I am now entering, with pleasure, more directly on the field of fame. Though I must yet beg leave to make some previous observations. Mr. Bryant gives us long quotations from some of our old poetical barbarians, who are, however, his particular favourites, to show their equality to the spirit, and taste of Rowley. I shall more explicitly refer to those quotations, in a proper place: they will supersede all argument against Mr. Bryant, on the subject: they will convince you of an absurdity, of comparison, which, if they should not be produced, you would not believe to be possible. In another way, he gives a mortal stab to his own cause: he opposes one passage to another of Spenser; and he gives us an extract from Spenser, which he contrasts with an extract from a poem of Sir John Cheeke, which he wrote on the death of Edward the Sixth. The former quotation from Spenser is rough, and altogether unharmonious; the latter is poetically flowing, and musical. The extract from Spenser, with which that from Cheeke is contrasted, is rugged, and harsh; the specimen from Cheeke is observant of the measure, and the ear. He must have fancied, however, that he was very closely urged in maintaining his hypothesis; for he reduces himself to the necessity of quoting a line and a half, or a single line, from his illustrious bards; to show that they were as great masters in the complete art of poetry, as his friend Rowley. There, he needed not to have been so parsimonious; so profuse, and injudicious he is, at other times, in bringing quotations to support that critical sophistry, which those very quotations refute. From these examples he positively infers, that by the flow, and polish of the numbers, we cannot even probably conjecture the age in which the poet wrote them. But from these examples may we not conjecture; may we not safely affirm; may we not, without any pedantick arrogance insist on the reverse? Do they not plainly show that a regular, and uniform elegance, and harmony of poetical composition, was far from being established; was far from being acquired; — was far from being known in England, even in the sixteenth century? Is it possible more effectually to evince the futility of his theory, and of the object for which it contends, than to observe, that, of his two contrasted quotations from Spenser, and from the same poem (a poem of inconsiderable length) the former passage is extremely rude, and dissonant; and the latter very smooth, and flowing; and that in all the poems of his Rowley, there is not a line so unmeasured, and rough, as those harsh verses are which he quotes from Spenser? I shall close what I cannot but at present think a climax of evident, and incontrovertible confutation, by farther observing, that almost every one of the three thousand lines of which Rowley consists, are modulated with a harmony that would have been approved by Pope. These lines exhibit various poetical treasures; — simple, and interesting pastorals; — beautiful, and pathetick elegies: — eloquent tragedies, with diversified, and prominent characters; — and the vigour, and sublimity of the epick muse. I can never recollect all this assemblage of almost incredible juvenile excellence, without indignation for the treatment, and grief for. the catastrophe of its authour. Of absurdity can there be a greater combination; of absurdity can there be a greater monster; than to suppose that elegant, and emphatical forms of composition were produced; and that this harmony was attuned, by our monks, and priests, and Goths of the fifteenth century? When I mentioned the harmony that would have been approved by Pope, I might have mentioned the harmony that would have been approved by Milton; the harmony of our divine later poet, who has been undervalued by pedantry, and who has been treated with contempt by some ignorant coxcombs of the present age, was more applicable to my present ruling object; because Chatterton wrote principally in rhyme. But as Milton is the greatest master of the elevation; of the grandeur; of the creative powers of poetry; so is he, of its graces. It was not mere rhyme which constituted the harmonious versification of Pope; his tuneful soul lived; it flowed along the line. The want of rhyme; that little, but significant ornament, when it is applied by a great master, could not be unfavourable to the harmony of Milton; perhaps it was advantageous to it; perhaps, from that want, his harmony had a gravity; a dignity; a free, and overpowering force; worthy, and characteristick of the objects which, it displayed. He was, in the long maturity of genius, what Chatterton was, while he anticipated his meridian; — a comet of rare appearance, and of the first magnitude, in the poetical sky. His manner of writing, I mean, in his poetry, whatever illiberal prejudice, or short-sighted criticism may have said, must have been pronounced easy, and elegant language, by the best judges, of our Angus tan age. He was as much a master of the tender, and beautiful, as he was, of the striking, and sublime. He shook off the cumbrous apparel of hi age; and he seized, not merely in prophetick vision, but in substance, the more graceful dress of a future aera. In style, as in imagination, "he passed the "bounds of place, and time."
I shall take the liberty to recommend the poems which were written in old English by Chatterton, and which were published by him, as Rowley's, to the attention, to the perusal of this audience Their trouble of applying to a glossary, for the meaning of the antiquated words will be exuberantly repayed by rich vein: of poetry. This use, however, of our an cient idiom, and language, will prevent me from giving as large examples of the genius of the poet, as I should wish, in my present vindication of his merit, to display. For it is my desire rationally to entertain, not pedantically to fatigue you. But as to treat any object of dignity superficially, is, indeed, a disrespect to those to whom we mean to give information, or pleasure, by communicating our views of those objects, I have been carefully on my guard against that negligence. And as I thought it incumbent on me to confute groundless, and perverse criticism; and to repell ungenerous, and insolent contempt, with particular investigation, and remonstrance; I shall, for once, be fortunate in my literary endeavours, if my introduction, and discussion of minuter objects, hath not been tedious, or altogether uninteresting. Therefore in the examples which I shall now produce, I hope that the lustre of unequalled young genius will not be obscured by the veil of antiquity. If you will but be pleased to observe the harmony of the verse (if I could do it justice in reciting it that alone will convince you of the extravagant absurdity of' giving it to the fifteenth century. I shall first quote the following introductory lines to the second canto of the Battle of Hastings; because I flatter myself that I have the objects of their prayer, as much in practice, as I have them at heart.
Oh! Truth! immortal daughter of the skies;
Too lyttle known to wryters of these daies;
Teach me, fayre saincte! thy passynge worth to pryze;
To blame a friend, and give a foeman praise.
There is a new, and fine poetical image in Aella; — where Birtha says to that hero;
Thy name alleyne wylle putte the Danes to flyghte;
The ayre thatt beares ytt woulde presse downe the foe.
Here is a passage in Aella, boldly characterized with the imagery, and eloquence of the tragick, and epick muse:
Onn, Aella, onn; we longe for bloddie fraie;
Wee longe to here the raven synge in vayne;
Onn, Aella, onn; we certys gayne the daie,
Whanne thou doste leade us to the leathal playne.
Thie speche, O Louerde, fyreth the whole trayne;
Theie pancte for war, as honted wolves for breathe;
Go, and sytte crowned on corses of the slayne;
Go, and ywielde the massie swerde of deathe.
Aella. V. 663.
The exploits of Aella are nobly painted, in a martial, and energetick description:
Nor dydde hys souldyerres see hys actes yn vayne
Heere a stoute Dane uponne hys compheere felle;
Heere lorde, and hyndleette sonke uponne the playne.
Heere sonne, and fadre trembled ynto belle.
Chief Magnus sought hys waie; and, shame to telle!
Hee soughte hys wai for flyghte; botte Aella's speere
Uponne the flyynge Dacyannes schoulder felle;
Quyte throwe hys boddie, and hys harte ytte tare;
He groned, and sonke uponne the gorie greene;
And wythe hys corse encreased the pyles of Dacyannes sleene.
Aella. v. 774,
Of his talents for pastoral poetry I can give a very happy specimen, by extracting some passages from the Minstrel's first song in Aella. I do some injustice to the song, by not quoting it all.
"Mynstrelle's Song, bie a Manne, and Womanne."
Tourne thee to thie shepsterr swayne;
Bryghte sonne has no droncke the dewe,
From the floures of yellowe hue;
Tourne thee Alyce, backe agayne.
No, bestoikerre, I wylle go,
Softlie tryppynge o'ere the mees;
Lyche the sylver-footed doe,
Seekeynge shelterr yn grene trees.
See the moss-growne daisey'd banke,
Pereynge ynne the streme belowe;
Here we'lIe sytte, in dewie danke;
Tourne thee, Alyce, do notte goe.
I've hearde erst mie grandarne saie,
Yonge damoyselles schulde ne bee,
Inne the swotie moonthe of Maie,
Wythe yonge menne bie the grene wode tree.
See! the crokynge brionie
Rounde the popler twyste hys spraie;
Rounde the oake the greene ivie
Florryschethe, and lyveth aie.
Let us seate us bie thys tree,
Laughe, and synge to lovynge ayres;
Comme, and doe notte coyen bee;
Nature made all thynges bie payres.
Tempte mee ne to the foule thynge;
I wylle no mannes lemanne be;
Tyll syr preeste hys songe doethe synge,
Thou shalt Deere fynde aught of mee.
Bie our ladie her yborne,
To-morrowe, soone as ytte ys daie,
I'lle make thee wyfe, ne bee forsworne,
So tyde me lyfe or dethe for aie.
Whatt dothe lette, botte thatte now
We attenes, thos honde yn honde,
Unto divinistre goe,
And bee lyncked yn wedlocke bonde?
I agree, and thus I plyghte
Honde, and harte, and all that's myne;
Goode Syr Rogerr, do us ryghte,
Make us one, at Cothbertes shryne.
