1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Chatterton

Thomas Campbell, in Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 494-97.



THOMAS CHATTERTON was the posthumous child of the master of a free-school in Bristol. At five years of age he was sent to the same school which his father had taught; but he made so little improvement that his mother took him back, nor could he be induced to learn his letters till his attention had been accidentally struck by the illuminated capitals of a French musical MS. His mother afterward taught him to read from an old black-letter Bible. One of his biographers has expressed surprise that a person in his mother's rank of life should have been acquainted with black-letter. The writer might have known that books of the ancient type continued to be read in that rank of life long after they had ceased to he used by persons of higher station. At the age of eight he was put to a charity-school in Bristol, where he was instructed in reading, writing, and arithmetic. From his tenth year he discovered an extraordinary passion for books; and before he was twelve, had perused about seventy volumes, chiefly on history and divinity. The prematurity of his mind, at the latter period, was so strongly marked in a serious and religious cast of thought, all to induce the bishop to confirm him, and admit him to the sacrament at that early age. His piety, however, was not of long duration. He had also written some verses sufficiently wonderful for his years and had picked up some knowledge of music and drawing, when, at the age of fourteen, he was bound apprentice to a Mr. Lambert, a scrivener, in his native city. In Mr. Lambert's house his situation was very humble; he ate with the servants, and slept in the same room with the footboy; but his employments left him many hours of leisure for reading, and these he devoted to acquiring a knowledge of English antiquities and obsolete language, which, together with his poetical ingenuity, proved sufficient for his Rowleian fabrications.

It was in the year 1768 that he first attracted attention. On the occasion of the new bridge of Bristol being opened, he sent to Farley's Journal, in that city, a letter, signed Dunhelmus Bristoliensis, containing an account of a procession of friars, and of other ceremonies which had taken place, at a remote period, when the old bridge had been opened. Tho account was said to be taken from an ancient MS. Curiosity was instantly excited and the sages of Bristol, with a spirit of barbarism which the monks and friars of the fifteenth century could not easily have rivalled, having traced the letter to Chatterton, interrogated him, with threats, about the original. Boy as he was, he haughtily refused to explain upon compulsion, but by milder treatment was brought to state, that he had found the MS. in his mother's house. The true part of the history of those ancient papers, from which he pretended to have derived this original of Farley's letter, as well as his subsequent poetical treasures, was, that in the muniment-room of St Mary Redcliffe Church, of Bristol, several chests had been anciently deposited, among which was one called the "Cofre" of Mr. Canynge, an eminent merchant of Bristol, who had rebuilt the church in the reign of Edward IV. About the year 1727 those chests had been broken open by an order from proper authority: some ancient deeds had been taken out, and the remaining MSS left exposed, as of no value. Chatterton's father, whose uncle was sexton of the church, had carried off great numbers of the parchments, and had used them as covers for books in his school. Amidst the residue of his father's ravages, Chatterton gave out that he had found many writings of Mr. Canynge, and of Thomas Rowley, (the friend of Canynge,) a priest of the fifteenth century. The rumour of his discoveries occasioned his acquaintance to be sought by a few individuals of Bristol, to whom he made presents of vellum MSS. of professed antiquity. The first who applied to him was a Mr. Catcott who obtained from him the Bristowe Tragedy and Rowley's Epitaph on Canynge's ancestor. Mr. Barret, a surgeon, who was writing a history of Bristol, was also presented with some of the poetry of Rowley; and Mr. Burgum, a pewterer, was favoured with the Romaunt of the Knyghte, a poem, said by Chatterton to have been written by the pewterer's ancestor, John de Berghum, about 450 years before. The believing presentees, in return, supplied him with small sums of money, sent him books, and introduced him into society. Mr. Barret even gave him a few slight instructions in his own profession. Chatterton's spirit and ambition perceptibly increased; and he used to talk to his mother and sisters of his prospects of fame and fortune, always promising that they should be partakers in his success.

