If it were allowable for one who professes to write the lives of English poets to pass the name of Chatterton in silence, I should think the literature of our country more honoured by the concealment of his fate than by the record of his genius. Yet from his brief story, the young will learn, that genius is likely to lead them into misery, if it be not accompanied by something that is better than genius; and men, whom birth and station have rendered eminent, may discover that they owe some duty to those whom nature has made more than their equals; and who — "Beneath the good tho' far — are far above the great."
Thomas Chatterton was born in the parish of St. Mary Redcliffe, at Bristol, on the twentieth of November, 1752. His father, who was of the same name, and who died about three months before the birth of his son, had been writing-master to a classical school, singing-man in Bristol cathedral, and master of the free-school in Pyle-street in that city; and is related to have been inclined to a belief in magic, and deeply versed in Cornelius Agrippa. His forefathers had borne the humble office of sexton to St. Mary Redcliffe church for a century and a half, till the death of John Chatterton, great uncle of the poet.
From what is recorded of the infancy of Chatterton, parents may be satisfied that an inaptness to learn in childhood, is far from being a prognostic of future dullness. At the age of five years, he was sent to the school of which his father had been master, and was found so incorrigibly stupid, that he was rejected by the teacher, whose name was Love, as incapable of profiting by his instruction. His mother, as most mothers would have done in the like case, bitterly lamented her son's untowardness; when an old musical manuscript in French coming in his way, he fell in love, as she expressed it, with the illuminated capitals. Of this fancy she eagerly availed herself to lead him on to an acquaintance with the alphabet; and from hence proceeded to teach him to read in an old Testament or Bible in the black letter. Doctor Gregory, one of his biographers, justly observes, that it is not unreasonable to suppose his peculiar fondness for antiquities to have originated in this incident.
It is related, on the testimony of his sister, as a mark of his early thirst for distinction, that being offered a present of china-ware by a potter, and asked what device he would have painted on it, he replied, "Paint me an angel with wings, and a trumpet to trumpet my name about the world." It is so usual with those who are fondly attached to a child, to deceive themselves into a belief, that what it has said on the suggestion of others, has proceeded from its own mind, that much credit is seldom due to such marvels.
A little before he had attained his eighth year, he was admitted into Colston's charity school in Bristol, an institution in some respects similar to that excellent one of Christ's Hospital in London, the boys being boarded and clothed, as well as instructed, in the house. In two years his dislike to reading was so thoroughly overcome, that he spent the pocket-money allowed him by his mother in hiring books from a circulating library. He became reserved, thoughtful, and at times melancholy; mixed little in childish sports; and between his eleventh and twelfth years had made a catalogue of the books he had read to the number of seventy. It is to be regretted, that with a disposition thus studious, he was not instructed in any language but his own. The example of one of the assistants in the school, named Thomas Phillips, spread a poetical emulation among the elder boys, of whom Thistlethwaite, Cary, and Fowler, figured in the periodical publications of the day. Chatterton did not escape the contagion; and a pocket-book presented to him by his sister, as a new-year's gift, was returned at the end of the year filled with his writing, chiefly in verse. Phillips is probably the person whose skill in poetry is extolled by Chatterton in an elegy on the death of his acquaintance of that name, which has some stanzas of remarkable beauty.
Soon after his confirmation by the bishop, at twelve years of age, he was prompted by the serious reflections which the performance of that ceremony had awakened in him, to compose some lines on the Last Day, and a paraphrase of the ninth chapter of Job, and of some chapters in Isaiah. Had his life been protracted, there is every reason to believe, from the process which usually takes place in minds constituted like his, that after an interval of scepticism, these feelings of piety would have returned in their full force. At the same time he indulged himself in satirical effusions on his master, and such of his schoolfellows as had provoked either his resentment or his ridicule.
On the first of July, 1767, he was taken from school, and apprenticed for seven years to Mr. John Lambert, attorney, of Bristol, to be instructed in the art of a scrivener. The apprentice fee was only ten pounds; he slept in the room with the footboy, and was confined to the office from eight o'clock in the morning, with the usual interval for dinner, till the same hour at night. His conduct was such as left his master no room for blame. He never exceeded the hours limited for his absence, except on one occasion, when he had been to spend an evening in the company of his mother and some friends. Once only he incurred correction. His old schoolmaster had received an abusive anonymous letter; and Lambert having discovered from the hand-writing, which was ill disguised, and by the paper, which was the same as that used in his office, that Chatterton was the writer, thought it necessary to check so mischievous a propensity, by inflicting on him one or two blows. Though he was compelled to pass so large a portion of time in confinement, he had much leisure left him, as his master's business frequently did not occupy more than two hours in the day. His chief employment was the copying of precedents, with which he filled a folio book of 344 pages closely written.