We wylle ynn a bordelle lyve,
Hailie, thoughe of no estate;
Everyche clocke moe love shall gyve;
Wee ynn godenesse wylle bee greate.
Aella. v 87.
I should suppose that you would rather wish to see all the variety of poetical talent of this young favourite of the nine muses. You will certainly allow that he was equal to the tender melancholy of elegy, when I give you some lines from his Elinoure, and Juga. This poem was sent to the man who deprived himself of the high honour of giving an easy, and effectual protection, and encouragement to Chatterton. It was, indeed, a most extraordinary performance, from a boy. Whether he had sent it as his own, or as the production of another, will always be of very little consequence with generous minds, when they reflect that such poetical excellence was atchieved by tender years. It would have affected into liberality any literary heart but that of a Walpole.
Elinoure, and Juga.
Onne Ruddeborne bank twa pynynge maydens sate;
Theire teares faste dryppeynge to the waterre cleere;
Echone bementynge for her absente mate,
Wha atte Seyncte Albonns shouke the morthynge speare.
When mokie clouds do hange upon the leme
Of leden moon, ynn sylver mantels dyghte;
The tryppeynge faeries weve the golden dreme
Of selyness, whyche flyethe wythe the nyghte;
Thenne (botte the seynctes forbydde!) gif to a spryte
Syrr Rychardes forme ys lyped, I'll holde dystraughte
Hys bledeynge claie-colde corse, and die eche daie ynn thoughte.
Ah, woe bementynge wordes! what wordes can shewe!
Thou limed ryver, on thie linche maie bleede
Champyons, whose blonde wylle wythe thie waterres flowe;
And Rudborne streeme be Rudborne streeme indeede!
Haste, gentle Juga, tryppe ytte oere the meade,
To knowe, or wheder we muste waile agayne;
Or wythe oure fallen knyghtes be menged onne the plain.
Soe sayinge, lyke twa levyn-blasted trees,
Or twayne of cloudes that holdeth stormie rayne;
Theie moved gentle oere the dewie mees,
To where seyncte Albons holie shrynes remayne.
There dyd theye fynde that bothe their knyghtes were slayne;
Distraughte theie wandered to swollen Rudbornes syde,
Yelled theyre leathalle knelle; sonke ynn the waves, and dyde.
I shall now recite three stanzas from the second part of the Battle of Hastings: they contain the most animated, and lively descriptions of the horrours, and the beauties of nature; and of the "pomp, pride, and glorious circumstance of war;" conveyed in that vigorous, and nobly sounding verse, which the subject, and its images require, and deserve. Let it be remarked, here, that Chatterton avowed himself to Mr. Barrett to be the real authour of the first part of the Battle of Hastings. Who, then, can reasonably dispute that he wrote the second part? When we reflect on this direct avowal, and on the elegance, and force of composition, in the following lines; can we, for a moment doubt that he was the authour of all the poetry which is ascribed to Rowley!
As when the erthe, torne by convulsyons dyre,
In reaulmes of darkness, hid from human syghte,
The warring force of water, air, and fyre,
Brast from the regions of eternal nyghte,
Thro the darke caverns seeke the reaulmes of lyght;
Some loftie mountaine, by it's fury torne,
Dreadfully moves, and causes grete affryght;
Nowe here, nowe there, majestic nods the bourne,
And awfulle shakes, mov'd by the Almighty force;
Whole woods, and forests nod, and ryvers change theyr course.
So did the men of war at once advaunce,
Linkd man to man, enseemed one boddie light;
Above, a wood, yform'd of bill, and launce,
That noddyd in the ayre, most straunge to syght.
Harde as the iron were the menne of mighte;
Ne neede of slughornes; to enrowse theyr minde;
Eche shootynge spere yreaden for the fyghte;
More feerce than fallynge rocks, more swefte than wynd,
With solemne step, by ecchoe made more dyre,
One single boddie all theie marchd, theyr eyen on fire.
And now the greie-eyd morn with vi'lets drest,
Shakyng the dew-drops on the flourie meedes,
Fled with her rosie radiance to the west;
Forth from the easterne gatte the fyerie steedes
Of the bright sunne awaytynge spirits leedes:
The sunne, in fierie pompe enthrond on hie,
Swyfter than thoughte alonge hys jernie gledes,
And scatters nyghtes remaynes from oute the skie:
He sawe the armies make for bloudie fraie;
And stopt his driving steedes, and hid his lyghtsome raye.
Battle of Hastings: Part IId. p. 191.
To warrant all that I have said of Mr. Bryant's critical justice, and taste, let me request you to endure a single quotation from one of his highly admired old English poets. In my manner of introducing this quotation, I shall take care, however, to do ample justice to his very extraordinary comparison of one poet with another. It shall be introduced, and followed, with his own words. The quotation is taken from an old poem, entitled, "The Ploughman's Vision;" which was written in the fourteenth century, by Robert Langelande of Cleyberie. — "He is not only" (says Mr. Bryant) "in respect to diction, as ancient;" [as Rowley] "a circumstance we might well expect; but oftentimes as modern, though a century before him. But though he abounds with antique terms, yet his diction is clear, and his words flow for the most part in their natural order; and his arrangement, in most instances, varies very little from that which is in use at this day. His lines are often extended to fifteen syllables, but generally are fewer; and the metre is a kind of imperfect anapaestick measure; attended with an uniform alliteration. I will give a sample of some of the verses, where the poet represents himself as taking a view of Nature, which he calls, kind."
And slepyng I se all thys, and sythen came kind,
And named me by name, and bade me nimen hede,
And through the wonders of this world wyt to take:
And on a mountain in the mydle erth bight as me thought
I was fette forth by ensamples to know,
And through ech creature, and kynd, my Creatour to love.
I se the sunne, and the sea, and the sonde after,
And where the brydes and beastes by her makes they yeden
Wyld wormes in woodes, and wonderful fowles.
Byrdes I beheld that in bushes made nestes;
Had never wyghte wytte to worke the leste.
I had wonder at whom and where the pie learned
To lygge the stickes, in which she layeth, and breadeth.
Nys wryght, as I wene, could worch her nest to pay.
And yet me marvelled more, howe many other birds
Hydden, and hylden her egges full derne
In maryes and mores, for men should hem not find:
And hydden her egges, vhen they therfro went,
For fear of other fowles, and for wylde beastes.
And sithen I loked on the sea, and so forth on the starres
Many selkouthes I see, but not to se now.
I see floures in the frythe and her fayre colours,
And how among the grene grasse growed so many huis,
And some sour, and some swete; selkought me thought
Of her kindes, and of her coloures to carp it were long.
Ploughman's Vision: fol. 58.
—So much for Pierce Ploughman; alias, Robert Langelande of Cleyberie; — and his kind of imperfect anapaestick measure. I beg your pardon for giving you the pain of hearing all this wretched stuff. I thought that in justification of the esteem in which I hold Mr. Bryant's literary merit, to vouch this criterion of his critical acumen, and of the aptitude of his mind to receive poetical impressions, was a duty which I owed to myself. As I did not chuse altogether to murder your patience, I have not quoted as far as the verses which are praised for their high colouring, and which are honoured with the supposition of Milton's knowledge, and imitation of them. I certainly stopped in time: you have lost nothing: what I have quoted is just as good as what follows. It is not improbable that Milton never saw those famous verses: their authour has personified human diseases; Milton did the same. Does it follow that Milton took the idea from this Ploughman? The idea was natural, and easy: it was obvious to genius; it might have been laboured into birth by a dunce. But criticks will always take the circumbendibus of a Lumkin, instead of the plain, and direct road. They are for ever distorting the common, and easy effects of nature, into the affected and painful efforts of labour, and art. Thus, while they triumph in their erudition, they only expose their stupidity.
The "Bristowe Tragedie;" or, the "Dethe of Syr Charles Bawdin," is an uncommonly beautiful poem; it is written with as much accuracy as animation; and though it consists of 392 lines, it has but one word which is not perfectly intelligible to English readers, of common education, at this day; another proof, if we want another, that these poems could not have been written in the fifteenth century. The poem abounds with pathetick, and tragical description; with a pious, and elevated strain of Christian morality; and with the magnanimous eloquence of the dying hero. I flatter myself that some extracts from it will not be unacceptable to my audience. That I may not be too prolix, I must quote it to its disadvantage: for I shall be obliged, in some degree, to break its even, and invigorating connexion.
Wee all must die, quod brave Syr Charles;
Whatte bootes ytte howe or whenne;
Dethe is the sure, the certaine fate
Of all wee mortall menne.
Saye, why, my friend, thie honest soul
Runns overr, att thyne eye;
Is ytte for my most welcome doome
Thatt thou doste child-lyke crye?
Before I sawe the lyghtsome sunne,
Thys was appointed nice;
Shall mortal manne repyne or grudge
Whatt Godde ordeynes to bee?
Howe oft ynne battaile have I stoode,
Whan thousands dy'd arounde;
Whan smokynge streemes of crimson bloode
Imbrew'd the fatten'd grounde:
Howe dydd I knowe that ev'ry darts
That cutte the airie waie,
Myghte nott fynde passage toe my harte,
And close myne eyes for aie?