Having deceived several incompetent judges with regard to his MSS. he next ventured to address himself to Horace Walpole, to whom he sent a letter, offering to supply him with an account of a series of eminent painters, who had flourished at Bristol. Walpole returned a polite answer, desiring further information; on which Chatterton transmitted to him some of his Rowleian poetry, described his own servile situation, and requested the patronage of his correspondent. The virtuoso, however, having shown the poetical specimens to Gray and Mason, who pronounced them to be forgeries, sent the youth a cold reply, advising him to apply to the business of his profession. Walpole set out soon after for Paris, and neglected to return the MSS. till they had been twice demanded back by Chatterton; the second time in a very indignant letter. On these circumstances was founded the whole charge that was brought against Walpole, of blighting the prospects, and eventually contributing to the ruin of the youthful genius. Whatever may be thought of some expressions respecting Chatterton, which Walpole employed in the explanation of the affair which he afterward published, the idea of taxing him with criminality in neglecting him was manifestly unjust. But in all cases of misfortune the first consolation to which human nature resorts, is, right or wrong, to find somebody to blame, and an evil seems to be half cured when it is traced to an object of indignation.

In the mean time Chatterton had commenced a correspondence with the Town and Country Magazine in London, to which he transmitted several communications on subjects relating to English antiquities, besides his specimens of Rowley's poetry, and fragments, purporting to be translations of Saxon poem, written in the measured prose of Macpherson's style. His poetical talent also continued to develop itself in several pieces of verse, avowedly original, though in a manner less pleasing than in his feigned relics of the Gothic Muse. When we conceive the inspired boy transporting himself in imagination back to the days of his fictitious Rowley, embodying his ideal character, and giving to airy nothing a "local habitation and a name," we may forget the impostor in the enthusiast, and forgive the falsehood of his reverie for its beauty and ingenuity. One of his companions has described the air of rapture and inspiration with which he used to repeat his passages from Rowley, and the delight which he took to contemplate the church of St. Mary Redcliffe, while it awoke the associations of antiquity in his romantic mind. There was one spot in particular, full in view of the church, where he would often lay himself down, and fix his eyes, as it were, in a trance. On Sundays as long as daylight lasted, he would walk along in the country around Bristol, taking drawings of churches, or other objects that struck his imagination. The romance of his character is somewhat disenchanted when we find him in his satire of Kew Gardens, which he wrote before leaving Bristol, indulging in the vulgar scandal of the day, upon the characters of the Princess Dowager of Wales and Lord Bute; whatever proofs such a production may afford of the quickness and versatility of his talents.

As he had not exactly followed Horace Walpole's advice with regard to moulding his inclinations to business, he felt the irksomeness of his situation in Mr. Lambert's office at last intolerable; and he vehemently solicited and obtained the attorney's consent to release him from his apprenticeship. His master is said to have been alarmed into this concession by the hints which Chatterton gave of his intention to destroy himself; but even without this fear, Mr. Lambert could have no great motive to detain so reluctant an apprentice, from the hopes of his future services.

In the month of April 1770, Chatterton arrived in London, aged seventeen years and five months. He immediately received from the booksellers, with whom he had already corresponded, several important literary engagements. He projected a History of England, and a History of London, wrote for the magazines and newspapers, and contributed songs for the public gardens. But party politics soon became his favourite object, as they flattered his self-importance, and were likely to give the most lucrative employment to his pen. His introduction to one or two individuals, who noticed him on this account, seems to have filled his ardent and sanguine fancy with unbounded prospects of success. Among these acquaintances was the Lord Mayor Beckford, and it is not unlikely, if that magistrate had not died soon after, that Chatterton might have found a patron. His death, however, and a little experience, put an end to the young adventurer's hopes of making his fortune by writing in hostility to government; and with great accommodation of principle he addressed a letter to Lord North, in praise of his administration. There was perhaps more levity than profligacy in this tergiversation: though it must be owned that it was not the levity of an ingenuous boy.

