Several years elapsed from the time when I wrote my sentiments, and observations on Thomson; that amiable, and ardent poet; to the date of my calling up to my particular recollection, the illustrious, and immortal, but unfortunate, and melancholy subject, which I shall now beg leave to introduce to your attention. Disagreeable, and discouraging objects had interrupted my much loved studies. But in spite of difficulties, and obstructions, I collected my mind; and with any intellectual vigour of which I was capable, I applied to a task which had long been interwoven with my heart. Many, even of the most worthy, and illustrious men, have suffered hardships from the cradle to the grave. Obstinate, and unrelenting adversity is often the lot of man: — but it is his duty; it is his honour, to resist, and to conquer, the oppressive effects of its opposition. This is a fine, and sublime kind of virtue. There are little creatures in the human form which are always at war with merit; but they should be annihilated in the mind of the poet, when he recollects, that, in spite of their puny, and momentary efforts, there is an immortality of fame on earth: — and a more glorious immortality in heaven; an absolute eternity, and a God. Oh! that these reflexions had often passed deliberately, and maturely, in the mind of that most admirable youthful prodigy; from whose grave I shall endeavour to tear the weeds with which it has been profaned by the dull, the malignant, and the slaves to artificial consequence; and to plant myrtles, and laurels, in their place! Oh! that his high, and great soul, which, if it had fortunately addressed but a particle of christianity, would have been gently, and kindly treated; and would probably have been a distinguished honour to human nature — oh! that it had been a little more flexible to its fortune, in one view; and emerged from it, and towered above it, in another; — that it had not thrown itself on the stoical, but relied firmly on the christian school; — that it had preserved a patience in the most unworthy, in the most horrible circumstances (without which virtue we can neither be good, nor great) till he had arrived at his splendid meridian, till he had shone forth with all his glory! The feelings of the truly humane would then have escaped many painful images; they would have escaped the pain of investigating much pedantick rubbish; and an honest indignation at stupid, cold, and insensible erudition; and of a most debasing, and abject sycophantry to the great.
Your freedom from prejudice; your good sense, and the generosity of your hearts (I doubt not that you possess all these virtues) expect that I am to inform you that I shall, in this Lecture, with the best exertion of my humble abilities, take a comprehensive, and I hope, not an incomplete view, of the astonishing genius, and of the fate which will ever be deeply lamented by the truly wise, and good, of Thomas Chatterton!
The honour of our country; the eternal glory of the republick of letters, is concerned in this object. If Chatterton had lived to the usual term of human life, England would have been splendidly adorned with one great poet more; with as great a poet as it was possible for human nature to produce. His meridian would have been analogous to his dawn: what a blaze of glory would then have been spread over our poetical hemisphere! I know that Mr. Walpole (I hope that he will be long, and best known by that name) with his usual penetration, judgement, and taste, and with his usual generosity to our divine, young poet, doubts that his genius would have fulfilled its promises, if he had lived much longer. Mediocrity of poetical talents (if, indeed, these talents are compatible with poetry) have often disappointed the early, and flattering expectations which they raised; genuine, and great talents, never. It is almost superfluous to cite examples of this truth. Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Dr. Johnson; Cowley, the last, and the least (for all his conceited, and metaphysical stuff disgusts me) warrant, and prove my assertion. The same ingenious critick mentions, and in the same period, and compares Chatterton, and Psalmanazar. I care not if Psalmanazar, and his island of Formosa, and his invented language, and the five huge quarto volumes of Mr. Walpole were thrown into the sea: but I should be extremely concerned if we should forget the memory, and lose the writings; the elegant, and animated fictions; and the miscellanies themselves, of the poet, whose fate, "semper acerbum," and whose name, "semper honoratum (sic dii voluistis) habebo."
I am afraid that I have undertaken this fair, and generous task, at too advanced, and languid an age: — permit me to call it generous; for all my judgement, all my sentiments on this interesting, and important object, shall be purely dictated by a warm contempt of uncharitable dispositions; of all temporizing, and mean reserve; and by an ardent love of moral, and literary justice; and of the golden law of humanity. The subject demanded lively spirits; and the honest fire of better years. I am launching into the Baltick, when I should be consecrating my votive picture in the temple of the god of the ocean. But I am addressing liberal, and benevolent judges; your sympathy with the inauspicious causes of the delay will give a relief to the weakness of the performance. My sincerity, and frankness, however, shall atone, as far as they can atone, for my want of presence of mind; of penetration, and of energy. My observations, and animadversions, my praise, and my censure, shall be unrestrained with any unmanly, and ignominious awe; they shall flow from the ingenuous principles which I have asserted; and therefore they shall flow with a perfect freedom. I do not presume to claim any extraordinary merit; the image of superiour, and expiring genius is before me; and it overwhelms me with grief; it prostrates me with humility. I shall only beg leave to observe, that the value of the fair, and determined freedom which I shall exercise, will not be lost on unprejudiced, and liberal minds; for that freedom, when it is directed by talents more vigorous than mine, produces, or ought to produce, if it is attended with the consequences which it deserves, the most instructive, the most salutary, and the most glorious effects. It distinguishes, and determines, in those departments of morality, which are inaccessible to the laws; it is a Chancellour in the court of the kingdom of Minerva; the laurels which were intercepted from genius, by envy, and adulation, it tears from the brows to which they were sacrilegiously prostituted, and assigns them to their legitimate heirs: — in its intrepid, and indefatigable persuit of those truths which are of the utmost consequence to mankind, it scorns to be checked, for a moment, by the meteors of vanity; by the phantoms of fashion, and the pygmies of arrogance, which presume to stand in its way; it bestows a well-deserved, and immortal eulogy, on the Cosmos, and the Lorenzos de' Medici; who munificently anticipated, instead of obdurately rejecting the views of indigent, and persevering talents: — it lifts the golden scale of poetical justice, and contrasts these august fathers of literature, with little creatures environed with affluence, and reposing on luxury, mistaking whim for talent, and passion for taste; lavishing a great sum on a glittering gem, or an inanimate picture; while they are inexorable to the petitions of oppressed genius; deaf to its pathetical complaints; dead to its divine aspirations. May this fair, and manly freedom be for ever transmitted to some sons of English literature; and let them be watchful to exert it on interesting, and important emergencies seasonably, and unreservedly diffused, it may produce great national good; it may prevent great national evil; if indeed a phiegmatick statesman will allow that true poetry delights, instructs, and polishes a nation; it may rescue a future Chatterton (if God Almighty ever again grants an equal phaenomenon to an ungrateful world) — it may rescue some future Chatterton from famine, and from death.
Accept, or forgive some prefatory discourse, before I enter on the stamina of my work: prejudices, if it is possible, are to be cleared away from the memory of the dead, and from the character of the living.
When an authour thinks it incumbent on him to animadvert on the conduct, or the writings of a person who is highly favoured by fortune, it is required of him by a too complaisant, and partial world, however base the conduct, or however dull the writings may be, which he intends to censure, that he should address the man who has accidentally more power than himself, in terms of the most unexceptionable deference, and respect. Hence the nerves of thought, and language are emasculated; they fall short of truth; the complexion, and the soul of eloquence are tainted; she wears a sickly hue; she has a drooping, and an abject manner; she ventures not the closeness, and strength of her arguments; the variety, the force, and the beauty of her imagery; to instruct, and enrapture the world: — it is a profane, and slavish tribute, "at the shrine of luxury, and pride;" not a sacred, and free-will offering, at the altar of wisdom. Yet thanks be to genius, and to Providence, these prostrations are generally made by those whose minds are as weak as their hearts are sordid: the Divine Economist is almost continually drawing the exertion of fine talents towards himself; — He seldom suffers them to go out of their way.
Thus, agreeably to my theory, which, I am sorry to say, is established by the practice of mankind, if such an opponent of wealth, or power, hath asserted that the object of his remonstrances, and reprehensions, is perfidious, avaricious, and tyrannical; though he has completely deserved these epithets, by the most evident, and abandoned acts; the pamphlet, or the book, and the authour, are immediately sentenced to proscription by a polite "auto da fe;" though he has been disinterestedly, and virtuously endeavouring to supply the deficiency of the laws; to mortify with publick shame a great, and unrelenting offender against the community. The work is pronounced to be grossly, and scandalously abusive; though none but the obnoxious words could have been used, without a confusion of ideas; without a misapplication of language; without a desertion of justice. Abuse, however, is the word; — the order of the day; a sentence of Laconian brevity; but not of Laconian truth, and virtue: it has, however, all the desired effect on the crowd; on "the great vulgar, and the small;" who are by no means Lacedemonians; it completely damns the authour, and his works; who yet retains hopes of ample justice; of a literary resurrection. But the parties who are interested for their favourite, would be fools, indeed, if they took the pains to enforce and dignify the retort, abuse, with any auxiliaries of reason. Let this retort be thrown out by himself, with an affected indifference, and disdain; let it be echoed by his convivial parasites, by his venal criticks, and by modish life; and it will effectually supersede the toil of argument; the patience of refutation.
I am advancing to the point which I have had in view; I shall endeavour to give you a true definition, and description; the genuine signification, and import of the word, "abuse."
Abuse, in its philological acceptation, is simply a misuse, or misapplication of language. Hence, to apply terms of severe crimination (however warrantably, and properly they may be used, on several occasions, by classical, and elegant writers) — to apply such terms where they at by no means deserved, is palpable, and flagrant abuse. To lavish high, and altogether unmerited praise, is the direct inversion of this abuse: it is poetically expressed, and illustrated by Dr. Young: "Praise undeserved is satire in disguise." But all low, vulgar language; all that language which is comprized in scurrility, is absolutely, and universally abuse: it is abhorrent from all propriety, and dignity of language. To throw it on the good, shows a profligate, to dart it at the bad, shows an indelicate mind. It is never justifiable; it is never admissible; it will never be used by the true gentleman; by the liberal scholar.