And shall I nowe, for feere of dethe
Looke wanne, and bee dysmayde?
Ne! fromm my herte flie childyshe feere,
Be alle the manne display'd.
Ynne Londonne citye was I borne,
Of parents of grete note;
My fadre dydd a nobile armes
Emblazon onne hys cote:
I make ne doubte butt bee ys gone
Where soone I hope to goe;
Where wee for ever shall bee blest,
From oute the reech of woe
Hee taughte mee justice and the laws
Wyth pitie to unite;
And eke bee taughte mee howe to knowe
The wronge cause from the ryghte:
Hee taughte mee wythe a prudent hande
To feede the hungrie poore,
Ne lett mye servants dryve awaie
The hungrie fromme my doore:
And none can saye, butt alle mye lyfe
I have hys wordyes kept;
And summ'd the actyonns of the daie
Eche nyghte before I slept.
I have a spouse, goe aske of her,
Yff I defyl'd her bedde?
I have a kynge, and none can laie
Blacke treason onne my hedde.
Whatte tho' I onne a sledde be drawne,
And mangled by a hynde,
I doe defye the traytor's pou'r;
Hee can ne harm my mynde;
Whatte tho' uphoisted onne a pole,
Mye lymbes shall rotte ynne ayre
And ne ryche monument of brasse
Charles Bawdin's name shall bear;
Yett ynne the holie booke above,
Whyche tyme can't eate awaie,
There wythe the sarvants of the Lorde
Mye name shall lyve for aie.
Sweet Florence! nowe I praie forbere,
Ynne quiet lett mee die;
Praie Godde, thatt ev'ry Christian soule
May looke onne dethe as I.
Sweet Florence! why these brinie teeres?
Theye washe my soule awaie,
And almost make mee wyshe for lyfe,
Wyth thee, sweete dame, to staie.
'Tys butt a journie I shall goe
Untoe the lande of blysse;
Nowe, as a proofe of husbande's love,
Receive thys holie kysse.
Then Florence, fault'riug ynne her saie,
Tremblynge these wordyes spoke,
Ah, cruele Edwarde, bloudie kynge!
My herte ys well nyghe broke:
Ah, sweete Syr Charles! why wylt thou goe,
Wythoute thye lovyng wyfe?
The cruelle axe thatt cuttes thye necke,
Ytte eke shall ende mye life.
I have reserved for the last magnificent display of the old poetry of this wonderful boy, the greater part of the chorus, with which his second tragedy of Goddwynn is concluded. It appears to me that for propriety, and sublimity of sentiment, imagery, and personification, with which this chorus is superlatively distinguished, the boasted talent in writing odes, of the Greek, and Roman schools, must yield the palm to Mr. Bryant's charity-scholar of Bristol; who seems, here, in the dawn of youth, to enter the lists, and to maintain a glorious, and a dubious tournament, with our immortal Dryden; an old, and hoary, but vigorous, and accomplished cavalier; clad in the splendid panoply, of poetical armour; — "cruda deo, viridisque senecta."
Part of the chorus which concludes the tragedy of Goddwyn:
Whan Freedom, dreste yn blodde-steyned veste,
To everie knyghte her warre-songe sunge,
Uponne her hedde wylde wedes were spredde;
A gorie anlace bye her honge.
She daunced onne the heathe;
She hearde the voice of deathe;
Pale-eyned affryghte, hys harte of sylver hue,
In vayne assayled her bosomme to acale;
She hearde onflemed the shriekynge voice of woe;
And sadnesse in the owlette shake the dale.
She shooke the burled speere,
On hie she jeste her sheelde,
Her foemen all appere,
And flizze alonge the feelde.
Power, wythe his heafod straught ynto the skyes,
Hys speere, a sonne-beatne, and his sheelde, a starre,
Alyche twaie brendeynge gronfyres rolls hys eyes,
Chaftes with hys yronne feete, and soundes to war.
She syttes upon a rocke,
She bendes before hys speere;
She ryses from the shocke;
Wieldynge her owne yn ayre.
In this chorus he bath personified power with an almost unequalled expression, force, and sublimity. Permit me again to recite four lines of that personification; after having modernized the old words; that the creating genius of the poet may have a more unobstructed, and stronger effect:
Power, with his head exalted to the skies
His spear, a sun-beam; and his shield a star;
Flashing their flame, like meteors, rolls his eyes;
Stamps with his iron feet, and sounds to war.
Here, you surely have poetical invention; here you have the grand imagery of the epick strain; — Algarotti's "gigantesca sublimita Miltoniana," in perfection: and all this you have from a poor boy, of extremely hard fortune, and circumscribed opportunities; and which he probably wrote in his fifteenth year. Now, I declare, before this respectable assembly, that I should have been so queer, absurd, and romantick a merchant (if my fate had sunk me down to the squalid mines of Peru, instead of leading me to the laurel-groves of Academus) that for these astonishing bursts of genius, I should have forgiven the unexperienced youth, — with a gentle, and divine remonstrance, which I wish that in many cases we could practically adopt; — "go, and sin no more, lest a worse thing befall thee;" — I should have forgiven him, if he had even committed a forgery on my counting-house. Let not the cautious be shocked; let not the obdurate rail; my sacrifice to poetry would have been sanctioned by the sacrifice which I owed to christianity; which I owed to genuine morality. He was of a tender, and flexible age; and that tenderness, and flexibility, conducted by a humane, and generous hand, would have raised him to a high maturity, and stabiliment in virtue. The juvenile nobleness of soul that would have been reared, and invigorated by an Allworthy, was depressed, and chilled to death, by a Walpole. I know that for the legal felony which I have mentioned, our commercial Indians would immediately have raised the war-whoop, and have had him by the neck. But I trust that I have not so learned, or, to speak properly, unlearned Christ. I trust that I have not so far forgotten some good heathenish doctrines of disinterested humanity; of moral expansion: I trust that I am not such a prejudiced, and national dupe to unequal, and sanguinary laws; of which the very unreflecting, and precipitate rigour, is the principal cause, in an exemplary view, of their ineffectual, and despised execution. What, then, shall we think of the cold, and hard reflexions; of the cruel, and insulting epithets, and titles, which were heaped on the memory of extreme genius, and misfortune, by the prudence, and sanctity of the age; for impositions which did no injury to an individual, or to society; and which, if they had not, to good, and warm hearts, been redeemed by their glory, would have been pardoned by them, for the youth of the offender, and for the smallness of the offence. The effects of those impositions would have been almost perfectly innocent, if they had not produced a disputatious, and uncharitable fever in the spiritual constitutions of the discreet saints of the earth; if they had not excited "tantas iras animis celestibus."
I come now to Chatterton's miscellanies; to the pieces which were published with his own name; and most of which are written in a modern style. Here Mr. Bryant erects his antique triumphal arch of criticism: here, crowned with a civick wreath, as the victorious champion for the poetical honours of old England, he loudly claims for his much injured, and insulted Rowley, the foolishly disputed laurel. According to the various formation of the mind of man, it was, unfortunately in human fate, that I should differ extremely from this gentleman in my literary, and poetical sentiments, and taste. The very strongest evidences, in his judgement, which he brings to prove the truth of his rivetted opinion, or rather of his absolute certainty, beyond a shadow of doubt; in my humble opinion, invincibly demonstrate the reverse. The flight of the muse must be directed to the elevation of her objects; the miscellaneous, and modern poems of Chatterton were occasional productions; they were written on subjects of inferiour dignity to those which inspired his old poetry; and which therefore demanded a greater vigour, and sublimity of numbers. But even in these compositions of a secondary pith, and moment, a genius of the most happy versatility; richly various, beautiful, grand, and masterly; with powers infinitely beyond his, years, may be distinctly, and prominently seen, by unprejudiced, and sensible readers; who are unaffectedly susceptible of the warmth, and delight which are communicated by poetry. But these high poetical properties, however brightly they shone in the works of Chatterton, were not seen by Mr. Bryant. I wish that some friendly angel had purged the visual nerve of his mind with heavenly euphrasy, and rue; — for he had much to see; a luminous, and singular phaenomenon, in the regions of intellect; a human sun, darting meridian ardour, and effulgence, in its early day. He was accessory, himself, to the defects of his mental opticks; the thick mist of the scholastick atmosphere, had quenched, or the dim suffusion of antiquity, and Rowley, had veiled them.
In all the strictures, and remarks of this hypercritical gentleman on the acknowledged works of Chatterton, there is a cynical fastidiousness, which betrays a great want of taste; an ignorance of good, and spirited writing. He has quoted a part of his Essay on the Origin, Nature, and Design of Sculpture; to show that he was unacquainted with his subject; and that he was a poor proficient in the use of our language. If there are some inaccuracies in his account of the progress of the art of sculpture, they could only have been uncandidly observed by petulance, austerity, and moroseness: every critick, who honourably deserves the name, would have admired the diligence which had procured him so much knowledge of the subject, at his early age, and in his embarrassing situations. As to the language, or style of that essay, I assert, without hesitation, that both in spirit, and propriety, it is infinitely superiour to Mr. Bryant's, which is, in general vulgar, and uncooth. If any person will take the trouble to compare the two authours, as writers of prose, he will not charge me with having made too hasty, and peremptory an assertion. His British, and Saxon pieces, in the manner of Fingal, and what he has written in old English, in his miscellanies, show that surprizing fertility, and fire of imagination, and that almost equally surprizing knowledge of the ancient language, which he displayed to greater advantage, in his more studied, and venerable compositions. His "Apostate Will:" a poem which he wrote when he was but eleven years old, characterizes the extraordinary genius who might have been, afterwards, the authour of Rowley: as an early opening of great talents, it is certainly as rare a phaenomenon as Mr. Pope's Ode on Solitude, which he wrote when he had passed his twelfth year. The quotation of a part of it will perhaps not be unacceptable.
