Thomas Chatterton

George Gilfillan, in Specimens with Memoirs of the less-known British Poets (1860) 3:171-74.

The history of this "marvellous boy" is familiar to all the readers of English poetry, and requires only a cursory treatment here. Thomas Chatterton was born in Bristol, November 20, 1752. His father, a teacher in the free-school there, had died before his birth, and he was sent to be educated at a charity-school. He first learned to read from a black-letter Bible. At the age of fourteen, he was put apprentice to an attorney; a situation which, however uncongenial, left him ample leisure for pursuing his private studies. In an unlucky hour, some evil genius seemed to have whispered to this extraordinary youth, — "Do not find or force, but forge thy way to renown; the other paths to the summit of the hill are worn and common-place; try a new and dangerous course, the rather as I forewarn thee that thy time is short." When, accordingly, the new bridge at Bristol was finished in October 1768, Chatterton sent to a newspaper a fictitious account of the opening of the old bridge, alleging in a note that he had found the principal part of the description in an ancient MS. And having thus fairly begun to work the mint of forgery, it was amazing what a number of false coins he threw off, and with what perfect ease and mastery! Ancient poems, pretending to have been written four hundred and fifty years before; fragments of sermons on the Holy Spirit, dated from the fifteenth century; accounts of all the churches of Bristol as they had appeared three hundred years before; with drawings and descriptions of the castle-most of them professing to be drawn from the writings of "ane gode prieste, Thomas Rowley " — issued in thick succession from this wonderful, and, to use the Shakspearean word in a twofold sense, "forgetive" brain. He next ventured to send to Horace Walpole, who was employed on a History of British Painters, an account of eminent "Carvellers and Peyncters," who, according to him, once flourished in Bristol. These labours he plied in secret, and with the utmost enthusiasm. He used to write by the light of the moon, deeming that there was a special inspiration in the rays of that planet, and reminding one of poor Nat Lee inditing his insane tragedies in his asylum under the same weird lustre. On Sabbaths he was wont to stroll away into the country around Bristol, which is very beautiful, and to draw sketches of those objects which impressed his imagination. He often lay down on the meadows near St. Mary's Redcliffe Church, admiring the ancient edifice; and some years ago we saw a chamber near the summit of that edifice where he used to sit and write, his "eye in a fine frenzy rolling," and where we could imagine him, when a moonless night fell, composing his wild Runic lays by the light of a candle burning in a human skull. It was actually in one of the rooms of this church that some ancient chests had been deposited, including one called the "Coffre of Mr. Canynge," an eminent merchant in Bristol, who had rebuilt the church in the reign of Edward IV. This coffer had been broken up by public authority in 1727, and some valuable deeds had been taken out. Besides these, they contained various MSS., some of which Chatterton's father, whose uncle was sexton of the church, had carried off and used as covers to the copy-books of his scholars. This furnished a hint to Chatterton's inventive genius. He gave out that among these parchments he had found many productions of Mr. Canynge's, and of the aforesaid Thomas Rowley's, a priest of the fifteenth century, and a friend of Canynge's. Chatterton had become a contributor to a periodical of the day called The Town and Country Magazine, and to it from time to time he sent these poems. A keen controversy arose as to their genuineness. Horace Walpole shewed some of them, which Chatterton had sent him, to Gray and Mason, who were deemed, justly, first-rate authorities on antiquarian matters, and who at once pronounced them forgeries. It is deeply to be regretted that these men, perceiving, as they must have done, the great merit of these productions, had not made more particular inquiries about them, and tried to help and save the poet. Walpole, to say the least of it, treated him coldly, telling him, when he had discovered the forgery, to attend to his own business, and keeping some of his MSS. in his hands, till an indignant letter from the author compelled him to restore them.

Chatterton now determined to go to London. His three years' apprenticeship had expired, and there was in Bristol no further field for his aspiring genius. He found instant employment among the booksellers, and procured an introduction to Beckford, the patriot mayor, who tried to get him engaged upon the Opposition side in politics. Our capricious and unprincipled poet, however, declared that he was a poor author that could not write on both sides; and although his leanings were to the popular party, yet on the death of Beckford he addressed a letter to Lord North in support of his administration. He had projected some large works, such as a History of England and a History of London, and wrote flaming letters to his mother and sisters about his prospects, enclosing them at the same time small remittances of money. But his bright hopes were soon overcast. Instead of a prominent political character, he found himself a mere bookseller's hack. To this his poverty no more than his will would consent, for though that was great it was equalled by his pride. His life in the country had been regular, although his religious principles were loose; but in town, misery drove him to intemperance, and intemperance, in its reaction, to remorse and a desperate tampering with the thought, "There is one remedy for all." At last, after a vain attempt to obtain an appointment as a surgeon's mate to Africa, he made up his mind to suicide. A guinea had been sent him by a gentleman, which he declined. Mrs. Angel, his landlady, knowing him to be in want, the day before his death offered him his dinner, but this also he spurned; and, on the 25th of August 1770, having first destroyed all his papers, he swallowed arsenic, and was found dead in his bed. He was buried in a shell in the burial-place of Shoe-Lane Workhouse. He was aged seventeen years nine months and a few days. Alas for "The sleepless soul that perished in his pride!"

Chatterton, had he lived, would, perhaps, have become a powerful poet, or a powerful character of some kind. But we must now view him chiefly as a prodigy. Some have treated his power as unnatural — resembling a huge hydrocephalic head, the magnitude of which implies disease, ultimate weakness, and early death. Others maintain that, apart from the extraordinary elements that undoubtedly characterised Chatterton, and constituted him a premature and prodigious birth intellectually, there was also in parts of his poems evidence of a healthy vigour which only needed favourable circumstances to develop into transcendent excellence. Hazlitt, holding with the one of these opinions, cries, "If Chatterton had had a great work to do by living, he would have lived!" Others retort on the critic, "On the same principle, why did Keats, whom you rate so high, perish so early?" The question altogether is nugatory, seeing it can never be settled. Suffice it that these songs and rhymes of Chatterton have great beauties, apart from the age and position of their author. There may at times be madness, but there is method in it. The flight of the rhapsody is ever upheld by the strength of the wing, and while the reading discovered is enormous for a boy, the depth of feeling exhibited is equally extraordinary; and the clear, firm judgment which did not characterise his conduct, forms the root and the trunk of much of his poetry. It was said of his eyes that it seemed as if fire rolled under them; and it rolls still, and shall ever roll, below many of his verses.