Coleridge in Wales at the Hay Literary Festival: Walking with Coleridge, Wordsworth and Thelwall

by Elsa Hammond

‘What has Coleridge got to do with Wales?’ This was the question most frequently posed by interested audience members, participants, walkers, and passers-by during the Coleridge in Wales events at the Hay Literary Festival this year.
In June 1794 Coleridge departed Cambridge to spend the summer on a walking tour of Wales. He stopped off in Oxford, and left buoyed after three weeks with his new friend Robert Southey, hatching Pantisocratic plans and dreaming of a new, just society together. Covering more than 600 miles in under two months, Coleridge and his walking companion, Joseph Hucks, climbed mountains, drank and discussed politics with the locals. Coleridge wrote poetry, notebook entries and letters along the way, and Hucks published an account of the journey in A Pedestrian Tour through North Wales in a Series of Letters the next year. Coleridge would “dart into Wales” again in 1798, to visit John Thelwall with Dorothy and William Wordsworth. However, he was particularly struck by this first uninterrupted experience of the Welsh landscape in 1794, and, as Richard Holmes observes in his biography, “for the first time [he] showed his passionate response to wild nature”.
Coleridge in Wales is an ambitious, exciting project, involving an 80-day journey around Wales and an extensive (and growing) programme of talks, events, conferences, collaborations, performances, readings, walks and swims. Inspired by Coleridge’s own travels through Wales and masterminded by classical singer and facilitator Richard Parry, it is a celebration of community, landscape and culture, and an ongoing conversation about Coleridge’s life and works. I joined the project as a journey-maker and travel writer with a personal and academic interest in Coleridge, and arrived in Pandy (16 miles from Hay-on-Wye on the English-Welsh border) to speak about my own experiences of solitude at sea in relation to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and to co-lead a walk over Hay Bluff as part of the Hay Festival.

Descending Hay Bluff (Coleridge in Wales)

Descending Hay Bluff (Coleridge in Wales)

After a rich evening of stories, discussion, poetry and song in Pandy, the morning of the walk saw an eclectic group – including a clockmaker, singers, poets, students, academics and Cardiff Metropolitan University artists Chris Glynn and Dan Peterson meet to hike the 16 miles to Hay along the Offa’s Dyke Path. One of the UK national trails, Offa’s Dyke path is 177 miles long, named after the dyke ordered by King Offa in the 8th century, and thought to have been built to divide his Kingdom of Mercia from rival kingdoms.
It was a hazy day, sunny but not too bright, and just right for walking. After crossing a rough field we had a steepish ascent up a small road, then a trackway, before arriving at the top of the ridge, which we stayed with throughout the day. The heather was not yet in bloom, but at one point we saw a red kite, and a little later a skylark sang loudly above us. In true Coleridgean diversity, conversation ranged from mountain navigation, to art, to ornithology, to humanitarian crises.
Foolishly, I had not taken quite as much water with me as I ended up needing (the day being particularly dry), but I reminded myself that Coleridge himself had encountered the same problem more than once during his tour of Wales. One of these episodes apparently inspired the gruesome moment of quenching intense thirst in Part III of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, after the ship has become becalmed in the doldrums:

With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,
We could nor laugh nor wail;
Through utter drought all dumb we stood!
I bit my arm, I sucked the blood,
And cried, A sail! a sail!

With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,
Agape they heard me call:
Gramercy! they for joy did grin,
And all at once their breath drew in.
As they were drinking all.

Years later, in 1830, Coleridge would recall the incident: “I took the thought of ‘grinning for joy’ in that poem from a friend’s remark to me, when we had climbed to the top of Plinlimmon [Penmaenmawr] and were nearly dead with thirst. We could not speak from the constriction, till we found a little puddle under a stone”. Earlier in the tour, he had written of a similar instance (in a letter to Southey on July 13, 1794): “From Llanvunnog we walked over the mountains to Bala – most sublimely terrible! It was scorchingly hot – I applied my mouth ever and anon to the side of the Rocks and sucked in drafts of Water cold as Ice”. Rather more prosaically, I accepted some extra water from kindly walking companions.
Coming down from Hay Bluff (677m) we followed the path through a few more miles of farmland, negotiating groups of cows with young calves, and wading through fields full of buttercups, which covered my boots with a yellowish-green veneer. It had been a long day, and we only just made it to the festival in time for the Coleridge in Wales talk; without stopping, we walked into Hay village, along the road to the festival site and onto the stage, with all the sweat and dust of the mountain to add an authentic element to the event.