In days of old, when Wesley's power
Gathered new strength, by every hour;
Apostate Will, just sunk in trade,
Resolved his bargain should be made;
Then streight to Wesley he repairs,
And puts on grave, and solemn airs;
Then thus the pious man addressed;
Good Sir, I think your doctrine best;
Your servant will a Wesley be;
Therefore the principles teach me.
The preacher then instructions gave,
How he in this world should behave.
He hears, assents, and gives a nod;
Says every word's the word of God;
Then lifting his dissembling eyes,
How blessed is the sect! he cries
Nor Bingham, Young, nor Stillingfleet
Shall make me from this sect retreat.
He then his circumstance declared;
How hardly with him matters fared;
Begged him, next meeting, for to make
A small collection, for his sake;
The preacher said, do not repine;
The whole collection shall be thine.
With looks demure, and cringing bows,
About his business streight he goes;
His outward acts were grave, and prim;
The Methodist appeared in him;
But be his outward what it will;
His heart was an apostate's still;
He'd oft profess an hallowed flame;
And every-where preached Wesley's name;
He was a preacher, and what not;
As long as money could be got;
He'd oft profess, with holy fire,
The labourer's worthy of his hire.
You will allow the verses to be extraordinary, if you consider the age at which they were written. Mr. Bryant, on every occasion, equally rejects information, and conviction, when they are against the object which he arrogates. From what equitable reasoning could he conclude that the reading of our manly youth was narrow, and superficial, when he might have seen, from the verses which I have now quoted, that in his eleventh year, those great divines, Bingham, Young, and Stillingfleet, were not unknown to him?
One of his miscellaneous pieces is the "Death of Nicou;" an African eclogue. Here Mr. Bryant gives us a long rhapsody of undigested, and confused criticism; with his usual strictures of contempt on the illiterate youth; for having made the Tiber an African, and Arabian river. The eclogue is written with a great variety, richness, and force of imagination; and in very strong, and musical numbers. This is enough for my fair purpose; as a proof of bold, and persevering genius, it is worthy of its authour; especially if we reflect that it is one of his latest performances; and that it therefore must have been written, as several of his miscellanies were, in awful, and appalling circumstances; under the gripe of famine, and with the prospect of approaching death. This poem, as I have observed, affords a new topick for Mr. Bryant's exultation in the "ignorance of the boy;" — for could any instance have more evidently proved him to be extremely illiterate? He has made the Roman the African Tiber! But to this charge, which, at first sight, may seem to demonstrate his unacquaintance with polite reading, I shall honestly, and, I hope, satisfactorily answer. Absolute maturity of judgement, even in the application of proper names, is not reasonably to from the age of seventeen years. It is not improbable that he sometimes committed voluntary, and premeditated mistakes; to invelop in the darker uncertainty the authour of Rowley. But in the present case I have no need of this supposition. And can any man, in his senses, suppose that the youth who had read seventy authours when he was eleven years old, had not, in his eighteenth year, read translations of the Classicks, which would have informed him that the Tiber was a river of Italy? But Chatterton, still animated by the muse; urged by want; and negligent, from despondency, in his choice of proper names for his African eclogues, seems to have been determined merely by agreeable, and magnificent sound. I should suppose that a quotation from the second eclogue to which I have referred, would convince every impartial reader, of true, poetical discernment, that he who wrote it was equal to his old poetry. This truth, indeed, is corroborated by many passages in his miscellanies.
On Tiber's banks; Tiber, whose waters glide,
In slow meanders, down to Gaigra's side;
And circling all the horrid mountain round,
Rushes impetuous to the deep profound;
Rolls o'er the ragged rocks, with hideous yell
Collects its waves beneath the earth's vast shell;
There, for awhile, in loud confusion hurled,
It crumbles mountains down, and shakes the world;
Till borne upon the pinions of the air,
Through the rent earth the bursting waves appear;
Fiercely propelled, the whitened billows rise,
Break from the cavern, and ascend the skies;
Then lost, and conquered by superiour force,
Through hot Arabia holds its rapid course.
On Tiber's banks, where scarlet jasmines bloom;
And purple aloes shed; a rich perfume;
Where, when the sun is melting in his heat,
The reeking tygers find a cool retreat;
Bask in the sedges, lose the sultry beam,
And wanton with their shadows in the stream;—
On Tiber's banks, by sacred priests revered,
Where, in the days of old, a God appeared:—
'Twas in the dead of night, at Chalma's feast
The tribe of Alra slept around the priest.
He spoke; as evening thunders bursting near,
His horrid accents brake upon the ear.
Attend, Alraddas, with your sacred priest!
This day the sun is rising in the east
The sun, which shall illumine all the earth,
Now, now is rising in a mortal birth.
He vanished, like a vapour of the night,
And sunk away in a faint blaze of light.
Swift from the branches of the holy oak,
Horrour, confusion, fear, and torment broke:
And still, when midnight trims her mazy lamp,
They take their way through Tiber's watery swamp,
On Tiber's banks, close ranked, a warring train,
Stretched to the distant edge of Galca's plain;
So, when arrived at Gaigra's highest steep,
We view the wide expansion of the deep;
See, in the gilding of her watery robe,
The quick declension of the circling globe;
From the blue sea a chain of mountains rise,
Blended, at once, with water, and with skies;
Beyond our sight, in vast extension curled;
The check of waves; the guardians of the world.
Death of Nicou.
Let us then leave geographical, and topographical distinctions, and such common triumphs, to mathematical land-surveyors, and frigid criticks. Let us, like men, feel the soul of the poet, with all his little pardonable errours, whether they proceeded from consistent design, or from deplorable accident. Let us be eager to forgive the absurdities of a great mind, while it is eclipsed, in glory. Let it, with the extravagance of an Ariosto, remove mountains, and transfuse rivers into new regions; its fame cannot be stung to death by a swarm of antiquarians. One miracle is beyond its power; a particle of its soul, even by reflexion, will never transmigrate into the body of a critick. I care not where it makes its Tiber flow, if delightfully borne, in fancy, along its rapid stream, it carries me beyond the reach of literary wasps, and drones.
His poetical epistle to Miss Bush of Bristol is an affecting picture of melancholy fortune, and of the despair of love. Dr. Gregory must have had a singular penetration, when he discovered in these natural, and easy lines, a resemblance to the uninteresting, to the disgusting conceits; to the metaphysical stuff of Cowley.
Before I seek the dreary shore,
Where Gambia's rapid billows roar,
And foaming pour along.,
To you I urge the plaintive strain;
And though a lover sings in vain,
Yet you shall hear the song.
Ungrateful, cruel, lovely maid;
Since all my torments were repaid
With frowns, or languid sneers;
With assiduities no more
Your captive will your health implore;
Or teize you with his tears.
Now to the regions where the sun
Does his hot course of glory run,
And parches up the ground;
Where o'er the burning, cleaving plains,
A long, eternal dog-star reigns,
And splendour flames around:
There will I go; yet not to find
A fire intenser than my mind,
Which burns, a constant flame
There will I lose thy heavenly form;
Nor shall remembrance, raptured, warm,
Draw shadows of thy frame.
In the rough element, the sea,
I'll drown the softer subject, Thee;
And sink each lovely charm;
No more my bosom shall be torne;
No more by wild ideas borne,
I'll cherish the alarm.
Yet, Polly, could thy heart be kind,
Soon would my feeble purpose find
Thy sway within my breast:—
But hence, soft scenes of painted woe;—
Spite of the dear delight I'll go;—
Forget her, and be blest.
His elegy to the memory of Mr. Thomas Phillips, of Fairford, an amiable friend, and, a brother poet, the last of his miscellaneous performances of which I shall take a view, abounds with the characteristicks of his Rowley. The picture of winter, and of fancy, drawn by a very juvenile mind, are worthy of Shakespeare, or of Milton: they announce the aspiring, and adventurous prodigy, who, with a bold and resistless hand; tore his maturity from the slow march of time. In the oracular language of poetry they proclaim the indisputable author of Aella; of Sir Charles Bawdin; of the battle of Hastings; and of all their other splendid companions. "I am the man" — says the writer of this elegy: — the oracle is accepted; it is rejected by none but by the deaf adder, who stoppeth his ears; and "refuseth to hear the voice of the charmer, charm he never so wisely."—
When golden autumn, wreathed in ripened corn,
From purple clusters pressed the foamy wine;
Thy genius did his sallow brows adorn;
And made the beauties of the season thine.