I shall here make a reference which probably may produce an instance of the common perversion of the word, "abuse." Mr. Walpole, in his pretended, and puritanical vindication of his conduct to Chatterton, reminds me of one of the gods of the Egyptians, which weeps while it destroys. After the death of our young poet, he collected some of his papers which tended to injure, and shade his memory; and he printed them at Strawberry-hill; whence had often issued incongruous, flimsy, and languid productions. He imagined that to bring odium on the character of Chatterton was to support his own. A man must tremble for the strength of his cause, who can stoop to such detestable, yet impotent, modes of defence. In his account of Chatterton, he gives us a list of those pieces; their subjects; and his manner of treating them. One of them is addressed to Charles Jenkinson, Esq. "This (says Mr. Walpole) is an abusive letter, signed Decimus." Another is a letter to Lord Mansfield. This he pronounces "a very abusive letter." I have not seen either of the letters; nor do I wish to see them, any farther than as they were written by Chatterton. But I can easily conceive that letters to Charles Jenkinson, and to the late Lord Mansfield, might have been very severe, without being abusive; if we use impartial, and proper language.
I shall now give an example of real abuse; in the form of totally unmerited praise. Mr. Walpole's apology for his treatment of Chatterton was published in the year 1782, in four Gentleman's Magazines. The editor of that Magazine introduces the different parts of the apology, by bestowing on its authour very eminent literary titles; he invites our attention to this "elegant, masterly, admirable writer." All the writings of the late Lord Orford, both in verse, and prose, unless our mental sight is so despicably weak as not to be able to view them without the meretricious, and imaginary gloss which his situation in life threw over them, are below mediocrity. But whenever he makes Chatterton his unfortunate subject, he sinks beneath himself. All, then, is weakness, confusion, insipidity, and barbarism of style; self-contradiction; alternate pity, praise, and crimination. The reproofs of conscience, and the apprehension of publick discredit, relax the nerves which were feeble, by nature. The timidity of the heart depresses the weakness of the head.
If my definition of abuse is just (and I think that it cannot easily be exploded) the terms, "profligate," "abandoned," "forger," and "impostor;" — terms which convey the most detested ideas; are, in my humble opinion, as they have been applied to Chatterton, most criminal, and barbarous abuse; as I hope, hereafter, to prove. — They have been applied to him by the editors of his works, both of the clergy, and of the laity; by cautious, and plausible men; who have, therefore, passed a moral muster in life, with decency, and decorum. With an anxious, and servile reverence, they have been tender of the great; but they have given friendless, and deserted indigence no quarter: its indefatigable application; its unparalleled genius; its ardour for poetical glory; its generous, and noble virtues, which began to blow; — all these powerful advocates could not atone for its failings; could not save it from their preposterous, and inquisitorial condemnation. Rigidly to require from an unexperienced boy; — rigidly to require from astonishing, but immature talents, which must necessarily be strongly fermented by passion, and imagination; — rigidly to require from this prodigy, the attentive, and comprehensive judgement, and consequently the mature, and accurate virtue of the man, is an instance of tyranny, in the ethical chair, in which absurdity, and barbarity contend for the predominance.
Mr. Bryant, too, often abuses our juvenile, but great poet, agreeably to my simple, but sure criterion of abuse. Good God! can the mild, the prudent, the pious Mr. Bryant be guilty of abuse? He is, according to my literary, and moral creed. — "Puerile ignorance;" — "the unlettered boy;" — "the boy of Bristol;" — "the young man of Bristol:" — "the blunders of the ignorant boy, who was continually hunting in Kersey's Dictionary, in a most servile manner;" — all this is the superciliousness, and pride; or, in other words, the abuse; the ungenerous, and arrogant misapplication of language; of the low, conceited pedant, and antiquarian; of the despiser of a being of an order superiour to his own; — of the despiser of one of the most admirable works of God!
I have observed that honest, and severe truths, when they are published against the highly fortunate; however strongly the publication of them may be warranted by justice, are generally termed abuse. Consistently with this Turkish despotism in the intellectual regions of a free state; if an illiberal authour insults a poor, and unprotected person, on whom perhaps his Maker hath bestowed the most splendid endowments, with very harsh, and undeserved language; a literary Sultan; and his Janizaries, and Muftis, see nothing gross; nothing indelicate, in this treatment; though it is the obloquy of an unfeeling heart; the very extremity of abuse. I am sorry that it is in my power to demonstrate this moral proposition by the history of Chatterton. No favourite persuit seems more effectually to deaden all that is generous, and godlike, in the human mind, than that of a verbal critick, and minute antiquarian. I should have said that minds formed in the lowest scale of nature, can alone be engrossed by such ignoble and childish persuits. These men sit down to dispute on the origin of the poems of the imagined Rowley. On the one side we have to encounter the most monstrous, and disgusting chimeras, obtruded on us by the most absurd, and extravagant demands; and often warranted by no better authority than that of duplicity, and bad faith. On the other, we meet a series of just arguments, and fair examples; — the cold, and hard accuracy of reasoning, and detail; which make some atonement for a want of animation, and sentiment; and even of that angelick humanity, which it is supposed that literature particularly improves. These gentlemen have been very ungrateful to a great, but unfortunate hero, by whom Rowley was created; for he opened to them a new, and large field, for their admired sports; he instituted their Olympick games. They are often obliged to mention their benefactor; but they always mention him with contempt, when we consider his comparative, and unrivalled excellence; they are always careful to sink his virtues, and to aggravate his faults: on this article of war (if we trace it to its source, I wish that we may not find it a law of nations) the combatants on either side are perfectly agreed, through their whole contest; they adhere to it, with a ruthless, and inexorable precision. These critical Machiavellis, in one of their characteristicks, adopted this exterminating spirit of the Florentine; partly from the hardness of their nature; and partly from a temporary, but unsubstantial policy. They sacrificed a. demi-god to a common mortal; they could not have done justice to the greatness of the one; they could not have embalmed his memory with an honest commiseration; without exposing the littleness of the other. For though perhaps their hearts never burned within them, like those of the travellers to Emmaus; I am confident that they would have shown some christian warmth, in favour of Chatterton: if they had not been intimidated, and congealed, by the frozen, and evil genius of Walpole: to him they hold an invariable strain of deference, respect, and adulation, which discredits them extremely. For it will not be difficult to prove his insensibility to talents, which he himself calls miraculous, when their possessour, naturally solicitous to emerge from indigence, and oppression, requested of him that assistance which might easily have been granted; — an insensibility, which, in spite of many miserable subterfuges, and palliations, argues a far worse disposition than any act in the short-lived, and unestablished conduct of our illustrious youth. This partial, and servile homage completely discredits these men, when we recollect the invidious, and opprobrious epithets, and appellations, with which they insult his memory. To all those who are, I will not say what Christians, but what mere men ought to be, he always was, and always will be, an object of tenderness, compassion, and admiration. These inquisitors, and unmerciful censors, have, in their treatment of Chatterton, been guilty of the very quintessence of abuse; of a refinement on its barbarity. They who do not like this ardour, which is fair, nay commendable, I hope, may, if they please, term it mere declamation: but what my zeal has now asserted, I trust that my reasoning will, hereafter, prove. All this rude irreverence to the manes of Chatterton hath been received with distinct approbation, or with timid acquiescence. The rudeness was shown to himself, and to his works, by discreet, and guarded men: they were perfect masters in the game of life; they knew where they might insult with safety; and where their incense would meet its reward; — vanity delighting vanity; and little pride remunerating with its toys more diminutive servility. Discretion is a most useful companion through life; without any labour; without any danger, we obtain the Lilliputian guide: it is true, she is a pigmy being; but she has a power of prodigious' energy; she redeems dullness, absurdity, vices, and crimes. Nay, the little urchin, amongst her other stupendous tricks of magick, sometimes steals upon us, in the form, and panoply of Minerva; — in the shade, and the semblance of heroick virtue.
If rough language is abuse, in proportion to the importance of the person to whom it is applied, according to the prevailing, but inconclusive logick of the world; I shall endeavour to correct, and invigorate that logick, by directing its predicate, not to fictitious, external, and social; but to real, inherent, and indeprivable personal excellence. If it was insufferable presumption from a poor boy, of a generous nature, to acquaint Mr. Walpole, with a becoming spirit, that he was properly sensible of his arrogant, and contemptuous neglect of hi in; with what censure severe enough shall we condemn the ungrounded calumny; the inhuman reproaches, that were thrown on a being infinitely superiour to Walpole — on Chatterton himself? For what is Pomfret, when we think of Homer? — what is the amusing gleam of the earth-born glowworm, compared with the enrapturing rays that descend from Heaven, and from Apollo? Permit me to remind those who may not be altogether pleased with my art of emblazoning, that my office of heraldry contains armorial bearings which are far more ancient, more noble, and venerable, than those of the Brunswicks, and Bourbons; — they sprung, and their degrees were marshalled, in the council of the skies; and they were sent down to earth, by God, at the time of the creation.
How dreadfully oppressive appears the fate of the poor; when it is not softened, and informed, by the spirit of humanity! No respite is given to their bodies; no indulgence to their minds! In them, even indications of those qualities which demand our love, and our esteem, are frequently construed into crimes. When Mr. Walpole, with an unfeeling, and unpardonable rudeness, had delayed for six weeks, the return of the specimens of poetry that Chatterton had sent to him, the youth, with a fair; and manly sensibility, told him, in a letter, "that he would not have so long neglected him, if he had not been poor, and friendless." To the truth of this assertion, every one who is at all acquainted with human nature will immediately assent. And the assertion was the glowing blossom of a noble pride; of an independent spirit, without which there is no virtue. The courtly gentleman, who saw nothing but poverty on one side, and rank (though it was most ignominiously inherited) on the other, observed, in the usual style of such men, on such occasions, that the letter which contained that ingenuous remonstrance, "was singularly impertinent." — If there is an inexpressibly elegant, and fine luxury, in indulging the humane, and pathetick emotions, it is better to have been trained in the school of the Carthaginian queen, than at Houghton, or in Berkleysquare. The obnoxious expression of my hero whom, in spite of priests, I hope to canonize in the calendar of Parnassus) would have been accepted by a soul congenial with his own, as an omen, as an oracle of future greatness: he would have invited him to town; he would have clasped him to his heart. But the man whom Chatterton addressed, as a patron of literature, resembled the portentous victim that was sacrificed before the death of Caesar — he had no heart.
