfully personalized in the mother with her children in the village of Hook, who are squatting in a run-down tenement (one of several made out of abandoned inns and ruined farmhouses with “shattered windows, crazy walls, floorless apartments and neglected roofs”), forced to move their beds from corner to corner of their room to avoid the rain and snow beating in upon them.


Such a contrast between opulence and poverty is no longer as sharply visible in today’s sub-urban landscape, which is now more homogenously built up with housing stock that appears almost uniformly comfortable, indeed lavish, by eighteenth-century standards. However, as we all know, housing inequalities are just as serious in today’s Britain, when it would take almost 20 years for anyone young, working on zero-hours contracts, or even on a “solid” teacher’s, public service or retail wage, to save up enough to make a downpayment on an “average” house. Rough sleepers are still evident on the sidewalks of Putney, Richmond, Windsor and Basingstoke, and I wonder about the living conditions of the service workers in hotels and pubs (even before Brexit begins to make an impact), as well as the agricultural labourers (in the first patch of agricultural land I saw, on the flats of the Thames near Shepperton, there was a sign advertising work available for produce pickers, and remembered a recent newspaper report about the conditions of outright slavery in which such workers were kept in Kent). Meanwhile, of course, the opulence that Thelwall saw in hillside or riverfront mansions and villas is if anything more notable today. On my drive today, like yesterday around Richmond, I found “normal” mixed communities interspersed with areas of exclusive secluded luxury, for example around Windsor Great Park, where Thelwall’s wooded “cross roads” route through Sunninghill is now lined with impenetrable walls and gates, with glimpses of mansions and a new developments of “bespoke” homes.


Thelwall was also frustrated by the failure of rural workers whom he met to enter into discussions about “the price of labour or the condition of the laboring poor,” or to provide him with information to support his theories about political economy, and especially agricultural monopoly (the injustice created by large consolidated farms and enclosure, vs the sustainability of smallholding and commons). Now, being from a rural community myself, I have to say I kinda sympathize with the workers, who are naturally suspicious of this pushy outsider, a typical transient urban do-gooder judging the community, knowing nothing about how it really works or feels from the inside. From an aesthetic perspective, too, I think that Thelwall’s most effective and compelling vignettes are those in which he simply listens and describes, giving us concrete examples and quotations, rather than dealing in political abstractions. I realize, however, with no little irony, that this aesthetic judgment comes partly as a result of changes in literary taste that stem from the influence of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, which were written under the direct influence of Thelwall’s Pedestrian Excursion.


At any rate, my own behavior in retracing Thelwall in 2018 is influenced by all of these factors. I do try to engage in conversation with people I meet. But I am reluctant to be pushy, and I find a good alternative is just to listen. Over breakfast this morning at the Flowerpot Inn, for instance, while reflecting on my comfortable room, and range of food choices, and different expectations and experiences of travel, then and now, I overheard a large group at the next table. They were in fact talking political economy, about the news of the £15-billion merger between two food service giants, Sainsbury’s and Asda. As I came out of my solo reverie and began to listen, the two middle-aged men (always the most voluble) seemed to take a position similar to Thelwall. Of course there would be job losses, they said, but it would be called something like “revisioning,” and no doubt other big companies had already been hired to get rid of people. “Its not the percentages, it’s the handshakes, innit?” said one of the blokes. “The truth is, they’re all mucky, all of ‘em.” A few minutes later, after their “full English” breakfast had arrived (for a full day’s sedentary driving, what a difference from Thelwall’s milk and bread taken after they’d already walked two hours!), they began to talk about breakfast foods: the men shared their recipes for sausage, proudly detailing the homegrown herbs they use, and how each made his own unique mixture, and expressing an intention (or maybe just a wish) to sell them at farmer’s markets, but worrying about all the regulations surrounding markets these days, and whether that would change with Brexit.


I didn’t engage them in conversation. But it made me think about how far we’ve come from Thelwall’s day, and yet not so far. Our obsession with food, both haute cuisine and healthy, handmade and local, exotic and global, is reflected in the elaborate “sourcing” information, and the stamp of organic approval, that are now conspicuous on all the menus, in even the smallest pubs, whether family owned or chains. That’s where the battle of global monopoly vs local smallholding is happening now.

