As I thought it my literary, and moral duty to give my opinion of Mr. Bryant, without reserve, I must quote two or three examples, more, to corroborate the justice of that opinion.
Some "cherisaunei" 'tys to gentle mynde:
"the first line of the Entroductionne to the tragycal enterlude of Aella."
Chatterton, by adopting a typographical errour from Kersey's Dictionary, instead of the right word, "cherisaunce," which signifies, comfort, had written "cherisaunei," with e, i, at the end. Mr. Bryant, in a string of imaginary, inconsistent, petulant, and contemptuous remarks on this very pardonable mistake, exceeds himself. The customary tribute is again paid to Mr. Tyrwhitt, at the expence of Chatterton — "Mr. Tyrwhitt" (he says) with his usual judgement, has restored the original reading, which was certainly as he represents it:
Some "cherisaunce" it is to gentle mynde."
After floundering through many mistakes, which he attributes to Chatterton, and which retort upon himself, he thus attempts to humble the great, and to exalt the comparatively little man. "Of these mistakes the transcriber would never have been guilty, if he had possessed a fiftieth part of the learning, and sagacity of the editor." — It is, here particularly incumbent on me to quote a passage from Mr. Tyrwhitt's vindication of his Appendix: it will show that Mr. Bryant has a sagacity beyond that of all other criticks, in discovering faults which never existed; and that his praise, as well as his censure, is often without the least foundation.
"Cherisaunei: Ent, 1.
Some cherisaunei 'tys to gentle mynde.
"In my edition of these poems, when I was but a novice in genuine archeological language, I set this down among the evident mistakes of the transcriber, and corrected it, very probably, as I thought, into 'cherisaunce it ys.' My excuse must be, that I had not then seen Kersey; who, from a mistake, as it seems, of the printer, has this article; — 'cherisaunei, (O.) — comfort.' Mr. Bryant, p. 562, allows that this word was borrowed by Chatterton, from Kersey; though before, p. 106-7, he has taken a great deal of pains to point out the several steps, by which Chatterton, whom he there considers as an ignorant transcriber from MSS, arrived at such a complication of mistakes as are to be found in this passage." — Vindication of Appendix, p. 177.
Here Mr. Tyrwhitt is sufficiently explicit, and faithful, to convince Mr. Bryant of his precipitance, or rather of his deliberate injustice; if he could be convinced of it. He has not, indeed, remonstrated against his unfair, and inconsistent criticism, with that plainness, and ingenuous warmth, which it deserved: that disagreeable task was left for me; a sense, however, of my literary, and, I hope, of my moral duty, softened what was painful: and I should have despised myself, if I had eluded these obligations.
Mr. Bryant invents a curious process of Chatterton's fancied blunders on the word "cherisaunce;" blunders, which he supposes to have originated from his ignorant attempts to supply those letters of the words which had been defaced in the old manuscript from which he copied; though he afterwards openly asserts that he had borrowed the word from Kersey's Dictionary; "in which he tells us that Chatterton used to hunt, in a most servile manner." — This is the haughty, and stupid language of one who neither knew how to appreciate the industry, nor the talents of our astonishing youth. At the bottom of the very page in which he allows that he had the word from Kersey, he refers to that part of Kersey which contains the word; but he omits to take any notice of the typographical errour there by which "cherisaunei" is printed, for "cherisaunce:" and at the same place, that his friends might not have it in their power to plead a lapse of memory for the total inconsistency of his preceding with his subsequent opinion, he likewise refers to the former part of his own work, in which he ascribes the orthographical corruption of the word to the complicated ignorance of Chatterton, and to his illiterate endeavours to supply what was rendered illegible by time: I can conceive nothing more illiberal, and incongruous, than this aggregate of disparagement, and of crude, imaginary notions. I shall therefore more justly apply his own words to him than he applied them to Chatterton: — " We have, in this example, all the misconceptions of a bad critick, who was guilty of a complication of mistakes:" — and I will add, of disingenuous inconsistences. — Mr. Bryant knows, or should know, that "cherisaunce" is to be found in Chaucer, and in our other old authours: I shall therefore close my remarks on this article, by observing, that if we carefully consider the single mistake of copying from Kersey's Dictionary, instead of writing the word, "cherisaunce," as it should have been written; that single mistake is almost a decisive proof, that the poems which have been supposed to be Rowley's, are the real compositions of Chatterton. — See Bryant, pages 106, 562.
No, bestoikerre, I wylle go. — Aella. v. 91.
To "beswicke," is the proper old verb; it signifies to deceive. Kersey had copied it erroneously, "bestoike," from Skinner's Etymologicon, where it was indistinctly printed. From "bestoike," Chatterton formed the substantive, "bestoikerre;" agreeably to the analogy of our language; but with a violation of orthography, by the mistake into which he was led by Kersey. This is an honest, and obvious account of the errour; and the cause of it Mr. Bryant must have seen, if he had not been determined not to see it. He is again completely refuted; and what is worse, his unfairness is exposed, by his tender, friend, and antagonist, Mr. Tyrrwhitt.
"Bestoiker. Ae. 91. Deceiver. Chatterton. See also, Ae. 1064. — Mr. Bryant allows, p. 108. that this word has been put, by mistake, for 'Beswiker.' I wonder that he, who appears to have had Kersey at hand, did not advert to the following article in him — 'To bestoike, (O.) — to betray;' — which, I am persuaded, misled Chatterton. But then there would have been no room for the inference, 'that this young man could not read the characters with which he was engaged.' I cannot see that the letters in Skinner are so well defined, but that Kersey might as easily have been led into such a mistake by them as by those of a manuscript." — Vindication of Appendix: pages 167, 168.
"Chatterton" (says Mr. Bryant) "has idly expressed the word, 'bestoikerre.' It is plain that this young man could not read the characters with which he was engaged. — To decipher the characters in old writings, requires a competent knowledge in the language which they transmit: but of this Chatterton was confessedly destitute." — Bryant, pages 109, 110, 111. No young person could ever be more unjustly, and cruelly charged with idleness, whether indolence, or negligence is meant, than Chatterton. This tribute is due to his memory, if he really was not Mr. Bryant's Rowley. But what shall we think of that idleness which rejected glaring truth, to obtrude on us, in its place, miserable sophistry, and palpable falsehood? I wish, from my heart, however idle young men may be, that the "strenua inertia" of old men may be more usefully, and innocently employed. If we could suppose Mr. Bryant ingenuous in his researches, he shows an ignorance greater than that of any school-boy; he is unacquainted even with the use of a Dictionary. But this is morally impossible; you know the alternative. Chatterton's formation of the word, "bestoikerre," and the source from which he formed it, make another damning proof against a Bryant, and a Milles; but a gratifying, and glorious proof, to the admirers of stupendous genius, in early youth, that he was the authour of the poems which were published under the name of Rowley. When Caesar passed the Rubicon, he passed it from an expanded, from a glorious ambition; he passed it for the empire of the world. But how shall we estimate that childish, I was going to say, that more criminal ambition, which betrays the commonwealth of letters, for a word?
I must give one instance more of Mr. Bryant's accuracy in making critical inferences, and of his good faith. You must excuse the perseverance of my poetical zeal:— "'Tis not a private loss;" — the world "demands your tears." I am not indulging a selfish, malignant resentment: of which I hope that I have been more frequently, than justly accused; I am combating the man who despises Chatterton.
