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John Thelwall's 'The Peripatetic', ed. Judith Thompson

Thursday, October 1, 2009 - 02:51
John Thelwall’s ‘The Peripatetic’. Ed. Judith Thompson. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2001. 447pp. $39.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8143-28882-2).

Reviewed by
Michael Scrivener
Wayne State University

Since the original 1793 edition, Thelwall’s Peripatetic had been reissued twice before Judith Thompson’s new edition, in the facsimile edition that was a part of the 1978 Garland “Romantic Context” series edited by Donald H. Reiman, and in a 1984 microfilm facsimile reprint (The Eighteenth Century series, reel 923). Recognized as a correspondent with Coleridge in the 1790s and as a poetic influence on Wordsworth, Thelwall is finally receiving the attention he deserves after long neglect thanks in part to E. P. Thompson’s work on his politics, Nicholas Roe’s work on his connection with Coleridge and Wordsworth, and especially Gregory Claeys’s edition of Thelwall’s political writing, and also in part to the reconfiguration of Romantic studies that has been going on for several decades. Thelwall’s extraordinary Peripatetic is worthy of a modern edition for which Judith Thompson (no relation to E. P.) has written a thoroughly lucid introduction of some fifty pages and has provided valuable explanatory notes, appendices, and an index.

There are no problematic textual issues with The Peripatetic, which had only one edition, and no manuscript materials seem to have survived. (A large cache of Thelwall manuscripts was last in the hands of Charles Cestre, the author of a 1906 study of Thelwall, but diligent efforts by several scholars, including E. P. Thompson, have failed to yield the location of these papers.) There is some loss but mostly gain with the passage from facsimile to reset pages: we gain a readable, single-volume, teachable text with contextualizing introduction and notes (and an extraordinarily useful index); we lose of course the connection with an authentic historical document that bears its own unique meanings. The most valiant efforts of the editor cannot avoid producing at least a few typos (and I noticed only a few). The seventeen corrections that Thompson made of obvious misspellings and typographical errors in the 1793 text are all listed and identified (56), but otherwise she has scrupulously reproduced the original, retaining “even [Thelwall’s] inconsistent eighteenth-century spelling and punctuation” (55).

The problematic issues are with the text itself. What importance does The Peripatetic have in terms of literary history? What is its genre, with its mixing of poetry and prose? There is the matter of the writing itself, something addressed by William Hazlitt in one of the most memorable put-downs in literary criticism. While praising Thelwall’s skills as an orator, he characterized Thelwall as “the flattest writer I have ever read . . . tame and trite and tedious . . . a mere drab-coloured suit in the person of the prose writer” (quoted by Thompson, 41-42). While disputing Hazlitt’s judgment, Thompson concedes that at times Thelwall’s writing falls short, describing for example one long poem on the War of the Roses as “turgid and overwrought” (404-05 n. 217). Thelwall the writer has not received the same kind of admiration as Thelwall the politician, and the put-downs—by Hazlitt, Jeffrey, and others—have endured more effectively than the praise.

Judith Thompson defends studying Thelwall’s writing closely not on the grounds of taste but on the basis of The Peripatetic’s literary innovations, the formal and generic qualities. A place to begin the discussion is the full title: The Peripatetic; or, Sketches of the Heart, of Nature and Society; In a Series of Politico-Sentimental Journals, In Verse and Prose of the Eccentric Excursions of Sylvanus Theophrastus, Supposed to Be Written by Himself. The narrator, Sylvanus Theophrastus—evoking the Sylvanus Urban of the Gentleman’s Magazine—speaks and takes pedestrian excursions in and near London with characters who have similarly stylized names (Ambulator, Arisor, Belmour, Wentworth). Each chapter, usually brief, contains a prose sketch of an encounter with people, landscape, ruins, and so on, as well as a poem related to the theme of the “sketch.” The focus on character sketches is Theophrastian, the sentimental journey Sternean, and the masking of characters is satirically Swiftian. Indeed, as Thompson claims, The Peripatetic is not really a novel but a satire, a Menippean satire (38) sharing the same semiotic energies as Blake’s own engagement with the genre, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1794) (27-28). The apparent “carelessness” of Menippean satire conceals a “complex yet coherent intellectual pattern in which certain key ideas” provide the organizational structure (38).

