Thomas Chatterton

Percival Stockdale, "Lecture XVIII. Chatterton" Lectures on the truly eminent English Poets (1807) 2:519-37.

Dr. Johnson had made many inquiries into the character, and fate of Chatterton: he communicated to me the following deplorable circumstances, immediately previous to his tragical death. To a person who kept a chandler's shop in Fetter-Lane, which is not far from Brook-Street in Holborne, where he lodged, he owed 3s. 6d. for quartern loaves. His only sustenance, then, was, literally, bread, and water. He had bought his loaves very stale, that they might last the longer. On his asking for another loaf, the mistress of the shop refused it; with the habitual reason of people of her class; that "she could not afford to give credit." — The world had now harrassed him out, with a complete climax of evils; and he left it; not, as I am convinced, in a fit of impotent rage; as we are told by the stupid flatterers of a selfish insensibility; but on the decision of a deliberate despair, (which will always be deeply regretted by humane, and enlightened minds;) yet with such exquisite, and heart-transfixing feelings, as by those minds (especially if they have suffered a cruel adversity) can more easily be conceived than expressed.

My memory here fails me; but the short, and emphatical description is the interesting particular; it is not material from what person it came. Dr. Johnson farther told me, that in his conversation, either with Mrs. Ballance, a relation of Chatterton, who had been a lodger with him at Mr. Walmsley's, in Shore-ditch; or with Mrs. Angel, in whose house he lodged, and died, in Brook-Street; — he asked her, "what seemed to be the predominant disposition; and what was the common behaviour of the unfortunate youth?" — She replied, that "he was as proud as Lucifer; but that it was impossible not to love him." — If I had been able effectually to protect extraordinary, and neglected merit; and if I had been endowed with a generous heart; I should gladly have accepted this omen. What puritanical, and affected humility may say, I care not: — this was the youth for me this was the stem on which we might have grafted, not the sneaking, and safe qualities, which are most acceptable to a magisterial world; but the independent; the generous; the noble virtues! What an honour was missed by the lilliputian soul of Walpole! If Chatterton had lived, the moral expansion of his mind would have been as vast, and unbounded, as his genius.

A lover of human greatness, independent of its trappings, dwells with a lively pleasure; with a degree of rapture, on this phaenomenon. At an age when others are children in mind, and actions, as in years, his thoughts, and his behaviour were those of a man. It was, indeed, marked with those peculiarities which are unavoidable when the soul is under the rapturous dominion of its genius; — those peculiarities which fools call pride; and which doting antiquarians call insanity. The dainties of which boys are particularly fond, he despised; he was eager only for intellectual food. The young pupil of Minerva was old in stoical discipline; in exhilarating temperance; he would not suffer gross obstructions to check the energy of his mind. But he who deserves fame can descend as well as soar; can invigorate the excursions of fancy with scholastick toils, for the accomplishment of glory. While this young Hercules of mental vigour, wrote with equal force on modern subjects, and in modern language, both in verse, and prose; by his patient, and deep researches into our ancient history, and ancient customs; and by his great proficiency in our old English, he would have been a prodigy, without his original, and sublime endowments. But to these inferiour acquirements he gave not a supreme dignity, with a pedantick, and antiquarian absurdity; he made them the vehicles, or the concomitants; not the essence, or the authours of his fame. As he was ambitious of our first honours, he was avaricious of time; the hours that were lost in mechanical, verbal, and base drudgery, he carefully, and vigilantly redeemed; what was retrenched from the flaming influence of Apollo, was recovered under the mild, and tranquil reign of his beautiful sister; who, from the plenitude of her orb, illumined his mind with a poetical, and meridian day. His growing virtues, not less than his talents made his death a deplorable event; of both, indeed, he was equally tenacious, when adversity was contracting her last, and severest frown: at that alarming juncture, the immediate exertions of his poetical talents were hallowed by the pious offices of the son; and by the affectionate attention of the brother. It was almost impossible for him to live longer; his nature was far exalted above the common scale of mortals; below it they were strenuous to sink him; the pressure was violent, intolerable, and destructive; it broke the spring of his existence. I hope that his name will be singularly auspicious in the annals of English literature; and I likewise hope that the foes, and persecutors of his life, and the traducers of his memory, will be branded with eternal infamy; for the sake of moral justice, and of the benevolent, and great virtues; for the sake of unparalleled genius, and of practical christianity.

