On my last quotations I beg leave to make some remarks, relative both to the morals, and to the poetry of Chatterton.
"He declares himself so ignorant of his profession, that he was, unable to draw out a clearance from his apprenticeship, which Mr. Lambert demanded." — Gregory: p. 80. — This was one of the many proofs that we have of that immensity of genius which engrosses, and transports its possessour; which makes him elude even the grasp of an attorney. If Chatterton's mind had been but naturally, and strongly formed for elegant literature, he could not have endured the trammels of the law, without much pain; nor without an impelling anticipation of fortune, and of fame, in the profession. But involved as his mind was, in the images, and views of superlative genius. it was impossible for him to give any collected, and earnest attention to dry forms, and mechanical operations; such attention would have been a miracle; for it would have been incompatible with "the genial current of his soul." — If he had accurately drawn out his clearance from Lambert, he would not so gloriously have served his time under Apollo. And yet a Walpole, and a Gregory, were for chaining down this free, and ethereal spirit, to the legal galley of precedents demurrers, replications, and rejoinders. When such men give the law to indigent abilities, they take every thing into their statutes but common sense, nature, and humanity.
In a letter to his mother he says [p. 82.] "Tell Mr. Lambert, if I deserve a recommendation, he would oblige me to give me one; if I do not, it would be beneath him to take notice of me." — This passage is extremely characteristick of Chatterton: it shows that independence, and elevation of soul, which made a part of his sublime mental constitution; and that veneration of truth, which he always entertained, and practised; whenever truth was of moral importance.
"It is by no means improbable" (says Dr. Gregory) "that a young man of strong passions, and unprotected by religious principles, might frequently be unprepared to resist the temptations of a licentious metropolis." — p. 109. — A young man may be frail, without being profligate; if he is sometimes frail, though habitually virtuous, we need not be anxious for his confirmation in virtue. If he turns profligate, it is to be feared that he is lost for ever. Our just hopes, and fears of a youth will be in proportion to our good sense; to our liberality of sentiments; to our knowledge of human nature. These were our Saviour's moral criteria; he knew what was in man; and therefore, as the judge of man, he was mild, tender, and indulgent. But priests act otherwise; they are perpetually going westward, when he is going to the east; the undistinguishing tyrants have an undistinguishing bed; and they stretch, and chop, and hack, every victim that they can seize, to one common, and destructive measure. How can it reasonably be supposed, that a susceptible young person, though he may already have made a great proficiency in amiable, and generous virtue, will not yield to some seduction, in an elegant, and gay metropolis; whether he be a sceptick, or a true believer; especially if nature hath endowed him with a great genius in the province of imagination; since that kind of genius cannot exist without strong passions? Nay, virtue herself, the goddess of supreme attraction, cannot exist without these passions; by modelling, and governing them, she acquires her title, and the exercise of her empire; completely modelled, controuled, and directed by her government, they incorporate with her essence; and flush her beauty with all its animation. Hence, if a youth, in London, is rigidly temperate, and accurate in his conduct, we shall have reason to fear for those future endowments, for those future virtues, which are the only true glory of human nature; we shall have reason to apprehend that his moral process will terminate, and be fixed in mere spiritless discretion; the caput mortuum of virtue; or rather that it will reduce his mind to a composition of base, and malignant qualities; and that his determined character will be the mean, and infamous Blifil, whom we hate, and despise; not the generous, and noble Jones, whom we love, and admire. May the actions of my friends, and myself, never be at the mercy of those short-sighted, and iron-hearted moralists, who, while they rigorously exact the duties, make no equitable allowances for the nature of man!
As I am flow endeavouring fairly to represent the moral character of Chatterton, and to do justice to his much injured memory, I must take particular notice of his sincere, and ardent affection for his relations, and friends; and of his constant, and uniform attention to them, during his short, and unfortunate abode in London. The merit of his attention can never be excelled, if we consider the agitations, and tumults, which his feeling, and great soul must then have often suffered from its unequal, and oppressive destiny. Good fortune is very apt to make people forget their poor relations; a situation in which they ought most kindly, and effectually to remember them: it was Chatterton's favourite pleasure, or consolation, to send presents to his grandmother, mother, and sister, when he was in the most distressful, and alarming circumstances; when famine, with all her horrours, was invading him; and when death made one of her appalling train. While his spirits were raised by a deceitful world, acting on the unexperienced, and sanguine gaiety of youth, he says to his sister, in a letter of the 30th of May, 1770; — "if money flowed as fast upon me as honours, I would give you a portion of five thousand pounds." In the same letter he expresses a tender, and affectionate sympathy with the friends of Mrs. Carty, on a melancholy disorder with which that gentlewoman was afflicted; and he writes a prescription for her which is well adapted to her case. His letter concludes in this impressive manner: — "I sincerely wish my mother, and grandmother happy; when it is in my power to make them so, they shall be so." — Gregory; p. 254. — On the 8th of July, 1770, when his juvenile hopes must have lost their bloom; after he had removed to Brook-Street in Holborne, he thus concludes a letter to his mother, in which he had mentioned several little presents that he had sent, and which he intended to send to her, and to his sister, and grand-mother: — "Be assured, whenever I have the power, my will wo'nt be wanting to testify that I remember you." — A letter to his sister, of July 11th. 1770, contains this affectionate, and interesting period: — "Be assured that I shall ever make your wants my wants; and stretch to the utmost to serve you." The various, and authentick testimonies which Dr. Gregory has communicated to us, of his veracity, of his religious regard for moral truth, show, that he thought his Rowley, and the antiquated dress of his poetry, as allowable, and innocent as any other poetical fictions; and from those testimonies we may likewise infer, that he only meant to make an experiment of his poetical fortune, and fame; and that he intended, at what he might think a proper time, to make a full discovery to the world, of all his literary ingenuity, and of the astonishing powers of his mind.
The character of this youth was so far from being base, and profligate, that in all its leading instances, it was enchantingly amiable, and astonishingly great. When he was very young, perhaps five, or six years old, a manufacturer promised to Mrs. Chatterton a present of earthen ware, for her children. "What device" (said he to the boy) "shall I paint on the gift which I intend for you?" — "Paint me (said he) an angel, with wings, and a trumpet, to trumpet my name over the world." — Gregory; a note at page 8. — So soon did a glorious ambition inflame the breast of this boy, whom nature had formed for a series of high atchievements; if her kindness had not been defeated by the rigour of man. This ambition is always born with genius; and the greater the genius is, the greater is the ambition. It is necessary, to accomplish the providence of heaven; to give mankind their best instructions, and their best pleasure; to diffuse intellectual light, and beauty over the world. It is this ambition which invigorates, and accelerates the wing of imagination; which buoys it up, above the storms of adversity, while they do not attack the principles of life; which keeps the mind impassive, or superiour to a dreary situation, and to obstinate neglect; which makes us feast on stale bread, and simple water; which makes us endure a Chesterfield, for our patron, and a Walpole for our guardian.