I may be told, not by any of my audience, but by some Partridge of a Fielding; — "De mortuis nil nisi bonum." — It is a monkish, doating adage. It is worne to tatters by your phlegmatick, and demure scribblers: even Mr. Tyrwhitt adopts it, when he tenderly and delicately, mentions one of our English Dutch commentators, who had signed himself Anonymous; and who had presumed to sit in judgement on the old poetry of Chatterton. This gentleman is actually flatter, and more absurd than Mr. Bryant, and Dean Milles. There is in antiquarians, an esprit de corps, resembling that of churchmen; their competitors in gravity, and gravitation, Mr. Tyrwhitt is too conscientious, and civilized, to utter a syllable against Mr. Bryant, (even where he must have seen that he was both weak, and disingenuous) or against the departed Anonymous: but on every occasion, he speaks most uncharitably, and unfeelingly, of the departed Chatterton. To the "de mortuis nil nisi verum" I cheerfully subscribe; to this rule, with my best information, and judgement, I shall always be religiously attentive. But let conspicuous merit, let notorious guilt, be characterized by posterity, as they deserve. I shall never hesitate to arraign the avarice, hypocrisy, and obduracy; — while it shall be my heartfelt pleasure, to commemorate the open, and generous disposition, and the benevolence of the dead. When a king of old Egypt died, it was the civil office of a publick speaker, to pronounce a funeral oration over his body, before it was conveyed across the Nile, to its place of interment. (Hence arose the classical Styx, and Charon; and Tartarus; and the Elysian fields.) It was the peculiar duty of this orator, to give a faithful, and striking picture of the departed monarch; to consecrate his virtues, or to execrate his crimes: — thus the succeeding prince was most powerfully deterred from vice, and stimulated to virtue. With the same disinterestedness am I now speaking; with the same ardour for the publick good. Nor let me be profanely ridiculed for the inferiority of my subject: the productions of great poets have a national influence, as well as the conduct of great kings. This truth seems not to have made its proper impression in England, by the conduct of our cold, prosaick statesmen. It is my wish, as it is my effort, to warn, and intimidate future Walpoles, if a future Chatterton should arise; — to make those prudent, from fear, who may be ungenerous, by nature; and to prepare some distinguished individual, of an elegant soul, and of a publick spirit, — or some wise, and good government, jealous, and enthusiastick for the glory of all its fine arts, to turn, with the sentiments of adoration, toward the east of their literary republick; whenever such a rising sun of poetry shall illumine its horizon.
Whatever other invidious charges have been brought against me by dullness, and malevolence, I believe that they have never accused me of cowardice, as an authour. I wish that Mr. Walpole was yet alive, for very different reasons. I wish that he, and some celebrated persons were now amongst us, who have payed the last debt to Nature; that I might have been subject to a full refutation, if I deserved it; and that I might have had the honour to plead before a larger tribunal of true critical acumen; which is always dipped in the balm of liberality. I am erecting a beacon near the rock on which the poetical first-rate of Chatterton bulged, only from publick views; therefore I hope that I deserve not resentment, and malignity; but that I am rather, in some degree, entitled to good will, and approbation. When I shall have left this world, myself, in the name of humanity, and religion, let not my ashes be wantonly, and cruelly insulted; but let my faults be honestly recorded; not by the ignorance, and insensibility of some slave of the press; but by the distinguishing mind, and good intentions of a moral, and virtuous censor; in his pages, they may be useful to the conduct of the rising generation. If I have not dwelt too long on an unimportant subject, permit me to add, that perhaps I may live to execute this instructive task with my own hand: if I perform it, I publicly promise beforehand, that I shall be more direct, and ingenuous, against myself than the good future biographer would be, whom I have had in my eye. I shall provide a fund of consolation, and satisfaction, for my last years, in the soothing consciousness that I shall make some amends to mankind, by my posthumous services, for the little good which I did, while I lived.
If I seem too particular; if I am even too diffuse, your penetration, as well as your goodness, will excuse me. My main subject (I mean, the history of Chatterton) is rare; and it is as uncommonly interesting: it is composed of extraordinary, complicated, and exemplary instances of every manly sentiment; and of a glorious, but mistaken determination, from an excess of that sentiment, to die. I know that you will pardon some singularity in this address; — the occasion is singular; I hope that it never will again occurr, in the moral, social, and literary world.
Nor have I, without reason, very amply treated the subject of abuse. If we consider the term deliberately, and what it properly, and completely implies; if we mark its various degrees, and discriminations; we shall avoid many errours; and we shall be instructed by many truths; which, without this useful scrutiny, would be inaccessible to our minds: they will not be checked by the superciliousness of the rich; nor by that contempt, and oppression, which repell the warrantable freedom of the poor. It hath still been my wish to make these Lectures of Criticism as extensively useful as I could; to dignify them with a moral strain. This deviation, I hope, is not culpably, is not impertinently digressive.
I have been told that nothing more can be said on the subject of Chatterton than what has already been presented to the publick. To the philological, and antiquarian toils, and efforts; — to the weak, and ridiculous conjectures, and visions of the pedant; — to the series of just, and decisive, but inanimate, and frigid criticism; — to the undistinguishing stupidity, which, yet presumed to exhibit faults, and beauties; to the cowardly silence, and yet more cowardly adulation; to the dastardly, yet insolent vindications, which have originated from his history, and fate; no additions can be made. The fair field of judicious, liberal, and animated criticism on his works; — of an open, generous, and pathetick interest in his destiny; — of an independent, and explicit censure, contempt, and detestation of unfeeling parasites; — of a refutation, or rather an exposure, of a timorous, feeble, and hypocritical self-defence; — this fertile, and luxuriant field has been, hitherto, unoccupied; at least, it has not been regularly, and thoroughly engaged; — I wish that it had been destined to the abilities which it merits; but justice will not yet be done to Chatterton; — for it has been reserved for me.
It is an impossibility for me, and I do not regret the impossibility, whatever unpopularity it has, or may cost me, to write on any interesting subject, without independence of mind, and what I think fair freedom. That freedom, of all the literary objects which ever engaged my attention, the present eulogy demanded. The spirit of departed genius seemed to demand it of me. If several persons who are highly favoured with publick esteem, have applied the severest language to Chatterton, with injustice, and inhumanity; I, surely, have a right to retaliate a severity of language on them, in the cause of justice, and humanity. Nor should I have mentioned them with any disagreeable expressions, if they had not shown dispositions which I ahhorr; — a sordid idolatry to Fortune; a hard, unrelenting nature; and the most contemptuous, and vilifying aspersions, when the essence, and the circumstances of their theme emphatically called for the reverse. I look up to all that was truly magnanimous in the character of Caesar, with humility; yet, I thank God, I can forget my private wrongs as soon as he forgot them; unless I am menaced with the truncheon of some mock-Pompey: but when cruel, and atrocious injuries are done to those who have been singularly great, and singularly unfortunate; and who are dead, and cannot resist their oppressours; — those injuries I love to remember; and openly to resent; — and if I can, with some effect. There is a class of beings who will certainly murmur; but conscience acquits me; — acquits me, did I say? She rewards me;
I know it virtue; and I feel it fame.
Permit me still to make some general observations; before I enter on our critical disquisitions. They shall not be desultory, and vague; they shall be connected with the principal objects, to which I hope to be honoured with your attention. Almost all evil has its good; by the unerring temperature of the Divine economy; otherwise, in His works, there would be some destructive jarring, and collision. This observation is not only applicable to the physical, and moral, but likewise to the literary world. The "new meanders of ductile dulness" may suggest the ductility of better sentiments, and observations; the conceit, and trifles of the pedant, and antiquary, may excite a contrasted strain of liberal, and useful writing: the rigorous fate of indigent, and unprotected authours, sometimes overwhelms them; but sometimes it happily stimulates them; it makes them the more ambitious to rise above poverty, and envy; it calls their attention from the pageantry, and frippery of life, to a contemplation of truly beautiful, and sublime objects: it gives a collected dignity; an intellectual, and moral majesty to the mind; and instead of weakening the spring of its exertions, it invigorates its elasticity. The same hard fate may suggest observations, and resources, to a friend of genius, and of mankind, which would remove, which would abolish that fate; and they should be accepted; they should be improved, and matured into execution, by those who have unlimited power to relieve distress, and to reward merit.
England has been highly, and justly celebrated, for learning, and for genius. It excells modern Europe in all, and ancient Europe, in many kinds of composition. It has produced statesmen, too, it has produced ministers of state, who were as elevated by Nature, as by Fortune, and station; who were as victorious with the powers of the mind; with the force of eloquence, as they were with their fleets, and armies. Such men must have enjoyed the eloquence of a great authour, in prose; or his more captivating charms, in poetry. Their minds, too, at once expanding, and comprehending, must have been sensible that such authours were great benefactors to their country; that they prepared for it its noblest entertainment; that they adorned it, not only with the surface, but with the substance of elegance; that they breathed into it the celestial spirit of humanity; that they cherished, and augmented all its virtues; and consequently, its happiness. I am truly concerned to compare these ministers with such a wretch as Charles the Second. They enjoyed "the feast of reason, and the flow of soul;" — indifferent, like him, to the woes, and mortifications; indifferent to the wants of those from whose mighty magick they received the banquet. Is it not surprising; is it not unaccountable, that in this country, and with these governours, some civil institution has not been formed, to watch, and observe the fair blow of genuine talents; to foster them with the genial warmth, and sunshine of paternal care, and encouragement; and to protect them from the frost of selfishness, and from the blight of despair? It is not compatible with my present plan, particularly to construct a rational, obvious, and easy project; but every unprejudiced, and sensible person will allow that nothing can be more practicable than its completion, and execution. The wants of great genius, if it is at all regulated by virtue, are easily supplied; — it is rich, and splendid, in learning; in ideas; in imagery; in ambition, and in glory. The society which I propose, might be established under the auspices, and support of Government; — at a comparatively imperceptible part of the vast expenditure which is lavished on the great officers of state, when they are dismissed, or when they resign; — who were largely recompensed for. their publick services, while they held their respective departments; and who have often cancelled all their publick services by the grossest political blunders; and by treachery, and peculation.
