Romanticism can be linked with vitalism, idealism, and varieties of anti-materialism, but the period also gives evidence to other philosophical and scientific conceptions of the world. Yasmin Solomonescu’s John Thelwall and the Materialist Imagination (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) provides an intriguing new account of how Thelwall intended to produce “material effects on the minds and bodies of audiences in the service of sociopolitical reform” (7). Solomonescu uses the term “materialist” to convey more than a natural philosophy by extending scientific materialism to political and social life broadly conceived. I found myself particularly interested in Solomonescu’s valuable examination of the imagination. Thelwall, in an essay on Letitia Elizabeth Landon, conceives of the work of imagination in starkly sensory terms that deserve consideration in any examination of Romantic conceptions of the faculty. Solomonescu explains that Thelwall “suggests that the poet is a sort of chemist or alchemist whose imagination transforms the gross matter of ‘science’ or knowledge into something vital and sublime” (133). Imagination, in this sense, is no spiritual energy or divine echo but “the plastic vivifying heat.” In contrast to a Wordsworthian overflow of poetic inspiration, Thelwall describes imagination in material terms: “For poetry to act as a vital stimulus on the minds of others, it cannot rely on the ‘cold researches of memory,’ but must arise from the immediacy of bodily sensation and mental perception.”
I wish the discussion turned directly to the Romantic symbol as a point of dialogue. In the idea of the symbol, Wordsworth and Coleridge similarly found a language that bridged material and spiritual. As the late J. Robert Barth put the matter, the symbol draws us into encounter: “A symbol does not allow us to stand apart and look on, to have things pointed out to us, but draws us into the experience of itself, which is at the same time an experience of the poet and of the poet’s world” (Symbolic Imagination, second ed., 2001, p. 76). For Barth, symbols have a distinctly sacramental and necessarily material form. Solomonescu clearly states that her aim is not “that a materialist understanding of Romanticism ought to prevail over an idealist one” (140). Rather, she indicates that materialism and idealism enjoy a “dialogical relationship” that imbues Romantic literature with “vital power” (142). It seems to me, for one, that further attention to the idea of the symbol may help to connect the “unbridgeable aesthetic and ideological ‘chasm'” that separated Thelwall and Coleridge, no less than various interpreters of British Romanticism today.