John Thelwall: “Citizen” John, political activist, atheist reprobate, acquitted felon, poet, Professor of Elocution and speech therapist.
Until recently I was aware of John Thelwall mainly as one of Coleridge’s correspondents – a political radical and an atheist whose views on religion clearly clashed with Coleridge’s Christian beliefs. I remember reading of an exchange on the subject of a life hereafter. Coleridge always liked having the last word, but in this case decided to save it for when they met up in Heaven. Then, he said, he would greet Thelwall with a cheery “Told you so”.
There had been earlier more heated and public disagreements on political and social issues– “atheist reprobate” was a label supplied by Coleridge – but somehow conflict morphed into a companionable relationship. Coleridge recognised some sympathies in their literary and even their political thinking and invited friendship, putting their differences aside. There were clear parallels in their lives. Both saw and reflected on the events and implications of the French Revolution. Both gave public lectures, sometimes touring to do so. Both wrote poetry. A correspondence began. But the relationship (on earth) did not flourish quite as it might have.
It was a reference to Thelwall as England’s first (self-styled) Professor of Elocution and a practising speech therapist which prompted me to find out more about him and about his relationship with Coleridge and Wordsworth.
Thelwall’s political activities not only gave him a reputation – a dangerous man to know – but actually saw him confined to the Tower for nine months, and tried for high treason. (He was eventually acquitted). One of his activities in solitary confinement was writing poetry. (Poems written in close confinement in the Tower and Newgate 1795)
Coleridge and Wordsworth (whose lifelong friendship was famous for its ups and downs) were also at times under some suspicion for sympathies with political revolution, but are of course best known for their revolutionary influence on English poetry. Their “Lyrical Ballads” introduced new ideas about nature and naturalness into English poetry. The poet was ‘a man talking to men’. And the poets spent much time discussing and writing about the manifestations of these ideas in imagery, versification and also performance.
These topics were of great interest to Thelwall too. His skill at oratory was well known, but he also theorised on the subject. It wasn’t relevant only to political speeches, but also to poetry, and to ordinary conversation. There was an important relationship between command of language and freedom of many kinds. Having been deprived of some of his own freedoms following his visit to the Tower and his trial, Thelwall made a career change and turned to the teaching of elocution and public speaking. (Julian Morrow take note). He continued, however, to pass on ideas on various subjects through his selection of teaching material.
But before this ‘career change’ he went on a walking tour to the west country seeking out sympathetic company and friendship. In 1797 he visited Nether Stowey, and stayed for 10 days discussing poetry and prosody with Coleridge and Wordsworth. He had much to contribute to these discussions. Like Coleridge and Wordsworth he questioned earlier notions of lineation and metre, and had strong opinions on the sound and scansion of poetry. Their opinions would have been modified and refined in discussion with each other and some opinions expressed in Thelwall’s later lectures and writings would have been shaped here.
With his 1796 letter offering friendship, Coleridge included a copy of some of his poems, including his favourite “Religious Musings”, and asked for comment. The advances in friendship survived at this point despite Thelwall’s reply which described parts of the poem as “infected with inflation & turgidity”. They went on to discuss (and disagree on) the placement of emphases on adjectives and to conclude, in Coleridge’s phrase, that they had “different creeds in poetry as well as religion” but would enjoy “a little sparring about poetry”. Recorded instances of this sparring, with both Coleridge and Wordsworth, are quite revealing, and suggest that at times Thelwall was the chief advocate of ‘naturalness’. His comments on poetry from this time are detailed, extensive, perceptive, and at times curiously modern.
Richard Gravil believes that Thelwall’s influence on Coleridge’s verse was beneficial:
Having Tom Paine’s gift for plain English, he writes without those affectations of inversions, double negatives, chiasmus, showy parallelisms, and even a ghostly presence of Augustan end-stopping – that tendency to think in couplets, if not to rhyme them – vices that linger (if I dare say so) in Coleridge’s poems until Frost at Midnight, in February 1798. That, basically, is my simple thesis: Thelwall may not have set his country free, but he did liberate Coleridge’s ‘numbers’. He became his ‘voice coach’. He co-created the Somerset Sound’. For twelve months or more, between May 1796 and February 1797, and again between July and December 1797, Thelwall pruned Coleridge’s redundancies, while Coleridge wrestled for Thelwall’s soul.
(The Somerset Sound, or the Darling Child of Speech The Coleridge Bulletin New Series No 26 Winter 2005. p4 )
Benefits to Thelwall might well be evident in poems which seem to be in dialogue with Coleridge’s. “Lines Written at Bridgewater” (Thelwall) / “Lines Written at Shurton Bars” (Coleridge) and “To the Infant Hampden” (Thelwall) / “Frost at Midnight” (Coleridge).
In spite of Coleridge’s ungenerous exclusion of Thelwall from ongoing acceptance in the Wordsworth Circle, the ‘sparring’ with both Coleridge and Wordsworth continued in letters over the following years.
Brennan O’Donnell (The Passion of Meter, p26) describes another exchange.
In a letter of 1804 to John Thelwall, Wordsworth … (gives) his ideas concerning the “intertexture” of metrical frame and expressive motives. Thelwall was all this time promulgating an innovative theory of meter as part of his campaign to reform English elocutionary principles. Following the work of Joshua Steele and others, Thelwall argued for a system of scansion based on analogies between musical quantities and the metrical treatment of syllables, through which he believed the music of English verse could be liberated from the narrow strictures of neoclassical conceptions of the line. Thelwall apparently had raised one of the central issues of his work – the correct, natural, and appropriately musical recitation of verse – and had asked for Wordsworth’s opinion… In responding, Wordsworth says that he is in broad agreement with Thelwall’s “general rule” that “the art of verse should not compel you to read in … emphasis etc that violates the nature of prose.” But he also wishes to impose an important “limitation”: that as long as poetry uses line endings the final syllable will not be “indifferent”.
