1852 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Chatterton

Mary Russell Mitford, in "Authors Associated with Places. Thomas Chatterton — Robert Southey — Samuel Taylor Coleridge — William Wordsworth" Recollections of a Literary Life; or Books, Places, and People (1852) 386-90.



From Bath we proceeded to Bristol, or rather to Clifton, traversing the tunnels this time with as gay a confidence as I should do now. Of Bath, its buildings and its scenery, I had heard much good; of Bristol, its dirt, its dinginess, and its ugliness, much evil. Shall I confess — dare I confess, that I was charmed with the old city? The tall, narrow, picturesque dwellings with their quaint gables; the wooden houses in Wine-street, one of which was brought from Holland bodily, that is to say in ready-made bits, wanting only to be put together; the courts and lanes climbing like ladders up the steep acclivities; the hanging gardens, said to have been given by Queen Elizabeth to the washerwomen (every thing has a tradition in Bristol); the bustling quays; the crowded docks; the calm, silent, Dowry Parade (I have my own reasons for loving Dowry Parade) with its trees growing up between the pavement like the close of a cathedral; the Avon flowing between those two exquisite boundaries, the richly tufted Leigh Woods clothing the steep hillside, and the grand and lofty St. Vincent's Rocks, with houses perched upon the summits that looked ready to fall upon our heads; the airy line of the chain that swung from tower to tower of the intended suspension bridge, with its basket hanging in mid air like the car of a balloon, making one dizzy to look at it; — formed an enchanting picture. I know nothing in English landscape so lovely or so striking as that bit of the Avon beyond the Hot Wells, especially when the tide is in, the ferry-boat crossing, and some fine American ship steaming up the river.

As to Clifton, I suspect that my opinions were a little heretical in that quarter also; for I could not help wishing the houses away (not the inhabitants, that would have been too ungrateful), and the wide open downs restored to their primeval space and airiness. How delightful must the Hot Wells have been then! and how much greater the chance of recovery for invalids, who could add the temptation of such a spot for rides and drives to the salubrity of the waters!

I had an hereditary interest in the Hot Wells; my own mother having accompanied her only brother thither to die. It was one of the brief romances which under different forms most families probably could tell: a young man of the highest promise, a Fellow of Oriel, as his father had been before him, and just entered of Lincoln's Inn, who galloped to Reading after dark to dance with a county beauty, and returned the same way the moment the ball was ended. He had offered his hand for more than the evening to the lady of his love, and had been accepted. But the chill of a snowy winter night, after such exercise and such excitement, struck to his chest; rapid consumption ensued, and the affianced lovers never met again. It is often the best and the fairest who die such deaths. Every one knows Mason's fine epitaph on his young wife in this very cathedral:

Take, holy earth, all that my soul holds dear,
Take that best gift which Heaven so lately gave!
To Bristol's fount I bore with trembling care
Her faded form: she bowed to taste the wave
And died.

The first place that I visited was connected with a far deeper tragedy, the beautiful church of St. Mary Redcliffe. I climbed up to the muniment room over the porch, now and forever famous, and sitting down on the stone chest then empty, where poor Chatterton pretended to have found the various writings he attributed to Rowley, and from whence he probably did obtain most of the ancient parchment that served as his material. I could understand the effect that the mere habit of haunting such a chamber might produce upon a sensitive and imaginative boy. Even in that rude and naked room the majesty and grandeur of the magnificent church make themselves strongly felt. The dim light, the massive walls, the echoing pavement under foot, the vaulted roof overhead, all tend to produce the solemn feeling peculiar to a great ecclesiastical edifice. Even the two monuments of Cannynge down below, one in the secular, the other in the priestly habit, impress upon the mind the image of the munificent patron to whom St. Mary Redcliffe owes its sublimity and beauty. The forgeries of Chatterton will always remain among the wonders of genius; but they become less incredible after having breathed the atmosphere of that muniment chamber.