At the beginning of October, 1768, the new bridge at Bristol was completed; and about the same time there appeared in the Bristol Journal a paper, purporting to be a description of the Fryar's first passing over the old bridge, taken from an ancient manuscript, and signed Dunhelmus Bristoliensis. By this the public curiosity was excited; and the printer not being able to satisfy the inquiries that were made concerning the quarter from whence he had received the communication, it was with some difficulty traced to Chatterton. To the menaces of those, who first roughly demanded from him an account of the means by which the paper had come into his hands, he refused to give any reply; but on being more mildly questioned, after some prevaricating, said, that he had got it, together with several other manuscripts, that had been in the possession of his father, by whom they were found in a large box, in an upper room, over the chapel, on the north side of Redcliffe church. That some old parchments had been seen by him in his mother's house is nearly certain; nor is it at all improbable that they might have been discovered in a neglected coffer in the church, according to the account he gave of them. But that either the description of the Fryar's passage over the bridge, or the most considerable of the poems attributed to Rowley were among them, can scarcely be credited. The delusion supposed to have been practised on the public by Macpherson, and that acknowledged to have been so by Walpole, in passing off the Castle of Otranto for a translation from the Italian, were then recent; and these examples might have easily engaged Chatterton to attempt a fraud, which did not seem likely to be more injurious in its consequences than either of them.
About the same time he became known to a Mr. Catrott, and to a Mr. Barrett, a chirurgeon at Bristol, who intended to publish a history of that city, and was then collecting materials for the purpose. To the former he showed the Bristowe Tragedy, the Epitaph on Robert Canynge, and some other short pieces; to the latter several fragments, some of considerable length, affirming them to be portions of the original manuscripts which had fallen into his hands. From both he received at different times some pecuniary reward for these communications, and was favoured by the loan of some books. Among those which he borrowed of Mr. Barrett, there were several on medical subjects; and from him he obtained also some instructions in chirurgery. He is represented by one of his companions to have extended his curiosity, at this time, to many other objects of inquiry; and to have employed himself not only in the lighter studies of heraldry and English antiquities, but in the theory of music, mathematics, metaphysics, and astronomy.
He now became a contributor of prose and verse to the Magazines. Among the acknowledgments to correspondents in the Town and Country Magazine for November, 1768, one of his letters appears to be noticed; but nothing of his writing in that miscellany, the first with which he is known to have corresponded, has been discovered before the February of the following year.
The attention he had drawn to himself in his native city soon induced him to aspire after higher notice. In March he addressed the following letter to the Honourable Horace Walpole;
Being versed a little in antiquities, I have met with several curious manuscripts, among which the following may be of service to you in any future edition of your truly entertaining Anecdotes of Painting. In correcting the mistakes (if any) in the notes, you will greatly oblige
Your most humble servant,
Bristol, March 25th, Corn Street"
This was accompanied by a manuscript, entitled The Ryse of Peyneteyne in Englande, wroten by T. Rowleie, 1469, for Mastre Canynge: to which Chatterton had annexed his own remarks. Walpole returned a polite answer, and asked for further communications. On the receipt of a second letter from Chatterton, Walpole repeated his wish to know more concerning Rowley and his poems; in reply to which, Chatterton took occasion to represent his own situation, that he was the son of an indigent widow, and clerk to an attorney, but that his inclinations led him to more elegant pursuits; and he intimated a hope that Walpole would assist in placing him where he might be able to gratify such propensities. His letter was accompanied by more of the Rowleian poems, and contained an assurance, that the person who had lent them to him to transcribe, possessed other valuable relics of ancient poetry. Some inquiries which Walpole made, confirmed the account given by Chatterton of himself; but in answer to his solicitation for patronage, Walpole declared that he had not the means of exerting it; and recommended a sedulous attention to business, as the most certain way of recompensing his mother for her care, and of securing his own independence. He mentioned that more competent judges, than he pretended to be, were not satisfied of the manuscripts being genuine; and at the same time stated their reasons for concluding them to be of another age than that to which they were assigned. Shortly after, Chatterton wrote to him two letters, which though querulous, are not disrespectful. In the first, while he thanks his correspondent for the advice he had given him, he professes his resolution "to go a little beyond it, by destroying all his useless lumber of literature, and never using his pen again but in the law;" and in the other, declaring his settled conviction that the papers of Rowley were genuine, he asks him to return the copy which had been sent him. Owing to the absence of Walpole, who was then in Paris, some time elapsed without any notice being taken of this request; and on his return Walpole found the following letter, which he terms singularly impertinent.