Mr. Bryant, in a passage of that book to which I have often referred, seems to applaud himself, after having insulted the memory of Chatterton with every indignity; after having treated it with all possible contempt. He seems highly pleased with his injustice, and cruelty; which had attempted to tear the wreath of glory from unfortunate, but exalted genius; and to fix it on a fantastick being; the creature of his own wild, and uncultivated imagination. His expressions, on that occasion, I shall beg leave to apply to myself; and I hope, on a stronger foundation, and with a better grace. — "There is a very great satisfaction in doing justice to departed merit; and in restoring those honours which have been unjustly awarded." — Bryant, p. 505.

I have here offered you a sketch (I am sensible that it is very imperfect, and inadequate) of a character which will not soon appear again; amidst all that variety which the contemplation of man affords, from the infinite diversity of his original dispositions, and of his persuits, and situations. Before I come to the end of my Lectures; and before I gratefully take my leave of this audience, I must say something; or I must recapitulate what I have said, of another extraordinary person; as he hath necessarily been, to me, a very important object, in the course of my observations. His learning; his talents; his penetrating, and comprehensive mind; — his eloquence; the happily instinctive, and implicit veneration which we pay to age; but above all these pretensions, his fortune, which was, at length, comparatively good; and which recommends us more to the favour of the world than our inherent, and indeprivable titles to publick esteem; — this aggregate of auspicious qualities, and circumstances, gave him all that consequence which his presumptuous, and despotick pride demanded. In the natural constitution, however, of intellectual abilities, he was extremely inferiour to Chatterton. I shall not make one part of his character absolutely incompatible; though it may be strangely inconsistent with another: I will not give provoking instances of his barbarous insolence in social life; and afterwards propose him to the world, as a model; as a paragon of christian excellence: I will not hold forth a picture that will be absolutely unintelligible, to moral disquisition. Of such monstrous caricatures, I have always left his weak, and treacherous; at least, certainly, his very injudicious friends, in unenvied, and full possession.

The celebrated Dr. Johnson was a learned man; but his learning was far from being accurate, and masterly; how, indeed, could it deserve that praise; as he had but incompletely read (so he himself, to my surprize, acknowledged to me) several of those capital authours who deserve our most attentive perusal? And this unwarrantable habit had so foolish an effect on him, that he perversely imagined (as I have likewise heard him insist) that all other scholars read in the same slovenly manner. — Indeed in this great man, amongst his other uncommon inconsistences (for we are all, more, or less, inconsistent) long series of application, and indolence; of a collected, and dissipated mind, were alternately contrasted. Yet this incongruity may be a concomitant of genius; it may partly proceed from the different action of externals on great sensibility. In prose, as in verse, he was eloquent, vigorous, and splendid; but he was deficient in ease; in flow; in the pure, transparent, and gliding stream of attick elegance. He had the majesty (too often the affected majesty) of the monarch; which he could not soften and endear with the affable, and polite manner of the gentleman. We are apt to be in extremes: Johnson was absorbed in substantial, yet discursive thought; and Chesterfield sacrificed only to the graces. Necessarily congenial with his mode of thinking was the body, and colour of his style; the frame, and complexion of his incorporated thoughts. It kept a stately march in the panoply of learning; for it was animated by a soul of unbending dignity; while the style of Addison flowed in a finer, and more harmonious current; while the language of Burke was accelerated with the more intense ardour; and spangled with the more effulgent rays of a most vivid imagination. In justice to him, however, I must not omit the agreeable exceptions to this measured, and lordly walk: some of his productions are written with ease, and fluency; yet without relaxing from the native strength of their authour.

