Thomas Chatterton

John Scott of Amwell, "Farther Remarks on the Forgery of Rowley's Poems" Gentleman's Magazine 47 (July 1777) 305-07.


I have read your ingenious review of Rowley's Poems, and am happy to find your sentiments consonant with my own so far as concerns the intrinsic merit of the composition, but I am by no means satisfied to its antiquity.

I always strongly suspected that Chatterton composed at least the whole versification of the Poems; and several circumstances to which I have lately adverted, much increase my suspicion.

Your correspondent, page 205, remarks, that in one of Chatterton's notes [Poems, p. 204.] it is said that Rowley was a Yorkist, and as such satirized the Abbot of St. Godwyn's, who was a Lancastrian. But if Rowley was a Yorkist, it is very odd he should represent Edward IV. as a revengeful and inflexible tyrant, and his brother Gloucester as a yet more unrelenting character. A partizan of the house of York, if he had chosen for a subject the Death of Sir Charles Bawdin, would not have described Sir Charles as a bard "greater than a King," but rather have styled him, in the common language of courtiers, a traitor or a rebel. Contradictions of this kind could no occur in a true history, though they might easily escape the caution of a writer of a work of fiction. Among other extraordinary peculiarities of these Poems, this is one, That in an age when men were not fighting for liberty, but only to determine which tyrant they should serve, a Popish priest should write a number of fine verses animated with the Attic or Spartan spirit of freedom.

That Rowley might write two poems on one subject, viz. the Battle of Hastings, contradictory in sentiment, and different in incident, is indeed possible, but not likely: our old writers were not accustomed to these ambidextrous proceedings; but Chatterton, in his private correspondence, betrays at once a consciousness of literary abilities and an immorality of character well adapted to such purposes. "The Lord-Mayor," says he, "received me as politely as a citizen could: but they devil of the matter is, there is no money to be got this side of the question. — But he is a poor author who cannot write on both sides." This, however, is only probability; but we have positive proof: a most remarkable circumstance is related by the Editor, in his Introductory Account, which seems most strangely to have escaped the notice of all who have thought this matter worthy a serious investigation.

"It should be observed (says he) that the Poem marked No. I. was given to Mr. Barret by Chatterton with the following title; Battle of Hastings, wrote by Turgot the Monk, a Saxon, by Thomas Rowlie, Parish Priest of St. John in the City of Bristol, in the Year 1465. — The remainder of the Poem I have not been happy enough to meet with." Being afterwards pressed by Mr. Barret to produce any part of this Poem in the original hand-writing, he at last said that he WROTE this Poem HIMSELF for a friend; but that he had another, the copy of an original by Rowley: and being then desired to produce that other Poem, he after a considerable interval of time, brought to Mr. Barret the Poem marked No. II. as far as ver. 530. inclusive, with the following title, Battle of Hastings, by Turgottis, translated by Rowlie for W. Canynge, Esq." Here is a forgery acknowledged by the party concerned, whose acknowledgment renders the origin of the whole affair sufficiently obvious. He who could forge in one instance could forge in others; he who was capable of writing one piece was capable of writing the rest. The words are too positive to admit of evasion, "HE WROTE IT FOR A FRIEND." One should have thought a hint of this kind from Chatterton would have effectually prevented any person from placing future dependence on his veracity: but from what daily passes in the world, it seems what daily passes in the world, it seems as if people were really desirous of being deceived. When Chatterton told Mr. Barret that he had a copy of an original by Rowley, if he had really done one, what occasion was there for that considerable interval of time which elapsed before he produced it? As your correspondent, p. 205, remarks, here is an evident anachronism: Turgot is said to have written in the tenth century, which is more than half a century before the battle of Hastings. Mr. Warton, in his History of English Poetry, mentions a number of Saxon poets who wrote in Latin previous to the Conquest, but neither there, nor any where else in the course of my reading, have I met with any mention of this Turgot: he may have escaped my notice, but I shrewdly suspect he is a non-entity, or rather an existence of Chatterton's creation.

The few pieces in this Vol. said to have been written by Canynge are written precisely in the same manner with those attributed to Rowley; but if Rowley possessed a talent of writing melodiously unknown to his contemporaries, it is not easy to conceive how he could communicate that talent to his friend.

Much stress has been laid on the testimony of antiquaries, but I must own it weighs little with me: it is but matter of opinion; and, with all deference to the respectable gentlemen whose names have been mentioned on the occasion, it is well known that antiquaries are of all men most liable to deception: they conceive a favourite system, and find reasons to establish it where nobody else can discern any. The antique appearance of the writing and fabrication of the parchment are evidences which I think no person possessed of better would have produced: the appearance of antiquity may be given to writing just written; and Chatterton, who was a lawyer's clerk, had opportunity enough to procure old parchment, and must have been a fool indeed if he had written on new.