Apropos! The ingenuous, and humane Mr. Walpole informs the publick, that Chatterton "poisoned himself, on being refused a loaf of bread." — Here, we have the most cruel, and abandoned insinuation; that he poisoned himself for a trifling cause. Thou unfeeling wretch! thou polished barbarian! The refusal of the loaf was a sentence of fate which ought to have been pronounced on thee; it was the harbinger of famine, and despair. The alternative to magnanimity then was, to beg in the streets of London, or to die! And whatever our mitred pharisees; whatever our Walpolian christians may say, I shall beg leave humbly, and sincerely; and I hope, in the true spirit of christianity, to say, that as Chatterton was the object of the alternative; the greatness of its object, and the iniquity of his fortune, almost expunged the guilt of the decision.
Dr. Gregory does injustice to Chatterton, as a censor of his morals; he does injustice to him, as a critick of his writings. I shall not enter into the particulars of his comparison of him with Dryden; for the comparison is altogether absurd, and ridiculous. The progress, and the improvement in poetry, of the one, went through a long life: and thanks be to God, who protects, and invigorates old age, if it is not wanting to itself; the fire of Dryden was brightest, and most ardent, at a short time before it mounted to a better world. Dryden had been favoured by Providence with a liberal, and complete literary education; he had regularly stored his mind with all the treasures of elegant learning; by long, and habitual reading, and reflexion; by long, and habitual exercise, and exertion of his genius; he was an old, and great master, in the various arts of composition. — Chatterton, as it were, instantaneously, seized all his excellence, with a kind of poetical omnipotence; he seized it from slavery; from time; from poverty; from the most horrible circumstances that can be imagined; he seized it from the brandished dart of death. It ill becomes a dull churchman, lounging, and dozing on a sofa, to appreciate the deserts of two great poets: even to accuse Dryden of negligence, if we recollect the difficulties of that illustrious man, is as improper as it is absurd; but to censure the negligence of Chatterton, whose life was infinitely shorter, and whose distresses were far greater than Dryden's, is a most unpardonable insult; it is the very extreme of barbarity.
It is one of the many misfortunes of genius, to be tried by formal, and phlegmatick judges, who have not a particle in their own constitutions, that is congenial with poetry. Shakespeare, like Dryden, is not naturally introduced, but preposterously dragged, before this critical tribunal; into this award of poetical excellence. That divine poet, unrivalled in his department, from an imitative, and affected admiration of him; an admiration without precision, and without distinction: has often been compared with other poets, when the different kinds of talent, or the different kinds of writing, of those poets, made the reciprocal merit, and consequently, the reciprocal estimate of that merit, incompatible. When Dr. Gregory tells me that "Chatterton must rank above Dryden, and perhaps only stand second to Shakespeare;" — "when Mr. Malone believes him to have been the greatest genius that England has produced, since the days of Shakespeare;" these gentlemen do not enounce the doctrine of sound and rational criticism. And as in the disquisitions of both, we never see the penetrating ray of a Burke, nor the impassioned sentiment of a Longinus; we must expect from both, cold, and vague unideal conjectures; yet frequently emboldened with a pragmatick sanction; instead of apposite and illustrative imagery; instead of instructive, and splendid truth. The absurdity of comparing Chatterton with Shakespeare is as great as that of comparing him with Dryden. English literature (of which if we make a proper use, we may dispense with all other literature) was far from maturity, in the reign of Elizabeth: yet the opportunities of instructive reading, and conversation; the incitements to exertion, and to fame, which Shakespeare enjoyed, were far more advantageous than those which were attainable by the unfortunate Chatterton. I am not one of the pedants who give a scholastick, and proud importance to external aids; I know that genius is almost self-taught; that it can work wonders on its own invisible foundation. Yet a happy, and extensive cultivation must enlarge, and invigorate every mind; and the greatest minds will evidently draw the most advantages from that cultivation. What crowns the absurdity of these comparisons is, the extreme disparity in the extent of their lives. Shakespeare died in the decline of human life; when we may reasonably conclude that the powers of his mind had arrived at all their natural maturity; and when they had gained all the advantages of social, attentive, and studious improvement. Chatterton was cut off when he was just blooming into life; the fatal moment which terminated existence on earth, at once precluded the physical, and elaborate growth of his mental force.
Let us compare, however, what may reasonably be compared. As to what Dr. Gregory says of Chatterton's negligence, it is altogether groundless, and futile. The care, and accuracy, which polish, and adorn the poems that he wrote under the name of Rowley, and which he undoubtedly meant for the decisive test of his genius, are as conspicuous as the poetical spirit of their authour. If Dr. Gregory still doubts whether those poems are the real productions of Chatterton, I can only say that I am answerable for no man's folly but my own. Most of the pieces which are confessedly Chatterton's, were written on common occasions; from the momentary impulse of the heart, or fancy. Yet I trust that it has been made evident to you, that in some passages of those more desultory compositions, the personifier of Rowley hath unequivocally appeared on his own poetical stage. In continuing to compare what is comparable, I shall farther observe, that his Aella, and his Godwin, but especially the former, would not be unworthy companions of the best dramatical productions of Shakespeare: they are, indeed, far superiour to several plays, which the tyranny of custom first, and the sanction of dry, verbal criticks, afterwards, have classed with the glories of that immortal man; and in which, I am satisfied that his genius, and his hand, had very little, if any part. And as the sublime in writing, undoubtedly most eminently marks the greatness of the poet, examples might easily be produced, which would prove that Chatterton; the poor, despised charity-boy of Bryant, and the reprobate of Walpole, was a poet superiour to Dryden; — was a poet superiour to Shakespeare. The sublime is by no means a prevailing characteristick of either of these great poets. I well remember that in one of my conversations with Dr. Johnson, he insisted, with his usual hardiness, and extremity of assertion, that it would be difficult to find one sublime passage in Shakespeare. I never was a dupe to the mere assertion of any man: but it is certain that sublimity is not the pride of Shakespeare's poetry. A poet is not to be blamed, or undervalued, because he is not lavish of graces, and honours which are not required in his peculiar province. The sublime is not a constituent, it is not a requisite of the drama. In all its requisites; in equal felicity in the tragick, and comick vein; in unfolding every motion of the human heart; in producing to our interested, and eager view, all the variety, and all the various operations of the human passions; in expressing, in painting them, with the utmost propriety, perspicuity, and force of language; in the most honourable department of a great master of morality; in awfully deterring us from vice; in powerfully exciting us to virtue; in these inestimable poetical properties; in all this poetical glory; Shakespeare never was, and probably never will be equalled. And let me not forget, while I am offering my humble, but grateful tribute, to the prince of the British theatre; to the prince of all theatres; let me not forget his inventive, his creative genius. He could form, when he pleased, a totally original drama; aerial, and grotesque beings were at his command: yet so happy were his combinations; so charmingly fascinating was his romance; that even while he exceeded, he seemed only to extend the bounds of nature.