In the Memoirs of Sir William Canynge, and in some farther account of him, written by Rowley the priest, which are both in Chatterton's miscellanies, we are told that Edward the IVth proposed to Canynge, for his second wife, a relation of the Queen; a lady of the family of the Wyddevilles; that he disliked the proposal, and took orders, to avoid it. The King highly resented his refusal; and he was obliged to pay him a fine of three thousand marks, to obtain his reconciliation, Mr. Bryant is as well assured that this account of Canynge, in old English, was written by Rowley, as the world, I suppose, is now convinced that Chatterton was its authour. Proceeding on this assurance, he asks how it was possible for Chatterton, at his years, and in his limited situation, to be acquainted with these, and many other facts (real, and supposed) which are mentioned in the poems of the imaginary Rowley? The knowledge of many facts, in publick, and in private life, was accessible to Chatterton; to a youth who had read seventy authours, before he was eleven years old; whose industry, and judgement infinitely surpassed his age. The great probability, I may say, the certainty of his very extensive knowledge, is ably, and circumstantially proved by Mr. Tyrwhitt. Of Canynge's ordination, and of the payment of the fine, there can be no doubt. They are recorded in the Register of the Bishop of Worcester; and in the epitaph which is inscribed on Canynge's monument, in the church of St. Mary Redcliffe at Bristol. And of these two facts we have no other authentick records. I shall quote from Mr. Tyrwhitt, more faithfully than he is quoted by Mr. Bryant, this gentleman's curious evidence, by which Canynge's ordination, to avoid the disagreeable marriage is ascertained. — "Of Sir William Canynge's going into orders" (says Mr. Bryant) "to avoid the marriage proposed by King Edward, we have the following evidence, for which we are indebted to Mr. Tyrwhitt. It is certain, from the Register of the Bishop of Worcester, that Mr. Canynge was ordained Acolythe by Bishop Carpenter, on the 19th of September, 1467, and received the higher orders of sub-deacon, deacon, and priest, on the 12th of March, 1468, O.S. on the 2d and 16th of April, 1468, respectively. — This evidence was produced by me [Introd. Account; p. 23.] to show the time of Canynge's going into orders; which it does, I think, very precisely: but I never dreamt of its being applied to show that he went into orders, to avoid a marriage proposed by King Edward, of which the Register says not one word. On the contrary, I hope to demonstrate very clearly, that the dates ascertained by the Register are totally inconsistent with those in the Memoirs; and of consequence, that neither the Memoirs, nor the Storie of William Canynge, which agrees with them in the same extravagant fiction, could possibly have been written by a genuine Rowley." — Vindication of Appendix, p. 107.
Mr. Tyrwhitt never dreamt that his real evidence would be so strangely applied. Here the mildness of the disciple (which never scruples to overshoot its bounds, when it ought to be more particularly circumspect, and reverent) is, with good reason, stimulated above its usual submission to its great master in archaeological learning. Many other assertions; many other misquotations are hazarded by Mr. Bryant, in the course of his work; to give a being to objects which never existed but in his own mind.
One instance more may be entertaining, in which Mr. Tyrwhitt almost emerged from his prudent, and systematical tranquillity; in which he almost rose from a Chesterfield to a Cato; when he was rouzed to some sensibility by one of Mr. Bryant's unexampled absurdities. Rowley's account of Canynge's ordination says that he was ordained on Saturday, the 19th of September; the day of St. Matthew. This is inconsistent with the Register of the Bishop of Worcester. The inconsistency; the solution of the inconsistency; and Mr. Tyrwhitt's pertinent, and strong observations on that solution, I shall give in his own words.
"For the present-let us suppose, upon the single evidence of the Memoirs, that King Edward was at Bristol in September 1467; that he formed the strange scheme of making the fortune of one of his wife's cousins by marrying her to master Canynge; and that master Canynge had no way of avoiding the match but by stealing into orders. The account goes on to say, that 'on the Fryday following he was prepared; and ordained the nexte day' (i.e. Saturday,) 'the day of St. Matthew; and on Sunday sung his first mass.' — But this is a flat contradiction of the Register; which says that Canynge received his first orders on the nineteenth of September, 1467; for the day of St. Matthew, as every one knows, is the twentieth of that month: and moreover, in the year 1467, the day of St. Matthew fell not on a Saturday, but on a Sunday; another historical fact, with which the account in the Memoirs is totally inconsistent. Mr. Bryant indeed has hit upon a curious method of reconciling these contradictions, by supposing that the day of St. Matthew, in the Memoirs, means the vigil; or, as he calls it, the fast of St. Matthew; i.e. in common acceptation, the day before the day of St. Matthew. If he has discovered any arguments by which he has been able to make this supposition probable to himself, I admire his ingenuity; if he can make it probable to others, I shall certainly never venture again to dispute with so powerful a master of the arts of persuasion." — Vindication of Appendix; pages 110, 111. — Now I think it undeniable that repeatedly, wilfully, and perversely, to make authours, and records say what they never meant to say, is downright falsification; and that is Dr. Johnson's definition of imposture.
If we consider Mr. Bryant, in his disdainful strictures on Chatterton, as an ungenerous critick, we need not be surprized that from his treatment of that great, but unfortunate young poet, he hath incurred this literary characteristick; if we recollect his invidious, and most uncharitable animadversions on the nobly pious exordium of Mr. Pope's Universal Prayer; animadversions which are entirely without foundation; and which could not have arisen in the mind of any man but himself. If we consider him as a critick perfectly eccentrick, and visionary, we must allow that it has always been his taste, and his glory, pertinaciously to espouse the improbable, and the monstrous; to deform elegant passages, and to deny important, and prominent facts, of which mankind, before him, had not entertained a doubt. Nothing can be too absurd for that fancy; nothing can stand in the way of that pen, which has unfeelingly demolished, and destroyed the glowing texture, and the interesting images of classical story; which has waged a war against Troy, more exterminating than, that of Ajax, and Achilles; which hath written it out of all existence. The whole fate of that renowned city is memorable, and singular: in ancient times, after it fell by arms, its ashes were consecrated to immortality, by a "Pontfex maximus" of Apollo; by a divine poet; and in modern times, a gallant soldier; a great favourite "utriusque Minervae," hath rescued them from the annihilating sacrilege of a rude, and profane antiquarian; and hath restored them to their hallowed ground. My friend Captain Francklin, in his accurate, animated, and picturesque remarks, and observations on the Plain of Troy, hath done justice to himself, while he vindicated the geographical, and historical veracity, and indeed the poetical glory of Homer; with a classical, and elegant spirit, which were worthy of an unaffected, and rapturous admirer of that venerable, and immortal bard. He hath shown that the relaxing climate, and the more relaxing luxury of India, were not able to enervate a vigorous mind; that like Ulysses, he was proof against the bowls of Circe; that they had not infused into his breast the least oblivion of Westminster, and of his father.
What a strange undertaking! — To attempt to destroy the universal, and well-established belief of three thousand years! It is difficult to say whether the attempt was more at war with common sense, or common modesty; or with the heartfelt interest of poetical beauty. What a cold heart, and hand must they be, that would endeavour to obliterate from imagination the striking scenes of the father of Grecian poetry; the palace, and the city of the old, and good, but unfortunate Priam; the romantick heights of Callicolone; the fertile, and Elysian plain of Troy; the meandering course of the Simois, and the Scamander; the everlasting fig-tree; which, by the power of Homer's magick, still "lives in description, and looks green in song;" the tomb of ancient Ilus, and of the later heroes! What an opinionative, what an "esprit de travers" must that be, which could suppose that the poet would repeatedly, circumstantially, and minutely, and with a folly as unparalleled as ineffectual, mention all these objects, if they had never, in reality, existed! Mr. Bryant has been very industrious to acquit Chatterton; but he has been equally industrious to convict Homer, of IMPOSTURE. I spurn the mercantile criteria of a Tyrwhitt, and a Walpole; I am not so cruelly partial as to confine forgery to writing; any more than I am still so much more cruelly undistinguishing as to confound the guilt of forging a poem with that of forging a Bank-bill. But I must insist that to forge a city, and its territories, is as absolute an imposture as to forge a heroick poem; — perhaps it is more criminal; (if, indeed, this harsh epithet can, with propriety, be applied to inferiour, and trifling offences;) — as it may introduce a more inconvenient embarrassment, and confusion into the learned world. Hence, if Mr. Bryant's theory of the nonexistence of Troy should be credited hereafter, by his frigid, and merciless brother-antiquarians, as little quarter may be given to the memory of Homer as bath been granted to that of Chatterton; especially as the cowardly animosity of the presumptuous, and unfeeling tribe is apt to be particularly hostile to departed genius; and in proportion as that genius was indigent, and great.
