1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Thelwall

John Neal, in "Mr. Thelwall" The Yankee and Boston Literary Gazette [Portland] 2 (28 May 1829) 169.



In the month of March, 1824, Mr. Thelwall, encouraged probably by the advice of those who saw no other way of lightening a charge upon themselves, took the Haymarket Theatre, London, at a dull season of the year, and gave a course of lectures, I believe upon oratory — but whether upon oratory in general, or upon stage oratory in particular, I do not know; I only know that his remarks upon the heroes of the stage were very numerous and excellent, and that the lectures I heard were a mixture of reading, recitation, criticism, and oratory.

I attended a part of the course and I shall give here what I remember of my impressions, in the very order they occurred. In the first place, I observed that his pronunciation of several words was rather Scotch; that he gave to the "o" in "door" and "floor," the some sound we give it in "wood"' that, like most people of station there, he said "kn'w-ledge" instead of "knowledge," sounding the "o" as in the word "know" — which trivial things, I recorded at the time, and now mention here, because we are mightily perplexed between the authority of Mr. Walker, and that of Mr. Webster, on the score of English pronunciation; that he recited Sterne's Captive so as to spoil it forever — a silly piece of sentimentality at best, but never so evident to me before, as when Mr. Thelwall, by his overacted pathos, made me follow the author, step by step, through the wandering of what is rather an allegory than a brief picture thrown off with a sweep of the pen; that he gave us the death-bed speech of Warwick the King-maker, with a power that amazed me; and that he tried a soliloquy of Richard, by way of illustrating what he said of Keane and others, in such a way no to satisfy all who heard him, that knowing how it should be spoken, and speaking it, were two very different things. His opinions were sound and philosophical; his theory — for he had a theory — every body has a theory now — was rather satisfactory on the whole; but of his practice, I can only say, that I never saw any thing more deplorable.

Among others, he gave us a criticism on Byron and Scott, and compared them with Milton and Shakspeare; running a sort of parallel between the two of our day, and the two of the day that had gone by, he seemed to think, forever. This was well done. He saw clearly, and struck out the broad lines of distinction, with the hand or a surveyor. It was impossible not to agree with him, when he said of our bards, that their poetry wanted moral application. Scott gives you trees and rocks, and capital trees and rocks they are, too, said he; but there is no inbreathed sentiment among them. They leave no impression upon the heart, for the want of what Milton and Shakspeare infuse into every thing they touch — moral sentiment, and life. So with Byron. Read that "unequalled" piece of poetry — I give the very words of the lecturer now — that "best" of all his poetry, the death-chamber of Medora. You drop no tears in reading it. Your pleasure is of another sort. And why? There is nothing of that moral, which moves and awes you in the gifted of other days.