1795 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Chatterton

Robert Anderson, in Works of the British Poets (1795) 11:309.



He had one ruling passion which governed his whole conduct, and that was his desire of literary fame; this passion intruded itself on every occasion, and absorbed his whole attention. Whether he would have continued to improve, or the contrary, must have depended, in some measure, on the circumstances of his future life. Had he fallen into profligate habits and connections, he would probably have lost a great part of his ardour for study, and his maturer age would only have diminished the admiration, which the efforts of his childhood have so justly excited.

As a poet, his genius will be most completely estimated by his writings. His imagination was more fertile than correct; and he seems to have erred, rather through haste and negligence than through any deficiency of taste. He was above that puerile affectation which pretends to borrow nothing. He knew that original genius consists in forming new and happy combinations, rather than in searching after thoughts and ideas which never had occurred before. He possessed the strongest marks of a vigorous imagination, and a sound judgment in forming great, consistent, and ingenious plots, and in making choice of the most interesting subjects. His genius, like Dryden's, was universal. It will be difficult to say, whether he excelled most in the sublime, the pathetic, the descriptive, or the satirical. Whatever subject is treated by him, is marked with the hand of a master, with the enthusiasm of the poet, and the judgment of the critic.

His poems abound with luxuriant description, vivid imagery, and striking metaphors. Through the veil of ancient language, a happy adaptation of words is still apparent, and a style both energetic and expressive. They are equally conspicuous for the harmony and elegance of the verse; and some passages are inferior, in none of the essentials of poetry, to the most finished productions in our language.

It must not, however, be dissembled, that some part of the charm of his compositions may probably arise from the Gothic sublimity of the style. We gaze with wonder on an antique fabric; and, when novelty of thought is not to be obtained, the novelty of the language, to which we are unaccustomed, is frequently accepted as a substitute. Even Shakspeare and Milton have derived advantages from the antique structure of some of their most admired passages.