These reflections were summed up in the place where I had lunch, at the Windmill on the London Rd (A30) in Windlesham, at the corner of the road from Sunninghill (most likely the same “little inn” once called the Red Lion that Thelwall and Wimpory stopped at on their second night out, when they finally reached the high road after a two-mile walk in the dark from Sunninghill, where they had been unable to find a room. They procured a “tolerable supper” at the Red Lion, and then stayed in “one small bed for two of us in a small room, in which, also, was another bed with two other travellers.” The Windmill no longer does accommodations (though it is so little that I can imagine the rooms upstairs are small indeed), but traces of an original low dark-beamed supper room and fireplace can be seen beneath the new bright décor in the pub, where one can have a more than tolerable supper, choosing from dishes like “kiln-smoked salmon tacos, ” “caramelized fig and whipped goat cheese pizza with mozzarella and hazelnuts,” and “salad of kale and cauliflower couscous with asparagus, tenderstem broccoli, avocado, butternut squash, sweet potato, pomegranate and roasted pumpkinseeds with a pineapple, lemongrass and ginger dressing.” Thelwall’s Pedestrian Excursion meets Coogan & Brydon’s The Trip.


There is more to write about this day’s excursion, but I have already covered a lot for one day (and today is already tomorrow as I write this). I will leave the rest for the next entry.

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Re-creating Thelwall’s “Pedestrian Excursion” 1797/2018

After several months, I am reanimating this blog with a series of posts in which I retrace and reflect upon, John Thelwall’s 1797 “Pedestrian Excursion” from London to Bristol. Published over three years (1799-1801) in the Monthly Magazine, Thelwall’s “A Pedestrian Excursion through several Parts of England and Wales during the summer of 1797” combines “a passion for the picturesque and romantic” with “every fact connected with the history and actual condition of the laborious classes.” Updating his 1793 The Peripatetic, Thelwall comments on landscapes (rural and urban, picturesque and sublime), landmarks (from ruins and stately homes to inns and ramshackle cottages) and socioeconomic conditions (agricultural monopoly, wages of labour, economic sustainability, access to milk as a measure of family and community health, ). He recenters the conventions of the romantic travel journal/narrative to make it fit his eccentric political aims. What results is a cross between Cobbett’s Rural Rides (except on foot) and Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (except in prose). It is an important precursor to both, most immediately the latter, as Thelwall visited Coleridge and Wordsworth, with his journals in hand, immediately after the end of his excursion.

Thelwall did his excursion on foot, over 12 days (June 29-July 12), writing journals as he went; I am pursuing my way by rental car (with occasional selected walks) over 6-7 days (April 29-May 5), but it will be the same route, visiting the same villages and landmarks, and sometimes staying or eating at the same pubs and inns along the way. And I too will write my own reflections on scenic prospects and sociopolitical conditions, then and now, measuring how much has changed, how much remains the same.


April 29, 2018//June 29, 1797.

The first entry in Thelwall’s journal-essay was his shortest, covering the first stage of his journey (Fulham Bridge to Sunbury, 10 miles, with another 5-10 to cover his walk to the Bridge from their unidentified starting point in the City); but it has been a long day for me, in part due to the slow, strained travel from my starting point in East Sussex to his starting point at Fulham Bridge. Whereas he set off between 9 and 10, it was after 11 when I first backed my rental Vauxhall Corsa out of the parking lot at Oakwood Park, Forest Row. Between returning for things forgotten, getting slightly lost on the scenic rural route to Croydon (worth it to see the forest floor carpeted in bluebells! my only real taste of rural pleasures this day) and getting stuck in terrifyingly heavy Sunday traffic in the commercial big-box/storefront wastelands between suburbs and city, I didn’t get to Fulham Bridge until almost 3.