I cannot reconcile your behaviour to me with the notions I once entertained of you. I think myself injured, Sir; and did you not know my circumstances you would not dare to treat me thus. I have sent for a copy of the M.S. No answer from you. An explanation or excuse for your silence would oblige
THOMAS CHATTERTON. July 24th."
The manuscripts and letters were all returned in a blank cover, on the fourth of August, and here the intercourse was at an end. Gray and Mason were the friends whom Walpole had consulted about the manuscripts, and they had no hesitation in pronouncing them to be forgeries. It may seem strange, that with such men, the uncommon beauty of the poetry they contained did not create some interest for the author. But Gray was now in a state of health that, perhaps, left him little power of being interested in anything; or the wonder may resolve itself into that blindness which poets, no less than patrons, too frequently discover for the excellence of their contemporaries. Chatterton himself spoke with contempt of the productions of Collins. As to Walpole, he had no doubt more pleasure in petting the lap-dog that was left to his care by the old blind lady at Paris, than he could ever have felt in nursing the wayward genius of Chatterton.
During his residence in Lambert's house, his constitutional reserve had assumed an air of gloomy sullenness: he had repeatedly betrayed to the servants an intention of committing suicide; and at length a paper, entitled the last Will and Testament of Thomas Chatterton, which was found lying on his desk, manifested a design of perpetrating this act on the ensuing day, Easter Sunday, April 15th, 1770. On so unequivocal a proof as this appeared to be of his desperate resolution, his master no longer thought it safe to retain him.
A few months before, he had written letters to several booksellers and printers in London, and from them received assurances of protection and employment if he should remove to the capital. This decided him as to his future course. When he was questioned by Thistlethwaite as to the plan of life he intended to pursue, if the prospect which was thus held out, should fail him, he answered: "The promises I have had are sufficient to dispel doubt; but should I be deceived I will turn Methodist preacher. Credulity is as potent a deity as ever, and a new sect may easily be devised. But if that too should fail me, my last and final resource is a pistol." It is almost unnecessary to observe, that when he thus speculated on his future proceedings, his mind had been strongly tainted with infidelity. — Towards the conclusion of April he set forth on his ill-omened journey. He had never yet gone farther than a Sunday's walk from his native city; and at the age of seventeen, equally inexperienced and confident, without a friend or a guide, and with principles shaken and perverted, he was about to enter on a new and perilous theatre; nor could it have been difficult to divine what the event must soon be. On the 26th of April 1770, immediately after his arrival in London, he writes to his mother, and speaks in high spirits of the encouragement he has met with from the booksellers to whom he has applied, "who," says he, "all approve of my design." On the sixth of the next month, he informs her that "he gets four guineas a month by one Magazine, and that he shall engage to write a history of England and other pieces, which will more than double that sum." "Mr. Wilkes had known him by his writings, since he first corresponded with the booksellers. He is to visit him the following week, and by his interest would ensure Mrs. Ballance the Trinity House." In short he is in raptures at the change in his condition and views; and talks as if his fortune were already made. He now inhabited the house of Walmsley, a plasterer, in Shoreditch, where his kinswoman Mrs. Ballance also lived.
