1798 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Chatterton

Edward Gardner, "A Short Sketch of the Controversy concerning the Poems attributed to Rowley" Miscellanies, in Prose and Verse (1798) 2:143-58.



The following Poems may certainly be regarded as a literary curiosity. The name of CHATTERTON is well known in the learned world, the agitation of the question concerning the authenticity of the poems attributed to ROWLEY, a priest of Bristol, who is said to have flourished in the 15th century, has rendered his fame immortal.

I was acquainted with this unfortunate youth during the space of three months previous to his departure from Bristol to London, in the spring of the year 1770. Being at that time extremely young I could be but a slender judge of the extent of his literary acquirements, or of any transactions which might tend to throw light on the Rowlean Controversy; yet I distinctly remember two circumstances which strongly operate against the claim of the Bristol Priest.

I saw him once rub a piece of parchment with ochre, and afterwards rub it on the ground, at the same time saying that that was the way to antiquate it (I remember the very word) or to give it the appearance of antiquity.

I heard him once affirm that it was very easy for a person who had studied antiquities, and with the aid of a few books which he could name, to copy the style of our elder Poets so exactly, that the most skilful observer should not be able to detect him — no, says he, not Mr. WALPOLE himself.

I remember his mentioning BAYLY as one of the books which was to enable him to deceive the learned world. This last circumstance places in a very conspicuous point of view the critical sagacity of the late truly ingenious BADCOCK, — Chatterton's obligations to Bayly in the fabrication of the Poems in dispute, were first pointed out in the MONTHLY REVIEW.

How far these to circumstances may contribute to strengthen the external evidence in favour of Chatterton's claim, is left to the reader's judgment.

The following pieces came into my hands about a month before his unfortunate journey to London; I did not receive them from CHATTERTON himself; they were lent me be a particular acquaintance of his, who soon after finally left Bristol. The Poems have ever since remained in my possession.

I can speak but little concerning the acquirements or manners of this extraordinary youth. I was too young to be a competent judge of either, and my acquaintance with him was very short. Yet I particularly recollect the philosophic gravity of his countenance, and the keen lightning of his eye. He seemed wholly absorbed in antiquarian and heraldic researches, and fascinated with the brilliancy of literary fame.

The poems published under the name of ROWLEY have been, by the general consent of the learned, attributed to CHATTERTON. The researches of WARTON, TYRWHITT, and CROFT, have all ended in denying the claim of the Bristol Priest. The arguments of Dr. MILLS, and of Mr. BRYANT, have been considered and refuted, whilst numberless passages have been produced from the poems, which cannot with any degree of probability be given to a writer of the 15th century. The internal evidence has been examined with a degree of learning and acuteness which leaves little room for addition, and perhaps none for improvement, new observations can consist only of a few scattered gleanings, but if they concur to prove the truth of the position already generally admitted, they may strengthen the common opinion of the world, and confirm it in the idea, —" That the poems are not the production of any antient Author, but the forgeries of a Modern." And external evidence proves that the fabricator was THOMAS CHATTERTON.

The very considerable deviation from the style of antient poetry is, at first sight, glaringly conspicuous. The language of our ancient poets is commonly colloquial. The phrases of the day are engrafted into metre without the most distant idea of periphrasis. Admitting that from the nature of the composition, a trait of this antient characteristic may sometimes be found in the poems of ROWLEY, we still may see marks of discrimination, circumlocution, and uniform elevation of style. There are many parts of CHAUCER and LYDGATE, which divested of their rhymes, would not have appeared bombast in common conversation. We cannot apply this rule to the brilliant metaphorical elegance of the poems attributed to ROWLEY. The following passage from LYDGATE will illustrate this idea:

For Chaucer that my master was, I knew
What did belong to writing verse and prose,
Ne'er stumbled at small faults, nor yet did view
With scornful eye the works and books of those
That did write in his time, nor yet would taunt
At any man, to fear him or to daunt.

I defy any person to point out any passage so prosaic as this, in the poems of ROWLEY.