Fortunate to find a free parking spot, I walked back across the bridge so as to compare my view with Thelwall’s, who chose this spot because it was “where the eye is regaled with the first glimpse of rural scenery.” No such luck any more, although the riverside offers a suitable parallel to his picturesque in the variegated colours, architectural styles and clever names (e.g. the “Tequila Mockingbird” cocktail bar) on the elegant condos and shopfronts that line the river in Putney High Street and Putney Embankment. Not quite the “tranquil grandeur” that he finds there, closer to the “tea-garden stile” that he laments, but  the weather was quite similar, grey and drizzly (and the chill spring wind left none of the curling mist that added an austere atmosphere to Thelwall’s scene).

As an aside, on that “tea-garden stile,” this “Sonnet on a Rainy Sunday” seems appropriate (Thelwall’s subtitle pretends that it was written by the “Master of a Tea-Garden in Hampstead” but Putney will do just as well)

O Heavy day of penury and pain!

Hark how the wicked graceless thunder rolls,

Fright’ning the city-matrons, honest souls,

Who brave the pelting of the ruthless rain!

Waiters, your pates are powder’d all in vain;

Off with the kettles, quench the fumbling coals,

Go countermand the muffins and the rolls,

And from your Sandwich-making quick refrain!

How bleak and barren seems the cockney’s round!

On hobbling hack no Cheapside beau is seen,

Displaying skill in horsemanship profound,

Or in a whiskey proudly placed between

Two dainty nymphs, with steeple bonnets crown’d,

The Devil rules in air, on earth the spleen!

There is little sign in Thelwall’s first entry of a central theme of the “Pedestrian Excursion”—the rights of labour, especially housing conditions and the negative effects of agricultural monopoly and property speculation. This resonates so strongly with the current situation in England and elsewhere (in London post-Grenfell; the millennial housing crisis; the paucity of social housing; the rampant rot of gentrification) in ways that I shall explore in future entries.

Instead, in this first entry, he mostly focuses on landscape, but doesn’t mention some of the landmarks that are now so famous (this made me consider how much more of them there are now, and how our eyes are so much more fully directed by history, in the kind of public memorializing that Thelwall himself had recommended in The Peripatetic–surely he would approve of the Poet’s Corner in Richmond Park, with its plaque to, and quotes from, James Thomson, for instance). When he does, however, it is not for the same reasons. So the wonderful line of sight from King Henry’s Mound in Richmond Park, with its keyhole view of the dome of St. Paul’s 10 miles away, is left unmentioned, although it was already a popular viewpoint in his day. And he ignores altogether the other King Henry (VIII) whom we associate so strongly with Hampton Court, with only a passing reference William III.


Is there a political subtext in Thelwall’s overlooking of monarchs, and his dismissive remarks about their opulent gardens? Perhaps.  As I have suggested elsewhere, politics may be read into his comments upon the view, in his regret at the way the eye’s demand for liberty is frustrated, when the immeasureable splendor of Richmond Hill offers  “a glimpse of beauties we were forbidden to enjoy.” Perhaps, too, one can see socialist solidarity in his dismissive comments on scenic pomp and publicity: “in the picturesque of nature, as in the intercourses of life, it is principally in the lowly vales … we must see the pleasures that cloy not on repetition.“ Certainly I felt something similar in passing by the gated mansions, walled gardens and elite academies of Richmond and contemplating the in-your-face luxuries and “lifestyle brands” that crowd the streets that have replaced the fertile fields Thelwall celebrated. Perhaps then it was as well that I ended up too too late to have lunch where Thelwall and Wimpory stopped for their “slight and temperate repast” midafternoon on June 29, at the Plough and Harrow in Petersham. For that modest public house (which Dickens, too, frequented) is now the Dysart Arms, a “high-end gastropub” devoted to the latest buzzword passion of cuisine. I am not sure I could afford it. In any case, google informed me it was closed, and so I, chilled and hungry, chose a simpler and more appropriately Thelwallian repast at Putney Pies on the riverfront facing Fulham Bridge.

the flowerpot sunbury

Thelwall ended his day at Sunbury at an inn whose name and description he does not give. Probably it was the Flowerpot (above), an eighteenth-century coaching inn beside the river, where I am laying my head tonight. Its rooms have been updated but are comfortable; the doors are low and the floors crooked and creaky; the staff are friendly. It is family run. It seems not far off what it might have been in the 18th century (though Thelwall makes enough scathing comments about innkeepers and publicans … still to come).

