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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