That the love of fame is a universal passion, is a part of Dr. Young's moral, and poetical theory. If this position is true, by what an infinite variety of ways do we endeavour to ascend to the temple of the goddess? We prosecute our favourite aim by every trifle of pedantry, as well as by the persuit of those great, and splendid objects which captivate the dazzled imagination; or which obtain, as they deserve, the moral applause of mankind. If we wish to be distinguished we should determine to endeavour to accomplish "a noble end by noble means:" for life is short; and we are accountable to Heaven. Mr. Bryant, in his inelegant, and rustick phraseology, repeatedly observes that Chatterton was greedy of praise. I am satisfied that Mr. Bryant had this avarice of air; by his affectation of a whimsical originality; by the objects which he invented, and endeavoured to establish, in the field of literature; objects which were perfectly calculated to startle, and surprize, but by no means to afford rational information, and rational pleasure. I do not mean altogether to vindicate Chatterton's mode of aspiring to poetical glory; for we should not sport with truth, either in great, or in small transactions; — it is a sacred, a divine object. I shall only, at present, observe, that he courted the admiration of the world, by an astonishing application, and ingenuity; by an exertion, and display of astonishing genius. And this application, and exertion were employed on affecting, and sublime subjects; on subjects which warmly, interest the human mind. His ardour for celebrity I shall, therefore, class with the ambition of heroes: but they who persue distinction by a love of musty researches, and uncouth monsters, must have a depraved, and distempered intellectual appetite: they reject a salutary, and elegant regale; they delight to feed on garbage: then, let them take to themselves Mr. Bryant's coarse, and animal epithet; it is as expressive of their little fever, as the idea which it conveys is abhorrent from the agitation of a great soul; they are greedy of praise.
I must beg leave to trespass a little farther on your patience; while I say something on the late Dr. Milles, the Dean of Exeter. This man was so weak, and disingenuous a creature; and the little learning that he had was so meagre, and pitiful, that the wonder from him would have been, if he had shown any degree of talent; any literary sincerity; any manly, and respectable knowledge. He was the companion of Mr. Bryant in the critical knight-errantry; in their painful, but vain efforts, to create a Rowley; to substantiate a shadow. Both the gudgeons were hooked by the shining bait which was thrown out for them by Chatterton. — From two or three intellectual features you will know the whole character of this gentleman's mind.
He boldly infers from the poems of his Rowley, that their authour was a perfect master of Homer, in the original. This is the constant manner of the man; to suppose, and assert, without the least foundation. This is a silly, ridiculous inference, for several reasons. It is totally improbable that any priest of the fifteenth century could read Homer, like a masterly Grecian, in the original. If he was at all acquainted with Homer, he must have gained any knowledge that he had of that great poet, from some Latin translation. I repeat it; none of the poems afforded him the least foundation to suppose that his visionary Rowley knew any thing of Homer, in the Greek original. In the Battle of Hastings, indeed, there are several instances of imitations of Homer, in one of his worst properties; in his hunting of similes to death. The fault, however, is redeemed by the poetical beauties which the similes of our English poet contain. And by the use of those similes it is demonstrated to us that Chatterton, their authour, had an intimate acquaintance with Mr. Pope's admirable, and immortal translation of the Iliad; a translation which has done inexpressible honour to its authour; and which has thrown a reflected, and additional glory on the memory of Homer. I am surprized that Mr. Tyrwhitt has not laid a particular stress on this great, and instructive object of Chatterton's English literature; where he, justly, and with some spirit remonstrates against this foolish conceit of the Dean of Exeter. His friend, Mr. Bryant, too, took it into his head that this Rowley "was a person of much reading; one who was conversant both with ancient, and modern literature." This he would prove, "from the frequent allusions to ancient ceremonies, and customs; and from the references to Greek, and Roman authours." — Tyrwhitt: Vindic: pages 146, 147. I have attentively read all the poems; and therefore I may venture to declare that both the assertion, and the pretended proof, are the mere inventions of a bold, and fertile imagination. But whatever these two gentlemen think may serve their cause, they will assert, without any scruple, or hesitation. Some of their assertions, and subterfuges are so despicable, that I am almost ashamed to take notice of them: but the cause of moral, of literary truth, should supersede any inferiour personal considerations. When they are hardly pressed, they endeavour to cover their weakness under the following miserable resources: — "I am told by a very learned, and respectable gentleman that this was really the case:" — "This word is to be found in one authour:" — "I know where to find several manuscripts:" and with many such airy references are we mocked by these honest criticks. The Dean of Exeter evidently makes Mr. Shiercliff say what he never could have said; if we consider, and compare the collateral circumstances: and when he cannot account for Chatterton's improper, and unauthorized use of the old word, "lisseth," in a fair way, he immediately fabricates, or forges his own word, glisseth; a word which no man ever heard, or saw, before; and thus he murders the difficulty. — See Tyrwhitt's Vindic. pages 127-181, 182. These mean subterfuges; these paltry tricks; this critical sleight of hand, which are habitual, and common, with these gentlemen, may, surely, with propriety, be denominated, imposture.
The Dean of Exeter assures us that the figure of mater Canynge on one of the two monuments which were erected to his memory in Redcliff church, "exactly verifies a portraiture of him, as it appears among Rowley's papers." What a superficial mind must that have been which could have brought this futile circumstance to the aid of his contemptible suppositions! This figure of master Canynge was never seen by the eye of Thomas Rowley; but it had been often surveyed by the bright, and luminous eye of Thomas Chatterton; and his fancy was more bright, and luminous than his eye; and had the art of turning its interesting objects to shape, with a wonderful facility and execution. There was a gross eye which could discern the stone of the statuary; but its obnubilated rays could not mount to the soul of Chatterton.
I must give you a specimen of the philological skill of this Dean of Exeter; of this man of most profound erudition.
Whose eyne dyd feerie sheene, like blue-hayred defs,
That dreerie hange on Dover's emblaunched clefs, — Eng. Met. v. 9.
are two lines in Chatterton's Englysh Metamorphosis; and "blue-hayred defs," according to his interpretation, are meteors, or vapours. "But," says the Dean, "they rather mean, spectres, or fairies, which might be supposed to inhabit these cliffs. 'Deffe netyll,' in the P. parv. is explained, 'Archangelus.' 'Deffe,' therefore, may signify, spirit." — This formidable critick knew less than a common school-boy how to use a dictionary. For on the authority of the little dictionary, from which he presumes to correct our illustrious poet, and to speak contemptuously of him, "deffe netyil" simply means "deaf nettle;" or the herb which is more commonly called, "dead nettle." Now, unfortunately for antiquarian destiny, of this plant, "archangel" is the technical, or botanical term; and it was as unfortunately mentioned by the Dean's Dictionary of Old Words; for it was the Charybdis which absorbed scholastick, and clerical dignity. Mr. Tyrwhitt exposes this despicable blunder of the Dean, in a vein of excellent critical precision, and of entertaining pleasantry. — "Though," says he, "I believe meteors, or vapours, to be not a less fanciful interpretation of 'defs' than spectres, or fairies, its total want of foundation cannot so easily be demonstrated." — Vindic: pages 202, 203. — It is not impossible that the word "def" might have the metaphorical signification that Chatterton gave it, in some dictionary of old English with which he was conversant. To Mr. Tyrwhitt's apposite remark I shall add, that, in general, criticks, and antiquarians have but microscopick eyes; formed only to admit a small, and immediate object: we may justly apply to them the lines which Mr. Pope, but not with equal justice, applies to heroes; especially as he particularly mentions Alexander:
Not one looks forward; onward still he goes;
Yet ne'er looks forward farther than his nose.
Essay on Man.