Thelwall ranked the walk from Hampton Court to here to be “among the finest of the Thames.” Today, the massive water treatment facility slightly spoils the effect (especially to the nose), but the river, lined with houseboats and narrowboats, is undeniably pretty. Didn’t see any swans but I’ll warrant they’re there (like the deer in Richmond Park, serenely oblivious to the crowds of runners, cyclists, walkers, drivers). Perhaps indeed I should have walked the entire route today, along the Thames trail and through the whole of Richmond Park. I wouldn’t have been so tired as I am from beating my head against the London traffic. I hope that tomorrow will be a little quieter, but probably not much. It should, however, offer more interesting points for then-and-now commentary.

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Echoes of Hope

After long silence, and times of terror, grief and despair for those of us who, like Thelwall, aspire to a more just, fair, egalitarian, tolerant, open society, I am inspired again to speak, on his behalf and my own. Sparked by the results of two recent elections which, while ambivalent and tentative, offer more hope than we have seen for some time, I have chosen now to relaunch this blog, which will soon be attached to a renewed Thelwall website.

First, in the world of Nova Scotia, I recently cheered the small but significant gains made by the New Democratic Party under its new leader, my friend Gary Burrill, an oldtime socialist not afraid to appeal to the better instincts and cooperative roots of our economically and geographically marginal province. His energizing slogan “we can do this,” and his resounding election-night message that despite losing in seats and vote count “we have won, for only the NDP has opened up a door to hope,” echo forward to what happened less than two weeks later, on a wider stage, in Britain. On June 8, Jeremy Corbyn stood up in the face of disdain, cynicism, intolerance and crony capitalism to vindicate too-long-forgotten values of working-class cooperation and solidarity, while inspiring an new generation with his “radical responsible programme of hope” that resounded the words of Shelley (and his maniac maid who echoes up through suffragette sisters to our own women marchers): “ye are many–they are few.”

But let us not forget, for his part, Shelley echoed the cadence and substance of John Thelwall’s lectures. Though long silenced and almost forgotten, Thelwall’s voice still speaks powerfully to our current moment, as my friend Elias Grieg posted on social media the eve of the election, from the other side of the world:

Here’s hoping for an end to austerity politics and its relentless immiseration of the already vulnerable. In the words of John Thelwall, the most notorious radical democrat of the 1790s:

“Is this government […] which dooms the mass of mankind to incessant toil, and comfortless assiduity, and assigns the leisure, and the means of any degree of information or discussion, to a tenth-part only of the inhabitants? […] every man, and every woman, and every child, ought to obtain something more, in the general distribution of the fruits of labour, than food, and rags, and a wretched hammock, with a poor rug to cover it: and that without working twelve or fourteen hours a day, six days out of seven, from six to sixty. – They have a claim, a sacred and inviolable claim, growing out of that fundamental maxim, upon which alone all property can be supported, to some comforts and enjoyments, in addition to the necessaries of life”

One of my favorite passages in Thelwall’s 1796 The Rights of Nature, that quotation is part of a memorable argument against the oppression of the many by the few (we talk about 99% and 1%, Thelwall of 90% and 10%), and like so many of his works, it is both pragmatic and optimistic: “the fact is, that the hideous accumulation of capital in a few hands, like all diseases not absolutely mortal, carries in its own enormity, the seeds of a cure.” That cure, according to Thelwall, lay in freedom of speech and information, cultivating “practical fluency” and employing social media: since we are, by our nature “social and communicative,” whatever presses us together is “favourable to the diffusion of knowledge, and ultimately promotive of human liberty.” Hence in every workplace and social space, a “Socratic spirit” of shared knowledge will arise, whereby “each brings into the common bank his mite of information, and putting it to a sort of circulating usance, each contributor has the advantage of a large interest, without any diminution of capital.”