A transition from Shakespeare to Chatterton is in the perfect order of creation. If we consider what he did, and what he might have done; if we consider his short life, and to what an age it might naturally have been prolonged; what a great, what an irreparable loss, must every sensible, and cultivated mind feel that it has sustained, in his death! — There is a quickness, and vivacity; there is a natural politeness in some juvenile minds, which are very different from genius; yet they cheat us with its appearance. These properties are apt to throw themselves upon paper; our candour, and our affection are prepared to admire their effusions; and youth deludes us with our indulgence, and with our hopes. The young versifier grows the man; but his literary attempts receive no progressive strength; the glittering veil vanishes; he takes his actual, and established place, in the scale of intellect; and impartiality, and good sense pronounce him but a common character. This is not the case with true genius: if it breaks forth in early life, it always mounts higher with years; it flourishes, it triumphs, under the hoariness of age. Consequently, if Chatterton had lived to those venerable years, his genius, and his fame would have been commensurate with their number; he would have excelled Dryden, and Shakespeare; and every poet, of every age, and nation. — Milton himself; who was an equally great master of the beautiful, and of the sublime; he who hath always appeared to me, rather a demi-god than a man; he, who, in numbers corresponding with their objects, led the Cherubim, and Seraphim, to war; who made "the stedfast empyrean shake throughout; all but the throne itself of God," under the chariot of the Messiah; who, in adequate strains, described the thunder of the Almighty; even Milton himself, with all his divine energy, magnificence, and majesty, must have bowed before him. Justly, then, might the judicious, and benevolent Mr. Croft assert, that "no such human being, at any period of life, has ever been known; or possibly ever will be known," — Gregory; p. 114. — Will any frigid critick, with the obtrusion of his imitative, and trite comparisons; with his undistinguishing, with his affected idolatry of Shakespeare; will he presume to limit the power of the Creator, in the formation of the human mind? Will he seem to say to him, by dragging forth, on every occasion, his fancied model of intellectual perfection; "hitherto shalt thou go, and no farther?" Does he reflect that we are made after the divine image? And dares he, even in thought, to circumscribe the expansion, the amplification of that image? Man is a compound, a contrasted, a mysterious being. He is limited, in his weakness; he is unlimited, in his powers; — "Helpless immortal! insect infinite!" — "A worm; — a God!"
Dr. Gregory gives us the following absurd piece of criticism. — "It must not be dissembled that some (and many will think no inconsiderable) part of the charm of these poems may probably result from the gothick sublimity of the style. Whatever is vulgar in language is lost by time; and a small degree of obscurity in an ancient authour gives a latitude to the fancy of the reader, who generally imagines the style to be more forcible, and expressive than perhaps it intrinsically is. We gaze with wonder on an antique fabrick; and when novelty of thought is not to be obtained, the novelty of language to which we are unaccustomed, is frequently accepted as a substitute. Most poets, therefore, at least, such as have aspired to the sublime, have thrown their dialect at least a century behind the common prose, and colloquial phraseology of their time; nor can we entertain a doubt that even Shakespeare and Milton have derived advantages from the antique structure of some of their most admired passages. The facility of composition is also greatly increased where full latitude is permitted in the use of an obsolete dialect; since an authour is indulged in the occasional use of both the old, and the modern phraseology; and if the one does not supply him with the word for which he has immediate occasion, the other, in all probability, will not disappoint him." — Gregory; p. 152.
To talk of the gothick sublimity of style is nonsense. There can be no sublimity in mere words, which are, here, only, considered. I am certain that Mr. Bryant was deluded into an admiration of his Rowley's poems, principally by this gothick excellence which is so much overvalued by Dr. Gregory; but every sensible reader, of an unaffected, and genuine taste, would have admired them as they deserved, if they had been written avowedly by Chatterton, with the spirit, and attention which he bestowed on them; and in the modern, but pure, and classical language which prevailed in our Augustan age. In proportion as a poet is obscure, in meaning, or in style, he is unpoetical; all real obscurity checks that pleasurable current; that enthusiastick glow of the soul, which true poetry, more than all the other fine arts, excites, and impells. The painter, indeed, judiciously averted, and shaded the face of a father, agonizing in grief; and our unrivalled Milton throws out an uncircumscribed, and terrifick sketch of the image of death; but can these instances of the most fortunate art; of the unlimited conceptions of the poet, be compared with a meagre verbal obscurity, which, in a moment, arrests the flow of ideas, and numbers; which annihilates the fair creatures of sentiment, and imagination? — No: in these instances, the irregular, and incomplete, but bold, and expressive strokes of the painter, instead of weakening, mutilating, and contracting, his picture, give it strength, and animation; and aggrandize its form, and manner. The poet leaves an unbounded scope for the active, and plastick workings; for the spiritual delight of his own mind; and thus he provides a similar field of active imagery; of refined entertainment, for his congenial readers. This is not the obscurity, but the light of genius; streaming with the rays which indicate its inspirer; — the [Greek characters]. It opens the expansion; the infinity of poetical creation. The mind seizes the hints of its great archetype; connects, and finishes the rude, but prominent portrait; repeatedly returns to its enraptured work; improves the figure to a more striking likeness; gives it a more awful aspect; a more commanding air; and exults, and triumphs in its forming, in its creating power.
Obscurity of style gives no latitude to the fancy; it has nothing to do with fancy; it has but one, and that is a very bad effect; it shuts out both the fancy, and the understanding. As to those readers who feel some occult, but interesting force, and expression in what they do not understand; and who accept, with pleasure, novelty of words for novelty of thought; I am going to pass a sentence upon them which they cannot fairly think severe; I only wish that they may always read authours who have written agreeably to their taste; and that true genius may never be profaned by their perusal. A foolish man "gazes with wonder at an ancient fabrick;" — a wise man views it with moral as well as poetical impressions; with a religious awe. These sentiments are affected not only by the venerable style of the old architecture; but by corresponding objects of the eye, and of the recollection; by the circumjacent landscape, which unites with it, in the mute, but connected, and strong eloquence of art, and nature; by calling to memory, or to imagination, the illustrious worthies by whom it was once inhabited; and by melancholy, but salutary reflexions, on the fragility, and brevity of all human glory. Can it be said that he avails himself of such lively, and significant auxiliaries as these, who, impoverished of ideas, levies a base contribution on the shapeless, and unmeaning lumber of obsolete words?
It has been the constant, and stupid custom of undistinguishing, and mechanical criticks, in their ideas, and observations, totally to separate, and dissever language from thoughts; to tear the surface from the essence; the shell from the pith of literature. This is a kind of literary impiety; here it may be said, with a more natural, and congruous orthodoxy, than it is often pronounced in the connubial rite, — "those whom God hath joined together, let no man put asunder." — Indeed — (I speak it with an humble, and prostrate reverence!) as matter seems to be intimately, and wonderfully connected with the supreme, and eternal mind; and with an inconceivable quickness obeys his motions; so man, whom he formed, in some degree, after his own image; whom he formed, a reasoning; — when he forms him an eloquent being; in the moment in which he thinks justly, and elegantly, thinks in the most just, and elegant words. Their promptitude is more than instantaneous; nay there seems to be a perpetual coalescence between them, and their ideas: — or, again to compare what, in the comparison, is infinitely small, and insignificant, with what is infinitely great, and awful; a clearness, and force of expression seems to flow from a clearness, and force of thought; as creation flowed from the fiat of the Creator. Ideas, and words, in the act of composition, are soul, and body, to each other; you know nothing of them; therefore you can justly remark nothing of them, but in their united state.
