This extraordinary young man was born on the 20th of November 1752. His father was originally a writing usher to a school in Bristol, afterwards a singing man in the cathedral, and lastly master of the free-school in Pyle-street in the same city. He died about three months before this son was born. — It is not quite unimportant, although in any other case it might seem ridiculous, to add that our poet was descended from a long line of ancestors who held the office of sexton of St. Mary Redcliffe: for it was in the muniment room of this church that the materials were found from which he constructed that system of imposture which has rendered his name celebrated, and his history interesting.
At five years of age he was sent to the school in Pyle-street, then superintended by a Mr. Love, but here he improved so little that his mother took him back. While under his care his childish attention is said to have been engaged by the illuminated capitals of an old musical manuscript in French, which circumstance encouraged her to initiate him in the alphabet, and she afterward taught him to read from an old black-letter Testament or Bible. That a person of her rank in life should be able to read the black-letter is somewhat extraordinary, but the fact rests upon her authority, and has been considered as an introduction to that fondness for antiquities for which he was afterwards distinguished.
His next remove was to Colston's charity school, at the age of eight years, where he was taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, it the daily rate of nine hours in summer and seven in winter. Such at least was the prescribed discipline of the school, although far more tedious than a boy of his capacity required. One of his masters, Phillips, whom he has celebrated in an elegy, was a frequent writer of verses in the magazines, and was the means of exciting a degree of poetical emulation among his scholars, but to this Chatterton appeared for some time quite indifferent. About his tenth year he began to read from inclination, sometimes hiring his books from a circulating library, and sometimes borrowing them from his friends; and before he was twelve, had gone through about seventy volumes, principally history and divinity. Before this time he had composed some verses, particularly those intitled Apostate Will, which although they bear no comparison with what he afterwards produced, discover at that early age a disposition to personal satire, and a consciousness of superior sense. It would be more remarkable, were it true, that while at this school he is said to have shown to his master Phillips one of those manuscripts which he pretended had been found in a chest in Redcliffe church, but as neither Phillips nor another person to whom this treasure was exhibited, could read it, the commencement of his Rowleian impostures must be postponed to a future period.
At school he had gathered some knowledge of music, drawing, and arithmetic, and with this stock he was bound apprentice July 1767, to Mr. John Lambert, an attorney at Bristol, for seven years. His apprenticeship seems to have been of the lower order, and his situation more resembling that of a servant than a pupil. His chief employment was to copy precedents, which frequently did not require more than two hours in a day. The rest of his time was probably filled up by the desultory course of reading which be had begun at school, and which terminated chiefly in the study of the old English phraseology, heraldry, and miscellaneous antiquities: of the two last he acquired, not a profound knowledge, but enough to enable him to create fictions capable of deceiving those who had less. His general conduct during his apprenticeship was decent and regular. On one occasion only Mr. Lambert thought him deserving of correction for writing an abusive letter in a feigned hand to his old schoolmaster. So soon did this young man learn the art of deceit, which he was now preparing to practise upon a more extensive scale.
In the beginning of October 1768, the completion of the new bridge at Bristol suggested to him a fit opportunity for playing off the first of his public deceptions. This was an account of the ceremonies on opening the old bridge, said to be taken from all ancient manuscript, a copy of which he sent to Farley's Bristol Journal, in a short letter signed Dunhelmus Bristoliensis. Such a memoir, at so critical a time, naturally excited attention; and Farley, who was called upon to give up the author, after much inquiry, discovered that Chatterton had sent it. Chatterton was consequently interrogated, probably without much ceremony, where he had obtained it. And here his unhappy disposition showed itself in a manner highly affecting in one so young, for he had not yet reached his sixteenth year, and according to all that can be gathered, had not been corrupted either by precept or example, "To the threats," we are told, "of those who treated him (agreeably to his appearance) as a child, he returned nothing but haughtiness, and a refusal to give any account. By milder usage he was somewhat softened, and appeared inclined to give all the information in his power."