The eyes of the wild Scythians, to which the simile is applied, might well he compared with fiery meteors, or vapours; but what similitude had they to spectres, angels, or archangels? You will certainly now agree with me, that it ill became this priest of Boeotia to throw the following contemptuous, and ignorant stricture at Chatterton. Alluding to the words, the meaning of which it was supposed that he had mistaken — "The glossaries" (says the Dean) "in which alone they existed, were not in his hands; nor was it within his ability, to understand them, if they had been before him." — Milles: p. 514. This passage reminds me of the dull, and loquacious pedant, who presumed to teach Annibal the art of war. My last, and honest tribute to the memory of the Dean of Exeter shall be, my unreserved opinion that a more proper person could not have been found in all Europe, for a president to a society of antiquarians. I shall close this part of my observations with a passage from the eloquent, and spirited Bolingbroke, which my memory has frequently presented to me while I was contemplating my heroes of the verbal chivalry of old times — "I had rather take the Darius whom Alexander conquered, for the son of Hystaspes, and make as many anachronisms as a Jewish chronologer, than sacrifice half my life, to collect all the learned lumber that fills the head of an antiquary." — On the Study of History.
I shall now take some view of the external evidence that Chatterton was the real authour of the poems which are attributed to Rowley. The delusion is, at least, greatly vanished; therefore I need not treat this part of my subject so circumstantially, and minutely as it has been discussed by others. To omit it, however, would be neglectful; it may not have engaged the attention of many of my audience: to inquire into important truth; to ascertain, and to establish it, must ever be agreeable employments to a reasoning, and reflecting being. And sentiment, and generosity will read the disputed poetry, with a double pleasure; with a purer, and more forcible enthusiasm; when they know that it was produced by a most extraordinary person; by an intellectual phaenomenon. As to the internal evidence of the real authour of these poems, it will make an essential, and the most agreeable part of my main object. The tints, and the fragrance of the roses will expiate the perplexities, and the punctures of the thorns.
When our young poet was little more than five years old, he was dismissed from school, as a stupid, unimprovable boy. Perhaps, while the elements of knowledge were injudiciously, and rudely inculcated, the mental dawn of the puerile scholar was already working, and rising within him; and while the pedagogue was sinking to Erebus, he was already asserting his Olympus. When he was rusticated from Pyle-street, "his mother" (says Mr. Bryant) "took him in hand herself." — P. 519. As this gentleman takes every opportunity to pay his equally just, and elegant compliments to my much admired, and much regretted youth: I, surely, have a right to pay my plain, and unreserved compliments to him; though I hope that their spirit will be more just, and their language more justifiable. Cavilling pedants, insulting talents, extort a philological rigour, even from liberal minds. So "his mother took him in hand herself;" this language is worthy of the Partridge, or of the Thwackum of the glorious Fielding.
"Mrs. Chatterton" (I quote from Dr. Gregory) "was rendered extremely unhappy by the apparently tardy understanding of her son; till he fell in love, as she expressed herself, with the illuminated capitals of an old musical manuscript, in French, which enabled her, by taking advantage of the momentary passion, to initiate him in the alphabet. She taught him, afterwards, to read, from an old black-lettered Testament, or Bible." — Gregory; p. 4. The Doctor judiciously observes that probably these objects by which his eye, and fancy were struck, at an early period of his life; that this very mode of initiating him in the elements of learning, might be the first motives by which he was afterwards impressed with an attachment to antiquities; an attachment which he prosecuted with so much ardour. I by no means agree with Helvetius, that all who are properly organized, are equally adapted, by Nature, to any acquirements of the mind; and that all future excellence is the result of 'a choice determined by external, and accidental circumstances: but I have no doubt that as those objects, or circumstances, attract observation, strike the fancy, and engage the affections, the powers of true genius (which are providentially rare, when we consider the envy, and cruelty of man) are frequently thrown into particular motions, and directions. What I have now written is rather anecdote than evidence: I proceed, therefore, to facts of more decisive proof.
If Thomas Rowley, the pageant of our criticks, had been the authour of these poems, he must have been extremely distinguished, and celebrated; if not while he lived, after his death. But not the least notice is taken of him by any old biographer, or historian; not even by William of Worcester, who was himself of Bristol, and frequently mentions Canynge. That Canynge, who was a collector of curious, and valuable books from all quarters; which were, undoubtedly, to compose his library, should lock up the manuscripts of one particular authour, in a chest that was placed in the tower of a church; and that the lock should have had six keys, which were entrusted to different persons; is a story that could have had no weight but with credulous, positive, and stupid minds. The chest only contained what was often destined to such repositories, in old times; — deeds of law; money, and jewels. But if we admit, for a moment, the ridiculous notion; like other incredible fictions, it is fruitful of absurdities. For the chest was opened; and its contents were taken out, and examined, in the year 1727: but till more than forty years after, the name of Rowley was never mentioned; when, in 1768, Chatterton published, in Farly's Bristol-Journal, and in the old English, an account of the ceremonious, and magnificent opening of the old bridge. About that time, Chatterton informed some inhabitants of Bristol, that there were, in his possession, many manuscripts of poems which were written by Thomas Rowley, a priest, in the fifteenth century. Those manuscripts, he said, were parts of the heap of old writings which were taken from the chest that was in the tower of Redcliff church. And thus, according to his account, they must have been brought to his father's house, in the year 1748, with a great number of parchments that had been deposited in the chest. I must here observe that no poems were ever produced as Rowley's, but by Chatterton.
I shall quote a passage from Mr. Tyrwhitt, which ingeniously, and effectually exposes the absurdity of this mysterious, and magical chest.
"Supposing — for the present, that such a whim might have entered into the head of Canynge as might have led him to deposite a fair transcript of his friend's poems in a church-chest rather than in a library; is it possible to suppose that this transcript was, at that time, the only existing copy of those poems? Had the authour destroyed all his original draughts? Had he never given any copies to any other person? Besides, according to the Memoirs of Canynge, by Rowley, which Mr. Bryant cites so frequently, Rowley survived Canynge several years. Was he under any restriction never to compose any more poems; nor even an elegy on his patron's death? Or lastly, could he be so insensible of even laudable ambition, as to trust the immortality of his own, and his friend's fame, to a single copy of his works, and that locked up in an almost inaccessible repository?" — Tyrwitt: Vindic: p. 119.