Of course I know that social media too often tastes of hemlock these days, its promise of democratic cooperation coopted by capital. Nevertheless, hope remains. As it did for Thelwall, into his old age, knowing defeat again and again, and never giving up his Hope of Albion — not only an unfinished epic poem but his unfinished dream to found a sacred dome “where Freedom’s voice / (Twin with immortal Justice) shall be heard” calling all lands and peoples “alike to share/ The best reciprocation: equal laws, equal rights, / And like protection to the strong and weak.”

For myself, in this time of darkness, with dreams like his so frail and apt again to be snatched away, it is not Thelwall’s victories but his endurance that gives me hope. He speaks to us not simply as one of the unsung heroes of a revolution still to come, but because in the face of so much defeat and persecution, he maintained his values, holding firm for 40 long years, waiting, willing, hoping, passing the torch in the darkness.

So I am taking up that torch again in reviving my Thelwall blog, and then my Thelwall website, hoping to make it, in linked collaboration with that of the Thelwall Society, a Socratic space for the sharing of mites, and the promotion of rights. As I am just beginning a long-awaited sabbatical year in which I will be following in Thelwall’s footsteps, gathering materials toward my biography of his remarkable life, I will use this space to share some of the highlights of my peripatetic research. And I invite you to share it with me, to contribute some of your favorite quotes and ideas for how Thelwall speaks to our moment, and how he can energize us to resist and to act for change in the difficult months and years to come.

                                        Nor unwarm’d

By that aspiring hope, which oft creates

What it forebodes, feel I my kindling bosom!

–Some spirit stirs within me …

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Smiling Jack and Champion Jack

A long, long year has passed, and I wonder about the wisdom of trying to resurrect this blog and this site, after such silence. Of course that silence was the result of my efforts, at last successful, to free the voice of my long-Silenced Partner monograph, just submitted to Palgrave, almost a year to the day since my last blog post. I knew no other way to finish it than to put down my blinkered head and make everything else take a back seat: family, friends, house, garden, students, colleagues, and even my “Citizen John”.  But I did it, and am very happy with having done my bit (a big bit) towards the ongoing resurrection of Thelwall.

Of course there have been exciting developments that I should have reported (two successful archival appeals, a meeting of contributors in Grasmere and the imminent birth of our Thelwall Society) and there are many great quotations by Thelwall that I have discovered and might have highlighted and reflected upon here (including an essay on universities from the Panoramic Miscellany that I used for one of my appeal messages).  But the impetus to write right now comes from the sad and cruel coincidence of the resurrection of Thelwall and the death of one of his modern descendants, a man who carried the same torch of democratic rights, justice, and equality, and who shared a name–Jack Layton, the leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, who died before his time, of cancer, a week ago. His funeral was this weekend, and I watched it along with millions of Canadians who have this week come together in a sudden, sincere and completely unexpected outpouring of grief, quite astonishing for this famously staid and reticent country. He touched a chord, and no-one quite knows what will come of it. Will we return to cynicism, or does this signal a revival of social democracy in this country that has stood in the past as a quiet beacon to the world?

No doubt it is in part my own obsession that sees something of Thelwall in the events of this week. But in this case I think there’s something more; a deeper parallel and partnership to be made between these men separated by 200 years, that goes much further than, but is pointed by, the circumstantial similarity in their nicknames. Layton’s “Smiling Jack” captured the eternal optimism, steadfast hope and radiant energy of his character and his last words, written on his deathbed in an open letter to the people of Canada. Those words, and that act, as much as his example, lit the torch that has now passed and is passing, from person to person, face to face or through social media, around the country and the global ether.

“Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And together we’ll change the world.”

Among the thousands of chalk tributes that suddenly appeared to colour the grey pavements and walkways in front of Toronto City Hall, is one that made a chance link with Thelwall:

JACK the CHAMPION, who has catalyzed another new generation to change the world, hearkens back to Thelwall, “Champion Jack the Giant Killer” of Wordsworth’s “coy” tribute in The Prelude, editor of the Champion newspaper, and like the hero of his epic Hope of Albion, “champion still / Guardian and friend” of the people.

