E.P. Thompson

E.P. Thompson author of The Making of the English Working Class, was responsible for the recent study Star Wars. A collection of poems, Infant and Emperor, was published in 1983. ‘Powers and Names’ is in part prompted by Szuma Chien’s Records of the Historian (91 BC), selections from which have been translated by Yan Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang for the Foreign Languages Press, Beijing.

Benevolent Mr Godwin

E.P. Thompson, 8 July 1993

A feast for the Godwinians. First comes the handsome facsimile of the quarto first edition of Political Justice (1793) in the series edited by Jonathan Wordsworth for Woodstock Books. This series makes available facsimiles of works which were significant to the Romantic poets, and in particular to Wordsworth and Coleridge. Jonathan Wordsworth’s breezy and unpedantic introduction seeks to bring the leader into that circle at that time, so that s/he can place the two heavy volumes on a desk and be drawn into the self-satisfied philosophical benevolence and contempt for all received opinion and custom which inspired those young enthusiasts. We open them beside the solicitor’s clerk, Henry Crabb Robinson, who later recalled: ‘It made me feel more generously. I had never before, nor … have I ever since felt so strongly the duty of not living to one’s self, but of having for one’s sole duty the good of the community.’ The 1793 edition sold 3000 copies at the high price of three guineas – too pricey for the Government to worry about a prosecution. Woodstock Books will count itself fortunate if it can sell as many. At £150 it will also not be prosecuted.’

Blake’s Tone

E.P. Thompson, 28 January 1993

Just under forty years ago David Erdman provided for William Blake historical contexts in abundance in Blake: Prophet against Empire (1954). It was a remarkable work of literary detection, which still dominates the field. Some Blake readers have felt that his attribution of correspondence between text and contemporaneous events was over-literal (as well as hazardous), and Jon Mee is one of these. Mee’s contexts are less literal: they concern the characteristic rhetorics, preoccupations and discourses of the 1790s which relate to Blake’s concerns and which perhaps help us to understand them.

Wordsworth’s Crisis

E.P. Thompson, 8 December 1988

‘I am of that odious class of men called democrats,’ Wordsworth wrote to his friend William Mathews in 1794. Much the same can be said of Coleridge, on the evidence of his letters and publications of the mid-1790s. By the early decades of this century, British, French and American scholarship concurred in finding both poets to be, in the 1790s, republicans and advanced reformers, who then suffered disappointment in the course of the French Revolution and, in different ways and at different times, changed their minds. George McLean Harper’s William Wordsworth: His Life, Works and Influence (1919) set a coping-stone on the scholarship of that period.

On the Rant

E.P. Thompson, 9 July 1987

Professor J.C. Davis has written a book to show that the Ranters did not exist. There was no Ranter sect: no organisation: no acknowledged Ranter leadership. Those alleged to be leaders did not agree with each other on some points of doctrine; or they denied that they were Ranters; or they quickly recanted; or (like Laurence Clarkson, or Claxton, who acknowledged in his autobiographical The Lost Sheep Found that he had been known as the ‘Captain of the Rant’) might have been falsifying their own record for the sake of better setting off their new convictions (Clarkson had become a Muggletonian). Accusations of drinking, swearing and sexual libertinism against the Ranters can be dismissed as the lampoons of opponents or the sensationalism of the ‘yellowpress’. Accounts of Ranter beliefs and practices coming from Quakers, Baptists and other observers are valueless as evidence, being doctrinal polemics or lampoons. Davis demonstrates all this with tedious repetition and a swaggering pretence of rigour. He rounds it off with sixty pages of reprints from the worthless and salacious ‘yellowpress’ anti-Ranter tracts. This is like tying a large lead weight to the neck of whatever weakling kitten of the imagination has survived immersion in the tedium of his text, and sinking it finally to the bottom of the pond.

Diary: On the NHS

E.P. Thompson, 7 May 1987

Thales, according to gossipy Plato, was walking abstractedly, watching the stars, when he fell into a well. I did that a few weeks ago, being preoccupied with the most elevated thoughts when I suddenly found myself lying at the bottom of the well of the NHS. This made me think about several things which no doubt have long been blindingly obvious to fellow citizens who keep their eyes closer to the ground.

Subduing the jury

E.P. Thompson, 18 December 1986

In the previous article we discussed the unusual concern of the past 14 years to ‘strengthen’ (or subdue) jury practices, some of which date back hundreds of years. There has always been another resource of jury ‘strengthening’, which is jury-packing. A disquisition on this ancient British practice would require a further essay, much longer than the present one. Jury-vetting is not the same thing as jury-packing, although the first may prepare for the second. Whether packing does or could take place in contemporary English practice is a matter remarkably obscure. The Police may properly inspect the panel against their records, in order to remove disqualified persons, and in the course of this scrutiny much other information will come to light, which may or may not be passed on privily to the clerk of the court or to the prosecution. Of one thing we may be certain: the current monitoring of practice by the Director of Public Prosecutions (reported in Command Paper 9658) will tell us nothing that the Police (or ACPO) does not wish the public to know.