Much stress has been laid on Chatterton's youth as an insuperable objection to his capability of imposition. But youth does not always preclude the exertion of Psalmanaazar, the pretended Formosan, by his own confession, when little more than sixteen, had formed the plan of his unparalleled imposture, and actually taken steps for carrying it into execution. Barratier, at nine years of age, was master of five languages, and in his eleventh year published a translation of a Hebrew book into French, with notes written by himself, on which it is said, that "they contain so many curious remarks and inquiries, out of the common road of learning, and afford so many instances of penetration, judgment, and accuracy, that the reader finds in every page some reason to persuade him that they cannot possibly be the work of a child, but of a man long accustomed to those studies, enlightened by reflection, and dexterous by a long practice in the use of book."

The Admirable Critchton had hardly attained the 20th year of his age "when he had run through the whole circle of sciences, and could speak and write to perfection in ten different languages; but this was not all, for he had likewise improved himself to the utmost degree in riding, dancing, singing, and playing on all sorts of instruments" [author's note: Pennant's Tour, Part I. p. 296.] — These are all instances of premature excellence, whose existence cannot be disputed; and what hinders but Chatterton might be such another?

Much stress is laid on Chatterton's having mentioned to Mr. Catcott the names of some pieces which he afterwards produced as Rowley's, viz. the Tournament, Battle of Hastings, &c. This is easily accounted for; Chatterton might have fixed on these as subjects on which he proposed to write, (as was evidently the case in the Battle of Hastings, No. I.) or he might have really found some old writer, of which he designed to make his own use.

Much stress is also laid on Canynge's will, which ordered such particular care of Rowley's MSS. But we are not told where this will exists, whether only among the papers discovered by Chatterton, or in some authentic record. By this will it was directed that "the mayor and chief magistrates of the city, attended by the town-clerk, with the minister and church-wardens of the parish, were annually to inspect these MSS. and see that every thing was carefully preserved; ordering, moreover, that AN ENTERTAINMENT SHOULD BE PROVIDED FOR THEM ON THE DAY WHEN THIS VISITATION SHOULD BE HELD." [Author's note: Monthly Review for May, p. 323.

This is, indeed, a very pompous affair: it is not very common for such honours to be conferred on the works of poets. — We are not informed whether this visitation was ever made, or, if ever, how often. It is natural to suppose that the good chear on free-cost should sometimes induce the good people to attend; and, if they did attend, it is really something odd that so many magistrates and ministers should be illiterate or inattentive enough not to discover the the value of these choice remains, but that the discovery should be reserved for the schoolboy Chatterton, after the schoolmaster his father had made covers for his scholars copybooks of the greater part of them.

But supposing Canynge's will to be genuine, and that certain MSS. of Rowley's were once in existence, there is not proof that the verses produced by Chatterton were transcribed from these MSS; on the contrary, it is highly probable they only gave him a hint for his imposture.

Mr. Catcott's two accounts of Chatterton in the Monthly Review of May last are not clear of inconsistency: "Chatterton," says he, in one place, "would never give any satisfactory account of what he possessed, but only from time to time, as his necessities obliged him, produced some transcripts from these originals; and it was with great difficulty, and some expence, I procured what I have." In another place he observes, that Chatterton, soon after he was acquainted with him, gave him readily and without reward the Bristowe Tragedy, Rowley's Epitaph on Mr. Canynge's Grandfather, and one or two more little pieces. In one place he allows that Chatterton had uncommon abilities and an uncommon taste for poetry, was a great proficient in heraldry, and very soon made himself acquainted with the old characters of the MSS. his father had left behind him, and as soon discovered their value. In another place he affects to think it absurd to suppose that "a lad of 15, bread at a charity school, without the advantages of a classical education, afterwards hackney-writer to an attorney, and kept confined to his master's business, could at once start from his obscurity, commence a judge of coins, become acquainted with heraldry, &c." — which is neither more nor less than first positively asserting what he afterwards thinks it absurd even to suppose.

It has been repeatedly asserted that examination of the evidence in favour of the authenticity of the MSS. can only be made properly on the spot. I cannot conceive any reason for these obtrusive unrequested assertions, unless they were meant as dexterous precautionary manoeuvres to preclude such kind of inquiries and observations as I have now been making. — As I before hinted, I have no wish to detract from the reputation of the Poems; on the contrary, I admire them greatly, but I believe them spurious, and am anxious to convince the public that they owe their existence to an imposture.