Thomas Chatterton

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:81-84.

The success of Macpherson's Ossian seems to have prompted the remarkable forgeries of Chatterton—

The marvellous boy,
The sleepless soul that perished in his pride.

Such precocity of genius was never perhaps before witnessed. We have the poems of Pope and Cowley written, one at twelve, and the other at fifteen years of age, but both were inferior to the verses of Chatterton at eleven; and his imitations of the antique, executed when he was fifteen and sixteen, exhibit a vigour of thought and facility of versification — to say nothing of their antiquarian character, which puzzled the most learned men of the day — that stamp him a poet of the first class. His education also was miserably deficient; yet when a mere boy, eleven years of ago, this obscure youth could write as follows:—

Almighty Framer of the skies,
O let our pure devotion rise
Like incense in thy sight!
Wrapt in impenetrable shade,
The texture of our souls was mad;
Till thy command gave light.

The sun of glory gleamed, the ray
Refined the darkness into day,
And bid the vapours fly:
Impelled by his eternal love,
He left his palaces above,
To cheer our gloomy sky.

How shall we celebrate the day,
When God appeared in mortal clay,
The mark of worldly scorn.
When the archangel's heavenly lays
Attempted the Redeemer's praise,
And hailed Salvation's morn?

A humble form the Godhead wore,
The pains of poverty he bore,
To gaudy pomp unknown:
Though in a human walk he trod,
Still was the man Almighty God,
In glory all his own.

Despised, oppressed, the Godhead bears
The torments of this vale of tears,
Nor bids his vengeance rise:
He saw the creatures he had made
Revile his power, his peace invade,
He saw with Mercy's eyes.