Most of our illustrious writers have emerged from obscurity, by their mental force; and most of them have been poor, and indigent; or, at least, all their lives, in very narrow circumstances. At no period of the history of a great community, will transcendent merit alone be a man's effectual friend; he must learn the gradual, and painful art of conciliating the fashionable, and the powerful to his interest; he must stoop to a kind of squalid chymical process; he must be incorporated with heterogeneous bodies; he must be amalgamated with gold, to command his fortune. There is a spirit in true genius which may counteract itself; — its very lustre may send it into darkness.
Thus it is easy to see what has often been the case; that fine talents may be at the mercy of booksellers. Important truth is much dearer to me than these traders. But I by no means intend particularly to criminate, or reproach them. They are men; and as interest is habitually their ruling object, they will persue it, with very little, or no tenderness for the rights, or for the distress of others. They will keep a hawk's eye on the poor, and industrious, but bright, and cultivated mind. Like their brethren of iron memory, they will kindly invite an unexperienced, and ardent Chatterton, from his unfeeling Bristol, to a more unfeeling metropolis; they will hold forth to him honours, and generosity. He comes; he is caught in their fangs; his poverty, and his want of friends excite not the domestick, and convivial exhilaration; they suggest not the pecuniary liberality; they only dictate the harder bargain. The idea of his unexampled talents (for the owls feel some glimmering of that heavenly light) instead of softening their hearts, cases them with harder steel. With the true spirit of avarice, and rapacity, they are now determined to have as much as is possible, for as little as is possible; agreeably to a maxim of their brethren of the Synagogue. All the rest of this nefarious oppression is unrelenting barbarity, on the side of trade; on that of sensibility, and delicacy, it is horrour, and despair.
After this faithful account of the treatment which a poor, and friendless authour must always expect, what shall we say to the following remark of Mr. Bryant; — "His bad success in his last stage of life shows that he did not answer the expectations of those who employed him." — What sentence is equal to this impious and inhuman indignity? With what severity of censure shall we stigmatize it as it deserves? What expansion of charity can make it an object of its alleviation? To reason against it would be to profane reason. If it proceeded from ignorance of life, it was the ignorance of an idiot; and though in his book, he often approaches to that ignorance, the passage which I have now quoted is the wretched effort of a little scholastick pride, which tumbles down every thing that stands in its way; dashes, and flounders, "per fas atque nefas;" while it persues the monstrous, and ridiculous phantom of a sick man's dream.
But booksellers, and their emissaries have, of late, been industrious to disseminate an extraordinary concession of Dr. Johnson, in their favour; who, it seems, in his latter, and in every sense, weaker years, allowed that "booksellers were a very respectable body of men; and the best patrons of learning." Dr. Johnson was a great man; but he had his littleness, and his inconsistency; he frequently spoke, and wrote, not from uniform, and well established principles; but from the impressions of the moment. He publickly disdained, and reprobated an obligation which he afterwards incurred; and even a pension, when he had long possessed it, unnecessarily seduced him. The consciousness of his late, but pleasing consequence; the consciousness that he was now lord of those who used to lord it over him, soothed his pride; and their flattery disarmed him. He would not have prostituted his praise of the liberality of booksellers, when his fortune, and his just pretensions were at war with each other; when he was in the parsimonious pay of booksellers; — when he wrote his London, and his Vanity of Human Wishes; — his Life of Savage; — his Dictionary, and his Rambler; — when he was in the plenitude of his intellectual powers; of his literary glory.
I have two anecdotes (among many others) of this great man, which are very pertinent to my present purpose. I was mentioning to him some base treatment which I had received from one of those men: — "You need not, Stockdale," (said he) "represent to me the case of an authour, and a bookseller: I have had long, and painful experience of them, and I know them thoroughly." — My second anecdote is truly interesting; and, I think, pathetick. He had been much indisposed, for some time, with a disorder in his eyes. I visited him, when he was recovering, on a Sunday-morning, at his house, in Johnson's Court, Fleet-street. When I expressed "my pleasure to find that his eyes were so much better;" — he told me that "he felt himself so well that he had intended to go abroad on that day; but that he could not think of any particular place to which he should go." I replied, that "I should have imagined that he never could have been at a loss for such an object." — The tear stood in his eye; and he said; — " My dear Stockdale; I lived many years in London, and had no place to go to." — These are accurately his words; and by the pathos with which they were delivered, they are engraven on my heart. But would this have been the situation of Johnson in London, for many years, if booksellers had been really "a very respectable class of men;" if they had been the liberal, and protecting friends of distinguished literary desert? The reverse of this compliment, empty, and ungrounded as it is, and of injurious tendency; — the reverse of it is the truth. According to the steady, and undeviating views of commerce, the treatment of booksellers to authours is invariably modelled, and determined by two considerations; the ability of the authours to serve their interest; and their support, or want of it, from private fortune, or from powerful connexions. If these men could be actuated by pure generosity, would an Otway have died of famine; would Dryden have, all his life, been in embarrassment, and distress; would he have dreaded the insolence of the older Tonson; would Johnson himself have been oppressed with penury, long after the maturity of his life; would his melancholy signature, "Impransus," have been necessary, when he was writing to Cave, his friend, but his employer? — Would the exquisite feelings; would the nobly aspiring soul of Chatterton have been stung, to despair? — No: — let the ingenuous, and enterprizing, but unfriended young authour, beware of relying on the plausibility of booksellers; when they initiate him into dangerous, and delusive labour. Let him be guarded against their selfishness, and little tyranny, by Dr. Johnson's true character of them; before he made his complaisant, and corrupt recantation; and let his honest bluntness expunge, and atone for his flattery. Let us not forget the fate of his Dryden; the mortifications which he suffered from his Egyptian task-masters; let us not forget "the mercantile ruggedness of that race, to which the delicacy of the poet was sometimes exposed."
Dr. Gregory, whose mind could not see, and feel the superlative excellence of his hero; and who was, therefore, very ill qualified to write his life, and to comment on his works, in a paragraph too mean for quotation, attempts, though with evident hesitation, and consciousness of a bad cause; and with feeble, and futile sophistry, to apologize for Mr. Walpole's neglect of the poetical adventurer. He makes the inattention of that honourable gentleman to Chatterton more excusable as literature was not protected by the state. This is the very reason that would have determined a generous man who possessed a large fortune, and was animated with an unaffected love of letters, to seize an opportunity of befriending genius, contending with difficulties; — to seize an opportunity of practically resenting the stupid, and barbarous negligence of statesmen. Dr. Gregory, as a biographer, and a critick, does not demand very serious, and elaborate attention: in the prosecution, however, of my observations on this memorable subject, I shall take some notice of the new, and accommodating morality which he hath invented, in favour of the great.
I shall now enter on the more immediate objects of critical disquisition. And I enter on them with some apprehension; lest I should unwarily be discredited by that ignorance of interesting objects; by that pedantry, self-conceit, and desertion of common sense, by which criticks are often ignominiously distinguished. It will be my particular duty carefully to avoid these unamiable, and despicable qualities; as I think that I have a right freely to censure the persons who have shown them in their writings; especially when they are so insensible to their own insignificance as to treat exalted merit with insolence, and contempt.
A part of my critical attention I must give to Mr. Bryant. That gentleman drove through all the absurdities of the supposition that the beautiful, and astonishing fictions of Thomas Chatterton were the productions of a real Thomas Rowley. Surely I may be certain that no credit is now given to those absurdities. It will not, however, be unconnected with my plan, nor unimportant to my audience, to take a view of the reveries; of the weak sophistry; and indeed of the evidently disingenuous representations of Mr. Bryant. Such a view will show what a disproportionate consequence, men, who, perhaps, have been naturally modest, will take to themselves, from the accidental, and unaccountable acquisition of a considerable character in the republick of letters: — it will show, in what a profundity of sinking mere erudition lies, when it is compared with the force, and manly direction of reason; with generous, and noble sentiment; and with the full display of these properties, by the powers of original, and sublime genius. It will teach us to spurn that authority which has merely the superficial, and temporary sanction of mode; not the infallible, and eternal verdict of nature; — it will contribute to teach us an ardent, and practical benevolence; — it will prompt us, on every fair occasion, to exert our utmost power to rescue human excellence, of whatever kind, from the load of misfortunes, and obstructions, with which it may be depressed; and to redeem it into open, and propitious day. By this view, we may be warned against those prejudices which are hostile to all momentous truth; we may more deeply discern, and more justly value those objects which deserve the deliberate attention of the mind: and thus we may improve in the knowledge of literary elegance, and in the practice of exalted virtue.
I shall always endeavour to write from the honest impression with which my immediate subject is fixed in my mind. I had occasion, many years ago, to address Mr. Bryant, on a weak, and absurd construction, which he had obtruded on the first stanza of Mr. Pope's beautiful, and sublime Universal Prayer. In my letter to him, on that subject, I treated him with the greatest respect. I gave him liberal credit for the esteem in which he was held by society, and I loved the book in which the preposterous criticism was contained: it was well written; and in defence of the Christian religion. In his observations on the poems of his fancied Rowley, he gave me a picture of himself extremely different from that which was presented in his former book. In those observations, he sunk extremely, as a writer; we may account for this descent by the disparity of his subjects. In his former work he defended a rational, and substantial; in his latter, he maintained a whimsical, and chimerical cause. Many parts of this work, too, were necessarily disgusting, and provoking, to a friend of ingenuous learning, and of mankind. They are marked with a pride in petty, scholastick attainments; with hasty, and dogmatical assertions, unsupported by literary judgement, and taste; and with a coldness, and inhumanity, (totally repugnant to the Christian faith of the authour) to prodigious genius; under the severest frowns of Fortune; and under the tragical effects of its own despair. My mind, too, was differently actuated, from the different fate of the two poets. Pope's immortality was founded upon a rock; it could not be affected by a capricious quibble; the dawn of Chatterton's fame yielded a dubious light; it was depressed by dark clouds; like the rising life of the authour. And Mr. Bryant was industrious to draw over it an impenetrable, and eternal shade. The fortune of Pope was as prosperous as can be hoped; that of Chatterton, as horrible as can be feared. Hence arose my gentle sentiments, in the one case; and my ardent emotions, in the other; and if the fair exhibition of these two contrasted poetical images are not decisively eloquent, in my favour, it would be superfluous to say more in my vindication.
