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introduction and notes (and an extraordinarily useful index); we lose of course the connection with an authentic historical document that bears its own unique meanings.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).