Walking into Hay (Coleridge in Wales)

Walking into Hay (Coleridge in Wales)

The second day of Coleridge in Wales at the Hay Festival saw Richard Parry and eighteenth-century historian Penelope Corfield (Royal Holloway, London University) lead a walk from Glasbury, near Hay-on-Wye, to Llyswen in the steps of Wordsworth, Coleridge and John Thelwall. After visiting Coleridge and Wordsworth in Somerset in the summer of 1797, Thelwall went in search of his own simple retreat, finally settling at Ty Mawr in Llyswen where he lived, farmed and wrote between 1797 and 1801. He was visited there by Coleridge and the Wordsworths in 1798.
A mile or so into the walk our small band of writers, artists and academics were treated to an impromptu reading of Thelwall’s ‘The Phenomena of the Wye during the Winter of 1797-8’ by Steve Poole, Professor of History and Heritage at the University of the West of England.

 Steve Poole reading Thelwall on the banks of the Wye (Steve Poole)

Steve Poole reading Thelwall on the banks of the Wye (Steve Poole)

Thelwall had written this essay for the Monthly Magazine in March 1798, reflecting on his first winter at Llyswen and on the beauty of the Wye: “you might even fell every tree, and exterminate every shrub, without destroying the sublimity, or even the beauty of the scene; for the river and the mountains would still remain, the solid features of the landscape would be yet unaltered”.

The Wye (Steve Poole)

The Wye (Steve Poole)

Sitting on the banks of the Wye amid the green lushness of May, we found it difficult to imagine the landscape stripped of all vegetation. Richard decided to follow the reading with a powerful rendition of ‘Rolling in foaming billows’ from Haydn’s Creation, which describes the emergence of rocks and mountains on the earth before the existence of any flora.
On our arrival at Ty Mawr Penelope described how the house had been changed and extended since Thelwall had lived there. The current occupant kindly allowed us all to tramp through the old timber front door, which, despite having been moved from the other side of the house, was the door that would have been used by Thelwall, as well as by Coleridge and the Wordsworths when they visited.
The owner of Ty Mawr had also told Coleridge in Wales that this was the best place on the Wye for swimming, so I thought that it would be a shame not to test it out. Refreshing and not too cold (I estimated it to be around 12 degrees), we could swim to the shingle beach on the other side and look back at the steep bank and up towards the house. Two of us swam, and others dipped their feet in the fresh but cloudy water, which had been stirred up by a dramatic thunderstorm the night before. After swimming we were even treated to a shower in (the extended part of) Thelwall’s house, before heading back to the village hall for lunch and drinks (generously sponsored by the John Thelwall Society).

The swim (Steve Poole)

The swim (Steve Poole)

Over the remains of our picnic, we heard poetry declaimed in character by ‘Coleridge’ (Richard Parry), ‘Thelwall’ (Steve Poole), and ‘Wordsworth’ (Penelope Corfield), which complemented the conversations that we had been having. At the end of the event, Richard left on his bicycle to continue with Day 16 of the Coleridge in Wales journey and the rest of us headed back to Hay before dispersing back to normality.
Although the ostensible reason that walk participants might have chosen to get involved with Coleridge in Wales at the Hay Festival was to find more about Coleridge and to experience the type of landscape through which he travelled when visiting Wales, it also provided space for wide-ranging discussion. It was a fascinating event to be part of, and I look forward to the further collaborative events, research and writing that are likely to grow out of the connections that were established in the fields and rivers of Wales.