The effect, however, of this mild usage was, that instead of all or any part of the information in his power, he tried two different falsehoods: the first, "that he was employed to transcribe the contents of certain ancient manuscripts by a gentleman, who had also engaged him to furnish complimentary verses inscribed to a lady with whom that gentleman was in love." But, as this story was to rest on proofs which he could not produce, he next asserted, "that he had received the paper in question, together with many other manuscripts, from his father, who had found them in a large chest In the upper room over the chapel, on the north side of Redcliffe church."
As this last story is the foundation of the whole controversy respecting Chatterton, it will be necessary to give the circumstances as related in his life, written for the Biographia Britannica, and prefixed to the recent edition of his works.
"Over the north porch of St. Mary Redcliffe church, which was founded, or at least rebuilt, by Mr. W. Canynge, (an eminent merchant of Bristol in the fifteenth century, and in the reign of Edward the Fourth) there is a kind of muniment room, in which were deposited six or seven chests, one of which in particular was called Mr. Canynge's cofre; this chest, it is said, was secured by six keys, two of which were intrusted to the minister and procurator of the church, two to the mayor, and one to each of the church-wardens. In process of time, however, the six keys appear to have been lost: and about the year 1727, a notion prevailed that some title deeds, and other writings or value, were contained in Mr. Canynge's cofre. In consequence of this opinion, an order of vestry was made, that the chest should be opened under the inspection of an attorney: and that those writings which appeared of consequence should be removed to the south porch of the church. The locks were therefore forced, and not only the principal chest, but the others, which were also supposed to contain writings, were all broke open. The deeds immediately relating to the church were removed, and the other manuscripts were left exposed as of no value. Considerable depredations had, from time to time, been committed upon them, by different persons: but the most insatiate of these plunderers was the father of Chatterton. His uncle being sexton of St. Mary Redcliffe gave him free access to the church. He carried off, from time to time, parcels of the parchments, and one time alone, with the assistance of his boys, is known to have filled a large basket with them. They were deposited in a cupboard in the school, and employed for different purposes, such as the covering of copy-books, &c. In particular Mr. Gibbs, the minister of the parish, having presented the boys with twenty Bibles, Mr. Chatterton, in order to preserve these books from being damaged, covered them with some of the parchments. At his death, the widow being under a necessity of removing, carried the remainder of them to her own habitation. Of the discovery of their value by the younger Chatterton, the account of Mr. Smith, a very intimate acquaintance, which he gave to Dr. Glynn of Cambridge, is too interesting to be omitted. When young Chatterton was first articled to Mr. Lambert, he used frequently to come borne to his mother, by way of a short visit. There, one day, his eye was caught by one of these parchments, which had been converted into a thread-paper. He found not only the writing to be very old, the characters very different from common characters, but that the subject therein treated was different from common subjects. Being naturally of an inquisitive and curious turn, he was very much struck with their appearance, and, as might be expected, began to question his mother what those thread-papers were, how she got them, and whence they came. Upon further inquiry, he was led to a full discovery of all the parchments which remained: the bulk of them consisted of poetical and other compositions, by Mr. Canynge, and a particular friend of his, Thomas Rowley, whom Chatterton at first called a monk, and afterwards a secular priest of the fifteenth century. Such, at least, appears to be the account which Chatterton thought proper to give, and which he wished to be believed. It is, indeed, confirmed by the testimony of his mother and sister. Mrs. Chatterton informed a friend of the dean of Exeter (Dr. Milles) that on her removal from Pyle-street, she emptied the cupboard of its contents, partly into a large long deal box, where her husband used to keep his clothes, and partly into a square oak box of a smaller size: carrying both with their contents to her lodgings, where, according to her account, they continued neglected and undisturbed, till her son first discovered their value: who having examined their contents, told his mother 'that he had found a treasure, and was so glad nothing could be like it.' That he then removed all these parchments out of the large long deal box, in which his father used to keep his clothes, into the square oak box: that he was perpetually ransacking every corner of the house for more parchments, and, from time to time, carried away those he had already found by pockets full: that one day happening to see Clarke's History of the Bible covered with one of those parchments, he swore a great oath, and stripping the book, put the cover into his pocket, and carried it away: at the same time stripping a common little Bible, but finding no writing upon the cover, replaced it again very leisurely. Upon being informed of the manner in which his father had procured the parchments, he went himself to the place, and picked up four more."