By all that I have urged, I did not mean to say, that excellent literary composition is an easy task. No; it is an arduous; it is, at once, a painful, and a pleasing task: — not the least painful to genius; for in writing, as in life, fools, and coxcombs, are commonly most easily satisfied with themselves, and their performances. But the difficulty lies in the invisible, and mental work. To form, and dispose your plan; to select, as you proceed, the most proper, and pertinent ideas, from many which are apt to arise, in a vigorous, and fertile mind; to adjust, and arrange these ideas, from the beginning to the close of your plan, in a happily combined order, and harmony, of prose, or poetry; it is the accomplishment of these difficulties that puts to the stretch those faculties which are so highly privileged, and so glorious, in this nether world. But what have words been doing, during all this charming, this creating process of the mind? They have kept a momentary, and indivisible time with ideas; the best words have been indissoluble from the best thoughts: and he who has abilities to meditate, and to complete this golden concatenation, will never divert it into any mean obliquity; he will never be obliged to substitute an uncouth word for an elegant idea; he will never be an intellectual bankrupt; when he owes us gold, he will not pay us with a counter.
The force of these remarks (and I hope that they may claim some force, both from nature, and from proper practice) is not at all invalidated by two illustrious examples, Spenser, and Chatterton. The language of the fifteenth century, which the latter was industrious to adopt, (and surely, if we reflect on all his opposing circumstances, we must admire his ingenuity, and success) — we know that he adopted, to serve a particular purpose; to promote a deception. And as he did not use this vehicle of his thoughts, from an inelegant taste; from a barbarous affectation; and as it conveys highly cultivated poetry; we cheerfully take that trouble to be familiar with its words, which it is the duty of an undisguised poet to prevent.
With regard to Spenser, his affectation of language that was obsolete even in his time, is well known; and by good criticks it has always been justly blamed. Some great writers have had singularities which no good writer would imitate; but the erroneous practice of the few condemns not the judicious practice of the many; much less can we give it any force against the eternal laws of truth, and nature. Taste does not always depend on the progressive refinement of ages; we shall find that in every age it is essentially included in great genius; as the less is included in the greater; though great geniuses may not entirely escape the barbarisms of their time. Nature, therefore, had rather with a sparing hand implanted in Spenser's mind the principles of taste. He who aspires to excellence in literary composition, should no more imitate this fault of Spenser, than he should take for his models many passages in the writings of our late justly celebrated Johnson, which abound with words of a scholastick hardness, and asperity. — There is a grammatical accuracy; a gravity; a dignity; a force; nay, often a poetical elegance in his manner; but the love of the "sesquipedalia verba" too frequently returns; because he, too, with a luminous, and vigorous mind, and in a more polished age than that of Spenser, was deficient in taste. There is no truly fine writing without simplicity; but as this simplicity implies elegance too, it must be studied, and acquired, to have its complete graces. Nor will it be acquired but by souls corresponding with its beauty; by those whom nature hath blessed with an acutely distinguishing penetration, and with a native delicacy of mind. Nor is it necessary that this Minerva of eloquence should be a plain, and unadorned goddess: Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Cicero, and Livy, among the ancients; and Dryden (I have his admirable prose as well as his poetry, in my eye) Dryden, Bolingbroke, and Burke, among the moderns; have shown that she can legitimately assume a splendour; a magnificence; a chastised pomp of dress, and manner.
Dr. Gregory; to strengthen his whimsical doctrine of the cabalistical force of mere words, introduces the two greatest authorities in the world, that of Milton, and Shakespeare. They, according to his opinion, are among the writers, who, aspiring to the sublime, found it necessary to invigorate their efforts by adopting antiquated words; by adopting the style of a century before their own times. Milton, and Shakespeare, are the very examples whom I should have chosen, to demonstrate the futility of his theory, and to establish the truth of mine. The faults of both poets, as they affected good composition, principally resulted from the imperfect, and rude state of literature, at the age in which they lived. Literary, as well as moral example is contagious; very virtuous men will, in some degree, be infected with the one; the most exalted genius will, occasionally, be debased with the other. Indeed, in some provinces of the muse, the greatest poets have thought themselves obliged, from the ungenerous motives of interest, (it is to be lamented that excellent minds should ever be reduced to this necessity) sometimes to comply with the vulgar, low manners, and habits of their times. Thus our unfortunate Dryden, as a dramatick writer, acknowledges that he had written some scenes which were bad enough to please. And hence, undoubtedly, Shakespeare, the father, and the sovereign of the British theatre, too often sinks infinitely below himself; and intersperses the native effusions of his mind with puns, and quibbles; with unreasonable, and miserable jesting, and humour, which would damn the best written play, even in these days, when we are sinking to an insipid, and effeminate barbarity; the prevailing lustre would not redeem the dark spots; if, indeed, in times of degenerated understanding, and sentiment, that lustre could be thoroughly seen, and felt. We meet with no kind of obscurity in Shakespeare, when he speaks directly, and warmly, from himself; from the clear, and exhaustless fund of nature, which characterizes, while it supplies the poet: we have nothing to check, nothing to retard us, in accompanying the varied flights of his muse; except the passages to which I have referred, of a vicious eloquence; and if we likewise except some allusions to old facts, or customs, in his unexceptionable, in his bright passages: the origin of which is inevitably lost, or disputed, by a long lapse of time. All these instances have not the least relation to that unnatural, and elaborate verbal obscurity; to that antiquated mechanism, which impressed Dr. Gregory with the infinite, but repulsive ideas of the sublime.
I think that I can apply analogous reasoning, and with equal justice, to Milton. The constitutional beauty, delicacy, and sublimity of his soul soared to a celestial height, above the gross intellectual atmosphere of his time; yet from its necessary intermixture with it, it sometimes caught the infecting tinge of its dusky vapours. The scholastick pride of uncivilized learning sometimes damped that heavenly fire which before had heated the lips of Isaiah. A display of remote reading, and of deep science, sometimes loaded the muse's wing; which was still more heavily, but rarely depressed with the theological, and casuistical lumber; with the school-divinity of Calvin, and Aquinas. These faults (I mention them without regret; do the specks of the sun injure the brightness, and grandeur of our first luminary?) — these faults, it must be owned, violate that perspicuity, and improperly interfere with those superiour, and interesting objects, with which true poetry, in its uninterrupted, and noble march, should bear the mind of the reader along with it, in an unobstructed, ardent, and delightful strain. Yet these faults have no affinity to the powerful and exalting; to the occult, but sublime cabala, or rather vocabulary of Dr. Gregory.