Pale, rugged winter, bending o'er his tread;
His grizzled hair bedropt with icy dew;
His eyes, a dusky light, congealed, and dead;
His robe, a tinge of bright, ethereal blue:
His train, a motleyed, sanguine, sable cloud,
He limps along the russet, dreary moor;
Whilst rising whirlwinds, blasting, keen, and loud,
Roll the white surges to the sounding shore.
Fancy, whose various, figure-tinctured vest,
Was ever changing to a different hue:
Her head, with varied bays, and flowerets drest,
Her eyes, two spangles of the morning-dew:
In dancing attitude she swept thy string;
And now she soars, and now again descends;
And now reclining on the zephyr's wing,
Unto the velvet-vested mead she bends.
Elegy on Mr. Phillips.
I flatter myself that I have the honour of thinking, and feeling with you, when the poetry of Chatterton is our object. I shall give you Mr. Bryant's opinion of his talents, and acquirements; and then it will be in your power to judge by what pretensions that gentleman arrogates the respectable province of a poetical critick. Indeed he, seems to me so ill qualified for that important office (important, as long as poetry shall be dear to ingenuous minds) and he seems likewise so insensible to the height of merit, and to the depth of distress, in humble life, that I have retaliated his unworthy, his barbarous treatment of Chatterton, with that unreserved and independent censure, which became a writer who hath devoted a great part of his literary exertions to the admiration of genius, and to the contempt of fortune. My persevering honesty has been of more external disadvantage to me than my desultory faults; but I have too good an opinion of your generosity to apprehend that this troublesome companion will make my present situation tremble. At all events, there is a reflecting substance within us, which atones for our painful conflict in stemming the swell of the world. That world I should yet wish to please; but on fair terms. Age accumulates the debts which an old man owes to himself; and it imperiously urges their liquidation: it urges him to be particularly careful, not to temporize, on the brink of eternity; but then, with a peculiar care, and assiduity, to strengthen, and condense the habits which his calm, and unprejudiced reason had always most approved.
"I must confess" (says Mr. Bryant) that I see nothing of this prematurity of abilities in Chatterton; nor of the store of information which so far exceeded his term of life; much less that comprehension, and that activity of understanding, with which he is said to have been gifted. I cannot perceive any traces of these wonderful qualities. I believe there are many clerks, and apprentices in town, who, by reading plays, and magazines, and by frequenting the theatres, get a better knack of writing than was to be found in Chatterton. His bad success, in his last stage of life, shows that he did not answer the expectations of those who employed him."
On the savage remark which closes this passage, I have already given my sentiments. — "The poems which have the name of Rowley affixed to them" (says this judicious critick) "are certainly very fine; but those which we know assuredly to have been composed by Chatterton, fall very short of such excellence. The best of them do not rise above mediocrity; and many are very low, and abject; and cannot be held in any degree of estimation." — Bryant pp. 491 502.
To insult the memory of Chatterton was as stupid as it was inhuman: to insult the common sense; the common perceptions of mankind, was the utmost degree of insolence. Suffer a little more of this elegant, and liberal critick. — "When they" (his most sanguine friends) "speak of him as a prodigy, they found their notion chiefly upon those sing-song compositions in verse, which he wrote to some young women at Bristol, and to other friends; and which may be looked upon as very tolerable, for a person so young. But these persons never give the least hint about any historical knowledge; nor mention any writer of consequence WHICH he had read." — p. 562. — To dwell on this absurd, and arrogant stuff, would give it too much consequence. But Master Bryant, if you please, with all your taunts about Chatterton's ignorance, or superficiality, you have openly allowed that he was conversant with Shakespeare, Milton, and Thomson; and, I pray, are not they writers of some little consequence? Ah! Mr. Bryant! "Illi, quot critici; quot Antiquarii!"
Where he charges Chatterton with that cruelty (which was infinitely more applicable to himself, and to his friend of Exeter) for his just, but very moderate freedom with Mr. Walpole the that he lays on that person's rank, and character, is as mean, and servile, as his treatment of our young poet was ungenerous, and overbearing. Chatterton was, at first, more gentle to Mr. Walpole; and ultimately far more liberal to him than he deserved. He had a perishable, a vamped up character; a meretricious varnish, with which he was fashionably decorated by sable gowns, and blue stockings: but, as a writer that was much talked of, there have been few more inelegant, and feeble: — as a man, I hope that there have been few, of less beneficent dispositions. If two or three instances are obtruded on me, instead of a confutation of what I assert, by any poor logician on our ethical duties, I shall reply, that I have my moral distinctions, if he has not. If a person who is notoriously parsimonious in acts of beneficence, takes it into his head to heap favours on a few individuals, who neither want them, nor can bring any genuine, any conspicuous title to them, you may term this, profusion; whim; caprice; dotage; a selfish repayment of adulation; — any thing but true generosity. That godlike virtue, when it is the master of corresponding external power, is inquisitive, and indefatigable, to find, and to reward merit; to relieve distress; and to recompense that humble industry which has long been its faithful servant. How far the late Lord Orford was entitled to the praise which is always due to these glorious actions, surely the world, unless it is still hoodwinked by prejudices, may, by this time, easily, and accurately determine. The gold, which is, in general, cruelly spared, is, sometimes, absurdly lavished. As to rank, that, of itself, is nothing; it reflects respect, or contempt, is it is connected with the virtues, or with the vices of is owner: it may be the high-seated, and hereditary citadel of well-maintained honour; or it may be the conspicuous, and permanent pillory of personal disgrace.
I hope that many of my observations on the writings, and fate of Chatterton, will tend to illustrate a neglected, but indisputable truth; that when these reading, and plodding men presume to feel, and describe the bright emanations of the mind; and justly and forcibly to discriminate great, and original characters; they desert the narrow walk to which they were destined by nature; and trespass on the blooming, and variegated ground, which is, by her, allotted to souls of a more extensive range. Warm sentiment, as well as vigorous reason, is requisite to enable us properly to judge of poetical excellence, and of poetical faults; and if we possess this degree of sentiment, and reason, it will adjust, and impassion our language, when we write on these interesting subjects. Therefore the authours to whom I now refer, know as much of poetry (as I have remarked before) as Junius's late right honourable senator knew of blushing; or as a man born blind knows of scarlet or sky-blue.
As my unfortunate, but well-intended literary efforts must soon have an end, I wish not to be negligent, and idle, at the last: nay, I wish to work with double diligence. I shall be anxious to counteract with watchfulness, and assiduity, that indolence, and those infirmities, which gradually, but impressively, make their daily inroads on old age. Humanity will ever view them with a sympathetick eye; but to resist their oppression as far is possible, is the natural, and congruous part of that spirit which has never yielded to the most mortifying circumstances; to the most alarming prospects. Consistently with this long strain of conduct, it was my determination to take a large, and if I was equal to it, a complete view, of my present great, but melancholy subject. I shall, therefore make some particular references to Mr. Walpole's defence of his treatment of Chatterton, as it is detailed in the Gentleman's Magazine of 1782. The defence makes a long letter to the editor of Chatterton's Miscellanies. By these references you will be sufficiently acquainted both with the benevolent disposition, and with the elegance and force of Mr. Nichols's masterly, and admirable writer. I wish that I could paint so durably as to transmit both the poet, and the peer, in their genuine form, and colours, to a late posterity. Such pictures are interesting; they are useful to society. They may stimulate, fortify genius; they may moderate the insolence of wealth, and title, they may make obduracy appear to soften. In the object which is now immediately before me, there is something to console, and flatter an old man's love of ease. The passages of Mr. Walpole's defence, to which I shall refer, will not require many accurate animadversions; many well-merited strictures. In the citation of such passages, their answer, and the condemnation of their authour are included. It is often, providentially, the nature, and the sublunary punishment of guilt, not to move a step, without being caught in its own toils.
I shall first desire your attention to Mr. Walpole's behaviour, on Chatterton's very respectful application to him for his interest, to remove him from the dull drudgery of an attorney's apprentice, and to procure for him some little establishment, compatible with his elegant studies, and with his most laudable, and well-grounded poetical ambition. No situation could be more unfavourable to literary improvement, and taste, than that to which his early life was doomed; and no generous man; no liberal judge of human nature; no soul warmly impressed by the muses, would have hesitated to befriend the authour of those specimens of high poetical excellence which accompanied his application. The absolute certainty that he was the authour of them; and that they were not written in the fifteenth century, would have impelled, instead of preventing Mr. Walpole to assist him; if he had not been very deficiently sensible of his own faults (however plausible he was on that subject) and if he had not, therefore, been an exactor of perfection from the first, and unexperienced moral sense of youth; especially if that youth was poor, and friendless.