When passages are wanting to fill up a line in modern poetry, when a new idea is not resorted to, and an epithet is not sufficient, the phrase is often amplified to the requisite length by the substitution of an accident or property to the substantive, thus THOMSON:

Beneath the trembling languish of her beams.

But the explitives of our old poets are of a much more rude and simple kind, as

A hundred Knyghts truly told,
A Squire of low degree.

A thousand instances of these sort of expletives might be produced, not one of which occurs in ROWLEY.

This peculiarity of modern poetry gives it a rotundity of phrase, and a distinctive cast of character from prose, and is one of its most striking attributes, a passage of the same kind would be selected by a common reader with a sensible pleasure, yet many such lines might be cited from the poems under consideration, let one suffice:

Still on the gallard ear of terror hangs.
A SHAKESPERIAN line.

The continuity of phrase and the succession of sentences are frequently confused in our old Poetry. A chain may be discerned, but its links are scarcely perceptible on account of the rudeness of the workmanship. Instances may be adduced from the poetry of James Ist King of Scots, who wrote at the beginning of the 15th Century [author's note: Description of the Garden at Windsor]. The poems of ROWLEY have on the contrary, all the visible disjointed continuity of modern versification. The works of our elder Poets exhibit a perplexity of style, requiring no inconsiderable portion of mental labor, to separate and arrange the ideas it means to convey. Elegance and perspicuity, is one of the latest acquisitions of composition.

Another striking characteristic of the Poetry of our own times, is a taste for natural and general sentiment, but when this does not exist, language partakes more of historical detail. Nothing can be more minutely precise than the Canterbury tales of CHAUCER: had CHATTERTON attempted a piece of the 15th Century in a similar manner, breaches of the Costume would have soon detected him. The portrait of ancient manners exhibited in the details of ancient poets renders them peculiarly amusing to modern readers; but there is no antiquarian science to be acquired from the poems of ROWLEY, which consist of general sentiment occasionally particularized by an image or epithet. In that age to which our supposed Bard is assigned, criticism, elegance, and refinement, had no so narrowed the scope of sentiment and expression in that degree they abound in ROWLEY.

A difference may also be discovered in the spelling of these poems. If our old Authors (taking modern orthography as the standard) frequently extend words, they sometimes abridge them, but not in an equal proportion. Where no certain standard exists, nothing is more natural than to guide the orthography by the sound. The spelling of ancient Poems may be determined by pronunciation; but CHATTERTON observes the rule of amplification only.

French expressions abound in the style of Caxton, and Lord Rivers, who wrote about the aera of the supposed ROWLEY, but it is remarkable that the learning of the ecclesiastic is entirely bounded by that of his pretended copier. Latin and French were languages too familiar to have been unknown to the Bristol Priest, or any other Conventical; for they were used on the most common occasions, but here we meet with no Latin (a language which I know CHATTERTON was entirely ignorant of) and the little French which is exhibited consists chiefly of Heraldry, a science which this Youth cultivated with an astonishing ardor, and in which he evinced a proficiency and correctness astonishing for one of his years and opportunities. In the application of heraldic colors as epithets to his substantives perhaps he stands singular.

One of the principal causes of the superior elegance of modern Poesy even more than choice or arrangement of language (for these would lose most of their effect without it) is the use of the Ellipse, if this be omitted the style becomes clogg'd and encumbered, and the sense perplexed with observations, which the previous idea would alone intuitively suggest. There is no such alloy in the gold of ROWLEY, he lops off all redundancies of explication and yet numerous instances of this occur in our elder Poets:

What is your name, "rehearse it here I pray,"
Of whom, and where, of what condition,
"That ye been of — let see come off and say."
CHAUCER'S Court of Love.

The passages in italics are superfluous.

In all old poetry there are epithets which by long appropriation to one and the same subject, are invariably annexed to it and uniformly repeated where the metre will admit it. They pass in succession through all the train of Poets with the sacred authority of prescription, of this nature are the "grim Lionns" "fingers long and small," "Barons bold" "Ladies fair," of our ancient Bards, of which only one or two have crept into modern poetry, but we see none of these hackneyed phrased which the present age has rejected in the works of ROWLEY. But had the author been an Ancient they would doubtless have frequently occurred.

