John Thelwall’s Summer Study

Ruins and greenery, labeled 2004 and 2019

Contributor: Judith Thompson

Location: Ty Mawr, Llyswen, Wales LD3 0UU

Description: This site brings together two iconic romantic objects, a waterfall and a hermitage. They are the more Romantically compelling because both are in ruins, remote and hidden from the public eye, part of a mysterious history only recently and partially recovered, and at the heart of a landscape associated with Druids and legends of King Arthur. Located in the village of Llyswen, Wales, overlooking the Wye River below the Black Mountains, they were built by John Thelwall, romantic radical and acquitted felon, poet and polymath, and the original of Wordsworth’s “Recluse.”

Reclusive hermits and dashing waterfalls have a long association in Romantic-era literature and culture, as Jonathan Falla has shown. Together and apart, they epitomize the neo-gothic sensibility that defined the age, associated with outlaws and bards in northern and border regions, but also stock features of late eighteenth-century landscape aesthetics and fashionable tourism, part of the process of constructing a British nation by assimilating and commodifying its margins. But Thelwall’s was neither the fashionable folly of a propertied dilettante nor the residence of a professional hermit; instead it was a labour of love by an eccentric exile and activist, a retreat for a notorious Jacobin fox-on-the-run, and a place to seek and test philosophies of revolutionary hope and renewal he shared with the poets Coleridge and Wordsworth. In fact, in both cultivating the persona of “New Recluse” and building his modest hermitage and waterfall, he was directly inspired by his friends, and inspired them in turn.

No sooner did Thelwall and his family arrive at Llyswen in fall 1797, fleeing government persecution, mob violence, spies and informers, than with “hobbyhorsical industry” he set out to build “a cascade of 8 or 9 feet height” and “a rude hermitage (a sequestered summer study) in the dingle beneath.” He was attempting to reproduce the “wild romantic dell” in the Quantocks that he had just visited (Thelwall, “Letters”), where he had hoped to stay, a site immortalized by Coleridge in “This Lime Tree Bower” as a symbol of the redemptive power of imagination: a “still roaring dell … o’er wooded, narrow, deep” where “leaves tremble / Fann’d by the water-fall!” Thelwall had experienced that “enchanting retreat” as an intellectual nerve centre, a dynamic nexus of political discussion, poetic enthusiasm and philosophic tranquility. These discussions sparked a rivalry between Wordsworth’s Recluse, Coleridge’s The Brook and Thelwall’s own The Hope of Albion, three unfinished epics that capture the shaping spirit of early Romanticism in their attempt to maintain and extend revolutionary political ideals. Thelwall the Recluse continued their poetic conversation in the copious fiction, drama, poetry and nature-writing he produced in his Welsh hermitage, where his friends visited him in 1798, describing it as a “little turf-built seat” nestled in an angle of rock and mossy wall, and roofed with sod (of which only the wall and “semicirque” foundation now remain) (Wordsworth, The Excursion).

But it is the 8-9 foot cascade, descending into “a pretty little brook buddling & babbling” (Thelwall, “Letters”) to embrace the hermitage before emptying into the Wye, that is the most important element of this romantic landscape, as it feeds from and empties into other poetical springs and falls, symbol of secret sources that rise when least expected to sustain hope and bring redemption. This is seen most clearly in the Arthurian dramatic romance The Fairy of the Lake, companion piece to the epic that Thelwall composed in his sequestered summer study. In it, he incorporates elements of the landscape around Llyswen in the Fairy herself, her songs and her underwater grotto, drawing on local landmarks and legends of a sunken palace beneath a mountain tarn nearby. She is the dea ex machina of the play, a deeply powerful, deeply feminine spirit of water who rises “gushing and rushing” from “secret veins” and “bubbling fonts” (Thelwall, The Fairy of the Lake) to bring about a resolution in which tyranny and torment are overcome in a marriage of male and female principles, history and nature, metaphysics and materialism, Norse and Celtic mythology, Coleridgean imaginative vision and Thelwallian political voice. This poetry anticipates and combines the fluent lyricism of Coleridge, Smith and Robinson with the tumbling wordplay of Southey’s “Lodore,” Scott’s regional and revisionary antiquarianism and Shelley’s creative feminine spirits.

Like The Fairy of the Lake and The Hope of Albion, Thelwall’s hermitage and waterfall have long been dwarfed by the public torrents of his romantic contemporaries, but they have survived and are now being maintained. On first discovery in 2004, the ruins were completely overgrown with tangled greenery, giving them a fairytale quality that aptly evoked the magical stories written there. More recently, a new owner has attentively landscaped the property; the hermitage has been cleared and, like the waterfall (badly damaged in the floods of 2015), is being rebuilt in memory of Thelwall: a welcome sign of the radical revival—poetic, political, philosophical and environmental—in which Thelwall never lost faith.

Date: 1798

Creator: built by John Thelwall on his farm

Subject: John Thelwall (1764-1834); Romantic Landscapes

Media rights: photos taken by Judith Thompson, with permission of the landowner

Object type: ruin of stone structure and waterfall

Format: stone and water

Related objects: Ossian’s Hall


Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (1797), “This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison,” in The Portable Coleridge, ed. I.A. Richards. (Middlesex: Penguin, 1950), p. 76. [or]

Thelwall, John, Letters (1797-98), in Presences that Disturb: Models of Romantic Identity in the Literature and Culture of the 1790s, by Damian Walford Davies. (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2002), pp. 285-329.

Thelwall, John, The Fairy of the Lake (1798), in his Poems Chiefly Written in Retirement. (Hereford 1801; rpt Woodstock, ), pp. 86, 90-91. [or]

Wordsworth, William, The Excursion, in Wordsworth: Poetical Works, ed. E. de Selincourt, (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 608, 614. [or]