The humbler buildings connected with

The marvelous boy
Who perished in his pride,

have been nearly all swept away by the barbarous hand of Improvement; but every one whom I met showed me some site or told me some tradition bearing on his lamentable story. There his father taught a little school; there he was born; there his widowed mother dwelt: one person shows you the dress of the charity boys on whose foundation he was placed; another recites to you the verses (quite as remarkable as the juvenile poems of Pope or Cowley), which he wrote at eleven years of age; a third relates anecdotes of the attorney to whom he was articled; while a fourth produces a copy of the newspaper which contained his first successful attempt at deception, — the description of the ceremonies which attended the first passing of the old bridge by the Friars, which he sent to a Bristol journal upon the opening of the new. After this the number of forgeries, antiquarian, heraldic and poetical, was astonishing. Local interest was engaged, and personal vanity. The beauty of the poems was acknowledged on all hands; and had, perhaps, no small share in the general credulity; for it seemed easier to believe in the alleged Rowley than to assign their authorship to the real Chatterton. Nay, even to this hour, one of the most accomplished men whom I have ever known (to be sure he has no objection to a paradox) professes, chiefly on this ground, his entire faith in the genuineness of the manuscripts.

Confident in his own powers, and full of proud anticipation, the luckless boy set forth for London; seized on every word of praise as an earnest of fortune; sent nearly all his poor earnings to his mothers and sisters, accompanied by letters full of the brightest hope; and at last, disenchanted, maddened, starved, took poison, and was interred in a shell in the burying-ground belonging to Shoe Lane work-house. He had not completed his eighteenth year. There is a story told that a little before his death, wandering in St. Pancras church-yard, he fell into an open grave, and seemed to seize upon if as an omen. A most painful irreligious paper, called his will, written, let us hope, under the influence of the same phrensy that prompted his suicide, is shown in a glass case in the museum at Bristol; and I saw, at Mr. Cottle's, two very interesting relics of the unhappy writer; the Berghem (or, as he called it, de Berghem) pedigree, one of his earliest forgeries, curiously and skillfully emblazoned; and a tattered pocket-book, in which the poor boy had set down with careful exactness the miserable pittance he had gained by writing for magazines and newspapers while in London, a pittance so wretched as to render it certain that utter destitution, utter starvation (although with characteristic pride he had refused a dinner from his landlady the day before) was the immediate cause of the catastrophe.

In spite of the old spelling, the fine personification of Freedom in the chorus of "Goddwyn" makes its way to the mind

Whan Freedom dreste yn blodde-stayned veste
To everie knyghte her warre-songe sunge,
Uponne her hedde wylde wedes were spredde
A gorie anlace bye her honge.
She daunced onne the heathe;
She hearde the voice of dethe;
Pale eyned Affryghte his harte of sylver hue
In vayne assayled her bosome to acale.
She hearde onflemed the shriekynge voice of Woe,
And sadnesse ynne the owlette shake the dale.
She shooke the burled speere,
On high she jeste her sheelde,
Her foemen all appere
And flizze alonge the feelde.

Modern spelling, and a very little transformation, would make a charming pastoral of the minstrel's song in Aella:

FIRST MINSTREL.
The budding flow'ret blushes at the light;
The meads are sprinkled with their yellowest hue;
In daisied mantle is the mountain dight;
The tender cowslip bendeth with the dew,
The evening comes and brings that dew along;
The ruddy welkin shineth to the eyne;
Around the ale-stake minstrels sing the song.
Young ivy round the door-post to entwine
I lay me on the grass. Yet to my will,
Albeit all is fair, there lacketh something still.

SECOND MINSTREL.
When Autumn, bleak and sunburnt, doth appear
With golden hand gilding the falling leaf;
Bringing up Winter to fulfill the year,
Bearing upon his back the ripened sheaf;
When the fair apple, red as evening sky,
Doth bend the tree unto the fruitful ground;
When juicy pear and berry of black dye
Do dance in air and tempt the taste around;
Then be the evening foul or evening fair,
Methinks that my heart's joy is shadowed with some care.

THIRD MINSTREL.
So Adam thought when first in Paradise
All heaven and earth did homage at his feet;
In gentle woman all man's pleasure lies
'Midst Autumn's beating storms or summer's heat:
Go take a wife unto thy heart and see
Winter and the brown hills will have a charm for thee.