1808 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Chatterton

Samuel Jackson Pratt, in Cabinet of Poetry (1808) 5:432-33.



The life of Thomas Chatterton, short and unfortunate as it was, has been written with an amplitude of research, and a minuteness of inquiry, which few literary characters have enjoyed. The talents he displayed, which were unquestionably of the best order, the disguises he assumed, his melancholy fate, all conspired to interest his cotemporaries, nor is it likely that posterity will neglect his fame.

Chatterton, "the Boy of Bristol," as he has been called, was born November 20, 1752. His family for some generations had been sextons of St. Mary, Redcliffe, in Bristol, and his father died master of a free-school in Pyle-street, before the birth of this prodigy. To the premature loss of his father may be ascribed some of the eccentricities and irregularities of his future conduct. His mother indeed was not inattentive to his education; but it cannot be supposed that she possessed sufficient influence over a boy of his daring genius. It seems she taught him to read from an old black-letter Bible; and this probably gave him a taste for antiquities, and made him conceive the idea of publishing under the name of Thomas Rowley, a supposed monk of the fifteenth century, and a friend of Mr. William Canyngne, merchant in Bristol, who had been a considerable benefactor to the place, a variety of compositions, which were undoubtedly the produce of his own astonishing genius, as they were infinitely superior to any thing that age could produce.

It is impossible to go through all the deceptions of Chatterton respecting manuscript parchments found in Canynge's coffer in Redcliffe church, and which he manufactured himself. Suffice it to say, that after spending some time as clerk to an attorney, and pursuing his studies with an assiduity that has no parallel, in an evil hour he was tempted to try his fortune in the metropolis, encouraged by offers and promises from some mercenary booksellers. For a short time his diligence, and the versatility of his talents, kept him above want; but failing to obtain any permanent situation, and his extravagance keeping pace with his exertions, and his pride being even paramount to his talents,

The furies wrung his agonizing soul,
And desperation mix'd the Stygian bowl.

In fact, he committed suicide, by swallowing a solution of arsenic, on the 24th of August, 1770, and died in consequence thereof next day, aged seventeen years and nine months. His remains were interred in the burying-ground of Shoe-lane workhouse; and those who neglected him while living, united with the public in regretting him when dead.

We have given some specimens of his avowed poetical compositions; but his fame chiefly rests on the fictitious Rowley. In a word, he was a perfect phenomenon; and had he lived to maturity, and acted with prudence, he was likely to have become one of the most distinguished honours of the country that produced him.

"Over his death, for the sake of humanity" says Mr. Croft, "I would willingly draw a veil; but this must not be. They who are in a condition to patronise merit, and they who feel a consciousness of merit which is not patronised, may form their own resolutions from the catastrophe of his tale; those, to lose no opportunity of befriending genius; these, to seize every opportunity of befriending themselves, and upon no account to harbour the most distant idea of quitting this world, however it may be unworthy of them, lest despondency should at last deceive them into so unpardonable a step."

Whatever unfinished pieces he might have, he cautiously destroyed them before his death; and his room, when broken open, was found covered with little scraps of paper.