THOMAS CHATTERTON was born at Bristol, November 20, 1752. His father, who had taught the Free School there, died before his birth, and he was educated at a charity school, where nothing but English, writing, and accounts were taught. His first lessons were said to have been from a black-letter Bible, which may have had some effect on his youthful imagination. At the age of fourteen he was put apprentice to an attorney, where his situation was irksome and uncomfortable, but left him ample time to prosecute his private studies. He was passionately devoted to poetry, antiquities, and heraldry, and ambitious of distinction. His ruling passion, he says, was "unconquerable pride." He now set himself to accomplish his various impositions by pretended discoveries of old manuscripts. In October 1768 the new bridge at Bristol was finished; and Chatterton sent to a newspaper in the town a pretended account of the ceremonies on opening the old bridge, introduced by a letter to the printer, intimating that "the description of the friars first passing ever the old bridge was taken from an ancient manuscript." To one man, fond of heraldic honours, he gave a pedigree reaching up to the time of William the Conqueror; to another he presents an ancient poem, the "Romaunt of the Cnyghte," written by one of his ancestors 450 years before; to a religions citizen of Bristol he gives an ancient fragment of a sermon on the Divinity of the Holy Spirit, as "wroten" by Thomas Rowley, a monk of the fifteenth century; to another, solicitous of obtaining information about Bristol, he makes the valuable present of an account of all the churches of the city, as they appeared three hundred years before, and accompanies it with drawings and descriptions of the castle, the whole pretended to be drawn from writings of the "gode prieste Thomas Rowley." Horace Walpole was engaged in writing the "History of British Painters," and Chatterton sent him an account of eminent "Carvellers and Peyncters," who once flourished in Bristol. These, with various impositions of a similar nature, duped the citizens of Bristol. Chatterton had no confidant in his labours; he toiled in secret, gratified only by "the stoical pride of talent." He frequently wrote by moonlight, conceiving that the immediate presence of that luminary added to the inspiration. His Sundays were commonly spent in walking alone into the country about Bristol, and drawing sketches of churches and other objects which had impressed his romantic imagination. He would also lie down on the meadows in view of St Mary's church, Bristol, fix his eyes upon the ancient edifice, and seem as if he were in a kind of trance. He thus nursed the enthusiasm which destroyed him. Though correct and orderly in his conduct, Chatterton, before he was sixteen, imbibed principles of infidelity, and the idea of suicide was familiar to his mind. It was, however, overruled for a time by his passion for literary fame and distinction. It was a favourite maxim with him, that man is equal to anything, and that everything might be achieved by diligence and abstinence. His alleged discoveries having attracted great attention, the youth stated that he found the manuscripts in his mother's house. "In the muniment room of St Mary Redcliffe church of Bristol, several chests had been anciently deposited, among which was one called the 'Coffre' 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 manuscripts 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 be had found many writings of Mr. Canynge, and of Thomas Rowley (the friend of Canynge), a priest of the fifteenth century" [author's note: Campbell's Specimens]. These fictitious poems were published in the Town and Country Magazine, to which Chatterton had become a contributor, and occasioned a warm controversy among literary antiquaries. Some of them he had submitted to Horace Walpole, who showed them to Gray and Mason; but these competent judges pronounced them to be forgeries. After three years spent in the attorney's office, Chatterton obtained his release from his apprenticeship, and went to London, where he engaged in various tasks for the booksellers, and wrote for the magazines and newspapers. He obtained an introduction to Beckford, the patriotic and popular lord-mayor, and his own inclinations led him to espouse the opposition party. "But no money," he says, "is to be got on that side of the question; interest is on the other side. But he is a poor author who cannot write on both sides." He boasted that his company was courted everywhere, and "that he would settle the nation before he had done." The splendid visions of promotion and consequence, however, soon vanished, and even his labours for the periodical press failed to afford him the means of comfortable subsistence. He applied for the appointment of a surgeon's mate to Africa, but was refused the necessary recommendation. This seems to have been his last hope, and he made no farther effort at literary composition. His spirits had always been unequal, alternately gloomy and elevated — both in extremes; he had cast off the restraints of religion, and had no steady principle to guide him, unless it was a strong affection for his mother and sister, to whom he sent remittances of money, while his means lasted. Habits of intemperance, succeeded by fits of remorse, exasperated his constitutional melancholy; and after being reduced to actual want (though with characteristic pride he rejected a dinner offered him by his landlady the day before his death), he tore all his papers, and destroyed himself by taking arsenic, August 25, 1770. At the time of his death he was aged seventeen years nine months and a few days. "No English poet," says Campbell, "ever equalled him at the same age." The remains of the unhappy youth were interred in a shell in the burying-ground of Shoe-Lane workhouse. His unfinished papers he had destroyed before his death, and his room, when broken open, was found covered with scraps of paper. The citizens of Bristol have erected a monument to the memory of their native poet.

The poems of Chatterton, published under the name of Rowley, consist of the tragedy of "Ella," the "Execution of Sir Charles Bawdin," "Ode to Ella," the "Battle of Hastings," the "Tournament," one or two "Dialogues," and a description of "Canynge's Feast." Some of them, as the "Ode to Ella" (which we subjoin), have exactly the air of modern poetry, only disguised with antique spelling and phraseology. The avowed compositions of Chatterton are equally inferior to the forgeries in poetical powers and diction; which is satisfactorily accounted for by Sir Walter Scott by the fact, that his whole powers and energies must, at his early age, have been converted to the acquisition of the obsolete language and peculiar style necessary to support the deep-laid deception. "He could have had no time for the study of our modern poets, their rules of verse, or modes of expression; while his whole faculties were intensely employed in the Herculean task of creating the person, history, and language of an ancient poet, which, vast as these faculties were, were sufficient wholly to engross, though not to overburden them." A power of picturesque painting seems to be Chatterton's most distinguishing feature as a poet. The heroism of Sir Charles Bawdin, who

Summed the actions of the day
Each night before he slept,

and who bearded the tyrant king on his way to the scaffold, is perhaps his most striking portrait; The following description of Morning in the tragedy of "Ella," is in the style of the old poets:—

Bright sun had in his ruddy robes been dight,
From the red east he flitted with his train;
The Houris draw away the gate of Night,
Her sable tapestry was rent in twain:
The dancing streaks bedecked heaven's plain,
And on the dew did smile with skimmering eye,
Like gouts of blood which do black armour stain,
Shining upon the bourn which standeth by;
The soldiers stood upon the hillis side,
Like young enleaved trees which in a forest bide.