His practical morality, and his religion were mixed, and inconsistent, like his literary character. His uncommon humanity, benevolence, and charity, were discredited with a dictatorial, and insolent pride, which no talents call warrant, or expiate: instead of arguing only to establish truth, (which ought always to have been the paramount object with a christan philosopher) he often disputed with extreme heat, and rudeness, for what he knew to be sophistry; merely to extort an ignoble, indeed a very dishonourable victory. His heart melted at a tale of woe; and he was liberal of substantial relief to the poor, and distressed; yet this consummate hero in moral atchievements (so his satirical encomiasts, as I may call them, have described him) as he had not the least command of temper, would overwhelm the unfortunate with the most insulting, and mortifying language; if he was in a discontented humour; or if they had expressed their dissent from his opinion, in the most respectful terms.

His religion was vitiated with impure mixtures as well as his morality. His piety was infected with a gloomy, and monastick superstition. His desponding fancy armed the Deity with terrours; and formed the most tremendous ideas of a future state. Hence, that personal courage, which, in the vigorous days of his manhood, would have intrepidly resisted the most desperate assassin, was reversed with the fears of the old woman, whenever the invisible world was the object of his spiritual contemplation. From religious superstition, religious, and political bigotry are inseparable. He was an idolater of monarchical, and priestly tyranny; and the idolatry which impressed a dark severity in his mind, extended its baleful influence to his writings. It not only infected his moral, but his critical compositions; its noxious, but I hope, temporary vapour, clouded the laurels of some of our greatest men.

They, however, who know mankind, but who wish not to propagate seducing, and dangerous errours, by painting them better than they are, have a just, and lenient apology for these prejudices, and faults; when they recollect, and consider the hereditary, and deep melancholy, with which he was frequently oppressed. We need not wonder; and we ought not indiscriminately to censure; when we find that this disorder misleads, and perverts the judgement; for it even affects the understanding. Agreeably to the mixed, and contrasted creation, and economy, with which the Supreme Being hath constituted, and governs the universe, even the powerful melancholy of which I speak, has its advantages as well as its defects. If, at one time it excites, in great minds, resentful prejudices, and weak apprehensions; at another, it produces a virtuous solemnity, an awful sublimity of thought. Indeed there can be no true, and strongly effective genius, without the love, and habit of calm, contemplative, and severe thinking; without a moral, and refined pensiveness; abstracted from the material world; and intent on the ideas of instructive reason; and on the objects of virtuous imagination. These affections, and habits constitute that desirable, and amiable melancholy, which purifies, and exalts the faculties of the soul; and which a thoughtless, giddy, and tumultuous world, has the folly, and the presumption, to confound with moroseness; with madness. These affections, and habits disperse the light, and gay delusions of life; and collect, and concentrate substantial, and salutary truth. By their stimulating impulse, the mind works, and revolves on itself; and thus multiplies, invigorates, and brightens its operations.


—the fixed, and noble mind
Turns all occurrence to its own advantage;

even the rigour of adversity may be favourable to mental strength; as a keen air braces the corporeal nerves; expells indolence; and promotes an active, and lasting life. Genius may gain an additional, and propitious fire, from its determined, and heroick opposition to difficulties, and distress: jealous of its invaluable, indeprivable, and eternal privileges; and conscious of their force, it may rise above a desponding languour; it may resolve to penetrate through all its formidable hostilities; and to disappoint the triumphant, and satanick smile of envy. — Spurning the jilt fortune; eager to give one memorable proof more of her blind partiality; and to obtain a signal victory over her capricious empire; he changes the agitations of pain into the agitations of pleasure: heated with the stubborn conflict, he is the more heated with imagination: by the impetuosity with which he darts through his rude impediments, he makes more extensive conquests in the literary region than he would have gained if those impediments had not disputed his way. — Persevering labour accomplishes the objects of dullness; noble passions, those of genius. The friendly frowns of the world exalt his natural powers with a new, and irresistible enthusiasm; his atchievements are inspired by a moral, a practical, and glorious resentment. I have no doubt that Chatterton was thus impelled, while he struggled with circumstances most inauspicious to literature, and poetry; while the manly boy was under the tyranny of an undistinguishing, and stupid pedagogue; — While he copied the Norman, and Saxon jargon of Lambert; and while he suffered the pretended, and avaricious friendship; the half-faced fellowship, of a Calcott, and a Barrett. I have no doubt that Johnson was thus impelled, in the squalid, and solitary gloom of the temple; in his unprotected, unpensioned, unfashionable days; which were the days of his true dignity; of his true glory.