Chatterton was, in general, very observant of his literary drama; of the personage, and character, which he had given to Rowley: but he sometimes dropped that attention; naturally claiming his own greatness; or obliquely reproaching an insensible world for neglecting it. He owned to Mr. Barrett that the first part of the Battle of Hastings was his own composition. Depressed with melancholy, on some particular occasion, before he left Bristol, he wrote a will: even at that juncture, we see the rays of genius darting through the cloud of distress. In that will there is the following memorable clause. — "'I leave Mr. Clayfield the sincerest thanks my gratitude can give; and I will, and direct, that whatever any person may think the pleasure of reading my works worth, they immediately pay their own valuation to him, since it is then become a lawful debt to me; and to him, as my executor, in that case.' — If it should be asked, but why then did he not explicitly declare himself the authour of the works attributed to Rowley? I can only answer, that, possibly, in the fit of SULLEN DESPAIR, which had determined him to quit the world, he might equally disdain, either to confess, or to continue, his IMPOSTURE." — Tyrwhitt: Vindic: p. 189. By the expression, "my works," nothing could possibly then be meant, but the works which he had published, as Rowley's. Mr. Tyrwhitt supposes a very natural question; — Why he did not openly acknowledge himself the real Rowley? — I cannot omit to censure the barbarous, or stupid answer which he gives to that question, as it deserves. The temper of mind, Mr. Tyrwhitt, which determined him to quit life, was not a fit of sullen despair, as you have misrepresented it, with an equal want of judgement, and of enlightened humanity. Nor was it a fit of rage, as it was as uncharitably, or ignorantly, but more savagely termed by your friend, Mr. Bryant. — It was the result of a long established, however erroneous habit of thinking: it was a consciousness of extraordinary endowments, and prerogatives of Nature, insulted by the minions of Fortune; persecuted, and oppressed, with all the horrours of adversity: it was a resolution as deliberately formed, as it was firmly executed, to retire from an unequal conflict of exquisite sentiment with an unfeeling world. Mr. Bryant's barbarous taunt, in his expression of rage; the coarse, and merciless insult of a hard, and rough mind, to unfortunate genius, overwhelmed with unutterable distress, refers to his tearing of his manuscripts into small fragments, immediately before the fatal catastrophe. This act was not an effect of rage; it was a deliberate, a regularly determined deed; it was a deplorable part of the execution of a tragical plan. I am far from saying, for I am far from thinking, that his suicide, that any suicide, while we retain our senses, is justifiable: but there is a splendour, even in the errours, and absurdities; there is a splendour even in the guilt of great souls; and I would not have it injured; I would not have it violated; I would not have it clouded, by vulgar, and contaminating breath. To tear his manuscripts into small, illegible pieces, was consistent with his farewell views of the world, on his last melancholy day; it was not an abrupt, and insulated act of impotent rage; it was intimately connected with his past fortune, and with his approaching fate. In consequence of his experience of mankind; in consequence of the sentiments which naturally flowed from that experience, he did right (fool that I am, myself, to fame, present, and posthumous!) he did right in thus annihilating his inestimable poetical treasures; — the world was unworthy of them. His own sublunary destruction followed that of his works. The dead is arraigned, and prosecuted: by a petty jury of beings perfectly at their ease, and, therefore, uninformed, and impassive, in genuine morality, he is pronounced guilty, with a sentence of unqualified condemnation. But where there is omniscience, there must be mercy, as unerring as it is extensive: in that mercy methinks I see Chatterton comprehended: he obtains a pardon from the Sovereign of the Universe. If I am mistaken, I am innocently, and humbly mistaken; but can the following ideas be very repugnant to the nature of the Deity? — "Thy conduct, unfortunate youth, was precipitate, and violent. To oppose a brave, and persevering breast against the worst evils, is the sublimity of virtue: to fly from suffering, by flying from life, is, to abandon virtue; it is to encroach on My moral government of the world; it is to usurp My providence. Thou hast mistaken a hopeless resolution for true heroism; an act of disdain, for an act of magnanimity. But I am thy heavenly father; and I will treat thee with a lenity which thou hast not experienced from thy unnatural brethren, on earth. I favoured thy birth with the rarest endowments: but My celestial blossoms are often blighted by the profane frost of man. Yet by thy immature judgement, and by thy juvenile fire, and fancy, faults might be mistaken for virtues to which they bore some resemblance. My knowledge pervades all things; it is perfectly acquainted with the stamina; with the essence, with all the workings of matter, and of mind Great pressures; contending forces, must, sometimes produce dreadful temporary effects, in the physical, and moral world. There never was a more excessive sensibility than thine, since the creation of man: since that time, there never was a more excessive human obduracy than that which it was thy sublunary fate to encounter. An irregular event followed, where consummate virtue was requisite to counteract nature: the fine object was crushed by its deformed, and heavy foe. This was thy misfortune only in the moment of thy life; but it shall be amply redeemed; for My power of conferring happiness is infinite; it is commensurate with space, and with eternity."
Mr. Walpole is as undistinguishing, and unfeeling, as a Bryant, and a Tyrwhitt, on the melancholy subject of the suicide, and its remarkable circumstances. Yet one observation, in the defence, or apology, to which I have already referred; an observation, which it would be unfair in me not to select, is an excellent reproof of those two criticks, and himself. "He preserved" (says he) "a dignity in despair." This is a concise, but just, and strong description, of the last act of his tragedy. What a pity it is that this remark was not characteristick of the general strain of what Mr. Walpole hath written on Chatterton! Oh! "si sic omnia dixisset! si sic omnia fecisset"! — "How had he blessed mankind, and rescued me!" — blessed the world with a luminary of genius, which is not seen for ages; and rescued me from the melancholy office of paying to one memory my tribute of grief, and admiration; and from the pain of censuring another, with that explicit impartiality which was demanded by justice, and by virtue. While he rescued me from pain, what pleasure would he have afforded me, in celebrating his well-applied humanity, and generosity to Chatterton! The novelty of the objects would have attracted, and animated my eulogy: the patron would have been almost as extraordinary a theme as the poet, in the annals of our English nobility: — thanks to an undefinable, to a monstrous humanity, which murders while it protects; — thanks to a savage taste, which delights in the disfigurement, in the destruction of a man! The laurels of our Muses droop before the flourishing honours of a Belcher, and a Burke. How is the latter glorious, and immortal name, vilified, and disgraced!
When vulgar souls; — when your Bryants, your Tyrwhitts, and your Gregorys, presume to make laws for the rapid, and elevated motions of great minds; when they presume to tell us how they are impelled, and affected, in their atchievements; in their exigeuces; in the progress, and in the accomplishment of their despair; — when they talk of their sullen fits; of their rage; of their bitterness of heart (this is one of the abusive, and incongruous expressions of Mr. Bryant), they remind us of what Conde said to Turenne, when they were conversing on the anecdotes, and memoirs, which had been published concerning themselves, by paltry scribblers: — "These fellows" (said Conde) "make us think, and speak, and act, just as they would have thought, and spoken, and acted, if they had been in our stations, offices, and situations." Am not I wandering strangely, you will say, from the object which I had immediately under my consideration? What has all this to do with the external evidence that Chatterton was the authour of the antiquated poems? I think that it is connected with that evidence. All the remarkable passages of the Life of that extraordinary youth were analogous to a great scale of human existence: collated, and compared, they announced the indefatigable, the fervid, the exalted mind; they announced the true Rowley. When he knew no want, he habituated himself to a light, and simple diet; that his faculties might be the more free, and active in their generous persuits. When he was desired to make a substantial meal, he used to reply, that "he wished not to make himself more stupid than God had made him." — Is it not to be severely regretted, that this amiable, that this nobly ambitious young creature, should have pined under the pressure of want? But do not you all feel as much indignation as myself, at the sullen fit of despair; — at the rage; at the bitterness of heart; with which he is charged by Bryant, and a Tyrwhitt? — do not you not feel as much indignation, and compassion, as myself, when I inform you, that for the three days which preceded the day of his death, he had been absolutely without food? As Mr. Walpole said, "he preserved a dignity in despair;" he preferred independence before life. The last period of his existence, and all its preceding tenour, evinced the unparalleled youth, who, in situations extremely unfavourable to liberal learning, had applied intensely to study; had acquired a large fund of various knowledge; and a masterly art in various kinds of composition. His unexampled industry, I may say from his infancy, in acquiring ancient, and modern English literature; an industry which his mechanical toil on the barren heath of the law (barren of what 1 call wealth) could not abate: — the engaging, manly, and striking deportment of the boy; — the enthusiasm, the rapture with which he read his Rowley to his acquaintance, and friends; and which could only proceed from a consciousness that he was the man; — the fixed, and absorbed attention with which he used to survey Redcliff church, from Red-cliff meadows;the singular, and ethereal emanations of genius which used to dart from his eye, when his soul was actuated by those divine emotions, and agitations, which are unknown, and unimaginable, to criticks, to antiquarians; to dunces: — all these essential facts, and momentous circumstances, proclaim him to have been a human prodigy; whose life, though short, was characterized with that force, and originality with which he wrote; and whose death, more unfortunate than criminal, was deplorably distinguished with a corresponding energy.