You can follow a good deal of the walk by following the relevant parts of the Offa’s Dyke Path here
Elsa HammondElsa Hammond is a PhD candidate at the University of Bristol, working on breath and death in the poetry of Coleridge, Tennyson and Hardy. She also writes poetry and is an award-winning travel writer, and journey-maker. She tweets about literature, nature, education and adventure @ElsaAHammond

John Thelwall and the idea of democracy

by Geoffrey Bindman
John Thelwall (1764-1834), was a friend of both Wordsworth and Coleridge, and one of the most radical political activists of his day. That radicalism was stimulated by his knowledge of English history and wide reading in philosophy and literature. He claimed to have been inspired by the prominent campaigner for political reform, Horne Tooke, whom he met in 1790, when Thelwall was already 26 years old, but it is clear that his political education had started much earlier. We know of his regular attendance at the debating clubs which flourished in his youth in London, particularly at the ‘Society for Free Debate’, which met at the Coachmakers’ Hall until it was closed by Pitt’s bully boys. Thelwall also spent three and a half years, between the ages of 18 and 22,  articled to an attorney in the Temple. His legal training alerted him to the great constitutional struggles of the past. Certainly it gave him a highly sceptical view of the profession. “Lawyers,” he said later in life, “have spread more devastation through the moral world than the Goths and Vandals who overthrew the Roman Empire”.

In the debates at Coachmakers’ Hall, Thelwall developed strong support for democratic reform, though he explained that he came to this view only by degrees, after careful study. He spoke eloquently against the slave trade. He spoke out for freedom of speech. He was energised by what was happening in France, not, according to his wife’s biography, by the triumph of an enraged populace over a military despotism, but by what he saw as an unprecedented attempt to form a government based on principles of reason and humanity.“Not upon expedients,” as  he put it, “but upon digested principles”.  Here we see an early attachment to human rights, before the concept achieved widespread usage. Thelwall contrasted an idealistic approach with the corruption of the British government and of the electoral process itself. He became active in  a bitter conflict in the parliamentary election for the Westminster constituency. This was one of the few in which there was real popular participation. All those who paid the parish rates had the vote. Elsewhere, elections were in ‘rotten boroughs’ where a single landowner cast the only votes. In growing industrial cities like Birmingham there were no elections at all. At Westminster in 1790 a deal was done between Whigs and Tories which would have made the election a sham, eliminating any democratic choice. Horne Tooke’s outrage led him to stand as a candidate. Thelwall met him and fell under his spell, describing him as “the first man of capacious and highly cultivated mind with whom he had ever been intimate.” Thelwall became his assistant in the election campaign and “modelled his style on Tooke who, while advocating lawful peaceful methods, used violent, emotive, rhetoric”.

2015 marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, and for Thelwall, one of its most important features was the limits it placed on the autocratic power of the monarchy, though for many centuries successive monarchs fought to retain supremacy and cement their power.  The law of treason was formalised in the Statute of Treasons of 1351, which stated that the cardinal offence was “compassing or imagining the death of the King”. In the following centuries many prosecutions were brought for treason against those who sought to challenge or usurp the authority of the Crown. As time went on, the definition of treason was subtly stretched. For example, advocating constitutional change was considered indirect or ‘constructive’ treason. Even Charles 1st, paradoxically, was executed for high treason in 1649.

From about 1780, organisations began to be established to urge political reform. The aim was to expand the suffrage and increase the frequency of elections. The Society of Constitutional Information was formed in that year, and a London Revolutionary Society was formed in 1788 to commemorate the centenary of the Bill of Rights of 1689. These stirrings of discontent made little impact on Parliament itself. In 1785, William Pitt himself  had introduced a motion for reform which had been rejected almost without debate. In 1792, by which time the French revolution had caused consternation among the ruling elite, the London Corresponding Society was founded by Thomas Hardy, a Piccadilly shoemaker. This was arguably the first working-class political organisation. Thelwall became an early member and soon achieved prominence by his powerful oratory and charismatic energy. Pitt and his colleagues in government  perceived Thelwall, Hardy, Horne Tooke and the others as a threat. They saw them – to quote a commentator – as “wretches, vagabonds, and evil-minded men who were inflaming the minds of the ignorant, secretly providing them with arms, seditiously plotting to destroy the government of king, Lords and Commons in order to replace the constitution with French anarchy.”