Before I more directly apply my observations to Mr. Bryant's critical theory; and before I give my quotations from it, I shall beg leave to remind you of some characteristicks of an antiquary.
An antiquarian is a being of a most depraved appetite; he prefers the husks; and the refuse, to the spirit, and the pith of learning. This inordinate preference originates from a nature which is at war with elegance, taste, and imagination. The more remote, and uncouth the objects of his researches are, the more eagerly he investigates them; and the more highly he prizes them when they are found. It is his pride; it is his glory, to know what none but himself knows; and what none but he, and his fraternity would wish to know. He would have more pleasure in recovering the dullest old authour from Herculaneum, than in hearing that another person had found all the lost books of Livy. No celebrated genius hath equalled the self-importance of this little creature; who confounds the successful drudgery that ascertains the meaning of the most insignificant word in the most uninteresting passage of a great poet, with the composition of a Paradise Lost. Emboldened by this infatuating self-importance, if the most absurd crotchet strikes his childish fancy, the violently persues it, in spite of the most awful interdicts of the temple of Apollo: — enamoured of his little object, which eludes, while it attracts him, he indiscriminately, and precipitately persues over profane, and consecrated ground; flexible to argument; sacrilegious to me. In his delirious fever, he breaks rough the monuments of elegant art; be drives over the flowers, and laurels of Parnassus; like his brother knight-errant, in the ironical poem, while he persues "the emperour of Morocco." — To speak a more plain, and definitive language; when he is determined to fabricate; or forge his arbitrary, and wild conjectures into facts, he rudely insults the most elevated talents; he shakes off the restrictions of honesty; and he hardens his heart against the feelings of humanity.
This man must use terms like other writers, though he is treating of objects of which he has no just perception: therefore, when he is criticizing a poetical passage, he will tell you that it is beautiful, or sublime, or below mediocrity. I must insist that he can have no just perception; for he has not just feeling, of these poetical qualities. How can he pretend to elucidate, and illustrate the master-strokes of genius; the tenour of whose criticism is cold, and verbal; who never wrote one elegant, and animated period; and from the languor, and confusion of whose comments, we may certainly infer that he neither felt, nor knew the hallowed ground which he profaned? How can he presume to admire, and distinguish burning pages, who never caught a spark from the fire of his authour? He may, indeed, skim over the surface; he may scramble among the vehicles of poetry; but he will always be unacquainted with its soul, and essence; as a late right honourable senator was with the idea of blushing, in the opinion of Junius; with which idea that poignant writer asserts that he was no more conversant than a man born blind was with scarlet, or sky-blue.
And yet such men, with an air of superiority; with an arrogant, and presumptuous disdain, have corrected, and reprehended celebrated poets, who with sensible, and spirited notes had illustrated other poets, and who were worthy of their great authours; as criticks, they were congenial with a Longinus, a Dryden, and a Burke. Those dull pedants had irreverently forgotten the well-known remark of "the "great high-priest of all the nine," whom I have now mentioned; and who asserted (and with justice, in complete propriety) that "no man is fit to comment upon a poet but a poet."
I should be wanting in the respect which I owe you; I should defeat my own aim, if I oppressed you with Gothick erudition; with verbal opium. Yet I shall request your attention to some passages of Mr. Bryant's book, on a subject which was once so much controverted; but on which I trust that now, there can be little dispute. The book is entitled, "Observations upon the Poems of Thomas Rowley, in which the authenticity of those poems is ascertained." — The title is characteristick of the performance; it consists of hasty confidence, and false assertion. Yet the specimens that I shall give you from this work of labour, and perplexity, will not be without their use: they will show you, among many other instances, that particular men may be fortunate beyond their deserts, in the acquisition both of literary, and moral fame: to the mind they will be guards against imposing appearances; they will prevent it from being led into great errours, by specious, but illegitimate authority. I must present the features of one, or two more of the critical, and antiquarian tribe: — when I have taken my leave of these disgusting objects; of this Tartarus of the spirits of tormented words; I hope that you will accompany me into the Elysian Fields of Chatterton; in which I have no doubt that his vindicated, and beatified soul enjoys eternal felicity. In the reptile, man, we find a little envious, malignant, and tyrannical being; industrious to depress others that it may raise itself. In the Deity we may behold, with gratitude, and pleasure ineffable, a being who is as good, as he is wise, and great; a being, the divinely accurate, and complete economy of whose justice, paternally penetrating the whole constitution, and frame of man, largely remunerates his virtues; and tenderly allows for his faults. Man, from his very narrow, and weak understanding, is a partial, and uncharitable judge; from his very limited power, he has a jealous, and despotick disposition: but the omnipotence as well as the omniscience of God, make him a God of the most expanded mercy.
It is the opinion, or rather the dogma of Mr. Bryant, that the poems of his Rowley were written in provincial dialects; and particularly in the old Scotch dialect. The latter fancy he attempts to support by many references to Gawin Douglas's translation of the Aeneid. Nothing can be more improbable, and absurd than this hypothesis. It would, indeed, be very convenient for all the rest of his unsupported theory; and if it was at all favoured by any facts, or circumstances, in the constant history of literature, it might seem, but even then, only to superficial observers, to lessen the incredibility of that theory. — How happily this hypothesis accommodates Mr. Bryant, must be evident to every one. It gives him the range of provinces; of kingdoms; which, indeed, every wild-goose chace demands. I have no doubt that the penetrating mind of Chatterton foresaw what food he was preparing for the coarse maw of rapacious antiquarians; of the Bryants, and the Milleses, of his time; and that he, very fairly, amused himself with the idea. Hence his unparalleled ingenuity, if we consider his age, and his opportunities of acquiring knowledge, in imitating our old language; and in fabricating terms extremely like it; but of which they never made apart. In favour of these gentlemen, he raised a ghost, of the existence of which it was the interest of their critical superstition to support the belief. If the real Chatterton is protected by common sense, and taste, they give him no refuge; no quarter. They persue, and hunt him down, with the fury of a Nimrod; if he has recourse to the doubles of a hare, they wind him; if he outruns the stretch of a fox, they overtake him. They have qualified themselves to hunt through counties, and through kingdoms: to-day they are in Somersetshire: to-morrow, in Yorkshire, and in Durham; and on the day following, in the heart of Scotland. In short, they drive "to Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where." — They are determined to bury poor Chatterton in eternal oblivion. With a frantick, and unrelenting chace, the archeological necromancers continually earth him, and start their phantom in his stead. They raise Archbishop Turgott, and Bishop Douglas from the dead; and impress them into the chace; these holy men, by the force of diabolical magick, renounce their integrity, and consecrate the spectre.
Many of the words in the poems of this chimerical Rowley are used by Chaucer. But Chaucer was conversant with our great metropolis; he was politely, and highly educated himself; and he had the ,most intimate social connexions with persons of the first rank, and education in the kingdom. Is it possible that he could have had so vitiated, and depraved a taste; and so preposterous a judgement, as not to have been carefully attentive, in his writings, to the most legitimate, and elegant language that was afforded by the times? Is it not still a grosser absurdity to suppose that Rowley, a man of a miraculous mind, who anticipated the philological and poetical elegance, and harmony of three centuries after himself (this may be asserted, often of his language; almost always of his versification) is it not still a grosser absurdity to suppose that he would deign to adopt the harshness, and vulgarity of provincial dialects? I am now going to mention an eminent man, whose example alone, if we had not many others, is sufficient to explode the ostentatious critical doctrine of Mr. Bryant, of the indispensable necessity of a regular scholastick education, to form, and to produce genius. It was very natural for Mr. Robert Burns, (whose death well deserved our grief;) with the prejudices, and habits which had grown up with him, in his native country; — it was very natural for him to incorporate into several of his poetical productions, the old words, and pronunciation, that were commonly used in Scotland. I am far from meaning to reproach his memory: in the limited, and unworthy sphere in which he had moved, those prejudices, and habits were almost unavoidable; they were, therefore, very excusable; nay, they might be amiable; in some instances, they indicate a weak, and ungenerous mind; but in others, they may be the concomitants of a great soul; of a Robert Burns; riveted to the domestick, and tender affections; and ardent for the publick good. But to return to the tenour of my argument Mr. Pope was a prodigy in early genius; and it grew, and matured, as he began; in force of mind he equalled his father, Dryden; in elegance, and poetical musick (the most delightful of all musick) he far excelled him. In improving our English poetry, he made a large, an astonishing progress; he marked it, he raised, and beautified it, with a new, and prominent aera. But the steps of Mr. Pope were the steps of a child, in comparison with the giant-steps of Mr. Bryant's Rowley; he was an infant to him (if, indeed, this fine monster had ever existed) in the powers which beautify, and aggrandize: yet what can be more ridiculous nonsense than to suppose that Pope would have professedly written in the idiom of Gawin Douglas, or of Robert Burns?
I think that it must now be evident that the absurdity of supposing that this imaginary poet wrote in provincial dialects can only be exceeded by the serious, and elaborate belief in his existence. It is certain that he would, least of all, write in the Scotch dialect; in the style, or idiom of Gawin Douglas; which was not, properly, a provincial dialect; but the vernacular language, or rather the mode of speaking an established language, that was peculiar to a nation; to an independent kingdom; which had been long governed by its own laws, and customs, and by its own monarchs. It was likewise divided from England by strong, and violent national prejudices, and antipathies; which, I hope that I may now, with truth, observe, have been mitigated, or annihilated, by the lenient, but victorious hand of Time. I have only revived the remembrance of these particulars, to show, that it was impossible for an English poet, miraculously informed, and elegant, of the fifteenth century, to write in the idiom of Scotland; if we rationally reflect on his literature, taste, arid local situation.
Spenser's pretended use of the Somersetshire dialect is of no service to the cause of Mr. Bryant. In his Pastorals he affects a rustick dialect; he adopts the real dialect of no county. It is with regret that I utter a word of censure against a great, and venerable poet, of a powerful genius; of a most exuberant imagination. But his taste was not so good as his fancy was glowing, and expansive. He wrote in a style that was antiquated, even in the reign of Elizabeth; and even that style he tortured with his own peculiar affectations: hence Ben Jonson, that learned critick as well as poet, boldly asserts that "he wrote no language."
