Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Why Kendal? John Thelwall, Laker Poet?

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Why Kendal? John Thelwall, Laker Poet?

Article excerpt

In November, 1803, "Citizen" John Thelwall, the once-notorious Jacobin orator, stopped at Grasmere and Keswick on his way to Scotland to deliver elocutionary lectures. According to biographers, this visit marked the definitive end of Thelwall's friendship with Wordsworth and Coleridge, and of their "radical years." Thelwall sank into obscurity as an elocutionist and pedagogue, and Wordsworth and Coleridge rose to become the foremost poet-critics of their generation. I have been working to fill in the blanks in Thelwall's virtually undocumented later career, a quest crowned by my discovery in 2004 of both his hidden hermitage in Llyswen, Wales, and a one-thousand-page manuscript of his complete poems, never known to have existed, in Derby. These discoveries prove that Thelwall's poetry is more ambitious and original than he has been given credit for, that his connections with the Wordsworth Circle are more extensive and long-lived, and that his 1803 visit to the Lake District was not a chance event. Not merely passing through, Thelwall had recently settled his family in nearby Kendal, where they would remain for over a year, where he would return between lecture tours, and where he would write poetry that continues the formative dialogue with Wordsworth and Coleridge that began in 1796. (1) Not counting work towards his ambitious but unfinished epic The Hope of Albion, Thelwall wrote at least twenty-five poems between 1803 and 1805, most intended for the unpublished volume of Wordsworthian Poems, Chiefly Suggested by the Scenery of Nature that makes up the core of the Derby manuscript, and appears to originate at this time. (2) My paper draws on this manuscript (which I am editing) as well as research into Kendal social history (including evidence of the reception of Thelwall's lectures), to answer my title question. Why did Thelwall choose Kendal? What does his residence there mean for his own poetry, and that of the "Lake School" (which was tarred by Thelwall's brush with Jeffrey in Edinburgh)? What kind of poetry did he deliver to the citizens of Kendal, and how was he received? How does Romantic poetry look when viewed from the perspective of a market town on the dissenting margins of the Lake District rather than a rustic cottage at its loyal shepherd's heart?

If English Romanticism is forever associated with Lake District, then Kendal like Thelwall is forever knocking on its door. This "gateway to the Lakes" (3) is a market town and transportation hub now famous not for literary but consumer landmarks, from mint cake to shoes. Two hundred years ago, Kendal was not so different: when the town is mentioned in the lives of the poets, it is as a place to catch the London coach, or to purchase books and commodities (like the famous 'black drop' opium) not available locally. In short, Kendal then as now was a place of mobility, sociability and commerce, a threshold or bridge between the pastoral tradition and tranquility that Wordsworth sought out and celebrated in his poetry, and the rapidly growing mill towns and mass markets that he wrote his poetry in opposition to, but still depended on, in that uneasy relationship between literary and popular culture that also defines Romanticism.

Kendal was a threshold. in social structure as well. Unlike the mountain heart of the Lake District, where the sturdy self-reliance of Wordsworth's idealized shepherds was rooted in a quasi-feudal deference to the high-and-mighty Lowther interest, Kendal was characterized by the political independence and class mobility that marked the emergent northern powerhouses of this industrial revolutionary age. According to social historians, Kendal's "historical lack of resident gentry and nobility" (Brown 3), along with its large number of skilled artisans and independent tradesmen, and the fact that its leading families were dissenters, Quakers and Methodists, all meant that Kendal was never an established "county" town (Dyhouse 4-5. …

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