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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