It is well known that the Romans were solicitously attentive (more than any other people; perhaps more than the Greeks, their boasted masters) to improve, and polish their language: their literary was as active as their warlike ambition; and by its ardour, impelling the natural greatness, and magnificence of their minds, by which they formed and executed all their plans, in a manner unattained by other nations; their language, at length, in energy, and perfection, became the first language in the world. Their poets, and historians, availed themselves of the captivating powers which they inherited from their ancestors; they were emulous to write in the finest, and most impressive classical purity, and elegance; they were the faithful depositaries of the intellectual as well as warlike honours of their country. They never deigned to write but in the fixed, and most approved Roman language: they scorned to disgrace the conflicts for liberty; the triumphs of the capitol, with vulgar phraseology; with provincial barbarity.
Nor do I think that the use of the various dialects of ancient Greece, by her celebrated authours, gives any weight, in the eye of reason, and sound judgement, to Mr. Bryant's hypothesis of provincial writing. Both Asiatick, and European Greece, in their free, and best days; before ambition, and tyranny had destroyed their liberty, and enervated their learning, were divided, not into provinces, but into independent states. The dialects of the different states made a part of their established, and polite language: in them, therefore, their most liberal, and best educated societies conversed; in them their orators, poets, and historians wrote; and dignified by these authorities, they were adopted by elegant, and sublime genius, over all Greece. Besides these dialects, I doubt not that there was, — I will call it, if you please, a language of the vulgar, and lowest inhabitants of Greece; for such an unwarranted, and rustick oral intercourse hardly deserves the name of a language. It was distinguished from the genuine, and polished Greek of the respective communities, rather by the abuses of pronunciation than by absolutely different words. Analogous to this distinction are the vulgar habits of conversation, in the civilized countries of modern times; the various dialects of the counties of England; of the shires of Scotland; of the patois of France, and of Italy, essentially correspond with this description. To their proper company they, were confined; they were never admitted to mix with the elevated strain of a polite, and accomplished poet; except in the fancy of a puerile critick; who was determined to drag aside the heaviest impediments that stood in the way of him, and the literary toy of which he was enamoured.
The inferiour strength of my arguments will be greatly corroborated by a quotation from a note of Mr. Tyrwhitt, in the vindication of his Appendix to his edition of the Works of Chatterton. The criticism is equally ingenious, perspicuous, and incontrovertible. "Spenser's provincialities are evidently affected; and not deducible from any natural dialect. The translation of the Aeneis by Gawin Douglas, is, indeed, as Mr. Bryant says, entirely provincial; but can he be serious when he adds that— 'much of the same language is to be found in the poems at to Rowley; and, therefore, that no book can be applied preferable to this, in order to authenticate those poems; either in respect to orthography, or style?' — If this were so, one might be led to conclude, either that the dialects of Scotland, and Somersetshire, were very similar; or that Rowley, resided, and was probably born in the former, rather than in the latter district: but without coming to any conclusion, at present, I would wish the reader to compare part of a stanza, which Mr. Bryant, in his 434th page, has quoted from Gawin Douglas, with an equal number of lines in Rowley; and judge himself, how the two writers agree in orthography, and style." — Vindication: p. 5. note.
This gentleman, in a series of sensible, and decisive observations, has refuted, to moral demonstration, the conceits of Mr. Bryant, and of the Dean of Exeter; he has evinced their weak, obstinate, and disingenuous defence of an extravagant, and ridiculous opinion. And thus he has exempted me (for your generous expectations may be disappointed by my inability, but not by my indolence) from the toil of examining much thorny, and painful erudition; in which, I cheerfully own that Mr. Tyrwhitt is my master, with an infinite superiority. He is as rational, and accurate, as the two gentlemen, his opponents, are absurd, vague, and inconclusive. I sincerely regret that my honest praise must be succeeded by serious, and warm expostulation. It is a tribute which I owe to the manes of the great departed; it is an act of justice which I owe to myself. I wish that Mr. Tyrwhitt had shown himself as impartial, generous, and humane a man, as he is a just, and acute critick. To little Anonymous, who was the aide de camp to the two generals, Bryant, and Milles; and who fell in the battle, he shows a religious, a superstitious tenderness; — to him he applies the monastick dotage, "De mortuis nil nisi bonum." If this idea, Mr. Tyrwhitt, extracted from your breast every sting of censure against that insignificant creature; ought it not to have restrained you from repeatedly heaping opprobrious, and ignominious terms; — I will venture to say, ill-grounded calumnies, on the ashes of Chatterton? Your excess of severity to hint, and of adulation to others, are equally reprehensible. With what sincerity could you tell us that "whatever came from Mr. Bryant was valuable;" — at the very time when you were obliging the publick by annihilating his critical futility; by detecting his critical duplicity? Indeed, you present uniform, and undistinguishing complaisance, and praise, to him, and to Dr. Milles; though you yourself have exposed (and you could not do otherwise, when you seriously, and attentively wrote against them) their errours; their blunders; their gross absurdities; and their literary dishonesty. Sir, if imposture was applicable to the youth, whom I shall ever lament, it was applicable to them; and from a worse disposition, as I hope to prove, with regard to the effects of the different impositions, the criticks are annihilated, in the comparison. Chatterton, if you will, with the gloom of a Pharisee, call him an impostor, was an impostor in light, and glory; in that beauty which captivates the heart; in that sublimity which exalts the soul; but those gentlemen, at once your antagonists, and friends, are impostors in little quirks, and evasions; in serious, and deliberate falsehoods; to gratify a petty passion; in the puny triumphs of dullness over murdered words, and syllables; triumphs, in which dullness alone can delight.
One reason for Mr. Tyrwhitt's gentle treatment of Anonymous, was, that, in his pamphlet, he had shown "much candour, and good manners." The image of the great, but poor, and distressed Chatterton, called for more liberality from the critick; for more moral generosity from the man; — for he was a magnanimous being; — so singularly magnanimous, that he praised Walpole, after he had used him basely; and when he expected no favour from him. I am under a necessity of explaining words of daily occurrence, even to professedly verbal criticks. I have endeavoured to give the full signification of the word, abuse; let me give you the complete import of the word, candour. — Candour, then, to interpret it concisely, signifies not only a mildness, and gentleness; but likewise, an impartiality; a plainness, and openness of disposition; a direct avowal, and defence of truth, on every pressing occasion; controuled only by the fear of God; and perfectly unembarrassed with any servile fear, or convenient respect of man. This definition is illustrated by the Latin fountain of the English word; for it signifies clearness, and brightness; and it implies a perfect transparency of our thoughts, and words.
If then I have, on this, and on other occasions, written with the utmost sincerity, and frankness; when my subjects demanded the exercise of these qualities; regardless of the fortune of my interest; and of the frowns of power; and if I have always exerted my humble, but ingenuous abilities, with a particular warmth, and intrepidity, when they were excited by weakness, and distress, on one hand; and by tyranny, and oppression, on the other; — I shall be so far satisfied with myself; I shall think that I have kept a firm allegiance to true candour; and to the best good manners; — not to that candour, and to those good manners, with which deceitful criticks, with war in their hearts, to gratify an unmanly pride, soothe, and cajole one-another; — not to that candour, and to those good manners, which never scruple to injure a helpless individual, while they retain the smiles of a vain, and powerful world; but to the candour, and good manners, of a more aspiring spirit; of a moral elevation; to the candour, and good manners, which never praise, or blame, but at the command of justice; and which would, at any time, vindicate the insulted merit, or plead for the neglected woes, of one, at the risk of offending many.
Mr. Bryant takes an unbounded range for his critical adventures: he gives apart of the poems which are under the name of his Rowley, to several authours, and to very early times. He traces them even to the twelfth century; to the reign of Richard the First. Mr. Bryant is as romantick a crusader in letters, as that prince was in arms. The bait that was caught by an appetite eager to devour impossibilities, was thrown out for it, by the varied ingenuity, and by the inexhaustible genius of Chatterton. By our poetical Proteus his forms were changed with ease; and they were assimilated to nature. Encumbered with the weight of his antique dress, he sometimes threw it off, that his cotemporaries might be more forcibly struck with his personal elegance; with his polished graces. There is a great disparity in the appearance of the old English, in the poems which have been attributed to Rowley. For example, in the Bristowe Tragedie, or the Dethe of Sir Charles Bawdin; a pathetick, and beautiful poem of 392 lines, there are not more than six words to which a mere modern English reader will want a glossary.
But I am persuaded that our youthful bard, who was endowed with an equal strength, and versatility of talents, was a prophet as well as a poet. He not only foresaw the entertainment which his poetry would give to polite scholars; and the admiration which it would receive from; but likewise the doubts; the disputes; the pretended discoveries; the inglorious victories which it would procure, for more grave, and saturnine men; for men of musty habits, and dark researches. It was in his plan, to actuate sentiment, and to charm imagination, in feeling, and excursive minds; but he likewise meant (and his intention had all its effects) to stimulate dullness, and to enliven torpor; to rouze, and to agitate the phlegm of the antiquary.
The dissimilar verbal structure of these poems suggested very useful inferences to Mr. Bryant; it supplied him with aids which were extremely favourable to his irregular sallies, and bold invasions; it gave him a diversity of persons; a range of countries; an expanse of ages; by this fortunate source, he has auxiliaries ready to support him, at a moment's notice — auxiliaries of terrifick powers, and of awful names; — the pious Turgott, Pierce Ploughman; — Robert of Gloucester; an infinite number of poetical worthies, completely clad in old armour, are always ready to take the field, under his mystick banner. Of every height; of every depth, in the regions of fancy, he has taken possession; and thus he can form, and extend, as he pleases, his critical cordon of posts, observation, and defence, in the war of books "militant here on earth."
I have hitherto principally taken a general view of Mr. Bryant's capacity, attainments, and resources, as an antiquarian: I shall now immediately address him, as a verbal critick, or philologist.
He has given us two prolix, and tedious octavo-volumes, in which he professes minutely to criticize the words which are only to be found in the poems of Chatterton; or which he has applied to a particular sense. Yet it is remarkable that he omits to take any notice of many of those words. It is yet more remarkable that on some of them he makes a few superficial, cursory observations; then drops them; and tells us that he will investigate them more deliberately hereafter. But the promised investigations never appear: our Alpheus sinks in Saxony; but he appears not again in Britain. Of his discriminating acuteness I shall now give you a specimen; or a sample; — to use his own favourite expression; to speak in his Aldermanick style.
