1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Chalkhill

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:137.



A pastoral romance, entitled Thealma and Clearchus, was published by Izaak Walton in 1683, with a title-page stating it to have been "written long since by JOHN CHALKHILL, Esq., an acquaintant and friend of Edmund Spenser." Walton tells us of the author, "that he was in his time a man generally known, and as well beloved; for he was humble and obliging in his behaviour; a gentleman, a scholar, very innocent and prudent; and, indeed, his whole life was useful, quiet, and virtuous." "Thealma and Clearchus" was reprinted by Mr. Singer, who expressed an opinion that as Walton had been silent upon the life of Chalkhill, he might be altogether a fictitious personage, and the poem be actually the composition of Walton himself. A critic in the Retrospective Review, after investigating the circumstances, and comparing the Thealma with the acknowledged productions of Walton, comes to the same conclusion. Sir John Hawkins, the editor of Walton, seeks to overturn the hypothesis of Singer, by the following statement: — "Unfortunately, John Chalkhill's tomb of black marble is still to be seen on the walls of Winchester cathedral, by which it appears he died in May 1679, at the age of eighty. Walton's preface speaks of him as dead in May 1678; but as the book was not published till 1683, when Walton was ninety years old, it is probably an error of memory." The tomb in Winchester cannot be that of the author of Thealma, unless Walton committed a further error in styling Chalkhill an "acquaintant and friend" of Spenser. Spenser died in 1599, the very year in which John Chalkhill, interred in Winchester cathedral, must have been born. We should be happy to think that the Thealma was the composition of Walton, thus adding another laurel to his venerable brow; but the internal evidence seems to us to be wholly against such a supposition. The poetry is of a cast far too high for the muse of Izaak, which dwelt only by the side of trouting streams, and among quiet meadows. The nomme de guerre of Chalkhill must also have been an old one with Walton, if he wrote Thealma; for, thirty years before its publication, he had inserted in his "Complete Angler" two songs, signed "Jo. Chalkhill." The disguise is altogether very unlike Izaak Walton, then ninety years of age, and remarkable for his unassuming worth, probity, and piety. We have no doubt, therefore, that Thealma is a genuine poem of the days of Charles or James I. The scene of this pastoral is laid in Arcadia, and the author, like the ancient poets, describes the golden age and all its charms, which were succeeded by an age of iron, on the introduction of ambition, avarice, and tyranny. The plot is complicated and obscure, and the characters are deficient in individuality. It must be read, like the Faery Queen, for its romantic descriptions, and its occasional felicity of language. This versification is that of the heroic couplet, varied, like Milton's Lycidas, by breaks and pauses in the middle of the line.