Such is the story of the discovery of the poems attributed to Rowley, which Chatterton evidently made up from the credulity of his mother and other friends, who could not read the parchments on which he affected to set so high a value, and which he afterwards endeavoured to render of public importance by producing these wonderful treasures of Canynge's coffre. In his attempt, already related, respecting the old bridge, he had not been eminently successful, owing to his prevarication. He now imparted some of these manuscripts to George Catcot, a pewterer of Bristol, who had heard of the discovery, and desired to be introduced to Chatterton. The latter very readily gave him the Bristowe Tragedy, Rowley's Epitaph on Canynge's Ancestor, and some smaller pieces. These Catcot communicated to Mr. Barret, a surgeon, who was writing a history of Bristol, and would naturally be glad to add to its honours that of having produced such a poet as Rowley. In his conversations with Barret and Catcot he appears to have been driven to many prevarications, sometimes owning that he had destroyed several of these valuable manuscripts; and at other times asserting that he was in possession of others which he could not produce. These contradictions must have entirely destroyed his evidence in any other case, in the opinion of thinking and impartial judges: but the historian of Bristol could not forego the hopes of enriching his book by originals of so great importance; and having obtained from Chatterton several fragments, some of considerable length, he actually printed them as authentic in his history, long after the controversy ceased which had convinced the learned world that he had been egregiously duped.
In return for these contributions, Barret and Catcot supplied Chatterton occasionally with money, and introduced him into company. At his request, too, Mr. Barret lent our poet some medical authors, and gave him a few instructions in surgery; but still his favourite studies were heraldry and English antiquities, which he pursued with as much success as could be expected from one who knew no language but his own. Camden's Britannia appears to have been a favourite book: and he copied the glossaries of Chaucer and others with indefatigable perseverance, storing his memory with antiquated words. Even Bailey's Dictionary has been proved to have afforded him many of those words which the advocates for Rowley thought could be known only to a writer of his pretended age.
During all these various pursuits, he employed his pen in essays, in prose and verse, chiefly of the satirical kind. He appears to have read the party pamphlets of the day, and imbibed much of their abusive spirit. In 1769, we find him a very considerable contributor to the Town and Country Magazine, which began about that time. His ambition seems to have been to rise to eminence entirely by the efforts of his genius, either in his own character or that of some of the heroes of the Redcliffe chest, in which he was perpetually discovering a most convenient variety of treasure, with which to reward his admirers and secure their patronage. Mr. Burgum, another pewterer, maintains the authenticity of Rowley's poems. Chatterton rewards him with a pedigree from the time of William the conqueror, allying him to some of the most ancient families in the kingdom, and presents him with the Romaunt of the Cnyghte, a poem, written by John de Bergham, one of his own ancestors, about four hundred and fifty years before. In order to obtain the good opinion of his relation Mr. Stephens of Salisbury, he informs hint that he is descended from Fitzstephen, grandson of the venerable Od, earl of Blois, and lord of Holderness, who flourished about the year 1095. In this manner Chatterton contrived to impose on men who had no means of appreciating the value of what he communicated, and were willing to believe what, for one reason or other, they wished to be true.