It is not improbable that to the blindness of Milton we owe a blessing which could only have atoned for the calamity. Shut out from the cheering, from the exhilarating view of the beautiful, and grand objects of nature; he had recourse to the fair, and magnificent objects of his own mind. From the organick darkness proceeded a flood of immortal glory. — "So much the rather the celestial light," (to use his own beautiful language) "shone inward; and irradiated the mind, through all her powers."

I should have observed, that if adversity is not quite oppressive, and overwhelming; and if it meets a mind sufficiently spirited, and vigorous, to avail itself of the school of the severe disciplinarian; it is attended with some useful, and generous effects, which are more easily obtained. Like the melancholy of true genius; like the philosophically pensive habit which I have endeavoured justly, to describe, it prevents our faculties from being scattered on levity, and falsehood; and keeps them collected on reflexion, and truth. It shows us the futility of our eager persuits; it evinces to us the unmanly character of our common hopes, and fears; and thus it strengthens, and exalts the mind; throws it into a strain of persuasive, and commanding thought; which ensures its own independence, and self-enjoyment; and enables it forcibly to recommend the attainment of these inestimable blessings to the world.

If I recollect rightly, I have already given you similar sentiments on these topicks; yet I think that they may, without impropriety, be repeated, and again enforced; as they may have useful, and salutary effects: for they tend to cool our eagerness for a daily intercourse with a vain, and selfish world; and to redeem the misfortunes of genius; and the melancholy hues of life which are presented to its contemplation; — by showing it that those very misfortunes; that those dark social, and moral shades, contribute to independence, vigour, and sublimity of soul.

God forbid that by what I have said I should have meant any malevolence to the memory of Johnson; but I desire inflexibly, and explicitly to communicate literary truth; and to improve our acquaintance with the human mind. I see no reason why we should not mention his faults; but his excellences entitle them to our free, and ample pardon. As an authour, he claims the veneration; nay, the admiration of posterity. He, himself, atchieved, in England, an arduous work; which, in other countries, had long employed the united diligence, judgement, and taste of whole academies. He ascertained, and established the propriety, and elegance of the English language; he wrote some excellent poetry; he enlarged our ethical knowledge; and he illustrated, and enforced the truths of christianity.

I am now at the close of these Lectures; which have employed my attention, but not without long intervals of disagreeable, and painful interruptions, for several years. I have been inured, through a long life, to many discouragements from literary exertion; yet I am not without hopes that my perseverance will ultimately he attended with desirable effects. I principally attribute my bad success to our intolerance of explicit, and disinterested truth: but the time will come when such truth will be read with pleasure; and when ingenuous freedom will procure esteem for the memory of the authour. Therefore I shall be tenacious of this independence, to my death; and of my inviolable attachment to it, I think that I have given you the evidence of demonstration. I have been solicitous, and diligent to do justice to our great poets; and to contribute to revive a true taste for poetry; the first of the fine arts; an art which very powerfully tends to improve the understanding, and to meliorate the heart. For sincerely, and without a splenetick inclination to disparage the times in which I live, a classical taste for poetry, in England, is extremely degenerated, or rather, almost extinct; as every unprejudiced, and good critick must allow; when he recollects the verses which have been published; and the encomiums which their authours have received. For my own part, I have warmly praised, without partiality; and I have freely censured, without malevolence. This, perhaps, is not the way, universally to please; but I am sure that it is the way, if a man fortunately has abilities, universally to inform. Even wounded self-love has not been able to warp me; I have given the tribute of ardent eulogy to those by whom I have been materially injured. The generous, and the good (and those only I am addressing) will believe my assertion; and they will think that it communicates a proof of a just mind.