The third Eclogue of Chatterton, or Rowley, begins with these lines:—
Wouldst thou kenn Nature in her better parte?
Goe, serche the logges, and bordels of the hynde.
"There is certainly a mistake" (says Mr. Bryant) "in the second verse: for the plural 'logges' is a dissyllable, and makes a fault in the rythm. Besides, in those times, an hind had but one lodge, or bordel; and he was perhaps well off to have that. Even now we never speak of the cottages of the shepherd, nor of the huts of the labourer. The passage, therefore, for the sake of metre, and of sense, should be corrected; and the words rendered lodge, and bordel, in the singular:
Goe, serche the logge, and bordel of the hynde.
That is, go, look into the weather-boarded cottage of the peasant." — Bryant: p. 83.
The "logges," and the "bordels," signify the lodgings, and the cottages of the hind. "Aloggit" signifies lodged, in Chaucer. In examining this instance of sagacious, and masterly criticism, I must first observe that Chatterton undoubtedly meant that we should pronounce the plural, "logges," as one syllable; and he understood the art, as well as the spirit of verse, better than Mr. Bryant, with all his "rythm." — He likewise commits a gross, and palpable errour, in asserting that the addition of the plural "s," makes the word a dissyllable: to make it one syllable, in the plural number; and consequently to pronounce it "loggs," is agreeable to the general analogy, ancient as well as modern, of the use of English words, of a similar structure, and of a similar grammatical distinction. In either analogy, the "e," at the end of the singular number, by no means co-operates with the "s," to make the plural a dissyllable. As to the "hynde," that expression, as it is connected with the rest of the line, has, as clearly, and obviously, a plural, and collective signification, as the word people, or commonwealth, or society; or any other words, which bring a plural, or collective sense, more prominently, but not more distinctly, to our view. If I should say that we are apt to despise the poor man; would any person who had passed the threshold of the august fabrick of the English language, imagine, that I meant anyone particular poor man, and not the poor, in general? Mr. Bryant says that "even now, we never speak of the cottages of the shepherd, nor of the huts of the labourer." Surely we may use these expression with perfect propriety: and whenever we may use them, we shall speak better English than is sometimes written by Mr. Bryant; whose style is frequently coarse, and vulgar; and I may venture to add, ungrammatical. I should never have pressed him so closely, if he had not disdainfully undervalued the power of extraordinary talents to form the great, and distinguished authour. Of this often exemplified truth he had an almost miraculously shining proof before him; if, like an owl, he had not shut his eyes against a flood of day. I would never have pressed him so closely, if he had not presumed to shoot his fretfull quills of Latin, and Greek, against the vigorous, and sublime pinion; against the variegated, and celestial plumage, of the Muse. Chatterton is, almost, on every occasion, treated by Mr. Bryant with a superlative contempt. The true poetical believers are often reminded of the ignorant, and illiterate boy of Bristol. And he tells us that it was very easy for some persons whom he mentions, and who must have been very inadequate judges of rising intellectual merit, to estimate the talents of a poor charity-boy: as if poor mental abilities necessarily resulted from a poor station; as if Fortune could defeat the eternal power of the Almighty; and make a mind little, which he had made to be great. The prose of Chatterton is far more elegant, and spirited than that of his hard, and dry censor, by whom it is despised; and who peremptorily insists that he had neither time, nor opportunities, to acquire literary knowledge, or to form his taste by reading. Before I answer this assertion, I shall observe, that it is not in the power of Mr. Bryant to produce an instance of Chatterton's ignorance of the common use of the English language, so palpable, and glaring, as that which he shows, in his own remarks on "the logges, and bordels of the hynde." — I shall now observe that genius is a fine, and a lofty object: that it is beyond the sight of pur-blind intellects; and that it is of a most vivaciously active; of a most energetically plastick nature; and that it can do for itself what schools, and colleges cannot do for thousands. This is my text; Chatterton is my comment. Conscious of his innate powers (for they worked wonderfully in him, almost from his cradle) and already fired with a thirst for knowledge, and for glory; when he was eight years old, he expended the little pocket-money which was allowed him by his mother, on reading from a circulating library. At ten years of age, he made a catalogue (which has been unfortunately lost) of the books which he had read; they amounted to seventy. I doubt not that the choice of those books was as judicious as the extent of the reading was surprizing; when we consider his circumstances, and situation. From that period to the time of his death, without ever encroaching on his obligations of business, he lost not a moment that day, that night could afford him, in prosecuting literary application, and exertion, with an Athenian spirit, and with a Lacedaemonian temperance. Mr. Bryant repeatedly asserts that Chatterton's access to books must have been very limited. I do not see the force of this assertion. Bristol is one of the largest, and most opulent towns in England; and though it is a commercial town, it undoubtedly has a great number of useful, and excellent books; of many of which the assiduity, and ardour, and interesting manner of Chatterton might easily obtain the perusal. Many people will gratify the reading, who will not relieve the starving man. Therefore I am convinced that our unfortunate youth was astonishingly learned, for his years. I am not speaking of the externals, I am speaking of the essence of learning: I am speaking of that instructive, rich, and various knowledge (perhaps it is more advantageously acquired from one language than from many) which is the strengthening, and salutary food of a vigorous, comprehensive, and elegant mind: a food which becomes coalescent, and connatural with the constitution of that mind; spontaneously, and genially blends with its operations; actuates, and impells its nerves; gives the mild, or the animated glow to its colours; the soft, or the majestick air to its graces. — Yes; — I am speaking of the spirit, of the soul of learning; — moderate, indeed, is my comparative estimate of its appendages, of its apparel; though it be of the golden tissue of Greece, and Rome. This best of learning grew up with Chatterton; the magnitude of his genius had room to play in the extent of his information. Shall I not endeavour to vindicate the wrongs of such an injured being as this? — Shall I not justly return the terms of reproach, and contempt, to infinitely inferiour beings, who unjustly aspersed, and presumed to despise him; — who insulted, and profaned his memory, with uncharitable censures; with flaming anathemas? Forgive this digression: it arose, I hope, not unnaturally, from the critical objects by which it was suggested. I shall now descend from Chatterton, to converse again with Mr. Bryant alone. To mix in the fray of his logomachy; to survey the pictures, and images of his adulterated, and spurious taste, may not be without its use: by exposing the insignificance, the folly, of minute, anatomical criticism; by showing the errours, the deformities of a false, and vulgar taste; we may the more justly value, we may the more accurately distinguish, the true.
In the beginning of the Battle of Hastings, the poet addresses the sea, in these words;—
O! sea! our teeming donore! &c.
This is a very poetical mode of expression; and it is very intelligible; its meaning is obvious, at this day. But Mr. Bryant, finding, as I suppose, that "donore" was too modern a term for the fifteenth century, or rather for the time of Turgott, and William Rufus, according to his incredible conjecture; first makes honourable mention of Mr. Tyrwhitt's improvement of the invocation; and then proposes his own. "Mr. Tyrwhitt" (says our critick) "thinks that instead of 'O! sea! our teeming donore!' — the true reading was, 'O! sea-o'er-teeming Dover!'" Why Mr. Tyrwhitt, who was convinced that Rowley was an imaginary being, and who is, in general, a good critick, should have exposed himself in this ridiculous manner, I cannot imagine. Of his pretended correction I own that I can make no sense: but Mr. Bryant thinks it "a very ingenious alteration, and highly probable." So it is; if to be absurd is to be ingenious; and if high probability, and extreme improbability convey the same idea. The general inflexibility of verbal criticks never bends but when they bow to one another. After his compliment to Mr. Tyrwhitt, he proceeds: — "But instead of forming a decompound" (and a monstrous one it is) "I should rather separate the second term, and read, 'O sea! o'er- teeming Dover!'" — by which he would mean, "o'er-flowing Dover;" — though the word, "teeming," in his fabricated compound, rejects the sense to which he would force it, after all the cutting, and chopping of our literary Procrustes. In his observations on the whole passage, he dashes with his usual boldness; he discovers in it a reference to a terrible inundation, which happened in the reign of William Rufus, and overwhelmed Dover, and many other places on the southern coast of our island: (though no man would have made the discovery but himself). — He concludes that "the first sketch of the Battle of Hastings was produced by Turgott;" who lived at the very time to which he creates a reference. The whole chain of conjectures purely imaginary, on this invocation to the sea, is displayed from the 404th to the 408th page of Mr. Bryant's learned lucubrations on the poems of Thomas Rowley. Before I take leave of this critical tournament, I must observe, that in consequence of Mr. Tyrwhitt's emendation; — in consequence of his decompound, and distorted epithet; — "O sea-o'er-teeming Dover" the fancy of the poet must have been as unnatural as the wild conceits of his commentators; for he must have imagined that Dover, not the sea, would have risen, and sunk, with a dreadfully portentous deluge:
Thou wouldst have rose, and sunk, wyth tydes, of bloude,
This verse is a continuation of the poet's address to the sea; and it is the very second line after, "O sea! our teeming donore!" — In all Mr. Bryant's catalogue of Chatterton's errours, and inconsistences, are there any so monstrous, so ridiculous as this? He pays a compliment to the ingenuity of Mr. Tyrwhitt, for a blunder, of which, if it had been committed by the poor charity-boy of Bristol, he would have expressed his contempt, with all the pride of pedantry; with all the flint of insensibility: — I should have said, if he could have perceived it; for by not taking notice of it; — nay, by praising it, he more than recommitted the blunder himself.
After some previous remarks, I shall select from Mr. Bryant's magazine of heaped, and promiscuous criticism, a curious observation, which will not only show his taste in poetical, but in human beauty; it will convince us that while he is elegant in his choice of words, he is an elegant "formarum spectator."
The majestick beauty of the fair Kenewaicha, the wife of the valiant Adhelm, is represented by an original simile, in the second canto of the Battle of Hastings:—
As the blue Bruton risynge from the wave,
Like sea-gods seeme, in most majestic guise;
And rounde aboute the risynge waters lave;
And their longe hayre arounde their bodie flies;
Such majestie was in her porte displaid;
To be excelld bie none but Homer's martial maid.