But the most remarkable of his pretended discoveries issued in an application to one who was not so easily to be deceived. This was the celebrated Horace Walpole, the late lord Orford, who had not long before completed his Anecdotes of Painters. In March 1769, Chatterton, with his usual attention to the wants or prejudices of the persons on whom he wished to impose, sent to Mr. Walpole a letter, offering to furnish him with accounts of a series of great painters who had flourished at Bristol, and remitted also a small specimen of poems of the same remote era. Mr. Walpole, although he could not, as he informs us, very readily swallow "a series of great painters at Bristol," appears to have been in some measure pleased with the offer, and discovered beauties in the verses sent. He therefore returned a polite and thankful letter, desiring further information. From this letter Chatterton appears to have thought he had made a conquest, and, in his answer, thought proper to come to the direct purpose of his application. He informed his correspondent that he was the son of a poor widow, who supported him with great difficulty; that he was an apprentice to an attorney, but had a taste for more elegant studies; he affirmed that great treasures of ancient poetry had been discovered at Bristol, and were in the hands of a person who had lent him the specimen already transmitted, as well as a pastoral (Elinoure and Juga) which accompanied this second letter. He hinted also a wish that Mr. Walpole would assist him in emerging from so dull a profession, by procuring some place, in which he might pursue the natural bias of his genius.
Mr. Walpole immediately submitted the poems to Gray and Mason, who at first sight pronounced them forgeries; on which he returned Chatterton an answer, Advising him to apply to the duties of his profession, as more certain means of attaining the independence and leisure of which he was desirous. This produced a peevish letter from Chatterton, desiring the manuscripts back, as they were the property of another; and after some delay, owing to Mr. Walpole's taking a trip to Paris, the poems were returned in a blank cover. This affront, as Chatterton considered it, he never forgave, and at this no man need wonder who reflects how difficult it must ever be for an impostor to forgive those who have attempted to detect him.
The only remarkable consequence of this correspondence was the censure Mr. Walpole incurred from the admirers of Chatterton, who, upon no other authority than the circumstances now related, persisted in accusing him of barbarous neglect of an extraordinary genius who solicited his protection, and finally of being the cause of his shocking end. Mr. Walpole, when he found this calumny transmitted from hand to hand, and probably believed by those who did not take the trouble to inquire into the facts, drew up a candid narrative of the whole correspondence, which, he proved, was broken off nearly two years before Chatterton died, during which two years the latter had resided, with every encouragement, in London, and according to his own account, was within the prospect of ease and independence without the aid of Mr. Walpole's patronage. Of this Mr. Walpole's accusers could not be ignorant, if they knew any thing of Chatterton's history. They must have known that Chatterton did not apply to Walpole, as a poet, but merely as a young man who was transmitting the property of another, and who had no claims of his own, except that he was tired of a dull profession, and wished for a place in which he might indulge his taste in what was more lively. A patron must have had many places in his gift, and few applicants, if he could spare one to a person who professed no other merit than an inclination to exchange labour for ease. Yet Walpole has been held forth to public indignation as the cause of Chatterton's death. "But is it not hard that a man on whom a forgery has been tried unsuccessfully, should for that single reason be held out to the world as the assassin of genius? If a banker to whom a forged note should be presented, should refuse to accept it, and the ingenious fabricator should afterwards fall a victim to his own slight of hand, would you accuse the poor banker to the public, and urge that his caution had deprived the world of some supposititious deed of settlement, that would have deceived the whole court of chancery, and deprived some great family of its estate?"
About this time (1769) we are told that Chatterton became an infidel, but whether this was in consequence of any course of reading into which he had fallen, or that he found it convenient to get rid of the obligations which stood in the way of his past or future schemes, it is not very material to inquire. Yet, although one of his advocates, the foremost to accuse Mr. Walpole of neglecting him, asserts that "his profligacy was at least as conspicuous as his abilities," it does not appear that he was more profligate in the indulgence of the grosser passions than other young men who venture on the gayeties of life at an early age. While at Bristol he had not mixed with improper company; his few associates of the female sex were persons of character. In London the case might have been otherwise, but of this we have no direct proof, and he practised at least one rule which is no inconsiderable preservative; he was remarkably temperate in his diet. In his writings, indeed, we find some passages that are more licentious than could have been expected from a young man unhacknied in the ways of vice, but not more so than might be expected in one who was premature in every thing, and had exhausted the stock of human folly at an age when it is usually found unbroken. All his deceptions, his prevarications, his political tergiversation, &c. were such as we should have looked for in men of an advanced age, hardened by evil associations, and soured by disappointed pride or avarice.