Thelwall probably agreed. His basic tenet was that his system was developed from analysis of the (well) spoken word, and was not imposed on it.
His best-known definition of elocution is found in his "Introductory Discourse on the Nature and Objects of Elocutionary Science", 1805.
Elocution is the Art, or the Act of so delivering our own thoughts and sentiments, or the thoughts and sentiments of others, as not only to convey to those around us (with precision, force and harmony) the full purport and meaning of the words and sentences in which those thoughts are cloathed; but, also, to excite and impress upon their minds - the feelings, the imaginations and the passions by which those thoughts are dictated, or with which they should naturally be accompanied… It embraces the whole Theory and Practice of the exterior demonstration of the inward workings of the mind.
“feelings”, “imaginations”, “passions”, “naturally” This is the vocabulary of the makers of ‘Lyrical Ballads’. And these terms recur in Thelwall’s writings on elocution.
Thelwall described elocution as in part a science, but also an art, and a matter of taste.
But, above all things, - the individual who aspires to the highest distinctions of the Elocutionary Character, should cherish, with fond solicitude, the generous, the tender, and the noble feelings of the heart: for it is with these that he has most especially to deal: - it is these, in all their shades and varieties, that it is the noblest distinction of his art to regulate and excite; and how shall he successfully impart to others, what he does not himself both comprehend and feel? (Selections. Introductory Essay p15.)
While ‘Elocution’ studies flourished in the early nineteenth-century, much of it was to do with class differences and concerned ‘correction’ and speaking ‘properly’. Thelwall is interesting for the importance he attaches to the ‘music’ of the spoken word, whether in poetry, public speaking, or everyday utterance.
Thelwall’s basic argument was that all fluent and harmonious speech, even in familiar conversation, falls into the rhythmic division of musical bars, and into the two generic measures of common and triple time ie a pulse, followed by one or two ‘remissive’ (weak) sounds, also referred to as ‘thesis’ and ‘arsis’. Pauses function as they do in music:
…the crotchet or quaver rest constitutes a part of the elocutionary, as well as of the musical bar…
And he rejected
the fallacy of those arbitrary rules, by which the quantity of syllable has been attempted to be ascertained (as if metrical quantity had relation rather to the eye than to the ear.)
Proportions, not numbers, were the basis of metrical division – as in music a bar could be made up of “boundless varieties of parts or fractions.” And, as “dictated by natural instinct” progress was from heavy to light stresses. This was true of “all the tribes of voice” with the exception of such creatures as the duck, that have “no light sound, or arsis.” (ah poor bird.)
(Quotations from: Selections. Introductory Essay)
The duck, it seems, will never delight the ear. But it is not the only offender.
In his Selections Thelwall offers a delightful list of different ‘monotonies’ which can result from not using appropriate “flexure” of the voice.
- ‘The Barking or Schoolboy Style’ as in ‘And, the, Lord, said, un, to, Mo, ses’.
- ‘Parish Clerk’ delivery which allows for alterations of heavy and light but no ups and downs of pitch.
- ‘Clerical Drawl’ ‘portions of half-enunciated sound, uniformly divided in equal quantities…terminating in imperfect murmurs’
- ‘The Cathedral Chaunt’
- ‘The Humdrum style’ ‘stationary alternations of loud and soft on stated portions of each verse or particular members of each sentence’
- ‘The sing-song style’
From my system of reading verse, I preclude all peculiarities of tone, all arbitrary accents, quantities and pauses; all helping out the verse, as it is called, by clenches and closes, independent of the grammatical construction of the sentence. All must depend upon the sense, the sentiment, and the feeling, and…on the metaphysical and philological perception of the arrangement of the thoughts and language. What is connected in the mind, must be connected with equal intimacy by the voice; and what, in the mind, is transposed, interrupted, or suspended, must be separated, interrupted or suspended, in the mode of articulation. The meaning should appear to be the only object of the reader’s attention; the harmony (even when most perfect and absolute,) should seem to be incidental and unsought…I know of no such distinction as a verse mouth and a prose mouth: I want only a distinct, a sonorous, an articulate mouth – a mouth that “is parcel of the mind,” and of a mind that can identify itself with its author, or its subject, and modulate its tones and motions accordingly; so that the manner may be a comment upon the matter – whether that matter be in verse or in prose. (Selections for the Illustration of a Course of Instructions on the Rhythmus and Utterance of the English Language London, 1812)
Note: Much more is sure to be heard of John Thelwall in times to come. In a discovery which recalls Kathleen Coburn’s unearthing of Coleridge’s notebooks, Judith Thompson, a Canadian scholar, in 2004 came across a box of Thelwall’s unpublished poetry. Her personal website at Dalhousie University has much fascinating information about past and ongoing Thelwall research: http://myweb.dal.ca/jthompso/
Her book “John Thelwall in the Wordsworth Circle: The Silenced Partner” looks at his exclusion from the Wordsworth / Coleridge friendship, and also at the claims he had to belong there.
Her work has prompted a flourishing of Thelwall scholarship, and a newly established John Thelwall Society will hold its inaugural conference in July 2014. It has a website at www.johnthelwall.org
from The Voice Magazine NSW Speech and Drama Association Autumn 2014
editor: Zita Denholm Triple D Books Wagga NSW