Battle of Hastings: IId. Part. v. 395.
To one capital observation on colour, taken from the school of Titian, or of Reubens, I shall particularly beg your attention. But in my way to it, I shall take notice of some inferiour objects. Here our stern critick once more animadverts on the supposed ignorance of poor Chatterton, the humble, and illiterate transcriber of his Rowley. "Bruton," he says, should have been "Brutons," as it is immediately connected with plural verbs. But this alteration is by no means necessary. "Bruton" is here used in a collective sense, like the bordels of the hynde; and as their "bodie" is used, in this very passage, for their "bodies." I do not say that this mode of expression is right, in more cultivated, and modern language; I mean, the "Bruton," preceding a plural verb: but whoever is, at all acquainted with our old writers, knows that grammar is often more grossly violated by them than it is in this instance.
The word "risynge" repeated after a slight interval, offends the delicate gentleman. With equal delicacy he therefore proposes that instead of "risynge," in the third line, we should read, "swizing:" for to "swize," he tells us (and I know no more of this Attic word than what he tells us) "denotes the sound of waters, either running, or otherwise put in motion." — Bryant; p. 264. I will not formally impeach this word; but whether it would be better to endure the sound of "rising," twice, or of "swizing" once, let the taste of my audience determine.
This passage gives Mr. Bryant a fine opportunity of entering into a learned dissertation on the custom of the old Britons of painting their bodies with "glastum," or "woade." On that dissertation I should be loth to dwell. Our critick observes that "Kenewalcha, as a beauty must be supposed to have had fine hair; and all persons of a delicate texture, have, from the blueness of their veins, an azure tint communicated to their complexions." — P. 266. He seems to be enamoured of this barbarous blue taste of our ancestors. I do not think that the Grand Signior would have chosen Mr. Bryant for his arbiter elegantiarum: I am sure that I would not, if I was a Sultan. Let the cerulean tint adorn the veins, and the eyes of the fair, in the name of nature, and of charms; but let it not presume to encroach on the limits which are assigned to it by Nature; let it not presume to shade the candour of the lily, and the blush of the rose: if it does, Mr. Bryant may take his Kenewalcha to himself, and his blue Brutons along with her. The woade of the old Britons must have injured the beauty of a fine form as much as the notes of an antiquarian critick injure the beauties of a fine poem.
I am not an indiscriminately rapturous admirer of any poet; nor do I think this one of the first of Chatterton's similes; though it is as good as many of Homer. In four stanzas immediately following that which the critick has quoted, there are far more beautiful similes applied to Kenewalcha, of which Mr. Bryant takes no notice. In the estimation of some judges, the odd, and the grotesque are preferred to the regular; to the elegantly striking. These judges, too, can seldom form a right opinion on objects of taste, from their prejudices in favour of mere antiquity. As "a saint in crape is twice a saint in lawn," — these men, in comparing old, or what they fancy to be old, with modern poetry of equal merit, always find an infinite superiority in the former. Mr. Bryant was under the dominion of these prejudices, when he thus praises the simile which had so powerfully attracted his admiration, in terms which, as far as they exaggerate, are bombast, "There is great beauty as well as propriety, in this similitude; more, perhaps, than may at first appear; and the lines as well as the conception are very noble." — P. 264. He was under the dominion of these prejudices, when with a contempt which was equally illiberal, and ignorant; a contempt which showed that he knew nothing vitally of poetry, he allowed no merit to the productions which are avowedly Chatterton's; though they are animated with a spirit, and present pictures congenial with those of his antiquated compositions. The momentous truth of this assertion I hope to prove; if there are any just, and general laws in criticism; if there are any fine, and sublime images in poetry; and if we have reason, to estimate, and approve the one; and sentiment, to feel, and admire the other.
The stanza which contains Mr. Bryant's favourite simile concludes with this line, as the climax of the poet, in praise of Kenewalcha:
To be excelid by none but Homer's martial maid.
Our hypercritick thinks the line too trite, and modern, to be admitted as genuine. You see how the predilection goes: take the rust from the medal, and it is not worth a farthing.
Poor Vadius long with learned spleen devoured,
Can taste no pleasure since his shield was stoured.
The simile of the blue Brutons is inferiour to many similes which are despised by Mr. Bryant; I mean, to many similes in the fictitious translations from old Saxon, and British poems, which are contained in Chatterton's miscellanies. But they are not sanctioned with the powerful idea of antiquity; which often creates beauties, and annihilates faults.
When a critick is peremptory, and self-sufficient, surely something of the peremptory is allowable, in return. I shall venture to maintain that the rejected line contains the noblest image in the stanza. But Mr. Bryant, in his critical farrago, wages a constant war against poetical aptitude; poetical elegance; poetical grandeur; and against — Chatterton!
I shall now give some instances of wilful mistakes; from an inordinate passion for mangling an authour, and playing the despot in criticism. It is likewise impossible for the fairest judgement not to ascribe these perversions of an authour's meaning, and of his use of words, to a disingenuous disposition.
The second Eclogue in the old languge is written on a martial subject; on the victory of Richard the First over the Saracens, in the Holy Land. The minds of the Saracens, agitated, and alarmed, at the sight of the hostile ships, are divided between courage, and apprehension Their alternate resolution, and hesitation, are thus clearly described; — clearly, to every one who is disposed to see distinct images, and to apprehend common sense:
The reyning foemen, thynckeynge gif to dare,
Boun the merk swerde; theie seche to fraie; — theie blyn.
That is, — "the enemy running, or advancing fast; yet doubting whether or no they should venture; prepare the dark sword; they seek to fight, or offer battle; — they cease, stop, or stand still." Nothing can be more indisputable than this evident meaning of the verses. But Mr. Bryant, after many erroneous, and confident remarks, old details, and expressions of contempt, on the transcriber's ignorance, thus pretends to correct the latter line;
Boun the merk swerde; and seek the faie to blynn.
In quoting, or rather in misrepresenting these lines, he has been guilty, I will not say, of two gross oversights, but of two palpable impositions. He totally omits these words in the former line; — "thynckeynge gif to dare;" — which express the hesitation of the Saracens, and prepare the mind for the close of the latter verse; — "theie seche to fraie; — theie "blyn;" which completely, and as clearly expresses that hesitation. No boasted candour, or critical hypocrisy can draw its unwholesome shade over a deliberate fallacy, in his destruction of this passage. For he gives us the word "fraie," in the second line, without the comma after it, which makes the sense good, and poetical; but without the comma, the words, and the sense, which, if it is retained, it properly divides, become nonsense; or, are laboured into nonsense by Mr. Bryant. He, too, who is so very quick, and magisterial in his animadversions, and corrections, should know that "blynn" is never used, with propriety, in the old English language, but as a neutral verb. This, and much more he ought to know, from the English erudition of his friend, Mr. Tyrwhitt; and I hope that this gentleman's vindication of his Appendix hath, long ago, convinced Mr. Bryant of many great errours which he committed; and of much hasty, and unfounded censure, with which he aspersed the abilities; and I may add, the accuracy, of his despised boy; which were both infinitely superiour to his own. And I may venture to assert, that in this, and in every other instance where he attempts to improve on the authour, his false emendations greatly injure, and impair the force of the original text, as we received it from Chatterton. But I have a heavier charge against him than any defects in the critical faculty; a charge which has been often fulminated, and with all the papal terrours, against my unfortunate young hero, by the candour, and good manners of Mr. Bryant, and of other fortunate criticks; — the charge of serious imposition; or of imposture; in the favourite, and hackneyed term of the literary synod. For deliberately to mutilate passages; to suppress material parts of their contents; — to make them speak what sentiments, and in what language we please; to gratify a scholastick vanity; or to support, and promote a visionary scheme; — is certainly one species, and a very selfish, and mean species of imposture. I must here obviate the frowns, and the reprobation of some very candid, polite, and Christian criticks, by desiring them attentively to observe, that I would never have applied the harsh, and uncharitable term, imposture, as I have now applied it, with truth, and justice, had it not been often, and with less equity, and, I hope, with a rare inhumanity, thrown on the grave of the young, the unfortunate, and the great. "De mortuis nil nisi bonum," Mr. Tyrwhitt; you adopted the maxim, when I cannot think that you were particularly obliged to its cautious, and religious observance: why you spared the critical insignificance, and impertinence of Anonymous; — why you not only spared but praised Mr. Bryant, though you were well acquainted with that absurdity, and duplicity, which you were even proving, detecting, and refuting, while you spared, and praised him; and why you are altogether unsparing; why you show no indulgence, no mercy to the memory of him, who was often the subject of weaker conjectures, and arguments than yours; — I shall leave to be determined, rather by your contemplative than by your practical distinctions, between just, virtuous, and independent censure, and unwarrantable, partial, and inhuman severity; between honest praise, and servile adulation.
In the last poetical passage of which I have taken a view, Mr. Bryant, as I have observed, with a wilful, and unfair design, suppresses half of a line, — "thinckeynge gif to dare;" — which opens a sentiment that is completed in the following line; — "theie seche to fraie; theie blynn." — "Mr. Bryant, in his quotation," (says Mr. Tyrwhitt) "has omitted the clause, — thinckeynge gif to dare; — though it certainly gives light to what follows." — If Mr. Tyrwhitt had written, "because," instead of "though," he would, for once, have applied to the half-bold, and half-timid deception of a brother antiquarian the reproof which it deserved.
"I think" (says Mr. Bryant) "nothing can show more satisfactorily than this passage, that Chatterton had an original before him which he did not understand." If he did not understand it, Mr. Bryant, you would not understand it. Merely not to understand a passage, is surely innocent, according to all right literary laws; but in cases like the present, proudly, and obstinately, to pretend not to understand it; to pervert its meaning, and to deface its elegance, is, in my humble opinion, according to those laws, highly criminal. You have amply, you have tediously shown, that you have no taste for poetry; you have no perception of its sense; you have no sensibility to its beauties. I was you who had an original before you which you did not understand; you were unworthy of the substance; Nature avenged her cause; punished your presumption with a critical delirium; and sent you to hunt a shade. — See Bryant; pages 93, 94, 95, 96. — Tyrwhitt: — Vindication; pages 193, 194.