The other letters to his mother and sisters betray the same intoxication. At the Chapter Coffee-house, he meets with a gentleman "who would have introduced him as a companion to the young duke of Northumberland in his intended general tour, had he not been unluckily incapacitated for that office by his ignorance of any tongue but his own. His present profession obliges him to frequent places of the best resort. He employs his money in fitting himself fashionably, and getting into good company; this last article always brings him in good interest. He has engaged to live with a gentleman, the brother of a lord (a Scotch one indeed) who is going to advance pretty deeply into the bookselling branches, and is to have lodging and boarding, genteel and elegant, gratis besides no inconsiderable premium. He is introduced to Beckford, the Lord Mayor, to whom he had addressed an Essay, and who received him with all the politeness a citizen could assume, and warmly invited him to come again. He might have a recommendation to Sir George Colebrook, an East India Director, as qualified for an office no ways despicable; but he shall not take a step to the sea while he can continue on land. If money flowed as fast upon him as honours, he would give his sister a portion of £5000." The kind-hearted boy did indeed find means out of the little profits arising from his writings, to send her, his mother, and his grandmother, several trifling presents.
In July he removed to lodgings at Mrs. Angel's, A sack-maker in Brook Street, Holborn. He assigned no reason for quitting those he had occupied in Shoreditch; but Sir Herbert Croft supposes, not without probability, that it was in order to be nearer to the places of public entertainment, to which his employment as a writer for ephemeral publications, obliged him to resort. On the 20th of July, he acquaints his sister that he is engaged in writing an Oratorio, which when finished would purchase her a gown, and that she might depend on seeing him before the first of January, 1771. "Almost all the next Town and Country Magazine," he tells her, "is his." He boasts that "he has an universal acquaintance; that his company is courted every where; and could he humble himself to go behind a compter, he could have had twenty places, but that he must be among the great: state matters suit him better than commercial." Besides his communications to the above mentioned miscellany he was a frequent contributor of essays and poems to several of the other literary journals. As a political writer, he had resolved to employ his pen on both sides. "Essays," he tells his sister, "on the patriotic side, fetch no more than what the copy is sold for. As the patriots themselves are searching for a place, they have no gratuities to spare. On the other hand, unpopular essays will not be accepted, and you must pay to have them printed; but then you seldom lose by it. Courtiers are so sensible of their deficiency in merit, that they generally reward all who know how to daub them with an appearance." But all his visions of emolument and greatness were now beginning to melt away. He was so tired of his literary drudgery, or found the returns it made him so inadequate to his support, that he condescended to solicit the appointment of a chirurgeon's mate to Africa, and applied to Mr. Barrett for a recommendation, which was refused him, probably on account of his incapacity. It is difficult to trace the particulars of that sudden transition from good to bad fortune which seems to have befallen him. That his poverty was extreme cannot be doubted. The younger Warton was informed by Mr. Cross, an apothecary in Brook Street, that while Chatterton lived in the neighbourhood, he often called at his shop; but though pressed by Cross to dine or sup with him, constantly declined the invitation, except one evening, when he was prevailed on to partake of a barrel of oysters, and ate most voraciously. A barber's wife who lived within a few doors of Mrs. Angel's, gave testimony, that after his death Mrs. Angel told her, that "on the 24th of August, as she knew he had not eaten anything for two or three days, she begged he would take some dinner with her; but he was offended at her expressions, which seemed to hint that he was in want, and assured her he was not hungry." The stripling whose pride would not let him go behind a compter, had now drunk the cup of bitterness to the dregs. On that day he swallowed arsenic in water, and on the following expired. His room was broken into, and found strewn over with fragments of papers which he had destroyed. He was interred in the burying-ground of Shoe Lane workhouse. Such was the end of one who had given greater proofs of poetical genius than perhaps had ever been shown in one of his years. By Johnson he was pronounced "the most extraordinary young man that had ever encountered his knowledge;" and Warton, in the History of English Poetry, where he discusses the authenticity of the Rowleian poems, gives it as his opinion, that Chatterton "would have proved the first of English poets if he had reached a maturer age."
"He was proud," says his sister, "and exceedingly imperious;" but both she and his school-fellow Thistlethwaite, vindicated him from the charge of libertinism, which was brought against him by some who thought they could not sufficiently blacken his memory. On the contrary, his abstemiousness was uncommon; he seldom used animal food or strong liquors, his usual diet being a piece of bread and a tart, and some water. He fancied that the full of the moon was the most propitious time for study, and would often sit up and write the whole night by moonlight. His spirits were extremely uneven, and he was subject to long and frequent fits of absence, insomuch that he would look steadfastly in a person's face without speaking or seeming to see him for a quarter of an hour or more. There is said to have been something peculiarly pleasing in his manner and address. His person was marked by an air of manliness and dignity that bespoke the superiority of his mind. His eyes, one of which was more remarkable than the other, were of a grey colour, keen, and brilliant, especially when any thing occurred to animate him.