How ill qualified certain persons are (as I have already observed) to criticize the conduct, and character of minds which are extremely different from their own, I shall farther evince by two short quotations from Mr. Tyrwhitt. And I hope that in all our literary history their equals are not to be found, for an ignorance of the constitutional, and established tendency, and operations of active, and excursive minds; and for an insensibility to their high atchievements, and to their deep distress. — "A spice of madness" (says Mr. Tyrwhitt) "I should suspect to be a common ingredient in a great literary impostor; and I think it plain, from various circumstances of Chatterton's personal history, that he had a proper share of that constitutional qualification." .... "We are told by his sister — that she had heard him frequently say, that he found he studied best toward the full of the moon; and would often sit up all night, and write by moon-light — The circumstance of his sleeping very little is confirmed by the evidence collected by the authour of Love and Madness. Whether this wakefulness should be considered as the cause, or the effect of a distempered mind, I leave to be determined by the faculty; it certainly added much to the time of his active life." — Tyrwhitt: Vindic: pages 141-153. How constitutional madness is at all connected with literary imposture, I shall leave common sense to determine. If there is a natural connexion between them, I can easily prove that some of the men, to whom Mr. Tyrwhitt habitually, and profoundly bowed, were far fitter for Bedlam than Chatterton was; for their impostures (I am sick of the hackneyed abuse of the word; therefore I hate to use it even where it is DESERVED) their impostures ended in demonstrating that they were a set of prevaricating, whiffling, trifling creatures: therefore madness might well be attributed to them: they strutted, and fretted their hour upon the stage; for no rational, and interesting end; not to acquire a dignified renown, but to obtain ignominy. But Chatterton's was, comparatively, a regular, a systematical insanity, if you will pardon the apparent inconsistency of the expression: his fine fictions reflected a flood of glory on him who formed them; his madness, in letters, was congenial with the madness, in arms, which, with as gross an absurdity, was attributed to Alexander of Macedon; and not with a little folly, and stupidity, to Charles of Sweden.
"The conscious moon" (says one of the greatest of poets) "through every distant age," — "hath held a lamp to wisdom." But here Mr. Tyrwhitt apprehends that she held a lamp to insanity. Perhaps I may be brought into the predicament of madness by these profound judges of human nature, for making a very obvious, and common observation; — that the stillness of night, and its sacred luminary's effect on the imagination, of a soft, but impressive religion, and awe, make it a season extremely propitious, in many studious, and active minds, to aspiring contemplation; to noble thought. Our illustrious youth; for making the most of time; for emancipating himself into nocturnal freedom, from the vile vassalage of the day; was entitled to virtuous respect, and praise; not to stupid, and profane contempt, and derision. For God's sake, Mr. Tyrwhitt, if you, and your colleagues, must, from your nature, be invariably discreet, and safe; if you must, for ever, be prudently, and uniformly complaisant; do not class with madness that honourable eccentricity which mounts above your sordid sphere; and acknowledges no centre of its attraction, and revolution, but that of independence, and glory. Let genius have its vigils, of a regular, but ardent application, and ambition; — unaspersed; — unviolated: and let you, and your friends, "sleep on, "and take your rest;" unmolested; uncensured; if you will respect; if you will spare, your superiours. The tenour of your lives, comparatively with the activity of distinguished talents, is a perpetual sleep; it is, indeed, a sleep, which, from the crudities of undigested words, is often disturbed with a strange perturbation, and confusion; it is often bewildered with incoherent, and fantastick dreams.
"Whether this wakefulness" (says Mr. Tyrwhitt) "should be considered as the cause, or the effect of a distempered mind, I leave to be determined by the faculty." — None are more apt to perplex, and obscure, clear, and self-evident cases, in their respective departments, than critical, and medical men. Common sense will easily solve the wakefulness of an active, and aspiring mind, into the natural effect of its activity, and strenuous ambition; without having a stupid, and barbarous. recourse to insanity. The poetical vigils of Chatterton have been the bright vigils of many poets: indeed, to be a poet, is to be a madman, in the estimation of blockheads. I have no doubt, Mr. Tyrwhitt, that there have been consultations of fools, on the subject of Chatterton's lucubrations; therefore, do not tempt the faculty to expose themselves, for no good purpose: a consultation of physicians, in this case, would be a work of medical supererogation.
That neither the capacity of the supposed authour, nor the time which he had at his own disposal, made it practicable for him to have composed these poems, will be found, when we consider the stupendous abilities, and the intense, and persevering industry of Chatterton, a pretext as weak, and futile, as all the other sophistry which has been urged in favour of the authenticity of Rowley. As to the time that was requisite for the performance, it is proved, by a calculation of Mr. Tyrwhitt, that if he had written only twelve lines in a day, the poems of Rowley would have been completed within the year. As far as mere intellectual diligence, and labour go, his example has been surmounted: in the application of that diligence, and labour; — in working them into the fair, and lofty fabricks of fancy, it, probably, has never been equalled. Dr. Wotton, at the age of six years, acquired a considerable knowledge, in the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew tongues: and we learn from Dr. Johnson's life of John Phillip Barreter, that he was a great adept in five languages, when he was but nine years old. When I come to that part of my plan in which I intend particularly to exemplify the genius of Chatterton, I shall give a surprizing specimen of his early poetical powers; surprizing; for it was written in his twelfth year. This prominent circumstance, joined but to a few others of those which I have already introduced, are sufficient to decide the question, with any judge who is flexible by reason. It is decided by many words which are in Rowley's poems, and which are no-where else to be found; it is decided by Chatterton's adopting of the erroneous orthography of some words, as they were printed in Kersey's Dictionary; it is expressly decided by his bequest of the contingent value of his works to Mr. Clayfield; and by his owning to Mr. Barrett that he himself was the authour of the first part of the Battle of Hastings. Of what weight against these proofs are the vague, and superficial conversations of Dr. Milles, and Mr. Bryant, with the sages of Bristol, who seem to have had as desultory, and childish minds as themselves? Was a Barrett, a Catcott, a Capel, a Carey, and a Ruddall; men of common, and unenlarged understandings (I will allow them the sagacity of the good women, to enforce their authority) — were they proper, and competent judges of the domestick habits, and of the retired exertions of a Chatterton? Had they sense, and liberality, justly, and generously to account for those peculiarities of manner, which are always the concomitants of original, and great genius; — for that majesty of thought which disdains impertinences, and trifles; — for that unconquerable si-lence, which is absorbed in beautiful, or grand ideas; — were they capable to penetrate, and comprehend the juvenile strength of his mind? could they reasonably presume to estimate what he could effect, by his avarice of time, and by his vigorous, and immortal efforts, in its short duration?
There is one argument equally prejudiced, frivolous, and pedantick, with which Mr. Bryant often attempts to enforce his chimerical theory; — that it is impossible for an authour to write well; or, in other words, to distinguish himself by his talents, without an intimate acquaintance with the learned languages. I admire, I revere the immortal writers of Greece, and Rome; I am grateful to their memories: they have recreated; they have animated; they have delighted my solitary hours; to me, they have peopled a dreary, cold, northern desert, with an assemblage of elegant; of majestic; of god-like existence; the genial warmth of the dead has atoned for the sepulchral chillness of the living. The generous virtues; the easily accessible, the kind society of the heathen, have expiated to me, as far as my private happiness was concerned (and that, to me, was every thing) the barbarities of the christian world. I am ready to own that their eloquence, their philosophy, and their poetry, received additional charms, and persuasives from the beautiful, and vigorous organs, in which they are conveyed. I am ready to own that "truths divine come mended, from their tongues." — Yet let us not, like "the world's victor," be "subdued by sound;" — let us not confound the surface with the essence of things: let us not ascribe the birth; the maturity; the ethereal lustre; the pompous procession of great ideas, and images, to the superstitious talisman; to the cabalistick force of words. Let us not profanely suppose that original, inventive, and fervid genius, the immediate, and powerfully operative gift of God, cannot work all its destined, and glorious way, unless it is tricked out with the comparatively little meretricious ornaments; with the comparatively impotent contrivances, and arts of man. The various, and excellent opportunities of mental improvement, on our celebrated publick foundations, shall ever be respected by me; they cultivate and strengthen a modest mediocrity of talents; the greatest abilities, as by such abilities they are used, they enrich, embellish and recommend: but neither schools, languages, nor universities, can work a torpid sterility, into luxuriant fertility of nature. They cannot exercise a moderate intellect into that large capacity which comprizes all the force, and extent of reason; all the pathos, and delicacy of sentiment; all the forms, and colours of imagination; and which is ever taking new light, and new fire, while it admits, and persues them. There is no substitute for genius; it is a rare, and incommunicable species; eminently raised above the common sphere of the human kind. And when its ardens virtus, or its aequus Jupiter, hath shown it the way that leadeth to Olympus; and it once hath set off in its glorious course; all its essential requisites; all its exuberant supplies, are within its own attainment; or at its own command. Two or three plain, and simple questions will confirm this doctrine. How many grave, and elaborate pedants have our schools, and universities produced? But, in comparison, how few luminous, and highly distinguished writers? Was Shakespeare acquainted with Latin, and Greek? — those miraculous intellectual specificks, which animate the dead? Yet what is Plautus, or Terence; what is Sophocles, or Euripides, to him? — What O'Keeffe is to Congreve; what Southey is to Pope. Would you see the disagreeable effects of exquisite learning, when it is devoured by an inordinate appetite, and perverted into stubborn phlegm, and gross humours, by a weak digestion? — Look into Mr. Bryant, and into the Dean of Exeter. Would you contrast the disgusting sight, with viewing the vigorous, and con amore form; the animated flush; the celestial glow of health, and beauty?