One effect of his infidelity, we are told, was to render the idea of suicide familiar. This he had cherished before he left Bristol, and when he could not fairly complain of the world's neglect, as be had preferred no higher pretensions than those of a man who has by accident discovered a treasure which he knows not how to make current. Beside repeatedly intimating to Mr. Lambert's servants that he intended to put an end to his life, he left a paper in sight of some of the family, specifying the day on which he meant to carry this purpose into execution. The reason assigned for this appointment was the refusal of a gentleman whom he had occasionally complimented in his poems, to supply him with money. It has since been supposed to be merely an artifice to get rid of his apprenticeship, and this certainly was the consequence, as Mr. Lambert did not choose that his house should be honoured by such an act of heroism. He had now served this gentleman about two years and ten months, during which he learned so little of law as to be unable to draw up the necessary document respecting the dissolution of his apprenticeship. We have seen how differently his time was employed, and there is reason to think that he had fabricated the whole of his Rowleian poetry;and antique manuscripts during his apprenticeship, and before he left Bristol.
His object now was to go to London, where he had full confidence that his talents would be duly honoured. He had written letters to several booksellers of that city, who encouraged him to reside among them. Some literary adventurers would have entered on such a plan with diffidence; and of many who have become authors by profession, the greater part may plead the excuse that they neither foresaw nor understood the many mortifications and difficulties that are to be surmounted. Chatterton, on the contrary, set out with the confidence of a man who has laid his plans in such deep wisdom that he thinks it impossible they should fail. He boasted to his correspondents of three distinct resources, one at least of which was unfortunately in his own power. He first meant to employ his pen; then to turn methodist preacher; and if both should fail, to shoot himself. As his friends do not appear to have taken any steps to rectify his notions on these schemes, it is probable that they either did not consider him as serious, or had given him up, as one above all advice, and curable only by a little experience, which they were not sorry he should acquire in his own way, and at his own expense.
His first literary attempts by which he was to realize the dreams of presumption, were of the political kind, chiefly satires against the members and friends of administration. In March 1770 he wrote a poem called Kew Gardens, part of which only has been published, but enough to show that he had been supplied by some patriotic preceptor with the floating scandal of the day against the Princess dowager of Wales, lord Bute, and other statesmen. It is highly improbable that a boy, who bad spent the greater part of his time since he left school, in fabricating, or deciphering the poetry, heraldry, and topography of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, should on a sudden become intimately acquainted with the intrigues of political men and their families. In all this, his materials must have been supplied by some persons who lived by propagating the calumnies of personal and political history, and who would rejoice in the dauntless spirit of their new associate. Another poem of the same description was intitled the Whore of Babylon. Of both these the reader may find specimens in the present collection: it does not appear that the whole of them were printed.
On his arrival in London, near the end of April, he received, according to his own account, the most flattering encouragement, and various employment was recommended: Among other schemes was a history of London, which if he had lived to complete it, must have been a suitable companion to Mr. Barrett's history of Bristol. In the mean time he wrote for many of the magazines and newspapers; his principal contributions appeared in the Freeholder's Magazine, the Town and Country, the Court and City, the Political Register, and the Gospel Magazine. He wrote songs also for the public gardens, and for some time got so much money that he thought himself comparatively affluent, and able to provide for his mother and sister, whose hearts he gladdened by frequent intimations of his progress.
During this career he became acquainted with Wilkes, and with Beckford who was then lord mayor. These patriots, however, he soon discovered were not so ready with their money as with their praise; and as the former appears to have been his only object, he had some thoughts of writing for the ministerial party. After Beckford's death, which he affected to lament as his ruin, he addressed a letter to lord North, signed Moderator, complimenting administration for rejecting the city remonstrance, and one of the same date signed Probus, abusing administration for the same measure. While this unprincipled young man was thus demonstrating how unsafe it would be for any party to trust him, his letters to all his friends continued to be full of the brightest prospects of honours and wealth. But about the month of July some revolution appears to have taken place in his mind or his affairs which speedily put an end to all his hopes.