But I shall now proceed to decisive proofs: as I will never be determined by the notions, and assertions of others, I shall, always wish to establish my own assertions, my own arguments, with all the demonstration that I can give them. It is the singular privilege of true, and great genius, "to make the excellence " which it does not find;" — to rise above the coarseness, and vulgarity of its age; and to form a style of language, and versification. Thus the divine Pope improved, enriched, decorated, and beautified the affluent inheritance which was bequeathed to him by his august father, Dryden; and thus Milton, and Shakespeare, each of them directed by his particular genius, mounted to regions of the muses, unknown before, I will not say, to English, but to the poetical adventurers of any nation. From those fertile, and unmeasurable domains of fancy, they brought down a new variety of poetical imagery, of captivating forms, and majestick motion; clad in easy, and flowing robes, that beamed with the undulating light; with the vivid purple of the skies. Did Milton, or Shakespeare ever feel a poverty of soul that obliged them to substitute lifeless words for animated ideas? On the contrary, in the general, and predominant strain of their poetry, their words are always subservient, but easily, and happily subservient, to their ideas. In all the interesting dialogue of Shakespeare (and surely his uninteresting dialogue is, comparatively, of very small, and trivial extent) an easy, and perspicuous, yet rich, various, and expressive style prevails, that would do honour to an age which had attained the perfection of real elegance, and refinement. If this species of lightning from Heaven, which, in a moment, subdues, but without destroying, had not been endowed wit this facility, with this rapidity to strike, how could it so often have electrified the world, even when the soul of Shakespeare spoke from the soul of Garrick?
It is with Milton as it is with Shakespeare. When he writes from the unprejudiced, and unencumbered powers; from the free, and irresistible fire of his own mind (I speak of the general current of his poetry) his language corresponds with his images, and emotions. The natural grace of simplicity adorns, and dignifies the majesty of the poet; the flexibility, and elasticity of ease impell, and accelerate his force. To prove that this is a true description of Milton's poetical character, I might make numerous, and decisive appeals; it is proved by those compositions of our unrivalled poet which have contributed most to his well-merited celebrity. His Comus, his Allegro, and his Il Pensoroso; all the most distinguished passages of his Paradise Lost; the speech of Satan on taking possession of his infernal empire; the unfurling of his imperial ensign by the cherub Azazel; his encounter with death, at the gates of Pandaemonium; his address to the sun; indeed all the speeches of this diabolical hero; the poet's beautiful elegy on his own blindness, at the beginning of the third; and his almost equally beautiful invocation of Urania, at the beginning of the seventh book; the magnificent description of the first orient sun, and moon; and of the other heavenly luminaries, immediately after the completion of the work of the creation; all these masterly, and divine passages evince that unaffected, and perspicuous energy, into which I wish to vindicate him, from the blunderers, and manglers of his high poetical reputation. Thus the practice of Milton refutes the Gregorian theory; he attains the beautiful; he ascends to the sublime, by his own native, and simple grace, and majesty; and where false criticism thinks that he is most in need of its meretricious dawbings, he disdains them most. For all the celebrated passages to which I have just referred, are perfectly intelligible, and clear to readers of a common education; and yet they have the attick perfection of uniting elegance with ease. I wish that Dr. Gregory, instead of sporting an absurd theory, would prevail with some of our poetasters to emulate, or imitate the prevailing poetical language of Milton; as clear as it is forcible: as simple as it is sublime: they would then despise that affected, and distorted style, of which they are, at present, so ridiculously ambitious; and they might possibly acquire our classical, and best manner of writing. But I am forgetting myself; I am falling into one of Dr. Gregory's capital errours; I am for tearing body from soul: it is the spirit of Milton that informs the style of Milton.
Dr. Gregory, partly perhaps, from a weak, and implicit faith in the Stagyrite of England, imagined that Milton, to obtain, or improve the sublime, had recourse to a constrained, and obsolete phraseology. Many of Dr. Johnson's criticisms on Milton, are as absurd, as they are prejudiced, and illiberal. He not only charges him with his own stiffness, and pedantry of style, but with an absolute confusion of language; with a kind of Babylonish dialect. If Dr. Johnson would have submitted his pertinacity of opinion to a cure, by a simple, but powerful intellectual prescription; a serious, and dispassionate review of the poetry of Milton might have produced that good effect. If he had been modestly, and duly conscious of his scholastick barbarisms; or, to adopt his language, of his own superfetations of style; he would not have fabricated a deformed structure of words for Milton; he would not have sent a genius to the tower of Babel, who was infinitely his superiour, in the temple of Apollo. Fortunate, and happy will be the poet, who, without servile imitation; who, from the force of nature, shall approach to the poetical manner of Milton; and the writer who shall be ambitious to excell in easy, luminous, and energetick prose, will be distinguishing, and prudent, if he carefully avoids the prominent asperities; the literary rocks of Johnson.
Literary, and poetical objects are deeply impressed in my heart; therefore I wish not to skim, but diligently to discuss their important topicks. The imaginary force which Dr. Gregory gives to antiquated words, principally respects our English poets; yet what I have advanced, I may support, and enforce, by the example of Homer. There never was more simplicity, I mean, more clearness, and ease of expression, than we find in his sublimest, and most admired passages; which, I doubt not, were recited with an equal familiarity, and delight, by the peasants, and by the princes of his country. A good greek scholar can read no greek authour with less difficulty than Homer; the uninterruptedly, and obviously intelligible; the perspicuous, and the flowing; the chaste ornaments of a happy facility, are essential characteristicks of his poetry. It may be objected to the present extent of my argument, that in the early, and simple age of Homer, he had no range of deserted language, to supply him with this variegated style; with this partycoloured patch-work of words, which, by startling the reader, is to pass with him, for the sublime. It may be said that this quality had not yet attained all its external, and verbal; but supreme, and complete excellence. I will readily allow that the true perfection of poetical composition was far from being attained in the time of Homer; that it was far from being attained by Homer himself; I will allow that a heterogeneous diversity of reading; the foundation of this artificial, and spurious poetical grandeur, was not accessible to him, as it is to modern writers: — I will allow, that to effect this meretricious grandeur, he could not, among his cotemporaries, avail himself of that unnatural, and ridiculous affectation which constitutes the whole character of the poetasters of our times: impertinent pretenders! to whose presumptuous, and profane invocation, the muses scorn to be propitious; whom they bless not with their smiles, and graces of favour, and inspiration; but infatuate with their grimaces, and distortions, of resentment, and contempt. I come now to the plain, and indisputable inference which I draw, from introducing Homer, to corroborate, and evince my argument. To question the sublimity of Homer, would be a critical impiety against the father of poetry; it would be to insult a long successive series of the sentiments of mankind. Hence it follows, that the most unaffected, easy, and flowing language; the language with which the countrymen of the poet is best acquainted, as it was the first, is always the most proper organ of poetical thoughts, in any age, or nation. It is peculiarly adapted to the sublime; it favours its ascent to Heaven. The waving, and translucent robe auspiciously floats on the soaring spirit. Thus the agility, and prowess of the intrepid soldier are best displayed in light armour; and thus the rays of the god of poets dart directly, vigorously, and brightly, through serene aether; while they are weakened, refracted, and obscured, in a heavy atmosphere.
"Of the pieces," says Dr. Gregory, "which are confessedly his own, we must undoubtedly assign the preference to those of the satirical class." Then we shall undoubtedly give a mistaken preference. I might accumulate instances, if I would, to disprove this assertion. But a few will be sufficient. His address to Miss Bush of Bristol, on his intended voyage to the coast of Africa; his African dialogues, notwithstanding the contempt which they have incurred from his austere literary censor, Bryant; but above all, his elegy to the memory of Mr. Thomas Phillips of Fairford, are far more strongly animated with the poetical spirit than any of his satirical productions. That elegy is eminently, and amiably distinguished by all the tenderness of friendship; it shows an extremely susceptible, and feeling heart; which deserved a treatment very different from that which it suffered from the insensibility of the world. It showed that his mind was more agreeably engaged in amicable tribute than in poignant satire. In that elegy, the personifications of autumn, winter, and fancy; their characteristicks, and appendages, excell any imagery of the kind that is to be found in Spenser; and are only equalled by Milton. They proclaimed the elegant, and creative imagination, which was the authour of Rowley; but which, with all its Promethean heat, could not dispell the fog that environed the pericranium of Bryant, and of Milles.