Subduing the jury

E.P. Thompson, 4 December 1986

It was nice to be awoken on 12 November by the BBC informing us that the Queen’s Speech would announce measures ‘to strengthen the jury system’. It is, after all, a very ancient English institution for which we feel a ritualistic affection. And it is good to know that our betters are taking care of it.’

Before Sir John Deodoran, Magus of the Scrolls, Lord Justice Clam and Lord Justice Null.

Law Reporter: E.P. Thompson

The Court of Appeal enforced circumlocutory injunctions restraining the Fourth Estate from publishing whatever any judge had injuncted, whether it had already been universally published or no. The greater part of the submissions were heard in camera and the Court injuncted...

Memories of Tagore

E.P. Thompson, 22 May 1986

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the 125th anniversary of whose birth is being celebrated by a series of festival events in London this month, returned to Bengal in September 1913 after a triumphant spell in England. Sir William Rothenstein had introduced him to English literary and artistic circles in the course of the previous year. His own prose versions of some of his poems, entitled Gitanjali, with a prefatory essay by W.B. Yeats, had met with instant acclaim, and Macmillan were hurrying out successor volumes, including The Gardener. Scholars and critics continue to argue how far these ‘translations’ established his reputation or led to misrecognitions. Mary Lago’s Imperfect Encounter (1972) is one gate-of-entry into these problems of mismatch between the expectations of Western Orientalism and of Eastern Occidentalism, both of which Tagore confounded.

Poem: ‘Powers and Names’

E.P. Thompson, 23 January 1986

(With apologies to Szuma Chien)

      You have the power to name:       Naming gives power over all. But who will name the power to name?                 Asked the oracle.


Like a silkworm on a mulberry leaf The unmannerly earth Gnawed at the edge...


Wordsworth’s Crisis

8 December 1988

No, there wasn’t ‘a very considerable Cambridge element’ leading the London Corresponding Society. This is clear from the Society’s minutes and papers. Nicholas Roe (Letters, 16 February) has found his Cambridge alumni on an ad hoc committee which was set up to raise funds for the victims of the Treason Trials. Probably William Frend, who was certainly a warm supporter of the...

On the rant

9 July 1987

SIR: My review of Fear, Myth and History (LRB, 9 July) was not a political polemic but a defence of history against ideology. Ninety-five per cent of the review – which neither Davis nor Scott (Letters, 17 September) address – concerned substantive questions of the Ranters and of the antinomian tradition; 5 per cent of rhetorical political ornaments provoked by J.C. Davis’s own leaden...

Seconds Away

8 January 1987

SIR: Why does Wayland Kennet (Letters, 19 March) continue to write about END and Eastern Europe, when he clearly hasn’t bothered to find out? END has had several years of close and continuing dialogue with Charter 77, Polish ‘Peace and Freedom’ and many other groups. Of course END is ‘unilateralist’ in the sense of CND’s founding policies (see Sheila Jones –...

Convenient Death of a Hero

Arnold Rattenbury, 8 May 1997

E.P. Thompson, historian and peacemaker, known as Edward to his friends, died at his home near Worcester in 1993. Four years on, Beyond the Frontier is a volume of material set aside far earlier....

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Bankura’s Englishman

Amit Chaudhuri, 23 September 1993

Two Englishmen spring to mind in connection with Tagore: C.F. Andrews and W.W. Pearson. Andrews, with his further association with Gandhi, looms now and then in Indian history books and national...

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John Homer’s Odyssey

Claude Rawson, 9 January 1992

Edward Thompson’s Customs in Common is described as a ‘companion volume’ to his The Making of the English Working Class, and rises to the occasion. It has the wide range of...

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Final Jam

Michael Irwin, 2 June 1988

It isn’t easy to describe this Protean work, but the 18th-century flavour of the title page offers a useful preliminary hint. Essentially the story is an inversion of Gulliver’s...

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Total Solutions

Alan Brinkley, 18 July 1985

About ten years ago, I heard Edward Thompson give a public lecture at Harvard University. He was not then an internationally renowned spokesman for the peace movement: there was at that point no...

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The End of the Future

Jeff McMahan, 1 July 1982

The Reagan Administration’s bellicose posturing and its apparent relish for the Cold War have finally succeeded in rousing Americans to an awareness of the danger of nuclear war. But, while...

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Counting weapons

Rudolf Peierls, 5 March 1981

Nuclear weapons, and the knowledge of the horrors they are capable of producing, have been with us for 35 years. We might be tempted to let familiarity blunt the impact of these facts on our...

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English Marxists in dispute

Roy Porter, 17 July 1980

The Englishness of English historians lies in their eclecticism. Few would admit to being unswerving Marxists, Freudians, Structuralists, Cliometricians, Namierites, or even Whigs. Most believe...

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