After the natural inquiries, in consequence of Chatterton's letter, Mr. Walpole found that he had given a true account of himself; his family; and his situation. Neither this account, however, nor the proofs of miraculous genius, as he afterwards termed it, with little amplification, could prevail with his heart to rescue the young poet from the worst of captivities; from the captivity of the mind; from digging, as the slave of Lambert, in the Peruvian mines of the law. That attorney seems to have been as insensible, or impassive a creature, to the stupendous talents of the boy, as his other Bristol friends. I have said that Mr. Walpole could not prevail with his heart; that heart during its long pulsation, never warmed; never dilated; never felt a propensity to blend the flow of benevolence with the Castalian fountain. It is, or it easily may be well known, that he was, all his life, the enemy of illustrious authours; unjust to the dead; injurious to the living. But in the present emergency, if something useful is not done, something specious must be written; for this actor of virtue well knew that while a hypocrite retains his discretion; while he saves his appearances, he, and the world will always be on a very fair footing with each other. Accordingly he sate down, and gave him a bill on the sacred bank of morality; this was one bold species of forgery; for I never could find that in that bank, he had any real capital. He wrote to him a letter of advice; the constant substitute, with frozen souls, for good offices, when they are requested. I grow old, and forget; but I think that I have heard, or read, that there are three things which a man will do for you, who will never be prevailed with to do any thing better; he will give you a pinch of snuff; — a letter of recommendation, if you are going abroad; — and good advice; if you are distressed, or starving. Not only to meet the unfortunate, and the descrying, with kind looks, and kind actions, but to enquire where they are; that with these looks, and these actions, they may meet them; is the christianity of the Kyrls, and the Allens: — the pinch of snuff; — the letter of recommendation the good advice, is the jesuitism of the Walpoles.
He tells us that "he wrote him a letter with as much kindness, as if he had been his guardian." This cannot be true; for if it had been true, our voluntary, affectionate, and christian guardian, would have given his poor, unprotected ward, some substantial mark of his compassion. When on any urgent occasion, we have the power to do much good, and presume to mimick real goodness; when, on that occasion, we assume a sympathy which we do not feel; and only preach, and advise; all our boasted tenderness is mere pretence; a shameful insincerity. But it is my wonder, that this primitive taint, of a conscience inexpressibly tender, when he advised his miraculous young genius to persevere, with content, and resignation, in tugging at Lambert's oar, and to endeavour to discharge his filial obligations to his mother; did not strongly represent to him the horrid crime of his poetical forgeries; and strenuously remonstrate against any future practice of such a dreadful kind of imposture. He only informs Chatterton that better judges than himself doubted the authenticity of the manuscripts. No man, indeed, was less entitled than Mr. Walpole, to reprehend him for transferring his literary claims to an imaginary person; as I shall, hereafter, show.
With an ungrateful return for all this paternal, and anxious piety, we are told that the person on whom it was bestowed, sent "rather a peevish answer." The truth of this charge is by no means proved. He only said that "he would not contend with a person of Mr. Walpole's learning; and desired that his poems might be returned." But the opinion which even a pigmy, of wealth, and fashion entertains of his own magnitude, is so enormous, that if a person of accidental inferiority expresses the least disapprobation of his conduct, he may think himself treated with extraordinary indulgence, if he is only insulted with the accusation of peevishness. But the pampered, spoiled, and grown children, whose ears are, every day, lulled with the eunuch trill of flattery; and who, therefore, cannot endure the manly voice of honest, independent, and salutary truth, (if it was properly accepted, and regarded;) — these are the peevish beings. I shall now quote three very curious paragraphs from Mr. Walpole's defence. They will demand some ingenuous, and explicit observations. "When I received this letter" (the proper letter, in which the return of the poems was desired) "I was going to Paris, in a day or two; and either forgot his request of the poems; or perhaps not having time to have them copied, deferred complying till my return, which was to be in six weeks. I protest I do not remember which was the case; and yet, though in a cause of so little importance, I will not utter a syllable of which I am not positively certain; nor will charge my memory with a tittle beyond what it retains." — "Soon after my return from France, I received another letter from Chatterton, the style of which was singularly impertinent. He demanded his poems roughly; and added, that I would not have dared to use him so ill, if he had not acquainted me with the narrowness of his circumstances." — "My heart did not accuse me of insolence to him. I wrote an answer, expostulating with him on his injustice, and renewing good advice. But upon second thoughts, reflecting that so wrong-headed a young man, of whom I knew nothing and whom I had never seen, might be absurd enough to print my letter, I flung it into the fire; and wrapping up both his poems, and letters, without taking a copy of either, for which I am now sorry, I returned all to him, and thought no more of him or them, till about a year and a half after, &c." — Gentleman's Magazine, May 1782, p. 248 — I have nothing to say to his going to Paris; it deserves no consideration. But I shall frankly say that to detain Chatterton's manuscripts, six weeks, after what had passed between them, was the height of insolence, and barbarity. I will not say that a mind of exalted morality — I will say that a mind of common generosity would be particularly careful not to give pain to the unfortunate, when it might be easily prevented. A being, indeed, of a superiour order of virtue would be religiously tenacious of answering more expeditiously the letter of, a poor than of a rich man; that the mind of the former might not possibly be wounded with the apprehension that he was despised. But this doctrine to Mr. Walpole would have been a dissertation on colours to a man born blind.
I believe that I have already given my opinion of the manly, and spirited reply with which the poet very justly resented Mr. Walpole's long epistolary silence, and detention of his papers. I have mentioned the effect which it would have produced on a generous mind. But as the mind to which it was addressed was of a very different constitution, its phlegmatick pride pronounced the letter in which that censure was contained, "a singularly impertinent letter." — The letter was so far from being impertinent, that it was gentler than the haughty neglect deserved. I wish that the treatment which external weakness too often experiences from external power, would warrant me to assert that Mr. Walpole's behaviour, during the short epistolary intercourse between Chatterton, and him, was singularly insolent.
Chatterton, in his last letter to Walpole, asserted, that he would not have dared to use him so ill, if he had not been acquainted with the disadvantages of his situation. Of the truth of this assertion there can be no reasonable doubt. If the son of a lord had teized Mr. Walpole with fifty letters, containing the most insignificant stuff; they would all have been answered, with the most respectful punctuality.
His inconsistent insolence is continually breaking forth. He calls the correspondence with which he was very unworthily honoured by Chatterton, "a cause of so little importance." Was the fate, then, was any transaction of your miracle of poetical genius, of so little importance? I would rather have a faithful account of one of Chatterton's serious conversations with his friends, than of all that you, Mr. Walpole, through your long life, thought, and said, and wrote. Unimportant as you have been pleased to term the cause, I shall apply to a very little, what Mr. Pope applied to a very great man: I hope that it will "damn you to everlasting fame." Unimportant as the cause was, it drove you to the most pitiable subterfuges. For I strongly suspect that the letter containing new, good, and gratuitous advice, which Mr. Walpole flung into the fire, was a mere airy forgery of that gentleman's active, and tremulous imagination. He disapproved of his own conduct; he thought that it would be disapproved by the humane part of the world; hence he invented the pretended crime of the pretended letter; and hence he protracted the little stratagem of affected candour. But why should he have dreaded Chatterton's publication of this letter? Could he imagine that a renewal of that good advice which he made so highly meritorious, would have hurt him with the publick? I have a right to suspect imposition, when the suspected imposition is in the neighbourhood of palpable falsehoods. But that after he had sent him his poems, and letters, he thought no more of him or them, for a year and a half; — this assertion, if we consider the substance, and circumstances of the whole case, must be a direct, and impudent lie. I should use improper terms; I should entertain too moderate a resentment against the most absurd, and insolent falsehood, if I gave this effrontery softer language. Whatever Mr. Walpole might pretend, he often thought of Chatterton, before his final catastrophe; and as there is a Divine moral economy, even in this world, he thought of him with remorse, and fear.
"Was my giving him advice" (says he) "neglect? was my returning his papers, without a word of reproach on his arrogance, arrogant?" — Ibid. p. 193. I am so sick of your advice, that I wish to turn away my mind from thinking of it. Every school-boy will tell you, that to return papers, and letters, (especially after an unreasonable, and shamefully long detention of them) without a word of answer to the preceding letter, is more expressive of contempt, and indeed of resentment, than the most resentful, and contemptuous language. And this was your arrogant return to a fine and noble spirit; with whom, if you had had a congenial spirit, you would have respectfully acknowledged your negligence, and ardently espoused his fortune.