"In most of his serious writings" (continues the Doctor) "there is little that indicates their being composed with a full relish; when he is satirical, his soul glows in his composition." — I have already spoken to the distinguished glow of soul which is here foolishly attributed to his satirical compositions. As to the full relish, in which his serious writings are unfortunately deficient, in Dr. Gregory's exquisitely discriminating palate; I do not allow their inferiority; I do not apprehend the idea; and I very much dislike the epicurean, and disgusting metaphor. On account, therefore, of its gross misapplication, I send it back to the Doctor, and to his vintner; or let it be the favourite expression of the descendents of Quixote's Sancho; of the superlative, and infallible judgements of whose ancestors, in the qualities of wine; and of their inconceivably nice discernment of every atom of injury which it might suffer from other substances, an unparalleled account is given by Sancho himself, in the immortal work of Cervantes.
The 79th page of Dr. Gregory's Life of Chatterton contains the following extraordinary observations. — "To write well in prose, is perhaps more the effect of art, of study, and of habit, than of natural genius. The rules of metrical composition are fewer, more simple, and require a less constant exercise of the judgement. In the infancy of societies as well as of individuals, therefore, the art of poetry is antecedent to those of rhetorick, and criticism; and arrives at perfection long before the language of prose attains that degree of strength, conciseness, and harmony, which is requisite to satisfy a delicate ear." — In my observations on the life, writings, and character of Chatterton, I have often given a particular attention to weak, and futile criticism, and censure; for a reason which, I hope, is not insignificant. This feeble criticism, and censure, may suggest the language of common sense, on interesting topicks; and these objects will always deserve our serious recollection, and consideration. With this view, I shall now beg leave to animadvert on the passage which I have quoted from Dr. Gregory.
If I adopted his idea, that the art of writing good poetry was sooner brought to perfection than that of writing good prose, the inference that I should draw from these premises would be the Doctor's mode of reasoning inverted. I should infer, that of the two arts, to write prose well, was the more arduous, and rare; and therefore, that it demanded greater, and more extraordinary powers of the mind. I am, however of a contrary opinion: I think, with deference to better judgements, that true poetry requires a soul of a stronger, yet finer make; of more energy, and delicacy, than classical prose. Hence the poet must be a rarer being than the writer who is eloquent in prose. This opinion, and the deduction from it, are warranted, I may say, confirmed, by the literary history of the world. In the progressive civilization of celebrated states, far fewer authours have extended their fame in poetry than in prose. This truth will appear most evidently, if we take a view of any celebrated people, when they have arrived at the maturity of all their true politeness: for then the greatest number of authours give us room for the fairest comparative calculation; as then the spirit of emulation most powerfully calls forth all the various intellectual exertions. In the best days of Greece, of Rome, and of England, how few were their great poets, in proportion to their great writers in prose! Therefore the real improvements in poetry; those improvements which unite the judicious, and the elegant with the spirited, the original, and the sublime; must have been, at least as gradual as those of the latter species of composition. I say real improvements; because imaginary improvements, and imaginary perfection have been transmitted down to us, from age to age; and we have implicitly embraced the phantoms. To pay no deference to long prescription, would be bold, and arrogant; but surely the free, and ingenuous mind may candidly, but without reserve, express its dissent from it; when to the most impartial inquiries; to the most accurate views of that mind, this prescription is totally repugnant. A poetical creed has, for almost three thousand years, been obtruded on the world; and like other creeds, with a peremptory despotism over the mind; — a creed which I think hard of belief, to the manly, and independent exercise of reason. We have been so long taught to believe, that in the very infancy of Grecian literature, Homer, without precedent, without any example of the lowest degree of poetical refinement, formed, I may say, created, the perfection of poetry; and of epick poetry; by the untutored force of his own genius. But nature, and common sense; (those abolishers of much clumsy magick, if our freedom from prejudice deserves their interposition) — have always told me, that in the poems of Homer, the grossest, and most disgusting absurdities are blended with a simplicity; with an eloquence; with a fire; that will always be the objects of our admiration; that will live forever. As we have been accustomed to view those absurdities with a superstitious veneration; nay, to admire them, as the standards of taste; I speak of them, absolutely; as they are in themselves; relatively to the unpolished times in which they were produced, they deserve the greatest indulgence. I write thus freely; but with reverence to respectable criticks; to show, that the perfection of poetry, by far the first of the fine arts, could never be attained, at once, by any mortal; it is the effect of progressive improvements, through a long course of ages; it is the effect of "study, and art, and habit," (to use Dr. Gregory's words) as well as the perfection of prose. But with all these advantages, both excellences must have a rare mental source in their respective authours; a luminous, comprehensive, elegant, and ardent mind, by nature. Without this animating, this invigorating principle, we may study, and labour, and write, in either province, all our lives, in vain; as is demonstrated by numerous, and unfortunate examples. Let us not, therefore, talk of writing prose, or poetry, well; let us talk of writing them excellently: we shall then have a substantial, and splendid object, for the critical eye; and if my present observations have any force, their force will be the more sensibly felt. I do not think myself obliged implicitly to acquiesce in the [Greek characters] of Aristotle; who absurdly founded his rules for epick poetry on the authority of Homer; who had limited himself by no rules; and whose beauties and sublimities were shaded with great faults. Besides, what could be more absurd than to insist that an epick poem should be modelled, and conducted by one general plan? Why might not every great poet who was devoted to the epick muse, vary his plan; his machinery; his episodes, and his incidents; — in short, the ground-work, and the structure of his fable, and of its concomitant objects, agreeably to the infinite diversity of the powers, and operations of the human mind?
My opinion of Homer is not shaken even by Mr. Pope's unqualified eulogy on that venerable poet. Prejudices long established, and sanctioned by the most respectable authorities, will influence the greatest minds; and he must inevitably have entertained a warm partiality for that original, and ardent poetry, which had, for several years, inspired, and actuated his own muse. Epick, like other kinds of poetry; like other kinds of literary composition, in reciprocally distant ages, received eminent improvements from great masters. Virgil improved on Homer; and Milton on Virgil; the English poet soared to heights which no hold adventurer had hitherto explored. Nor did he owe his astonishing superiority merely to the wonders of revelation; be improved on several admired passages of the other two poets; he excelled their spirit of fire; he excelled their powers of invention. With regard to them; — the eclogues, and georgicks. and the six first books of the Aeneid, gave me more pleasure than I received both from the Iliad, and the Odyssey. I am ingenuously speaking my own sentiments; which I am far from communicating as a decisive authority to others. I shall here remind you of the unfinished verses which were left by Virgil, in his Aeneid; and of his orders when he was dying, that the divine poem should be committed to the flames. I suppose it will be allowed that Virgil was a good judge of what constituted, and completed the form of poetry; consequently his taste was as delicate as his imagination was warm: did he think that excellent poetry could be written, any more than excellent prose, without study, and art, and habit, strengthening, enriching, and refining the poetical talent? Or did he think that perfect poetry was the rhapsodies; the wild effusions of a barbarous age?