And it is this never-ending hope, optimism, faith in the future and commitment to the collective, that Jack Layton shares with Jack Thelwall. And when I read and pondered Jack Layton’s final words, I was immediately struck by how both they, and the brave act of deathbed optimism that they represent, resonated with the message of Thelwall’s last poems, written when he had as much cause for despair as we do now, but refused to bow to its yoke. Conscious that he was sinking into old age and obscurity, that his star had fallen, his values had been betrayed, and his voice would go unheard, he does not despair, but pursues his way with firm resolve:

…     for know

“Tho now oppression urge its meteor car

“Triumphant in a dazzled sphere below,

“Earth hath its Mina still, & Heaven its star:

“And they shall shine, & spread their glorious light,

“Victorious o’er the envious shades of night

These lines are taken from the finale of Thelwall’s last great ode, “The star that shone when other stars were dim: A Night Walk in the vicinity of Whitehall,” composed around 1825 and one of the wonderful discoveries of the Derby manuscript. In the lifelong conversation with his contemporaries that makes up so much of Thelwall’s poetic oeuvre, this was his belated response to the great odes of Wordsworth and Coleridge, from which it takes its central metaphor of light. On this midnight urban excursion, like a modern dark-sky activist, he laments the “glare terrene” of the city lights whose “flaring gass” turns night into day. He spends half the 120-line poem trying to see past the “earth-gender’d blaze / That warred on Nature’s light,” gazing and gazing to see the glory of those romantic Intimations of Immortality with which he was so familiar, as are we. But then a voice breaks in, “an in-voiced stream of more than mortal colloquy” that rings out his radical consolation in harmonious opposition to the visionary romanticism and apostasy of his contemporaries. That voice tells him to “return to earth” and “still the same fix’d course pursue,” following the star of liberty in spite of all that threatens and obscures it. That star is to some extent Milton, shining (like Wordsworth’s daffodils) “on the mental eye alone.” To some extent it is Mina (Espoz y Mina, the Spanish revolutionary hero who was living in exile in London at the time the poem was composed). But ultimately the star is both at once, and neither, and more. In the manner of Thelwall’s seditious allegories, it is an open and shifting signifier, in whose anonymity is its power. It stands for all the nameless ones with whom he shares the light of liberty:

“Nor think that, tho to the deluded sight

“One star alone of all the expanse seem bright,

“That all beside is dim. Thy way pursue

“As meditation leads; leaving behind

“This sense-confounding glare; & thou shalt find

“(The free horison opening to thy view)

“That not in isolated splendour I

“Maintain the regency of this deep sky

“Nor solitary, tho transcending, he—

“The earth-star of fair freedom’s galaxy.

“A thousand & a thousand spirits still

“(Tho not the dazzled optic hence descry

“Their watchful fires) hover o’er stream & hill

… & their light shall fill

“Even yet again the horizon, & re-shine

“(When fade the baser fires—as fade they will!)—

“In constellated glory round the shrine

“Of Liberty, eternal & divine!

Our consolation is that our two Jacks stand together now among a thousand and a thousand others, lighting the way for us to follow. As Layton’s partner (and fellow politician) Olivia Chow reminded the audience during Saturday’s memorial service, Jack was a clear and passionate voice for the ordinary person, and the best way to celebrate his life is to make sure that voice is not silenced.

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Rhyme’s Reason: Thelwall’s sonnet revival

A month has passed, and my garden past its promise and into the overblown, overgrown midsummer doldrums.  Thriving weeds, interspersed with the occasional flaunt of lilies and clump of colourful phlox. For the last few weeks I’ve been immersing myself in Thelwall’s sonnets, subject of an upcoming conference paper and a section of my book, and also likely to be the first of the texts posted on the Thelwall Archive later this month.

Overblown and overgrown pretty much seems to sum up the style of Thelwall’s sonnets and his poetry in general, at least on first acquaintance. Even Thelwall aficionados must agree with Hazlitt that his language was volcanic: overheated, highly-coloured, explosive, but long ago turned to the ash that fertilized some other ground.