A description of Spring in the same poem—

The budding floweret blushes at the light,
The meads be sprinkled with the yellow hue,
In daisied mantles is the mountain dight,
The fresh young cowslip bendeth with the dew;
The trees enleafed, into heaven, straight,
When gentle winds do blow, to whistling din is brought.
The evening comes, and brings the dews along,
The ruddy welkin shineth to the eyne,
Around the ale-stake minstrels sing the song,
Young ivy round the door-post doth entwine;
I lay me on the grass, yet to my will
Albeit all is fair, there lacketh something still.

In the epistle to Canynge, Chatterton has a striking censure of the religious interludes which formed the early drama; but the idea, as Warton remarks, is the result of that taste and discrimination which could only belong to a more advanced period of society—

Plays made from holy tales I hold unmeet;
Let some great story of a man be sung;
When as a man we God and Jesus treat,
In my poor mind we do the Godhead wrong.

The satirical and town effusions of Chatterton are often in bad taste, yet display a wonderful command of easy language and lively sportive allusion. They have no traces of juvenility, unless it be in adopting the vulgar scandals of the day, unworthy his original genius. In his satire of "Kew Gardens" are the following lines, alluding to the poet laureate and the proverbial poverty of poets:—

Though sing-song Whitehead ushers in the year,
With joy to Britain's king and sovereign den;
And, in compliance to an ancient mode,
Measures his syllables into an ode;
Yet such the scurvy merit of his muse,
He bows to deans, and licks his lordship's shoes;
Then leave the wicked barren way of rhyme,
Fly far from poverty, be wise in time:
Regard the office more, Parnassus less,
Put your religion in a decent dress:
Then may your interest in the town advance,
Above the reach of muses or romance.

In a poem entitled "The Prophecy" are some vigorous stanzas, in a different measure, and remarkable for maturity and freedom of style:—

This troth of old was sorrow's friend—
"Times at the worst will surely mend."
The difficulty's then to know
How long Oppression's clock can go;
When Britain's sons may cease to sigh,
And hope that their redemption's nigh.

When vile Corruption's brazen face
At council-board shall take her place;
And lords-commissioners resort
To welcome her at Britain's court;
Look up, ye Britons! cease to sigh,
For your redemption draweth nigh.

See Pension's harbour, large and clear,
Defended by St. Stephen's pier!
The entrance safe, by current led,
Tiding round G—'s jetty head;
Look up, ye Britons! cease to sigh,
For your redemption draweth nigh.

When civil power shall snore at ease;
While soldiers fire — to keep the peace;
When murders sanctuary find,
And petticoats can Justice blind;
Look up, ye Britons! cease to sigh,
For your redemption draweth nigh.

Commerce o'er Bondage will prevail,
Free as the wind that fills her sail.
When she complains of vile restraint,
And Power is deaf to her complaint;
Look up, ye Britons! cease to sigh,
For your redemption draweth nigh.

When at Bute's feet poor Freedom lies,
Marked by the priest for sacrifice,
And doomed a victim for the sins
Of half the outs and all the ins;
Look up, ye Britons! cease to sigh,
For your redemption draweth nigh.

When time shall bring your wish about,
Or, seven-years lease, you sold, is out;
No future contract to fulfil;
Your tenants holding at your will;
Raise up your heads! your right demand—
For your redemption's in your hand.

Then is your time to strike the blow,
And let the slaves of Mammon know,
Britain's true sons a bribe can scorn,
And die as free as they were born.
Virtue again shall take her seat,
And your redemption stand complete.

The boy who could thus write at sixteen, might soon have proved a Swift or a Dryden. Yet in satire, Chatterton evinced but a small part of his power. His Rowleian poems have a compass of invention, and a luxuriance of fancy, that promised a great chivalrous or allegorical poet of the stamp of Spenser.