Yasmin Solomonescu - John Thelwall and the Materialist Imagination. Review by Noel Jackson

Tuesday, May 24, 2016 - 10:40

Yasmin Solomonescu, John Thelwall and the Materialist Imagination (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), xii + 226. (Hdbk, $90; ISBN 978-1-137-42613-0)

Noel Jackson

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Yasmin Solomonescu’s John Thelwall and the Materialist Imagination has as its cover image one of the better-known plates from William Blake’s For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise.  Captioned “I want! I want!,” the illustration shows a human figure taking the first step onto an impossibly long ladder extending (presumably) to the moon while an earthbound couple looks on. It is an arresting image for the cover of a book about the figure whom an anti-Jacobin periodical derisively named “Mister Surgeon Thelwall,” and whom Francis Jeffrey later labeled “The Champion of Materialism.” More than an eye-catching device, the image emblematically represents the subject and subject-matter of Solomonescu’s book, which confronts and reevaluates some of the long-standing characterizations of Thelwall’s materialism.

Solomonescu’s focus in the title on Thelwall’s “materialist imagination” trains attention on how Thelwall’s materialism was turned to imaginative and specifically literary pursuits. Like the image on the cover of the book, moreover, the title’s emphasis points to a materialist orientation of Thelwall’s work that does not excise but accommodates and indeed makes a central place for the visionary yearnings of the imagination. Thelwall’s “materialist imagination” is encapsulated in what Solomonescu describes, in the concluding pages of the book, as “the central concern of Thelwall’s entire career: how dissatisfaction with what one sees in the world of things as they are can trigger an imaginative vision that is not perforce reactionary, but can in fact renew hope in the triumph of liberty” (140).

Solomonescu’s book takes its place in a small but growing body of monographs and edited collections on Thelwall’s life and work. Her book’s principal contribution comes from its sustained account of how Thelwall’s materialism informs his opinions across the domains of “avant-garde science, radical politics and literary imagination” (3). One finds variations of this triangulated formulation throughout the book. Solomonescu establishes the continuity of Thelwall’s views through his materialist accounts of life, language, cognition, and social change.

Solomonescu follows the arc of Thelwall’s career in roughly chronological order, turning in a few cases to later material to demonstrate the continuity of his thought and “the still-beating materialist ‘pulse’” of the work (117). Early chapters establish Thelwall’s position in the materialist vanguard of the 1790s. Chapter 1 examines Thelwall’s writings in science and politics, including the papers he presented to colleagues of the Physical Society of Guy’s Hospital in London. The next three chapters consider in detail Thelwall’s literary output in prose and poetry. Chapter 2, on Thelwall’s “verse-prose hybrid” (7, 33) The Peripatetic, emphasizes how the “embodied nature of sympathetic response” (41) is bent to the purposes of political reform. Chapter 3 examines the poetry composed during and in the aftermath of Thelwall’s confinement in prison on charges of treason. One of the strongest of the volume, this chapter contains insightful readings of the poems and draws instructive distinctions between Thelwall’s poetry and the “greater Romantic lyric” in the course of examining how the poet charts a “path from crisis to cure” following his withdrawal from public life (61). Chapter 4 next examines how Thelwall confronts and seeks to move beyond political impasse in writings of the early 1800s. Solomonescu reads Thelwall’s romance The Fairy of the Lake, the uncompleted epic The Hope of Albion, and his novel The Daughter of Adoption as texts expressive of Thelwall’s “heightened awareness of the limitations imposed by ‘exterior agency’” (73). Owing perhaps to the breadth of material under consideration, this chapter felt less focused than most, retaining at times only tenuous links to the topic of Thelwall’s materialism.

Solomonescu’s fifth chapter considers Thelwall’s writing in his capacity as an elocutionist and speech therapist, and reads as well a collection of poems from the three manuscript volumes of verse recently discovered in Derby. Solomonescu observes how in both speech and poetry Thelwall cultivates an ideal of “restrained vehemence” (98, 109) grounded in the physiological and prosodic principles of what he calls “rhythmus.” She argues that this mixed mode allows the speaker to express reformist political sentiments in an atmosphere of censorship and suppression. A final chapter looks at Thelwall’s late poetry alongside his marginal annotations of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria and a volume of poems by William Lisle Bowles. Across these texts, Solomonescu observes Thelwall’s insistence that poetry “must arise from the immediacy of bodily sensation and mental perception” (133). Her point that Thelwall’s materialist aesthetics has greater kinship than previously acknowledged with Coleridge’s aesthetic idealism ties to one of the strongest insights of the book – a point often missed in contemporary critical accounts of Romantic materialism – that materialism and idealism constitute dual strands in “the double-helix DNA of Romanticism” (6); they are dialectically, if antagonistically, related, and each depends on the other.

Characterized throughout by scrupulous scholarship and attentive reading of Thelwall’s literary corpus, Solomonescu’s book is an excellent guide to the currents of materialist thought informing Thelwall’s work in science, literature, and politics. John Thelwall and the Materialist Imagination brings together disparate material to demonstrate the unity and continuity of his scientific, political, and literary commitments. Three appendices also make some less well-known documents available to a wider audience: a letter to Thelwall from his friend Peter Crompton, the dedicatory letter to Crompton from Thelwall’s Poems, Chiefly Written in Retirement, and a late poem by Thelwall published in the Monthly Magazine (1825).