Of what nature this was remains yet a secret. About the time mentioned, he removed from a house in Shoreditch, where he had hitherto lived, to the house of a Mrs. Angel, a sack-maker in Brook-street, Holborn, where he became poor and unhappy, abandoning his literary pursuits, and projecting to go out to Africa as a naval surgeon's mate: he had picked up some knowledge of surgery from Mr. Barret, and now requested that gentleman's recommendation, which Mr. Barret, who knew his versatile turn, and how unfit in other respects he was for the situation, thought proper to refuse. If this was the immediate cause of his catastrophe, what are we to think of his lofty spirit? It is certain, however, that he no longer employed his pen, and that the short remainder of his days was spent in a conflict between pride and poverty. On the day preceding his death, he refused, with indignation a kind offer from Mrs. Angel to partake of her dinner, assuring her that he was not hungry, although he had not eaten any thing for two or three days. On the 25th of August, 1770, he was found dead, in consequence, as is supposed, of having swallowed arsenic in water, or some preparation of opium. He was buried in a shell in the burying ground belonging to Shoe-lane workhouse. Previous to this rash act he appears to have destroyed all his manuscripts, as the room, when broken open, was found covered with little scraps of paper.
It has been regretted that we know very little of the life of this extraordinary young man, whose writings have since become an object of so much curiosity; and great surprise has been expressed that, from the many with whom he appears to have been acquainted, such scanty information has been obtained. For this, however, various reasons may be assigned which will lessen the wonder. In the first place his fame, using that word in its most common application, was confined principally to his native city, and there it appears that his friends undervalued his talents, because they considered him in no better light than that of an unprincipled young man, who had accidentally become possessed of certain ancient manuscripts, some of which he had given up, some he had mutilated, and the rest he had destroyed. He was with them an illiterate charity-boy, the runaway apprentice or hackney-writer of an attorney; and after he came to London, they appear to have made very few inquiries after him, congratulating themselves that they had got rid of a rash, impetuous, headstrong boy, who would do some mischief, and disgrace himself and his relations. Again, in London, notwithstanding of his boasting letters to his mother and sister, he rose to no high rank among the reputable writers of the day, his productions being confined to publications of the lower order, all of which are now forgotten. But there cannot be a more decisive proof of the little regard he attracted in London, than the secrecy and silence which accompanied his death. This event, although so extraordinary, for young suicides are surely not common, is not even mentioned in any shape in the Gentleman's Magazine, the London Magazine, the Annual Register, the St. James's or London Chronicles, nor in any of the respectable publications of the day. He died, a coroner's jury sat upon the body, and he was buried among paupers, so long before his acquaintance heard of these circumstances, that it was with some difficulty they could be traced with any degree of authenticity. And, lastly, it does not appear that any inquiries were made into his early history for nearly seven years after his death, when the Poems of Rowley were first published, and led the way to a very acute and long-protracted discussion on their merits. It may be added, too, that they who contended for the authenticity of the poems were for sinking every circumstance that could prove the genius of Chatterton, until Mr. Thomas Warton, and some others, took the opposite side of the question, brought the poems to the internal evidence, and discovered, that however extraordinary it was for Chatterton to produce them in the eighteenth century, it was impossible that Rowley could have written them in the fifteenth.