Of all the hypotheses concerning those papers which have been the subject of so much controversy, none seems more probable than that suggested by Warton, who, in the History of English Poetry, admits that some of the poems attributed to Rowley might have been preserved in Canynge's chest; and in another publication allows that Chatterton "might have discovered parchments of humble prose containing local memoirs and authentic deeds illustrating the history of Bristol, and biographical diaries, or other notices, of the lives of Canynge, Ischam, and Gorges. But that many of the manuscripts were not genuine, is proved not only by the dissimilitude of the style to any composition of the age of Henry VI. and Edward IV. and by the marked resemblance to several passages in modern poets, but by certain circumstances which leave little or no doubt of their having been fabricated by Chatterton himself." One of his companions, at the time that he was an apprentice to Lambert, affirms, that he one day produced a piece of parchment on which he wrote several words, if not lines, in a character that appeared to his companion totally unlike English, that he then held it over a candle to give it the appearance of antiquity, which changed the colour of the ink, and made the parchment appear black and contracted. Another person declares, that he saw him rub a piece of parchment in several places in streaks with yellow ochre, and then rub it on the ground which was dirty, and afterwards crumple it in his hand. Having concluded the operation, he said it would do pretty well, but he could do it better at home. The first part of the Battle of Hastings, he confessed to Mr. Barrett, that he had written himself.
Some anachronisms as to particular allusions have been pointed out. The irregular, or Pindaric measure as it has been called, used in the song to Aella, in the verses on the Mynster, and in the chorus in Goddwyn, was not employed till a much later aera. There are also in the Aella some lines in blank verse, not introduced among us till the time of Surrey, who adopted it from the Italian.
Another criterion of a more general nature, which has not yet, at least that I am aware, been applied to these compositions, is, I think, very strongly against the antiquity of them; and that is, that the intention and purpose of the writer in the longer pieces is not sufficiently marked and decisive for the remoter ages to which they are ascribed. In the early stages of a language, before conventional phrases have been formed, and a stock of imagery, as it were provided for the common use, we find that the plan of a work is often rude and simple indeed, but that it almost always bears evident signs of having subsisted anteriorly in the mind of the writer as a whole. If we try Aella, the longest of the poems, by this test, we shall discover strong evidence of its being modern. A certain degree of uniformity is the invariable characteristic of the earlier productions of art; but here is as much desultoriness and incoherence, as can well be possible in a work that makes any pretensions to a plan. On this internal proof alone I should not hesitate in assigning it to Chatterton rather than to Rowley, to the one who luxuriated in an abundance of poetical materials poured out before him for his use or his imitation, rather than to the other who had comparatively but a few meagre models to work upon.
Where he is much inspirited by his subject, being thrown off his guard, he forgets himself and becomes modern, as in these lines, from which I have removed nothing but the old spelling.
Fly, fly, ye Danes, Magnus the chief is slain;
The Saxons come with Aella at their head;
Let's strive to get away to yonder green;
Fly, fly, this is the kingdom of the dead.
O Gods! have Romans at my anlance bled?
And must I now for safety fly away?
See! far besprenged all our troops are spread,
Yet I will singly dare the bloody fray.
But no; I'll fly, and murder in retreat;
Death, blood, and fire shall mark the going of my feet.
The following repetitions are, if I mistake not, quite modern:
Now Aella "look'd," and "looking" did exclaim.
He "falls," and "falling" rolleth thousands down.
As also this antithetical comparison of the qualities of a war-horse to the mental affections of the rider:
Bring me a steed, with eagle-wings for flight,
Swift as my wish, and as my love is, strong.
There are sometimes single lines, that bear little relation to the place in which they stand, and seem to be brought in for no other purpose than their effect on the ear. This is the contrivance of a modern and a youthful poet. "Thy words be high of din, but nought beside," is a line that occurs in Aella, and may sometimes be applied to the author himself.
Nothing indeed is more wonderful in the Rowley poems than the masterly style of versification which they frequently display. Few more exquisite specimens of this kind can be found in our language than the Minstrel's song in Aella, beginning, "O sing unto my roundelay."