Similar, and analogous were the striking improvements in prose. It would be prolix, and tedious minutely to demonstrate an evident truth. Cicero improved on Plato, and Demosthenes; Caesar on Xenophon; and Livy, the first of historians, on Herodotus, and Thucydides. These great men as emulously, and conspicuously surpassed their remoter literary ancestors, as they took the palm from their immediate predecessours; as eminently, and conspicuously as the prose of Dryden excelled that of Sir Philip Sydney, and of Ben Jonson; or as David Hume excelled Burnet; nay even Clarendon, in the historick page.
I beg that it may be remembered that I never mean to separate the style, or manner of writing, from the fine ethereal principle from which it springs; and that it seems to me indisputable that all the progressive improvements in the different modes of composition, necessarily flow from the gradual, general, and collateral improvements of the human mind; and from its particular, and personal constitution; with which they are intimately, with which they are indissolubly connected. Shall we then ridiculously imagine that the prose of Addison, of Bolingbroke, and of Burke, were acquired merely by study; by art, and habit; or shall we not justly conclude, that they were as much the effects of genius, as the poetry of Milton, of Dryden, and of Pope?
It is as absurd to suppose that the early world would be more apt to write in verse than in prose, as it is to suppose that they would more readily converse in the former than in the latter strain. Man, by nature, prefers every kind of freedom to every kind of restriction; though judicious, and salutary restrictions are necessary to accomplish every species of virtue; every species of glory. The laws of the most ancient, and celebrated legislators, with those of Moses inclusively, a lawgiver of extreme antiquity, were written in prose. Precepts of prudence, and religion, were often, in ancient times, inculcated in verse; only that they might the more easily be retained by memory. This kind of verse was delivered to the world, for its morality, and piety; not for its poetical beauty. As to the infancy, or very early life of individuals, not one in a thousand boys will be so apt voluntarily to make experiments of his talents in verse as in prose; unless nature is, in them perverted by the blundering example of schoolmasters; who press all their scholars, indiscriminately, into the service of the muses: those tyrants of the mind; who, like the old tyrant of the body, force every mental stature to one common measure; to a bed, not of pleasure, but of torment.
"The rules of metrical composition" (says Dr. Gregory) "are fewer, and more simple, and require a less constant exercise of the judgement" [than the rules of prose.] The diametrical contrary of this is the truth. But I do not like to dwell on frivolous matter; I do not like to fight "as one who beateth the air." I shall therefore content myself with observing, that it may be very proper for merely grammatical, and technical men in writing, to proceed like joiners, and bricklayers, by rule, and line; but that men of true talents prosecute their glowing work under a more free, and animating direction; their liberal rules, guides, and limits, are, the magnificent exuberance, and the accurate justness of their own thoughts; with the well retained examples of their great masters; not forcibly, and rudely, but gently, and amicably impressing the forms, and tinging the colours of their own minds. Unfortunate must always be the reasoning of a critick, who, through the tenour of his remarks, considers a series of language, and its producing, and efficient cause, as two distinct, and different objects; who separates thought made visible from thought itself; from the pure intellect which presents it, in vigour, and sublimity; in order, and in beauty, to the mental eye: — who unnaturally discriminates between mind, and its emanations; between the light, and the essence of the soul.
I have always as explicitly shown my unaffected, and ardent zeal for distinguished, and original genius as I have expressed my strong dislike of unwarrantable, and obtrusive presumption. Agreeably to this confirmed and invincible habit, (who, indeed, that feels its independent, and lively pleasure would wish to conquer it?) I think myself obliged to take notice of a strange passage in Dr. Gregory's book, in which, with an equal extreme of boldness, and absurdity, he forces into a congeniality; into a similarity: into an equality of greatness, two men whom nature formed as remote, in mind, as the poles are, in matter, from each other: he mentions together, placing them in intellectual apposition; blending them into a union of excellence; — "the abilities of a Newton, and a Bryant!" If the transcendent heroes in literature, and in science, are thus to be dragged down, and confounded with the vulgar; what will become of their posthumous, and immortal glory? It is easy to account for the injustice which great men suffer while they live: but that injustice is commonly redressed when death has removed them from the jaundiced eye of envy. But it has been particularly reserved for these times, in which our confidence is as remarkable as our vitiated, and contemptible taste, not only to dispute, but to vilify the splendid fame of several of our greatest men, who had been long, and justly celebrated for various kinds of mental preeminence. To compare a Newton with a Bryant, is to compare a vigorous, original, and divine, with a weak, pedantick, and frivolous mind. Have a care, Dr. Gregory; clergyman that you are, you have, by this comparison, been guilty (perhaps unawares) of intellectual sacrilege. Inadvertently; or with a ridiculous perverseness of opinion; or with a prostituted flattery, you have incurred the profaneness of an ignorant, and irreverent French coxcomb; who, at this time, throws his contempt on the memory of Newton, with all the superficial impertinence of his country; with all the disdain of Gallick insolence.
Chatterton, in a letter of the 8th of July, 1770; a very short time before his death, mentions different kinds of presents which he was then sending to his relations. Among those presents were two fans: "the silver one, he says, is 'more graver' than the other; which would suit my sister best." — Dr. Gregory observes that this expression of "more graver" "confirms Mr. Bryant's opinion, that he was not well grounded in the first principles of grammar." — Gregory; p. 259. — This a truly pitiable absurdity. How could your partiality to the trifling pedantry of Mr. Bryant make you forget that Chatterton was evidently a master, not only in grammatical, but in spirited, and elegant writings; and that he might have been a model for inferiour authours; if he had not been beyond their apprehension, and emulation? His prose is as free, and eloquent as his poetry. If you had not been blinded by grammatical mechanism, you must have seen that the more graver was an ironical expression; a verbal jest, on the common, well-known, and barbarous idiom of the vulgar. It is highly probable that his sister used this double, and anomalous comparative, in conversation; and I have no doubt that, in his letter, he affixed a particular mark, with his pen, to the solecism.
That the natives of England should study their own language grammatically, is a good general rule; a rule that should not be slighted by men of the brightest talents. But men of such talents often prefer to this formal, yet respectable, study, the instruction which they gain from a more lively, and impressive analogy; from their careful, and constant attention to the examples of our best authours: and these men will not merely connect their periods with a complete grammatical precision; they will enrich them with all the copiousness; they will adorn them with all the graces of our language. He must be well acquainted with the vestibule of a temple who daily waves aromatick incense before its altar. What the little mind comprehends with a microscopick limitation; or surmounts with the tardy progress of an opossum; the great mind seizes with a quick, and comprehensive intuition; or attains by a few gigantick steps. It may be proper, and prudent, in you, Dr. Gregory, deliberately, and gravely to consult with Priscian: while you meditate, and atchieve your literary exploits. When we cannot make heroick sallies, we should be careful to move in a compact, and secure order. But the spontaneous acquirements, and the excursive genius of a Chatterton, supersede these phlegmatick precautions. The regular army of words are at his command; not only in their mechanical combination, but in their accurate, and happy arrangement; in their perfect symmetry, strength, and beauty. The style; the phalanx of this literary general; of this great Frederick, under the auspices of the milder Minerva, moves not with the unwieldy slowness of the Dutch, but with the ease, and velocity of the Prussian troops. His progress is as ardent, and unbounded as his ambition; at the head of his rapid, and irresistible forces; of his [Greek characters] to whatever quarter he directs his march, he pervades, and conquers; their discipline, their spirit, and their vigour, always, decide the victory.