During the few months of his existence in London his letters to his mother and sister, which were always accompanied with presents, expressed the most joyous anticipations. But suddenly all the flush of his gay hopes and busy projects terminated in despair. The particular causes which led to his catastrophe have not been distinctly traced. His own descriptions of his prospects were but little to be trusted; for while apparently exchanging his shadowy visions of Rowley for the real adventures of life, he was still moving under the spell of an imagination that saw every thing in exaggerated colour. Out of this dream he was at length awakened, when he found that he had miscalculated the chances of patronage, and the profits of literary labour. The abortive attempt which he made to obtain the situation of a surgeon's mate on board an African vessel, shows that he had abandoned the hopes of gaining a livelihood by working for the booksellers, though he was known to have shrewdly remarked, that they were not the worst patrons of merit. After this disappointment his poverty became extreme, and though there is an account of a gentleman having sent him a guinea within the few last days of his life, yet there is too much reason to fear that the pangs of his voluntary death were preceded by the actual sufferings of want. Mrs. Angel, a sack-maker, in Brook street, Holborn, in whose house he lodged, offered him a dinner the day before his death, knowing that he had fasted a long time but his pride made him refuse it with some indignation. On the 25th of August he was found dead in his bed, from the effects of poison, which he had swallowed. He was interred in a shell in the burial-ground of Shoe-lane workhouse.

The heart which can peruse the fate of Chatterton without being moved, is little to be envied for its tranquillity; but the intellects of those men must be as deficient as their hearts are uncharitable, who, confounding all shades of moral distinction, have ranked his literary fiction of Rowley in the same class of crimes with pecuniary forgery, and have calculated that if he had not died by his own hand he would probably have ended his days upon a gallows. This disgusting sentence has been pronounced upon a youth who was exemplary for severe duty, temperance, and natural affection. His Rowleian forgery must indeed be pronounced improper by the general law which condemns all falsifications of history; but it deprived no man of his fame, it had no sacrilegious interference with the memory of departed genius, it had not, like Lauder's imposture, any malignant motive, to rob a party or a country, of a name which was its pride and ornament.

Setting aside the opinion of those uncharitable biographers, whose imagination have conducted him to the gibbet, it may be owned that his unformed character exhibited strong and conflicting elements of good and evil. Even the momentary project of the infidel boy to become a Methodist preacher, betrays an obliquity of design, and a contempt of human credulity that is not very amiable. But had he been spared, his pride and ambition would have come to flow in their proper channels; his understanding would have taught him the practical value of truth and the dignity of virtue, and he would have despised artifice when he had felt the strength and security of wisdom. In estimating the promises of his genius, I would rather lean to the utmost enthusiasm of his admirers, than to the cold opinion of those, who are afraid of being blinded to the defects of the poems attributed to Rowley, by the veil of obsolete phraseology which is thrown over them. If we look to the ballad of Sir Charles Bawdin, and translate it into modern English, we shall find its strength and interest to have no dependence on obsolete words. In the striking passage of the martyr Bawdin standing erect in his car to rebuke Edward, who beheld him from the window, when "The tyrant's soul rush'd to his face," and when he exclaimed,

Behold the man! he speaks the truth,
He's greater than a king;

in these, and in all the striking parts of the ballad, no effect is owing to mock antiquity, but to the simple and high conception of a great and just character, who

Summ'd the actions of the day,
Each night before he slept.

What a moral portraiture from the hand of a boy! The inequality of Chatterton's various productions may be compared to the disproportions of the ungrown giant. His works had nothing of the definite neatness of that precocious talent which stops short in early maturity. His thirst for knowledge was that of a being taught by instinct to lay up materials for the exercise of great and undeveloped powers. Even in his favourite maxim, pushed it might be to hyperbole, that a man by abstinence and perseverance might accomplish whatever he pleased may be traced the indications of a genius which nature had meant to achieve works of immortality. Tasso alone can he compared to him as a juvenile prodigy. No English poet ever equalled him at the same age.