And yet, what I am discovering is that once I get past the diction (or  more accurately get past my Wordsworthian resistance and bias toward the “natural”) I find more and more to enjoy in these sonnets.  I guess it’s the formalist part of my training and development—I’ve always liked sonnets, I teach them regularly, and write them occasionally, enjoying the puzzle and pastime of being bound in that scanty plot. I like to test out what my students call Dr. Thompson’s squash court analogy: the more confined the space, the more sheer energy can be gathered in that little ball of verse.

And that’s what I find so rewarding in these sonnets (right now I am focusing on the best-known ones in his Poems Written in Close Confinement, though he returned to the form throughout his career): the prosodic complexity and experimentalism, especially on the level of sound. No big surprise there, knowing what we are beginning to know of his later elocutionary principles. Thelwall defined the sonnet as an ode in one stanza and like an ode it has the ebb and flow of mood and rhetoric, sound and sense, that richly repays close analysis. As in so much else, here Thelwall freely pushes the boundaries of authority and tradition while acknowledging and exploiting the constraints of form. And he does so self-consciously. No wonder—he’s in prison after all. Plenty of time to weigh and manipulate each syllable and transition, to feel and count the links in the fetters.

Take Sonnet II, To Tyranny.

O HELL-born Tyranny! How blest the land

Whose watchful Citizens with dauntless breast

Oppose thy first approach! With aspect bland

Thou wont, alas! too oft, to lull to rest

The sterner virtues that should guard the throne

Of Liberty. Deck’d with the gaudy zone

Of Pomp, and usher’d with lascivious arts

Of glossing Luxury, thy fraudful smile

Ensnares the dazzled senses, till our hearts

Sink, palsied, in degenerate lethargy.

Then bursts the swoln destruction forth; and while

Down the rough tide of Power Oppression drives

The shipwreck’d multitude, no hope survives,

But from the whelming storm of Anarchy.

Of course it’s loud, with all those caps and italics, those personified abstractions and exclamations! But it’s so much fun to spew out that opening apostrophe! More to the point, it’s liberating to reach deep down the organs to expand, grasp and release that tension of breath and muscle. And then, once the shockwave passes, to notice all the eddies in its wake. Thelwall resented the tyranny of rhyme in the sonnet but he does not throw it away completely; instead he exploits it fully (not just end-rhyme, but internal rhyme, alliteration, assonance and consonance) to create those rhythms of action and reaction, those reversals and ironies of sound and sense that make his sonnets approach the ode in their artful complexity.

This one starts with an “illegitimate” but pretty regular abab quatrain, but then he throws in a couplet at lines 5-6, to balance the final couplet in lines 12-13, and give the whole sonnet kind of an off-balance reverse-Miltonic structure, where irregular octave follows regular sestet. And that first couplet is a beauty, with the clever chiasmus of syllable and meaning between “guard the throne” and “gaudy zone” pointing a key thematic contrast of this and all the prison sonnets, between Liberty and Luxury. “Gaudy” is one of Thelwall’s favorite modifiers for the forces of oppression he both resists and indulges, which include the “wasteful arts” that “devour” the “hard earn’d fruits … /Wrung from the labours” of “weary Hind” and “Artist’s … hand” alike in sonnet #VII “The Vanity of National Grandeur.” It is that simultaneous guarding against and indulging of the gaudiness of language that marks these sonnets and makes them characteristically Thelwallian.

And he does it so well.  Look at the way key words (and sounds) cascade down the single stanza, from “Liberty”  through “Luxury” and “lethargy” to “Anarchy.” And listen to the “s” sounds, as they take the same slide, from the regular opening quatrain, where a watchful “t” halts and anchors the lascivious “s”, down the slippery slope of the highly irregular octave, where tongue and ear are tangled in a whirling tide of “zz” and “sh” and “x” and soft “g” sounds. No wonder the “sterner virtues” of both sonnet and reader are swept away. Perhaps Anarchy is the only hope, as it seems to be the rule of the sonnets that follow (some of which have 15 lines and extremely irregular rhyme schemes). But the anarchy is a watchful and considered one, and the result is highly satisfying. Like the fiery “unequalled flight” of the unnamed correspondent in sonnet#XI “The Phoenix,” the volcanic sonnets of that “rarest bird” John Thelwall still retain the power to challenge the Tyranny of tradition, to cheer “Freedom’s drooping train” and to reward the reader who pursues their “bold course” with “new-reviving ardour.”