When public attention was at length called to Chatterton's history, his admirers took every step to excite compassion in his favour. It became the fashion to report that he was starved by an insensible age, or suffered by the neglect of patrons to perish in want of the common necessaries of life. But of this there is no satisfactory evidence. On the contrary he appears to have been fully employed by his literary friends almost up to the day of his death, and from one of them he solicited money a very little before that catastrophe, and received it with an assurance that he should have more if he wanted it. This benefactor was the late Mr. Hamilton, senior, the proprietor of the Critical Review, a man of well-known liberality both of mind and purse. One who knew him well, when in London, and who wrote under the inspection of Mr. Hamilton, gives it as a probable conjecture, that "he wished to seal his secret with his death. He knew that he and Rowley were suspected to be the same; his London friends spoke of it with little scruple, and he neither confessed nor denied it. He might fear somewhat from himself; might dread the effects of increasing obligations, and be struck with horrour at the thought of a public detection. He sometimes seemed wild, abstracted, and incoherent: at others he had a settled gloominess in his countenance, the sure presage of his fatal resolution. In short this was the very temperament and constitution from which we should, in similar circumstances, expect the same event. He was one of those irregular meteors which astonish the universe for a moment, and then disappear for ever." This is at least plausible, but the immediate cause of his death must perhaps yet remain a mystery. He had written so recently to his Bristol friends (about a month before) without a syllable indicating discontent or despair, that it was wholly unexpected on their part; but suicide, at one time or other, his biographers have proved, was his fixed purpose, and the execution of it was probably to depend on his disappointment in whatever wild or impracticable scheme he might meditate. He got enough in London, by his literary labours, to supply the decent necessaries of life, but his dreams of affluence were over, and had probably left that frightful void in his mind at which despair and disappointed pride entered.
The person of Chatterton is said to have been, like his genius, "premature; he had a manliness and dignity beyond his years, and there was a something about him uncommonly prepossessing. His most remarkable feature was his eyes, which, though grey, were uncommonly piercing; when he warmed in argument, or otherwise, they sparkled with fire; and one eye, it is said, was still more remarkable than the other."
As to his genius, it must ever be the subject of admiration, whether be was or was not the author of the poems ascribed to Rowley. If we look at the poems avowedly his own, together with his productions in prose, where shall we find such various and indubitable proofs of genius at so early an age, struggling against so many difficulties? Let us contemplate him as a young man, without classical education, and who knew nothing of literary society but during the few months of his residence in London; and if to this we add, what has been most decidedly proved, that he was not only the author of the poems attributed to Rowley, but consumed his early days in the laborious task of disguising them in the garb of antiquity, perpetually harassed by suspicion, and fearful of discovery: if likewise we reflect that the whole of his career closed before he had completed his eighteenth year, we must surely allow that he was one of the most extraordinary young men of modern times, and deserves to be placed high among those instances of premature talents recorded by Kleferus in his Bibliotheca Eruditorum Praecocium, and by Baillet in his Enfans Celebres.
Still our admiration should be chastened by confining it to the single point of Chatterton's extreme youth. If we go farther, and consider Rowley's poems as the most perfect productions of any age; if, with Dean Milles, we prefer him to Homer, Virgil, Spenser and Shakespeare, we go beyond all bounds of sober criticism, or rather we defy its laws. Wonderful as those poems are, when considered as the productions of a boy, many heavy deductions must be made from them, if we consider them as the productions of a man, of one who had bestowed labour as well as contributed genius, and who bail learned to polish and correct; who would not have admitted such a number of palpable imitations and plagiarisms, and would have altered or expunged a multitude of tame, prosaic, and bald lines and metres.
The general character of his works has been so fairly and elegantly appreciated by lord Orford, that I shall make no apology for introducing his remarks, especially as they occur only in the last edition of his works. "His life," says this critic, "should be compared with the powers of his mind, the perfection of his poetry, his knowledge of the world, which, though in some respects erroneous, spoke quick intuition; his humour, his vein of satire, and, above all, the amazing number of books he must have looked into, though chained down to a laborious and almost incessant service, and confined to Bristol, except, at most, for the last five months of his life; the rapidity with which he seized all the topics of conversation, then in vogue, whether of politics, literature or fashion; and when added to all this mass of reflection, it is remembered that his youthful passions were indulged to excess, faith in such a prodigy may well be suspended, and we should look for some secret agent behind the curtain, if it were not as difficult to believe that any man possessed such a vein of genuine poetry would have submitted to he concealed while he actuated a puppet; or would have stooped to prostitute his muse to so many unworthy functions. But nothing in Chatterton can be separated from Chatterton. His noblest flights, his sweetest strains, his grossest ribaldry, and his most common-place imitations of the productions of magazines, were all the effervescenses of the same ungovernable impulse, which, cameleon-like, imbibed the colours of all it looked on. It was Ossian, or a Saxon monk, or Gray, or Smollet, or Junius — and if it failed most in what it most affected to be, a poet of the fifteenth century, it was because it could not imitate what had not existed."
