The Poems, which make the principal part of this Collection, have for some time excited much curiosity, as the supposed productions of THOMAS ROWLEY, a priest of Bristol, in the reigns of Henry VI. and Edward IV. They are here faithfully printed from the most authentic MSS that could be procured; of which a particular description is given in the Introductory account of the several pieces contained in this volume, subjoined to this Preface. Nothing more therefore seems necessary at present, than to inform the Reader shortly of the manner in which these Poems were first brought to light, and of the authority upon which they are ascribed to the persons whose names they bear.
This cannot be done so satisfactorily as in the words of Mr. George Catcott of Bristol, to whose very laudable zeal the Publick is indebted for the most considerable part of the following collection. His account of the matter is this: "The first discovery of certain MSS having been deposited in Redclift church, above three centuries ago, was made in the year 1768, at the time of opening the new bridge at Bristol, and was owing to a publication in Farley's Weekly Journal, 1 October 1768, containing an Account of the ceremonies observed at the opening of the old bridge, taken, as it was said, from a very antient MS. This excited the curiosity of some persons to enquire after the original. The printer, Mr. Farley, could give no account of it, or of the person who brought the copy; but after much enquiry it was discovered, that the person who brought the copy was a youth, between 15 and 16 years of age, whose name was Thomas Chatterton, and whose family had been sextons of Redclift church for near 150 years. His father, who was now dead, had also been master of the free-school in Pile-street. The young man was at first very unwilling to discover from whence he had the original; but, after many promises made to him, he was at last prevailed on to acknowledge, that he had received this, together with many other MSS, from his father, who had found them in a large chest in an upper room over the chapel on the north side of Redclift church."
Soon after this Mr. Catcott commenced his acquaintance with young Chatterton, and, partly as presents partly as purchase, procured from him copies of many of his MSS. in prose and verse. Other copies were disposed of, in the same way, to Mr. William Barrett, an eminent surgeon at Bristol, who has long been engaged in writing the history of that city. Mr. Barrett also procured from him several fragments, some of a considerable length, written on vellum, which he asserted to be part of his original MSS. [Author's note: One of these fragments, by Mr. Barrett's permission, has been copied in the manner of a Fac simile, by that ingenious artist Mr. Strutt, and an engraving of it is inserted at p. 288. Two other small fragments of Poetry are printed in p. 277, 8, 9. See the Introductory Account. The fragments in prose, which are considerably larger, Mr. Barrett intends to publish in his History of Bristol, which, the Editor has the satisfaction to inform the Publick, is very far advanced. In the same work will be inserted A Discourse on Bristowe, and the other historical pieces in prose, which Chatterton at different times delivered out, as copied from Rowley's MSS.; with such remarks by Mr. Barrett, as he of all men is best qualified to make, from his accurate researches into the Antiquities of Bristol.] In short, in the space of about eighteen months, from October 1768 to April 1770, besides the Poems now published, he produced as many compositions, in prose and verse, under the names of Rowley, Canynge, &c. as would nearly fill such another volume.
In April 1770 Chatterton went to London, and died there in the August following; so that the whole history of this very extraordinary transaction cannot now probably be known with any certainty. Whatever may have been his part in it; whether he was the author, or only the copier (as he constantly asserted) of all these productions; he appears to have kept the secret entirely to himself, and not to have put it in the power of any other person, to bear certain testimony either to his fraud or to his veracity.
[Author's note: The history of this youth is so intimately connected with that of the poems now published, that the Reader cannot be too early apprized of the principal circumstances of his short life. He was born on the 20th of November 1752, and educated at a charity-school on St. Augustin's Back, where nothing more was taught than reading, writing, and accounts. At the age of fourteen, he was articled clerk to an attorney, with whom he continued till he left Bristol in April, 1770.