Thompson illustrates that these “key ideas” are developed throughout the text during the three major journeys, each one occupying a volume of the text: a journey through the southern suburbs, then to Rochester, and finally to St. Albans, following the Thames and the old Roman road to Dover, evoking Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims (22, 34). Moving in and out of the three journeys is the story of Belmour and Sophia, a sentimental tale of love frustrated by paternal authority, but the tale is parodic and one of many examples of irony applied to the excesses of sensibility. Sensibility must answer to the “peripatetic philosophy” that puts amending the heart and expanding the mind through experience, dialogue, conversation, and travel above intensity of feeling (34, 39). A good example of what Thompson calls the “intergeneric conversation” and dialogic form of The Peripatetic is the discussion of charity (84-90). One sketch has an aggressive professional beggar who seems to be an exemplum for Hobbesian cynicism, but another sketch of an unemployed laborer becomes a point of departure for the systematic analysis of economic inequality. Thelwall therefore uses the conflict of sentimental and anti-sentimental types dialectically, moving the discourse on charity to another and higher level (40-41). An episode, then, that might seem merely sentimental “becomes, when it is read as part of an intergeneric conversation, a complex critique of sentimental literature” (41).

Although The Peripatetic has examples of poetry and prose that are anti-literary and anticipate Wordsworth’s critique of poetic diction—the blank verse poems are the most successful in this vein (78-80, for example)—much of the poetry uses poetic diction and the prose, while hardly Johnsonian, is rarely governed by plebeian speech. Thelwall, however, does not unthinkingly use literary language but ironizes it. As Thompson explains:

Thelwall revolutionizes literature not by escaping convention but by highlighting it, forcing his reader to see language as a tissue of conventions and to interrogate them through ironic contrast, rather than by appealing to an ideal of transparent or natural language and pure idea. (43)

The Peripatetic’s “collage of commonplaces” therefore “works by juxtaposition” (43). Thelwall’s text creates a “carnivalesque extravaganza of multiple ironies and violent contradictions” as well as “shifting tones and mingling voices, in which metaphysics and materialism, the literal and the metaphorical, collide and fracture” (45). These Bakhtinian ironies involve the reader in complex synthetic and dialectical activities that are similar to the labors Blake’s implied reader performs in his ironic texts.

I have an obvious investment in Thelwall’s writing, having published a book (Seditious Allegories, 2001) and numerous essays on his work, but a strong argument can be made that one does not understand Romanticism in sufficient depth if one has not engaged seriously the oeuvre of Thelwall, whose most important early work is The Peripatetic. Specialists in Wordsworth who work their way carefully through The Peripatetic will be struck by anticipations of familiar Wordsworthian qualities, such as childhood memories in conversational blank verse that describes the acquisition of the poetic identity. The commentary on Dryden, Charlotte Smith, Milton, and Pope is a valuable and little discussed early Romantic reflection on kinds of poetry and canon-formation—as valuable and little discussed as Thelwall’s numerous representations of the sublime, picturesque, and beautiful. The Peripatetic’s political meanings are both subtle and explicit, as Reeves’s loyalist association is a prominent antagonist. A distinctive aspect of Thelwall’s text is the clarity of class oppression, perhaps best represented in the sketch entitled “The Old Peasant” (346-47), which is played against another sketch of a laborer who is a real scoundrel (“The Informer” [342-46]).

Let me conclude the review with praise for Thompson’s “Editor’s Notes” (383-406) that are remarkably useful but also restrained and not at all pedantic. A true sign of the genuine scholar is knowing what needs to be explained and what does not. In addition to providing essential biographical and historical information, Thompson points out concisely Wordsworthian parallels, identifies unattributed quotations, and locates literary sources. I especially enjoy the topographical notes that take the reader up to the present, so that we learn that the late eighteenth-century superstitions about the Bourn-Thurlby woods survive into the present, as she reports that some of the local residents “assured me that motorway accidents were caused by mysterious forces emanating from the woods” (397 n. 148).

The literary criticism Thompson deploys in the introduction—which will remain the fullest and most adequate discussion of The Peripatetic for the foreseeable future—is inventive, true to the unique features of the text, and valuable for forming a base for other readers to make further discoveries. The scholarship is thorough, careful, and exhaustive. This is a splendid edition of an important Romantic text that should no longer be neglected.