The facts already related are principally taken from the account drawn up originally for the Biographia Britannica, and at the distance of eighteen years, prefixed to a late edition of his works, without any addition or alteration. Something yet remains to be said of his virtues, which, if the poetical eulogiums that have appeared deserve any credit, were many. Except his temperance, however, already noticed, we find only that he preserved an affectionate attachment for his mother and sister, and even concerning this it would appear that more has been said than is consistent. It has been asserted that he sent presents to them from London, when in want himself; but it is evident from his letters that these were unnecessary articles for persons in their situation, and were not sent when he was in want. Six weeks after, when he felt himself in that state, he committed an act, which affection for his relations, since he despised all higher considerations, ought to have retarded. His last letter to his sister and mother, dated July 20, is full of high-spirited hopes, and contains a promise to visit them before the first of January, but not a word that can imply discontent, far less an intention to put an end to his life. What must have been their feelings, when the melancholy event reached them! But how little these poor women were capable of appreciating his character, appears from the very singular evidence of his sister, who affirmed that he was "a lover of truth from the earliest dawn of reason." The affectionate prejudices of a fond relation may be pardoned; but it was surely inconsistent to introduce this in a life, every part of which proves his utter contempt for truth at an age when we are taught to expect a disposition open, ingenuous, and candid.
With regard to the controversy occasioned by the publications attributed to Rowley, it is unnecessary to enter upon it in this sketch, which was intended merely to preserve the few particulars of his history that can be depended on. Whether the object of this controversy was not disproportioned to the warmth it excited, and the length of time it consumed, the reader may judge from a perusal of the whole of Chatterton's productions. The principal advocates for the existence of Rowley, and the authenticity of his poems, were Mr. Bryant, Dean Milles, Dr. Glynn, Mr. Henley, Dr. Langhorne (in the Monthly Review), and Mr. James Harris. Their opponents were Mr. Tyrwhitt, Horace Walpole, the two Wartons, Dr. Johnson, Mr. Steevens, Dr. Percy (bishop of Dromore), Mr. Gibbon, Mr. Jones, Dr. Farmer, Mr. Colman, Mr. Sheridan, Dr. Lort, Mr. Astle, Mr. (sir Herbert) Croft, Mr. Hayley, Lord Camden, Mr. Gough, Mr. Mason, the writer of the Critical Review, Mr. Badcock (in the Monthly Review), the Reviewers in the Gentleman's Magazine, and various correspondents in the same miscellany. To these may be added Mr. Malone, who has lived to detect another forgery by a very young impostor [William Henry Ireland], in the history of which the reader will probably recollect many corresponding circumstances, but will be inclined to prefer the shame of Chatterton, fatal as it was, to the unblushing impudence and unnatural fraud of one who brought disgrace and ruin on a parent.
In the year 1803, an edition of Chatterton's works, far more complete than any that had yet appeared, was published under the care of Messrs. Southey and Cottle, for the benefit of Mrs. Newton, Chatterton's sister, (since dead) and of her daughter. This edition has been followed in the present collection, but the coldness with which it was received by the public is perhaps a proof that it will not be possible to perpetuate the fame of an author, who has concealed his best productions under the garb of a barbarous language, which few will be at the trouble of learning. The controversy is no longer interesting, and perhaps the warmth with which so many great names engaged in it may hereafter he reckoned as surprising as the object itself.