A young poet may be expected to describe warmly and energetically whatever interests his fancy or his heart; but a command of numbers would seem to be an art capable of being perfected only by long-continued and diligent endeavours. It must be recollected, however, that much might be done in the time which was at Chatterton's disposal, when that time was undivided by the study of any other language but his own. We see, in the instance of Milton's juvenile poems in Latin, not to mention others, to what excellence this species of skill may be brought, even in boyhood, where the organs are finely disposed for the perception of musical delight; and if examples of the same early perfection be rarer in our own tongue, it may be because so much labour is seldom or ever exacted, at that age, in the use of it.
Tyrwhitt, whose critical acumen had enabled him to detect a supposititious passage in a tragedy of Euripides, was at first a dupe to the imposture of Chatterton, and treated the poems as so decidedly genuine, that he cited them for the elucidation of Chaucer; but seeing good grounds for changing his opinion, as Mr. Nichols informs us, he cancelled several leaves before his volume was published. Walpole was equally deceived; though his vanity afterwards would not suffer him to own that he had been so. Mr. Tyson, in a letter to Dr. Glynn, well observed, that he could as soon believe that Hogarth painted the cartoons, as that Chatterton wrote Rowley's poems: yet (he adds) they are as unlike any thing ancient, as Sir Joshua's flowing contour is unlike the squares and angles of Albert Durer.
The poems that were written after his arrival in London, when his mind was agitated by wild speculations, and thrown off its balance by noise and bustle, were, as might be expected, very unequal to those which he had produced in the retirement of his native place. Yet there is much poignancy in the satires. The three African eclogues have a tumid grandeur
The children of the wave, whose pallid race,
Views the faint sun display a languid face,
From the red fury of thy justice fled,
Swifter than torrents from their rocky bed.
Fear with a sicken'd silver ting'd their hue:
The guilty fear when vengeance is their due.
Many of the pieces, confessedly his own, furnish descriptions of natural objects, equally happy with those so much admired in the Rowleian poems.
When golden Autumn, wreath'd in ripen'd corn,
From purple clusters pour'd the foamy wine,
Thy genius did his sallow brows adorn,
And made the beauties of the season thine.
With rustling sound the yellow foliage flies,
And wantons with the wind in rapid whirls,
The gurging rivulet to the vallies hies,
Whilst on its banks the spangled serpent curls....
Pale rugged Winter bending o'er his tread,
His grizzled hair bedropt with icy dew;
His eyes a dusky light congeal'd and dead,
His robe a tinge of bright ethereal blue.
His train a motley'd, sanguine, sable cloud,
He limps along the russet dreary moor,
Whilst rising whirlwinds, blasting keen and loud,
Roll the white surges to the sounding shore.
The lofty elm, the oak of lordly look,
The willow shadowing the babbling brook,
The hedges blooming with the sweets of May,
With double pleasure mark'd the gladsome way.
In "Resignation," from which these lines are taken, there is a fine personification of Hope, though the application of it is designedly ludicrous
See Hope, array'd in robes of virgin white,
Trailing an arch'd variety of light,
Comes showering blessing on a ruin'd realm,
And shows the crown'd director of the helm.
With him poetry looks best, when she is "All deftly mask'd as hoar antiquity."
Scarcely any of these later poems are free from grammatical incorrectness or ambiguity of expression. Some are debased by the more serious fault of ribaldry and profaneness. His irreligion, however, seems to have been rather the fluctuating of a mind that had lost its hold on truth for a time, than the scepticism of one confirmed in error. He acknowledges his dependence on a Creator, though he casts off his belief in a Redeemer. His incredulity does not appear so much the offspring of viciousness refusing the curb of moral restraint, as of pride unwilling to be trammeled by the opinions of the multitude. We cannot concede that, with a faculty so highly imaginative, he could long have continued an unbeliever; or, perhaps, that he could ever have been so in his heart. But he is a portentous example of the dangers to which an inexperienced youth, highly gifted by nature, is exposed, when thrown into the midst of greedy speculators, intent only on availing themselves of his resources for their own advantage, and without any care for his safety or his peace.
Some years ago the present laureat undertook the office of editing his works for the benefit of his sister, Mrs. Newton. It is to be lamented, that a project so deserving of encouragement does not appear to have been successful.