I must here give you another passage of this perplexed, confused, unaccountable apologist. — "Another reflexion occurrs to me, and probably will to my accusers. I have complained of Chatterton's unwarrantable letter to me, on my not returning his MSS. Shall I not be told, that I probably did not restore to him that letter, I believe I did not, I believe I preserved it; but what is become of it in nine years, I cannot say; — I have lost, or mislaid it. If I find it, it shall be submitted to every possible scrutiny of the expert, before I produce it as genuine: — and though I hope to be believed that such letter I did receive, and did mention to several persons long before I was charged with ill-treatment of Chatterton, I desire no imputation should lie on his memory, beyond what his character, and my unprovoked assertions render probable. I could not feel regret on his re-demand of MSS. on which I had set no esteem. I might have preserved copies both of the poems, and of his letters, if I had been willing. No adequate reason can be given why I returned all promiscuously, but his insult, and my own indifference." — Ibid. p. 300. — The reflection that he probably did not restore to Chatterton what he calls the unwarrantable letter, with the other papers, could not naturally have occurred either to his accusers, or to his friends: both parties would have been morally certain that it was returned, agreeably to the nature, and constant practice of such transactions. The contrary reflection could only have occurred to his own dark, perplexed, and malignant mind; at once meditating false crimination, and blundering apologies, to give it some appearance of truth. Candour itself, therefore, must own it to be very odd that he did not return to Chatterton his unfortunate, and obnoxious letter, when he sent to him all his other papers. It seems that it was lost, or mislaid. — These circumstances, and the formal manner in which he proposes to have its authenticity ascertained, "before he produces it as genuine," must excite, in the most unsuspicious minds, a doubt that it ever existed. The apparent tenderness which he here shows for the memory of Chatterton, and the cruel aspersions, with which, in other places, he insults it, are glaring proofs of the dark, and cowardly assassin of reputation. The utmost despotism of a despicable arrogance alone could make him imagine that the letter in question could be, in any view, disadvantageous to the memory of the youth. It redounded entirely to his honour. In one period, we are told, that he retained the dreadfully daring letter; and almost in the next, that he returned all promiscuously. People who have a certain base habit, should likewise have a good memory. Chatterton's insult, and Mr. Walpole's indifference, were, it seems, the only adequate reasons that could be given why all was returned promiscuously. These were not the reasons. What he calls an insult was the moderate return of a high spirit to the utmost degree of insolence. As to his indifference, in one view of his conduct; he was by no means indifferent. He returned all, or he returned a part, from the petulant irritation of a puny soul; — provoked, when it should have been delighted. His own words contradict him; the expression, that "all was returned promiscuously," proclaims, not his indifference, but his tumultuous resentment. He ought to have been ashamed of himself; of his own admiration of Chatterton; if he meant his literary indifference. In that view, the' word could only be the result of an insensible stupidity; or of an absurd, ridiculous, inconsistent, and lying pride. All his life he struggled, (no man more in vain; — I allude to real desert) for the highest human glory, intellectual fame, all his life, he affected to despise it, whenever it came into competition with the dirt that inflamed the rapacity of a Pizarro, and an Almagro; whenever it came into competition with the childish trinkets which are presented to courtly minions by kings.
His very notes; his very labour to ascertain the disputed letter, augment my doubts: though I still hope that it did exist. — He says that he often mentioned it in company; and that he has no doubt that his mention of it "came to Chatterton's knowledge." In the circle of his acquaintance, he might very safely mention it, though it had been a mere premeditated idea. It is absurd to suppose that any one of them would converse with Chatterton: he was poor; and he had been guilty of a most unpardonable crime in the eye of the fashionable world; he had offended Mr. Walpole.
"If he gave me that provocation" (says Mr. Walpole; the provocation of the letter) "it was true: if he did not, I had no reason to invent it." Yes, you had; for if you did invent it, you thought, and you thought justly, that all they who ought to have applauded Chatterton for the letter, would condemn him for it; I mean, all they whose opinions are formed, and determined by unreflecting fashion, and servile imitation; not by reason, and equity; and who allow no conduct, no language of spirit, and independence, to the poor: and their number includes by far the greater part of society: it includes the powerful world, without one exception.
Mr. Walpole affected so warmly to admire the poetical powers of Chatterton, that in one place, he bestows on them the epithet, "miraculous." The editor of the Miscellanies deeply regrets that by the premature death of their authour, the world was deprived of the works which he might have written, and which would have contributed to the honour of our nation. This assertion, which, indeed is warranted by a conditional moral certainty, Mr. Walpole classes with "fond," (or foolish) "imaginations." Then it follows, from his own acknowledgement, that the highest poetical excellence does not contribute to the honour of a nation. But what Chatterton even lived to write, will contribute to the immortal honour of our nation. How low are the objects o a corrupt, and plodding statesman, comparatively with those of a poet! Did Sir Robert Walpole's labours, and arts, and elevation, contribute to the honour, or to the disgrace of the British nation?
"I should he more justly reproachable for having contributed to cherish an impostor, than I am, for having accelerated his fate. I cannot repeat the words without emotions of. indignation, on my own account, and of compassion, on his. But I have promised to argue calmly, and I will." — G.M. April. p. 191. — I quote this passage as a comprehensive specimen of a most iniquitous, and barbarous estimator of human conduct; of an affected philosopher; of a callous heart, assuming the amiable virtue of compassion; of a preposterous hypocrite; who while he stabs his victim, sheds over it the tears of Iago. — " Is it not hard" (says he) "that a man on whom a forgery has been tried unsuccessfully, should, for that single reason, be held out to the world, as the assassin of genius? If a banker, to whom a forged note should be presented, should refuse to accept it, and the ingenious fabricator should afterwards fall a victim to his own slight of hand; would you accuse the poor banker to the publick, and urge that his caution had deprived the world of some suppositious deeds of settlement that would have deceived the whole court of chancery, and deprived some great family of its estate?" — April; pp. 191, 192. — But in other places, the good man relaxes from these hard morals of the usurer; but, I pray, observe, not without the previous inconsistency of a feeble understanding, and a guilty heart. — "Are you angry that I was not more a dupe than you? If I suspected his forgeries, how did they entitle him to my assistance?"— a little after he thus proceeds: "I do not mean to use the term, forged, in a harsh sense: I speak of Chatterton's mintage, as forgeries of poems, in ancient language, &c." — April p. 192. "Though I had no doubt of his impositions, such a spirit of poetry breathed in his coinage, as interested me for him; nor was it a grave crime in a young bard to have forged false notes of hand, that were to pass current only in the PARISH of Parnassus." — May; p. 248. — God forbid that I should think of giving a particular answer to these passages! I shall only observe that more miserable stuff was never obtruded on the world for argument. And this ridiculous mode of arguing principally proceeds from his endeavours, as impotent as they are inhuman, to class the comparatively innocent fictitious old poetry with that very criminal species of forgery which attacks property. This was evidently his design, from the terms which he always misapplies to Chatterton's inoffensive imposition. Under this most ungenerous, and wretched resource, he endeavoured to shelter the guilt of which he was unavoidably conscious, for having refused a very practicable, moderate, and easy protection, aid encouragement, to exalted, but oppressed genius. Yet you see, that, in spite of all this little disingenuous art, reason corrects injustice, and barbarity; and asserts her divine empire over the mind. Conscience often intimidates, and confounds those criminals whom she cannot drag to the sentence which they deserve. To apply to Chatterton, and to the beautiful poems which he only published under a feigned name, the terms which express the most obnoxious felonies; — such as, forgeries, forger, mint-coiner; — and other similar words of unqualified, and licentious abuse; — was it moral turpitude of a creature, who was as barbarously unmerciful to the conduct of his neighbour as he was selfishly, and pusillanimously tender to his own. This farrago of inelegance, dullness, and disingenuity, is addressed to the editor of the Miscellanies: that editor is as basely ungenerous to the young poet's moral character as Mr. Walpole himself: yet he very rationally supposes that if a seasonable patronage had interposed between him, and his bad fortune, it would have saved him from ruin. This highly probable opinion, or rather certain conclusion, is treated as a chimerical idea by Walpole, and his flatterers: and indeed by what other persons could it have been held in that estimation? What impartial, and sensible person can doubt that a very small assistance would have propelled his course, with a most auspicious gale, to the luxuriant harbour, of virtue, and of glory; — who knew "the genial current of his soul;" — his stoical temperance, and his stoical pride; his contempt of the low, prebendal sensuality; and of the pomp, and vanity of the play-things of artificial life; — his contempt of every inferiour object, when it came into competition with the atchievernents of the mind?
"Rowley would be a prophet, a foreseer" (says Mr. Walpole) "if the poems were his; yet in any other light, he would not be so extraordinary a phaenomenon as Chatterton; whom, though he was a bad man, as is said, I lament not having seen. He might, at that time, have been less corrupted, and my poor patronage might have saved him from the abyss into which he plunged. But alas! how could I surmise that the well-being, and existence of a human creature depended on my swallowing a legend; and from an unknown person? Thank God, so far from having any thing to charge myself with on Chatterton's account, it is very hypothetical to suppose that I could have stood between him, and ruin. It is one of those possible events, which we should be miserable indeed if imputable to a conscience that had not the smallest light to direct it! If I went to Bengal, I might perhaps interpose, and save the life of some poor Indian, devoted by the fury of a British Nabob: but amiable as such Quixotism would be, we are not to sacrifice every duty to the possibility of realizing one conscientious vision." — May: p. 249. — Depraved, and sordid a kind of being as human nature is, we seldom meet with such a specimen of an unfeeling heart; with such an elaborate, but transparent endeavour to transfer our own baseness to the character of another person; — we seldom meet with an affected humanity of such demure, and hypocritical accomplishment, as that which is presented to us in the former part of this quotation; it out-Blifils the culprit of the celebrated Fielding. In the latter part of the quotation is exhibited such a monster of a case; — call it simile, illustration, or more properly, confusion; as is not to he found in the most exceptionable passages of any orator, or poet: it surpasses the most unnatural, and ridiculous extravagance of Blackmore, or of Lee. He talks of an amiable Quixotism: yes; there is an amiable Quixotism; to which a Walpole never soared. Don Quixote's was, in many respects, a fine madness; it was an enthusiast in compassion; it was an enthusiast in heroick virtue. The mental disorder of this apologist is an intermitting moral fever; he is seized with a cold, icy fit, whenever he thinks of the garret in Shoreditch, or in Brook-Street; the melancholy abodes of a great, and indigent poet: when Berkley-Square, and Strawberry-Hill arise in his little fancy, the more lasting hot fit of selflove succeeds; pleasing in its access: in its decline corroding. Or it is a malignant fever; and of a remarkably contagious nature; infecting many morbid, and effeminate constitutions in high life.