Os, humerosque deo similis; namque ipsa decoram
Caesariem gnato genitrix, lumenque juventa
Purpureum, et laetos oculis afflarat honores:
Virg. Aeneid. Lib. 2d.
would you view these captivating objects, produced by elegant, and interesting knowledge, easily prepared, and excellently digested? I recommend to your earnest attention the pedant's idle youth; the illiterate, and ignorant transcriber; the poor charity-boy of Bristol.
Mr. Bryant allows that "he was conversant in Milton, Shakespeare, and Thomson: beyond these" (adds this diver in Greek, and Latin) "he does not seem to have aspired." — P. 563. In the name of the highest poetry; — in the name of the higher, of the Divine Being who gave it, how was it possible for him to aspire beyond a communication with these demi-gods; unless he had presumed to think of touching the throne of Heaven itself? — Thomson, in complete, and vivid descriptions of nature; and in a tender, and sublime morality, which he deduces from those descriptions, leaves the immortal authour of the Eclogues, and Georgicks; — Shakespeare, in the action, and life of the drama; in a masterly knowledge of human nature; in the most instructive, luminous, and forcible poetry, leaves all ancient, and modern dramatick writers; — and Milton, in the choice of his subject; in the grandeur, in the infinity of his objects; in a mind corresponding with them; and in the thunder, and lightning of poetry; — leaves every epick muse; the Egeria of Homer himself not excepted, far behind him. But by the ideas of excellence with which Mr. Bryant here shows that he was possessed, you see the doting infatuation of men of mere erudition; of criticks, and antiquarians; they have no taste for the pith, they are perpetually nibbling at the shell of learning. Their little interest is engaged in the progression of grammar; in the prosody of language; they imbibe not the easy, yet ardent flow; they mount not with the intrepid, and enthusiastick flights of the poet. They clamber heavily on the Gradus ad Parnassum; they soar not lightly to the holy mountain. In most kinds of composition we equal the ancients; in works of imagination, but especially in poetry, we far excell them. Our language, merely as a language, is, I acknowledge, inferiour to the Greek, and Roman tongues; but under the government of our literary monarchs, it has been made to speak more wonderful things, and consequently, with a more victorious emphasis, than they. Such is the forming, such is the creating power of transcendent genius. I shall add, that if we duly consider all the advantages, all the excellences of the English tongue; it is, at least, not surpassed by any modern language. Therefore, effectually to repell, if it is possible, the pretensions of these presumptuous criticks; to explode their authority, and that of their musty records, I will venture to assert, that, on the strong, and broad foundation of English literature, alone; and with that ambitious industry which is generally the companion of true genius; it may acquire all the useful information; all the elegant, and sublime knowledge, which are requisite to embody, and adorn the productions of the man who aspires after immortal glory. When I consider the vast, and indefatigable application of Chatterton, which was only less astonishing than his genius; when I consider the beautiful, and august intellectual fabrick which was raised on that application; and when I consider the spirit of Shakespeare, Milton, and Thomson, blended with his own; I trust that you will not think me too proud, or too romantick, if I declare that I would rather possess the knowledge that Chatterton possessed, and the soul with which HE was animated, than all the learning of all antiquarians, as it affected their minds; or as it has been transmitted in their labours; — from Graevius, and Gronovius, down to Bryant, and to Brand.
Such men as those whom I have in my eye, with all their contempt of superiour minds, do not absolutely understand those English poets whom they have read, and whom they pretend to admire. Mr. Bryant, intending to show that it was impossible for Chatterton to write with such excellence as to merit fame, quotes one of the very fine stanzas of Mr. Gray's beautiful, and celebrated Elegy;
Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark, unfathom'd caves of ocean bear
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Genius may lie dormant, for life, in the breast of the peasant; he may never be rouzed to such a sense of it as may produce its action: no favourable external circumstances may draw it forth: it may not have leisure to feel that consciousness of its powers which impells attempt: it may for ever be buried under its destiny obscure; under that labour which begins, and ends with the day; under the corroding anxieties; under the chilling penury of domestick life. To these "gems of purest ray serene;" to these "unseen flowers," the beautifully apposite stanza was applied: — not to those geniuses who have been principally self-taught; of whom there have been many examples; who, by some propitious incentive, from without; or by some powerful internal call, have redeemed the misfortunes of their education by judicious, and persevering study; have emerged from the shade of obscurity; and have asserted their splendid day. It was ignorance, and rudeness, to apply the verses to a Chatterton; to a poetical Alcides; who had almost in his cradle strangled the deadly foes to the improvement, and exploits of the mind, — poverty, and obscurity; — and who, in very early youth, with a rapidity greater than that of Alexander, and with a better glory, had conquered large provinces of knowledge; and a world of imagination.
I shall quote two passages from Mr. Bryant's book, and take some notice of them, as concisely as I can. Considered in themselves, they are beneath censure; but in superficial times, authours often obtain weight, and authority, from no intrinsick title; it is, therefore, not only fair, but laudable, to endeavour to remove prejudice, and to do justice to extraordinary desert. — "How came Chatterton by such obsolete and common words? It may be said, from these very dictionaries:" [from dictionaries of the Saxon language: — from Skinner, and from Kersey:] "but can it be imagined that by poaching, and purloining, in this abject manner, he composed these excellent poems? We may as well suppose that a pedlar built York-cathedral, by stealing a tile, or a stone, in every parish that he passed through." — Bryant; pages 422, 423. If we read this passage with attention, it will be difficult to say whether it is more disgraceful to the authour, for its unfounded, and stupid contempt; for its miserable attempt at reasoning; or for its still mere unfortunate floundering in the bathos of comparison. Mr. Bryant, in all his disquisitions concerning the authenticity of these poems, refuses Chatterton any mental powers, or leaves them quite out of the question. He is continually robbing the stupendous boy of his native strength, and activity; and giving them all to his literary servants; to his literary instruments. The organs of speech are minutely watched; but the mind is totally overlooked, or despised; — the mind that worked, that formed, that composed them into a consistent, mellifluous, and illumined strain. This incongruity is not very surprizing in men who are almost destitute of mind, themselves; and whose lives have been devoted to a kind of delirious industry, in digging up, and dispersing the fragments, and ruins of learning; instead of contemplating, and worthily describing the beautiful, and august fabricks of the great literary, and poetical architects. Every reader allows, and admires the powers of Achilles; and when we speak of the "Pelian javelin," that was "in his better hand," we rest not for a moment on the martial weapon; we accompany the vigour, the brandishing, and the missive lightning of its hero. To answer you, Mr. Bryant, in your own humility of simile, I will descend to objects with which I am not very deeply enamoured. Skinner, and Speght, and Kersey, were the grooms, and the whippers in, of my mighty hunter; of my poetical Nimrod; but he controuled the motions of these vassals: he was the master of Ambition's noble chace; he gave the grand, and rapid impulse, in the interminable field of glory. You, Sir, and your fraternity, are, in your abject manner, the poachers, and the purloiners: you traverse, and hunt, and make dreadful ravages, and destruction, in the blooming regions of Parnassus, without the least legitimate qualification. The laws of poetry give you no title to commit such depredations: if the world knew you properly; and if you properly knew yourselves; you would be classed with the lowest of our commoners, in the republick of letters; and yet you have the confidence to dispute the privileges of our first peers. As to your simile of York-minster, and the pedlar, it is altogether so inapplicable, so disjointed, and so monstrous a thing, that I despair of following it, with any prospect of success; and therefore I abandon the regular persuit. I shall only observe, that Chatterton was a Wren, or a Palladio; and that you, and such as you, are the little itinerant pedlars, whose idle, and childish, curiosity prompts you to visit the temple which his genius erected: you can only view it with microscopick eyes: your puerile fancies are struck with some ingenious fret-work of a pillar; with some rich colours of a window; all the rest is a height that makes you giddy; an expansion in which you are lost. Your little perceptions admit, and are amused with detached particles of the large edifice; but you have not souls to comprehend, and admire, the masterly design; the variegated conformity; the reflecting, and reflected graces; the grandeur, and the beauty of the whole.