It is at this point that the struggle for democracy confronts the claim of the monarch and parliamentary leaders to absolute authority.  Thelwall and his colleagues now found themselves at the centre of that debate, with their very lives at stake.

Remember that all they had done was to campaign for peaceful change, to be debated in a national convention, so that the people could choose their rulers. No one seriously threatened to kill the king. By charging them with high treason, the government raised the stakes. Those convicted could be hanged, drawn and quartered.

Unsurprisingly, the government thought it was on solid ground. When the judge, Sir James Eyre, invited to Grand Jury to indict Thelwall and his co-accused, this brought forth a powerful response from William Godwin, whose defence of the right to freedom of expression was widely published and may have influenced the jury to reject Eyre’s opinion and find the accused not guilty.

In effect the jury which acquitted Hardy, Tooke and Thelwall saved Britain from a legal regime in which democratic debate and the free expression of political opinion was permanently stifled. Thelwall played a vital role in achieving this result. Though he spurned the legal profession, he  understood the root of the problem better than the lawyers and judges. It is his biggest contribution to democracy.

After his acquittal, Thelwall did not give up the fight. The government had been humiliated by the acquittal and would have been delighted to find a pretext for locking up the Corresponding Society leaders again. Before the verdict the society’s membership had gone down from about 800 to a third of that number, but after the acquittals membership rose by up to 200 recruits a week until it reached a peak of about 3000. Thelwall was extremely active after his release – he gave public lectures and speeches and published them in his periodical Tribune. Then in October there was a dramatic development. It was the day of the state opening of Parliament. As a result of the war with France, food prices had soared and there was near famine   There were rumours that the King was going to announce increased taxation to pay for the war. Crowds gathered and stones were thrown at the King’s coach, breaking one or two windows but not harming any of the occupants. This was the government’s excuse for a crackdown. New legislation was introduced – the Treasonable Practices Bill and the Seditious Meetings Bill –  to restrict publications advocating reform and ban public  meetings in opposition to the government.

But Thelwall clearly did not want to repeat his experience in the criminal courts. Though for some time he continued to give lectures throughout the country, he disguised their political topicality by choosing subjects from Roman history. Eventually he made his peace with the legal system by abandoning political campaigning, retiring to a smallholding in Wales and devoting his intellectual energy to poetry and elocution. In 1795, it should be noted, he was still only 31 years old.

While Thelwall’s greatest practical contribution to democracy remains the defeat of Pitt’s quest for absolutism in the treason trials, his contribution to democratic  reform was broader. In his speeches and writings, he constantly attacked the violations of civil liberties and human rights which resulted from the government’s efforts to protect its power… Thelwall continually attacked arbitrary detention, the activities of government spies and informers, and all restrictions on freedom of expression.  Yet Thelwall never had formal political power and could only promote change by the force of his oratory and his writings.

Sadly we  know less of Thelwall in the 40 years of his life after the treason trial. That period covered a further long period of government repression after the Napoleonic wars, culminating in the Peterloo massacre of1819. And yet apart from the continuing influence of his writings and his personal example, Thelwall’s impact on future events was slight. In the 1820s he became the owner and main writer of a newspaper, the Champion, which covered contemporary politics, but he seems to have been much more interested in poetry and literature. “For poetry”, he says of himself in the preface to his collection of extracts from the Champion,  “was the first passion of his soul.”

Thelwall’s battle for the rights of man and woman was an important episode in the long development of human rights law in Britain and internationally. The challenges to human rights may differ in detail in each generation but the same themes recur, especially the fundamental conflict between government and governed. In that struggle we have much to learn from John Thelwall.

Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC is a fellow and former trustee of the Wordsworth Trust. The Bindman collection of Romantic literature is one of the treasures of the collection, and Bindman talks are given at Grasmere every year. Geoffrey founded the Bindmans law firSir-Geoffrey-Bindmam in 1974, and throughout his long and distinguished legal career, has specialised in civil liberty and human rights issues.