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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