Among the allusions in these poems the following has not as I recollect been noticed.

Here like a foule empoysoned leathel tree
Which slayeth everich one that commeth near.
Tyrwhitt's Edition. p. 4.

This tree is the BOHUN UPAS of DARWIN, described in the 2d. Vol. of the Botanic Garden. Darwin took his account from a Magazine. The island where this tree grows was discovered in the 16th Century by the Portugueze. The forgery of these Poems is immediately evident by that positive demonstration which has been so long sought after.

The dialogue Eclogue is taken from one of the parts of SHAKESPEARE'S Henry 6th, "Enter a Son bearing the body of his Father." "Enter a Father bearing the body of his Son," written on the same occasion, the wars of York and Lancaster,

We in goodness will be grete.
ROWLEY, p. 86.

What tho' no grants of royal donours
With pompous title grace our blood,
We'll shine in more substantial honours
And to be noble will be good.
PERCY'S Ballads.

The name of Elinoure, in the pastoral, was probably borrowed from the ballad of "Fair Elinour, Lord Thomas, and the brown Girl."

I am Love's borrower, and can never paie,
But be his borrower still, and thine my sweet for aye.
p. 80.

I strongly suspect this to have been taken from Romeo and Juliet, or some other play of Shakespear; it is exactly in the quibbling spirit of the love language of our celebrated dramatic Bard, evidently borrowed from Italian conceit, the literary fashion of the day.

CHATTERTON, in the opinion of Mr. THO. WARTON, would have proved the first of English Poets; but I think there is a rank to which he would never have arrived. MILTON will probably ever stand alone on his exalted station; nor does Chatterton appear to possess the powers of the immortal SHAKESPEAR, who whether in sublime sentiment, picturesque description, forcible impression, inventive delineation of character, and in every distinct walk of Poetry, always discovers the same astonishing originality of genius. The abilities of Chatterton were certainly of the superior kind; but I cannot admit that either Rowley's poems, or his acknowledged works betray any glimmerings of a power to equal, much less to exceed either of these illustrious poets.

The style of Chatterton possesses no discriminating characteristic peculiarity of its own. Vigor of fancy, florid delineation, ardency of expression, redundancy of similitude and allusion, and accumulation of verb and epithet, form its distinguishing features. He copied the simplicity of the old ballad with exquisite success.

Pleasure dancing from her wood

might have been suggested by the character of Euphrosyne, as inserted in Comus. In the ode to Freedom, which has been so justly admired, it is evident from the manner and language, that he had in his eye the savage war dance. That Chatterton was fond of this subject, may be seen by his African Eclogues, one of which might have been with more propriety styled Peruvian.

There was never a finer picture of savage extacy exhibited, than in the simple line

She danced on the heath.

It fills the mind with a complete image; her head-dress and attire giving her a picturesque appearance, her anlace shaking by her side, her eyes sparkling with fire, her cheeks elevated with a smile of ferocious joy, her whole frame convulsed, and her feet beating the ground, not in the graceful movements of scientific dancing, but in quick, violent motions. The other parts of this beautiful Ode are equally dramatic. Her "Sitting on a rocke," is the rest of the principal figure dancer till his turn again approaches. Any one acquainted with the ballets and allegorical dances of the stage, will perceive a strong resemblance between them and the imagery of Chatterton's Ode. The very versification is in the manner of an overture, and resembles the music of it. There is nothing derogatory from his genius in this supposition; All ideas must be acquired by reading and observation.

In the African Eclogues, and the Elegy to Phillips, we discern an equal genius with that of the imaginary Rowley. In the fabricated poems, that on "our Lady's Churche," and the story of "Wm. Canynge," possess the greatest chastity; the diction is unbroken, and the sense expressed in a sweet, yet not unadorned simplicity. They are the most classical pieces in the whole collection.