The observations of one of Dr. Gregory's learned, and respectable friends, of which he is pleased to make some notes to his book, with the signature, O; and which he calls an able vindication of Mr. Walpole, are disingenuous, and truly contemptible. The vulgar sophistry with which those observations abound, I have already condescended to answer; and I hope that it has been refuted. I shall only take notice of one evident falsehood with which they are stigmatized by their authour; as it evinces the heart with which be wrote his vindication of this uncommon peer; for I so highly respect the character of several of our English nobility, that, injustice to them, I apply this epithet to the late Lord Orford. And here I totally differ from the accommodating Dr. Gregory; who, in his laboured, but feeble palliation of the conduct of that titular nobleman, seems to refuse all humane sentiment, and its concomitant liberality of manners, to persons in high life; when he endeavours to vindicate the hypocritical, unfeeling, and disdainful rejection of the reasonable, modest, and humble request of Chatterton. — The Doctor's learned, and respectable friend is guilty (as I have observed) of a notorious falsehood; — he tells us that "Mr. Walpole could not help concluding that the whole" [all that Chatterton had communicated to him] "was a fiction, contrived by some one or more literary wags, who wished to impose on his credulity, and to laugh at him, if they succeeded; and that Chatterton was only the instrument employed to introduce, and recommend these old writings." — Gregory; p. 63. — The reverse of this bold assertion is the truth, Mr. Walpole, in the defence which he wrote of himself, repeatedly declares that he had no doubt that Chatterton was the real authour of the poetical specimens which he had sent to him: and from that certainty, he repeatedly mentions his genius in terms of the highest admiration; though in other places, with an incongruity which disgraces him, and which often betrays the deepest dissimulation, he professes a cold, and stupid indifference, both to Chatterton, and his poetry. It has happened that assassins in the dark have stabbed their friend instead of their devoted victim. This learned, and respectable vindicator should have carefully suppressed the verses that he quotes; which contain, on every account, a most unmerited compliment from the young poet to Walpole's mental taste. The moral magnanimity of this youth must have been as prodigious as his poetical genius. The compliment of Cicero to Caesar, that "he forgot nothing but injuries," — was far more applicable to Chatterton. I am sorry from my heart, that he threw his pearls before a being, which, when it had received such an offering before, "had turned again, and rent him." Indeed, in more senses than one, the little elegant encomium was prostituted. After the previous treatment (which was so far from being expiated that it was industriously aggravated) it was an extravagant hyperbole of forgiveness: — it was as extravagant a hyperbole of praise; for the reverse of taste is the true literary character of Mr. Walpole: his thoughts are always feeble; and they are always expressed in a vulgar, and uncouth style.
A train of singular, and melancholy circumstances, which do great discredit to human nature, attended the fate of the works of this young man, as well as of himself. Editions of Rowley, and of the Miscellanies, were published after Chatterton's death; yet the editors took not the least liberal notice of his poor relations.. This very shameful omission may seem surprizing to those who have not observed that we often act as if we thought that it was not incumbent on us to practise any delicacy; any honesty, to the unfortunate; when we may safely violate a moral regard to these virtues. The cold, timid, pusillanimously proud, and conscious Walpole, could not give them his own example of this liberality; for he would have felt it a self-condemnation of his former conduct. The publishers of those works owed nothing to the surviving friends of the poet, from the obligations of common law, or upon any act of parliament: but as they made them their property, without making any recompence to his necessitous friends they were guilty of literary piracy; — by an act which was passed when man was created; and was copied into his breast by the finger of the Almighty.
I wish that the world would give me fewer occasions of censure than of praise. With what pleasure must a friend of humanity pay his tribute of honest fame to Mr. Croft! I had the honour to meet that gentleman, at the house of a very celebrated man, many years ago; before a bleak world had blighted the flowery spells of fancy; while a rich flow of youthful spirits was a substitute for fortune; while "the bubble joy laughed in the cup of folly." — This gentleman embalmed the memory of Chatterton with the aromatick praise which it deserved, and with his christian compassion; and he alone of the learned (who ought to be most eminently generous) extended his practical benevolence to his relations. His sister, in a letter to Mr. Croft, assures him that "the only benefit that her mother, and she had reaped from the labours of her dear brother, were what they had received from him."
I have only to regret that this worthy, and virtuous clergyman should have sunk, in one instance, to the stern, and bigoted priest. He says that Chatterton "threw himself on the anger of his Creator." I hope that some suicides will find that mercy from the perfection of goodness which criminal man denies them. But whatever may be their future fate, let us take every opportunity to vindicate the Deity from vile human passions. I honestly, and independently regret that pictures of him, with these passions make a considerable part of the service of our church: they certainly have bad effects on the minds, and manners of men; for the ignorant either cannot, or will not be taught to make the proper distinction between metaphor, and simile, and real, abstracted truth. Let these daring misrepresentations of the Almighty always be confined to the violence of oriental hyperbole. God must be, in his nature and in his action, equal, uniform, and impassive: the diffusion of his mercy is without weak emotion; the exercise of his power is without painful resentment: — God cannot be angry.
Mr. Hamilton, a very wealthy printer, and the principal proprietor of the Town and Country Magazine; a notorious vehicle of scandal, and falsehood, was one of the persons from whose interested flattery, and promises of the most liberal encouragement, Chatterton had fondly anticipated great literary success in the metropolis. It was my misfortune to know the man; I wrote for him, at the time to which I refer, in the Critical Review; and I can with rigorous truth, assert, that from the older Tonson, down to Osborne, there never was a more hardhearted, overbearing, and insolent fellow. It is needless for me to suppose what his treatment of the unprotected youth would be, when his pale fortune was in its paler wane; and how probably that treatment would accelerate his fate. I am now giving anecdotes of the year 1770. Since the melancholy history of my young poet occupied my mind, I well remember frequently to have heard the name of Chatterton announced aloud, in Hamilton's house, to the corrector of the press. I doubt not that we have sometimes passed each other, in the court in Fleet-Street, where Hamilton lived; it was Falcon Court; its name, and the figure of the bird at its entrance, were emblematical; for it was inhabited by a vulture. Like our great lexicographer, I was, then, always "providing for the day that was passing over me:" — yet my circumstances were almost as much better than Chatterton's as his genius was superiour to mine. If I had known his distresses, I should certainly have relieved them; and perhaps even in consequence of my puny aid, the youth who only lived for glory, might have been living with glory, still. A heart affluent in humanity, however circumscribed in power, might have afforded to give him more assistance than he could obtain from the poor patronage of Walpole; for this idea the crocodile gives us of his external ability to do good.