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Eventful Day! How shall I greet thee now?

….Eventful Day!

How shall I greet thee now, at thy return,

So often mark’d with sadness? Art thou, say

Once more arriv’d a harbinger of woes,

Precursor of a Year of miseries,

Of storms and persecutions, of the pangs

Of disappointed hope, and keen regrets …?

…Or art thou come

In most unwonted guise, O, fateful Day!

With cheering prophecy of kindlier times?—

Of hours of sweet retirement, tranquil joys

Of friendship, and of love—of studious ease,

Of philosophic thought—poetic dreams

In dell romantic, or by bubbling brook,

High wood, or rocky shore …

I figure that’s as good a way as any to begin the first of these sequester’d musings on my life with Thelwall, here in my own Llyswen (that’s what I call my big white farmhouse in rural Nova Scotia). After all, it’s the first of July (Canada Day), the month of his birth (and of mine), the first day of a six-month sabbatical, and out in my tangled garden the air smells of roses, the sun is shining sweetly, and everything is full of colour, promise, hope, new life. So I will take that as a good omen.  I’ll go for the cheering prophecy, even though I know as well as he did not to trust such prophecies too far.

Just finishing my essay on the Fairy of the Lake for the Romantic Circles Scholarly Resources volume on John Thelwall in Peformance, the last of a long line of arts and acts arising from that wonderful conference that has made the last year so richly rewarding (and so breathlessly rushed). As I do so, I realize more than ever how Rowenna’s fatal flaw, her overanxious desire to know, her overanticipation of the future, speaks to Thelwall, and to me, hell, to all of us. So often looking ahead, worrying about duties and deadlines, wondering what will come to pass, rushing ever faster into that inevitably fatal future; so seldom stopping to smell the flowers of “tranquil joy,” “studious ease,” “poetic dreams” and friendship.

So I don’t know what form this blog will take. I’ve never done a blog before … but I’ve been keeping journals for 40 years, so how different can it be? I think  I’ll just trust the future and let it take whatever form it wants, as the weather of my mind and mood dictates. I may start by what I’ve just done; that is, pulling out a passage and showing how it speaks to me. Doing what we’re trained not to do, but what suits me; mixing the critical and the anecdotal, the professional and the personal. But the personal IS the political, as I so often tell my classes. That’s not just true for woman writers. Thelwall knew that as well as anyone.

So, as a woman writer, what do I think about my life with Thelwall? Well, it’s been a pretty good relationship, off and on, for about the last 20 years (that’s when I conceived the Peripatetic project). But we’ve been together more seriously for the last 6-7 years, since I started following his footsteps all over the UK, and looking for Llyswen and finding it and the Derby MS. And after all that time, I feel I’ve come to know the man, as well as one can know a fella who’s been dead almost 2 centuries. He’s a little stiff, but otherwise a pretty good guy. Heroic, of course, for sticking to his principles and bouncing back after every defeat. Way ahead of his time. But also a good writer, lively, compelling, and rewarding, even though he’s often pompous, way too defensive and always longwinded (something we have in common). I think that’s because he is also able to play, to make fun, to laugh at himself in a way that so few of his contemporaries were able to do (except Byron).   Major ego, lots of contradictions, but that never hurt a romantic writer either. Most of all it’s his voice that lives for me, loud and exuberant, always surprising, always invigorating. Transforming and transformative.

So that’s what this blog will be. Scenes from my life with Thelwall, reflections upon the words of Thelwall, responses to the voice of Thelwall. Product of my own studious ease, philosophic thought and poetic dreams.  And so I may well call with him to “come!

Hours of long-wish’d tranquility! Ah come:

Snatch from my couch the thorn of anxious thought,

That I may taste the joys my soul best loves,

And find, once more, “that Being is a Bliss!”

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