John Thelwall

Anonymous, Memoirs of Thelwall in Register of the Times 2 (1794) 353-55.

Mr. Thelwall is the youngest son of Mr. Joseph Thelwall, formerly a silkman, in Covent-garden. He was born July 27, 1764. His father was a plain, diligent, unambitious tradesman, and distinguished for his warm benevolence and unblemished integrity. He died of a premature decay, in his 42nd year, and left to his widow and three children a small property, and a recent but well established business, with an affection and sympathy among mankind, obtained by his assiduity and virtues.

The subject of these memoirs, being then in his ninth year, and meeting so early with such an irreparable loss, his education was neglected, and his pursuits, towards which he had already directed his attention, were lamentably disappointed.

Whether he would have attained any considerable excellence, as in historical painter, as his propensity been indulged, or whether it is to be lamented, that he was drawn by succeeding occurrences from the pencil to the pen, we shall not here enquire. But early indications of his talents, induce us to suppose, that his adoption of the former would not have diminished his excellence in the latter.

The progress of his infantine propensities, his mental history, with several incidents of his life, he has himself displayed, with considerable truth and candour, in the character of Sylvanus Theophrastus, in his Peripatetic. The few facts which the outline of his history affords, are, therefore, only necessary for us to trace.

When between thirteen and fourteen years old, he was taken from school, and placed in the shop, continued, with very considerable success, by his mother and brother; but his settled aversion to trade soon became conspicuous, and proved unconquerable. The avidity with which he perused every historical and poetical work of celebrity, anticipated the pursuits to which he afterwards devoted himself. At this time, his juvenile attempts and literary composition, astonished the unlettered circle of his acquaintance, with whom he was surrounded. But the chief object of his delight was the Drama, particularly Tragedy. The prodigious number of plays indiscriminately selected which he read, accounts, in some part, for the energy of his sentiments and expressions, and the inflated pathos which too frequently disgraces his early and sometimes his later productions.

Having continued about two years in the business, equally disgusted with his mechanical employment, and the tyranny of an elder brother, he determined to submit no longer to such intolerable burdens on his independence. His love of the arts reviving with redoubled ardour, and eminent limner would have taken him as his pupil, had not the premium proved an obstacle, from mistaken prudence in those he had to consult. This disappointment broke the charm of his golden dream; but, having determined to continue no longer at home, he consented to the prudent proposition of being apprenticed to an eminent master-taylor at the West end of the town.

Great advantages were expected, from this project, by his two brothers: but this design ending, like all other similar projects, his relatives were mistaken in their hopes.

Possessing a very eccentric vivacity, even from his childhood, he and his master parted, by mutual consent, after being somewhat more than two years and a half together. He now, once more, directed his attentions to the arts; but the same insuperable difficulties remaining with an unexpected event, effectually destroyed all hopes of succeeding in the profession to which he had so great an inclination and propensity.

Circumstances unnecessary and painful to detail, brought immediate ruin upon the family. In this situation, he was thrown out upon the world, without profession, and almost without a friend. In this distress, a gentleman at the bar, who had married his sister, and had taken him into his house, recommended to him the study of the law; but, in this pursuit, he was unhappily prevented from prosecuting his studies in a liberal manner. He was, however, articled to an attorney, with whom he served three years and a half, which he declares to have been the most miserable period of his existence.

Disgusted with the drudgery of copying the dry cases of an attorney's office, he became more enamoured of literature. The arts and chicanery of legal oppression, he very forcibly states, with abhorrence, in his ingenious work before mentioned, of his Peripatetic. The more he saw of the profession, the more his feelings were wounded; and, much to the honour of his generous philanthropy, he has been known to give his last shilling to a poor wretched client, who had been paying his all to compromise a bill of costs. His heart was also torn by the tears and prayers of a sister and mother; the latter of whom, had no prospect of future comfort or support, but from the profits of his exertions.

To a young man of such strong passions, this struggle must have been painful beyond every thing the generality of mankind can conceive. This was even augmented by the perpetual reflection, that his aversion to his business prevented him from discharging the duty to a master, who, in many respects, commanded his esteem. This consideration, and his natural ambition, effectually turned, at last, the trembling scale of his hesitating resolution. He withdrew from the office, and prevailed upon his master to cancel their articles.

From this time Mr. Thelwall may be considered as a literary adventurer. He derived, for a time, some emolument from being a member of the Society at Coachmakers' Hall. Having collected, amid his poverty, some respectable connections, who valued him for his zeal in the cause of virtue, he was enabled to publish, by subscription, two volumes of poems, which had chiefly been written at his master's desk, instead of copying pleas and declarations.

These poems have been admitted to contain strong evidence of genius and imagination in their author; and, indeed, in his poem of the Seducer, there is displayed a considerable portion of poetic fire and versification. But, in general, they betray strong symptoms of hasty composition....