1776 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Chatterton

Samuel Johnson, 1776; Boswell, Life of Johnson (1791); ed. G. B. Hill (1891) 3:58-59.



On Monday, April 29, he and I made an excursion to Bristol, where I was entertained with seeing him enquire upon the spot, into the authenticity of "Rowley's Poetry," as I had seen him enquire upon the spot into the authenticity of "Ossian's Poetry." George Catcot, the pewterer, who was as zealous for Rowley, as Dr. Hugh Blair was for Ossian, (I trust my Reverend friend will excuse the comparison,) attended us at our inn, and with a triumphant air of lively simplicity called out, "I'll make Dr. Johnson a convert." Dr. Johnson, at his desire, read aloud some of Chatterton's fabricated verses, while Catcot stood at the back of his chair, moving himself like a pendulum, and beating time with his feet, and now and then looking into Dr. Johnson's face, wondering that he was not yet convinced. We called on Mr. Barret, the surgeon, and saw some of the "originals" as they were called, which were executed very artificially; but from a careful inspection of them, and a consideration of the circumstances with which they were attended, we were quite satisfied of the imposture, which, indeed, has been clearly demonstrated from internal evidence, by several able criticks.

Honest Catcot seemed to pay no attention whatever to any objections, but insisted, as an end to all controversy, that we should go with him to the tower of the church in Redcliff, and "view with our own eyes" the ancient chest in which the manuscripts were found. To this, Dr. Johnson good-naturedly agreed; and though troubled with a shortness of breathing, laboured up a long flight of steps, till we came to the place where the wondrous chest stood. "There, (said Catcot, with a bouncing confident credulity,) there is the very chest itself." After this ocular demonstration, there was no more to be said. He brought to my recollection a Scotch Highlander, a man of learning too, and who had seen the world, attesting, and at the same time giving his reasons for the authenticity of Fingal: — "I have heard all the poem when I was young." — "Have you, Sir? Pray what have you heard?" — "I have heard Ossian, Oscar, and every one of them."

Johnson said of Chatterton, "This is the most extraordinary young man that has encountered my knowledge. It is wonderful how the whelp has written such things."

We were by no means pleased with our inn at Bristol. "Let us see now, (said I,) how we should describe it." Johnson was ready with his raillery. "Describe it, Sir? — Why, it was so bad that Boswell wished to be in Scotland!"