Though his education was thus confined, he discovered an early turn towards poetry and English antiquities, particularly heraldry. How soon he began to be an author is not known. In the Town and Country Magazine for March 1769, are two letters, probably, from him, as they are dated at Bristol, and subscribed with his usual signature, D. B. The first contains short extracts from two MSS., "written three hundred years ago by one Rowley, a Monk," concerning dress in the age of Henry II.; the other ETHELGAR, a Saxon poem, in bombast prose. In the same Magazine for May 1769, are three communications from Bristol, with the same signature, D. B. viz. CERDICK, translated from the Saxon (in the same style with ETHELGAR), p. 233. — Observations upon Saxon heraldry, with drawing of Saxon atchievements, &c. p. 245. — ELINOURE and JUGA, written three hundred years ago by T. ROWLEY, a secular priest, p. 273. This last poem is reprinted in this volume, p. 19. In the subsequent months of 1769 and 1770 there are several other pieces in the same Magazine, which are undoubtedly of his composition.
In April 1770, he left Bristol and came to London, in hopes of advancing his fortune by his talents for writing, of which, by this time, he had conceived a very high opinion. In the prosecution of this scheme, he appears to have almost entirely depended upon the patronage of a set of gentlemen, whom an eminent author long ago pointed out, as "not the very worst judges or rewarders of merit," the booksellers of this great city. At his first arrival indeed he was so unlucky as to find two of his expected Maecenases, the one in the King's Bench, and the other in Newgate. But this little disappointment was alleviated by the encouragement which he received from other quarters; and on the 14th of May he writes to his mother, in high spirits upon the change in his situation, with the following sarcastic reflection upon his former patrons at Bristol. "As to Mr. —, Mr. —, Mr. —, &c. &c. they rate literary lumber so low, that I believe an author, in their estimation, must be poor indeed! But here matters are otherwise. Had Rowley been a Londoner instead of a Bristowyan, I could have lived by copying his works."
In a letter to his sister, dated 30 May, he informs her, that he is to be employed "in writing a voluminous history of London, to appear in numbers the beginning of next winter." In the mean time, he had written something in praise of the Lord Mayor (Beckford), which had procured him the honour of being presented to his lordship. In the letter just mentioned he gives the following account of his reception, with some curious observations upon political writing: "The Lord Mayor received me as politely as a citizen could. But the devil of the matter is, there is no money to be got of this side of the question. — Essays on the patriotic side will fetch no more than what the copy is sold for. As the patriots themselves are searching for a place, they have no gratuity to spare. — On the other hand, unpopular essays will not even be accepted; and you must pay to have them printed: but then you seldom lose by it, as courtiers are so sensible of their deficiency in merit, that they generously reward all who know how to dawb them with the appearance of it."
Notwithstanding his employment on the History of London, he continued to write incessantly in various periodical publications. On the 11th of July he tells his sister that he had pieces last month in the Gospel Magazine; the Town and Country, viz. Maria Friendless; False Step; Hunter of Oddities; To Miss Bush, &c. But all these exertions of his genius brought in so little profit, that he was soon reduced to real indigence; from which he was relieved by death (in what manner is not certainly known), on the 24th of August, or thereabout, when he wanted near three months to complete his eighteenth year. The floor of his chamber was covered with written papers, which he had torn into small pieces; but there was no appearance (as the Editor has been credibly informed) of any writings on parchment or vellum.]
The question therefore concerning the authenticity of these Poems must now be decided by an examination of the fragments upon vellum, which Mr. Barrett received from Chatterton as part of his original MSS., and by the internal evidence which the several pieces afford. If the Fragments shall be judged to be genuine, it will still remain to be determined, how far their genuineness should serve to authenticate the rest of the collection, of which no copies, older than those made by Chatterton, have ever been produced. On the other hand, if the writing of the Fragments shall be judged to be counterfeit and forged by Chatterton, it will not of necessity follow, that the matter of them was also forged by him, and still less, that all the other compositions, which he professed to have copied from antient MSS., were merely inventions of his own. In either case, the decision must finally depend upon the internal evidence.
It may be expected perhaps, that the Editor should give an opinion upon this important question; but he rather chooses, for many reasons, to leave it to the determination of the unprejudiced and intelligent Reader. He had long been desirous that these Poems should be printed; and therefore readily undertook the charge of superintending the edition. This he has executed in the manner, which seemed to him best suited to such a publication; and here he means that his task should end. Whether the Poems be really antient, or modern; the compositions of Rowley, or the forgeries of Chatterton; they must always be considered as a most singular literary curiosity.