He had the unprincipled cruelty; the mischievous, but puny art; and the verbal absurdity, to tell us, that Chatterton, "as it was said was a bad man." — Let us not forget that he died in his eighteenth year. Fools, Mr. Walpole, may catch your insinuation; for if he had been, in maturity of years, a man, he would have been a more responsible moral agent. You might have contributed to prolong his life, in reality, with a God-like providence: to prolong it, in idea, with your invidious view, and expression, was the action of a daemon. The world is not generous; yet he might have lived to be a man, and a most glorious man, if he had not, in one instance, terribly misapplied his epistolary talent. The word, bad, as a morally stigmatizing epithet, could only have been applied to him, by a dull, undistinguishing, and uncharitable being. There never was a generous, ardent, and great mind, without juvenile imprudences. If cold, compact, and uniform discretion, of a smooth surface; of a hard, and indissoluble substance; — if such human flint is good for any thing, let the Walpoles take it. To be proud, and to strut, in the, gay trappings of life; to see, or to respect no merit, where there is no fortune; consistently with this arrogant and impious prejudice, to affect to despise genius in the poor, and unprotected; while we sicken with a virulent envy at the sight of its splendour; to pretend to melt with compassion, while our hearts are adamant; these are the infallible characteristicks of a completely, and incorrigibly bad man. — "Consider, sir" (says Mr. Walpole) "what would be the condition of the world, what the satisfaction of parents, and what Peruvian mines must be possessed by the Maecenases of the times, if every muse-struck lad, who is bound to an attorney, every clerk,
—born his father's soul to cross,
And pen a stanza when he should engross,
should have nothing to do but to draw a bill, or a couplet, on the patron of learning in vogue, and have his fetters struck off; and a post assigned to him under the government. The duties of office, perhaps, would not be too well executed by these secretaries of the muses; and though Apollo's kingdom would certainly come, king George's would not be too well served." — G.M. April; p. 192. — Whether this passage is more marked with ungenerous, and unfeeling language; with egregiously false, and impudent sophistry; or with Grub-Street attempts at wit, it would be difficult to determine. I shall here be obliged to dislodge him from two of the holes in which he shrinks from performing a noble, and easily practicable species of liberality. To apply the lines of Mr. Pope to Chatterton, is equally stupid, absurd, and indecent. Those lines impeach, they do not absolve his conduct. Every schoolboy knows that Mr. Pope had in his eye, when he wrote them, young, pert, ignorant poetasters; but by no means a Chatterton, whom this creature justly pronounces a prodigy, a miracle of genius; and while with an inconsistency of which he alone was capable, (arising from the usual conflict betwixt his favourite, and despicable family-pride, and his involuntary, his extorted admiration of mental excellence) — while with this inconsistency, he treats him with that indifference, contempt, and with that uncharitable, and inquisitorial spirit, on paper, with which he had treated him before in action, he writes the severest possible satire on his own avarice, and insensibility. He should have been ashamed to recall the image of Mr. Pope to ingenuous memories. He would not bestow a guinea to promote the exertions, and prosperity, of early and unrivalled genius; Mr. Pope, with a comparative poverty of fortune, was practically generous to a comparative mediocrity of talents; when it was almost dead to fine fame, and to finer virtue. Yet let me be tender to the memory of the unfortunate Savage! When the extreme sensibility is powerfully assailed, on the one hand, with pleasure, and on the other, with pain; what Hercules in virtue is equal to the combat! Mr. Pope viewed the abilities of the man with esteem, and respect; he viewed his vices with a christian indulgence; his distresses, with a christian compassion; for he had not, like a Walpole, determined not to relieve them. Mr. Pope had generously engaged to contribute twenty pounds annually to the support of Savage. When we estimate the very different value of money in the time of Mr. Pope, and in the decline of Mr. Walpole's life, twenty pounds a-year to Savage was about equivalent (my multiplying calculation is moderate) to the annual gratuity of a guinea a-week; if Mr. Walpole, amongst his whimsical, lavish, and useless expenditures, could have prevailed with his contracted heart to allow that pittance to Chatterton. If he could have arisen to this very moderate pitch of beneficence, it is highly probable (I no more pretend to retrospective certainty than to prophecy) that Chatterton would have, now, been living, and happy; that he would have been esteemed for the disinterested, and expanded virtues; and admired for the literary, and poetical powers of his mind; that he would have been in the plenitude of unrivalled fame; and consequently, that he would have poured a flood of light on the intellectual galaxy of his country. A tributary ray would have shot down to earth; it would have shed a grateful, arid a pleasing gleam on the tomb of Walpole. When the mind of Johnson was working for several years, and not with inglorious toil, on the Dictionary of the English Language; the generous protection of a Chesterfield, in the lapse of those years; to preclude want; to alleviate toil; and to inflame ambition, bestowed on him the sum of Ten Pounds! This was more, by ten pounds, than could be obtained from Walpole, by the more striking, and original merit of Chatterton. Yet what a pity it is, that Johnson, for the honour of the highest gifts of heaven, could not have dispensed with the acceptance of that charity; — of that charity? — no! of that insult, from an unanimated puppet of polished mechanism! Ye sons of vanity! why will you not rise above your momentary passion? Caesar panted not more than you for distinction; why will you not, then, like him, but for better causes, make it durable, and unconfined? Your external power will give you what your internal insignificance denies. From a glittering, childish, expensive, and extravagant vanity, you have only the life of an ephemeris; from an obvious, cheap, and beneficent vanity, you may secure immortality. With a small particle of what you squander on little human art; on stone, and colours; and twinkling mimick stars; preserve, and invigorate to proper action; appropriate to your lasting glory, the noblest works of God! Relieve, and animate aspiring genius, and persevering virtue in distress. Be not satisfied to shine in the narrow circle of a court; the painted insects of which, unless you feel a more sensible vanity, will soon perish, like yourselves; and you may sail "along the stream of time," with the Johnsons, and if a human comet appears while you live, with the Chatterton of your age.
In this letter to the ungenerous editor of Chatterton's Miscellanies, he estimates his power to do good as falsely as he misrepresents other objects. — "My fortune is private, and moderate; my situation more private; my interest, none. I was neither born to wealth, nor to accumulate it. I have indulged a taste for expensive baubles, with little attention to oeconomy: it did not become me to give myself airs of protection; and though it might not be generous, I have been less fond of the company of authours than of their works." — p. 192. — Four assertions, in the former part of this quotation, are gross violations, and because he published them, impudent violations of truth. He was left in great affluence by his father; he enjoyed many thousand pounds a-year; and when he died, he left more than £100,000. I am writing within his bounds. Therefore, notwithstanding the diminished value of money; the luxury of the times; and our enormous crimes in India; allow me to be so antiquated a man as to insist that Mr. Walpole was immensely rich. His connexions were extensive, and powerful; he might easily have procured a small establishment for his petitioner; which would have produced a pecuniary affluence to a great mind, rich in genius, and of intense application. Let him not talk of his little regard for oeconomy; he was avaricious; but even misers will have their expensive, their extravagant whims. And if he could have sublimated his childish taste for those baubles of which he owns that he was enamoured, to an exalted moral taste for acts of generous, diffusive, and judicious benevolence; Chatterton might have been made happy, and completely illustrious, with the hundred-thousandth part of the collective sum which on those baubles he had idly, and selfishly expended. You must now see his theatrical, and meretricious modesty, when he told us that "it did not become him to give himself airs of protection." — It is, indeed, altogether, a most ignominious letter; in every line of it, conscious guilt breaks its thin covering: it is fraught with a dastardly fear of the accuser to whom it is addressed; with an affected humility to him, and to the publick; who are too often easily deluded gudgeons; when the little pride of wealth, prostrated by cowardice, deprecates their resentment; and seems to reverence their opinion. The epistolary crouching of Walpole I should have compared with the supplications of an ancient gladiator, "populum extrema exorantis arena;" had not the unfortunate Roman Slave been brave.
Aspersions have been thrown unjustly, and cruelly: I will never hesitate to retaliate on iniquity; when I have justice on my side. This man, in the course of one letter, has been guilty of many forgeries on the sacred bank of truth. To assume virtues of which we are totally destitute; to endeavour to elude the force of well-grounded accusations with the assertions of falsehood, and with the candour of timidity; to be industrious to deceive the publick into a belief of that humanity, which, as we never practised, we never felt; — these impostures; these forgeries are far more criminal than the ingenious, and splendid fiction, which formed an imaginary, but highly poetical priest of the fifteenth century.