Mr. Bryant, after a long train of inferences, which are not supported by one substantial predicate; after many evidences, and proofs, which are only founded on his own assertions, at his 578th page, favours us with the following curious problem, or discovery. — "That the world arose from chaos, I can easily imagine, because it was by means of a divine hand. But that a jargon of words should produce an Iliad, I cannot conceive: it is therefore plain that he was not the authour." — Whence, I pray, is this evidence deduced? Only from your own premises; and who will give them any weight? What man in his senses, who is acquainted with Chatterton's early penetration, and study; and with the writings which were published under his name, will ever suppose that he could make nothing better of our old English than a jargon of words? It certain would be difficult to find, in the literary world, more egregious examples than those which I have given in my two last quotations, of the insolence of mechanical, and servile memory, to free, and excursive genius. Such criticism (if we can give the name to effusions of conceit, and obstinacy) deserve the utmost severity of censure. That censure has a beneficial tendency; it tends to repress a groundless, and supercilious confidence; to vindicate injured merit; and to strengthen, and enlarge the empire of elegant, and important truth. Guard, then, for ever, with your just, and benevolent esteem, any liberal, and independent adventurer, who devotes his interest, and his life, to the prosperity of that empire, from the false, and malignant stigma, of literary despotism, and ABUSE.
I have no doubt that if Chatterton had lived, and if he had been treated by society as he deserved, he would have discovered the almost innocent imposition which he put upon the world. He certainly had many generous, and noble qualities; but a tenacious, and invincible veracity was not amongst his early virtues. Mr. Bryant is as positive, and absurd on his moral, as he is on his poetical character. He is either too contemptuous, or too respectful to our authour. In the latter treatment, indeed, he seldom errs. On the object, however, which is now before me, his encomium is unfounded, and extravagant. He confounds a uniformity of fiction; a practical as well as a poetical perseverance, with unshaken integrity. Though that perseverance, in a few instances, gave way to an ingenuous ambition; to the natural, and importunate demands of truth. The young Chatterton, with all his disadvantages of education; with his poor opportunities of inquiry, and information, knew mankind; knew with what ease they might be duped: he knew their caprices, and extravagances, better than the old Bryant. These verbal criticks seem to know nothing of the great, or small springs that move human nature. One would think that their meditations, and dreams, not under the philosophick shade, but under the grammatical tree of Aristotle; — one would think that their anxious nicety to correct passages, and adjust words, kept them in a total ignorance of what is taught in the school of man. "He would not" (says Mr. Bryant) "avail himself of praise, to which, he knew, he had no claim. Had he acted the contrary part, though he might have been, at last, detected, yet the immediate advantages must have been great. But necessitous as he was, and humbled, he would not accept of bread upon those terms: his spirit was above it." — Bryant: pages 493-4. Nothing can show inexperience, or inattention, more than this mode of reasoning. If Chatterton, in composing, and fabricating his old poems, had interest principally in view; even this poor charity-boy of Bristol, with an understanding far surpassing his years, must have known that he would have an infinitely better chance to he largely rewarded for the communication of them, by making the world believe that they really were the productions of Rowley, than by acknowledging that they were his own. Indeed, if he had been a favourite of Fortune, great respect would have been payed to his own compositions. But in viewing this part of my subject, we must not only consider the obscurity of his situation, but likewise the form and pressure of the times. We live in an age, when imitation, fashion, power, give popularity to the most despicable trifles; when a base literary complaisance to vanity, and profligacy, is far more than an ample substitute for manly, disinterested genius; and when a rational, though ambitious persuit of great intellectual objects is dwindled to a doting affection for quibbles of criticism, and baubles of antiquity. In such an age, the poetry of a priest of the fifteenth century, if it was even considerably inferiour to that of the fictitious Rowley, would bring far more emolument to its fortunate possessour, than a new Shakespear would gain; if such a bold, but poor adventurer; if such a self-distinguished prodigy should again arise; and if he should give us tragedies equal to those of Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello.
I shall now give a more immediate, and particular attention to the various evidences that all the poems which were published under the name of Rowley, were, undoubtedly, the compositions of Chatterton. Some of those evidences I have already had occasion to mention: I shall here introduce them with more accuracy. There are several words in these poems which are not to be found in any old English writer; and which we may therefore conclude that Chatterton himself had formed. For though criticks, and antiquarians may mangle knots which they cannot solve as much as they please, I trust that the arbitrary, and ridiculous notion that those elegant poems were written in provincial dialects, has been sufficiently refuted. Words which were used by our best old English authours, have a different signification in Rowley from the meaning which, in those authours, they convey. Legitimate, and well-approved old words are erroneously written; they have palpable orthographical faults. Some new old words (if I may be allowed the expression) have been formed from other old words which are warranted by good authority; yet they have been formed agreeably to the analogy of grammar, and custom. Into some of these errours he has been led by his attention to Kersey; but I doubt not that many, of them were voluntary errours; ingenious, and seducing peculiarities. It was certainly, at first, the intention of Chatterton to puzzle, as well as to entertain the publick; to stimulate the love of conjecture, as well as to inspire the warmth of admiration. In both these views, misfortune was successful; he had a proper contempt for vulgar criticks, and antiquarians; he knew their extravagant, yet insignificant pretensions, and their imperious demands; and I should have given him a more cordial absolution than that of a priest, for meditating his future sport with them; — if he had not obliged me to read them.
Before we come to the irresistible, and victorious evidences, there are other proofs of an inferiour, or secondary nature, which are worthy of our notice; because with every reasonable mind, they will have the force of decisive proofs. In this collection of poems, which has occasioned a strenuous war of words, we have two tragedies, Aella, and Goddwyn, which are written on heroick subjects of our English history. They both abound with high poetical merit; Aella is particularly marked with that character. Now an instance cannot be produced, so early as the fifteenth century, of a drama constructed on a merely domestick, civil, or military basis. Mysteries, or sacred subjects alone, employed, in those days, the rude and Gothick dramatick muse; and her coarse, and superstitious productions were acted in monasteries, or in churches. In the tragedy of Aella, we have two passages which are written in blank verse; a species of English versification, which was totally unknown to the age in which Rowley was supposed to live. Blank verse was invented in Italy, in the beginning of the sixteenth century; and it was first introduced into English poetry by the Earl of Surrey. The various forms of composition; the profusion of picturesque, and striking similes; the beautiful, and magnificent groupes of personification, enforced with corresponding charms, and pomp of diction, which characterize these poems, could never, have been the poetical atchievements of that barbarous age. And a crowd of the most cogent facts, and circumstances demonstrate that they were the productions of Thomas Chatterton. It is almost demonstrated even by his closing of stanzas with the Alexandrine line; which was not used in English verse till a century after the time of the supposed Rowley. Whoever wishes to see a complete collection of what may be termed the minute, collateral, or secondary proofs, judiciously arranged, and decisively supported, may find it in that book of Mr. Tyrwhitt, to which I have often referred, and to which I have been much obliged.