1823 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Chalkhill

Robert Nares, "John Chalkhill the Poet not fictitious" Gentleman's Magazine 93 (November 1823) 417-19.



I must beg your assistance to resist the progress of an error (as I think it) which threatens to become established in our English literature. It relates to John Chalkhill, author of the poem of Thealma and Clearchus, and of two Songs preserved in Walton's Complete Angler. An attempt is now made to annihilate the said John, and to transfer the whole merit of his poetry to one who needs no addition to his fair fame, even his friend and editor, Izaak Walton. Mr. S. W. Singer, who published a very neat reprint of Thealma, (1820) at the Chiswick-press, said very modestly, in a short Advertisement, "I have sometimes been inclined to doubt whether Thealma and Clearchus might not be a youthful production of his [Walton's] own. This is merely a conjecture, but the pastoral feeling which pervades the poem may give it some colour; and I do think that he had quite enough of the poet's imagination to have produced it."

Upon this, an unnamed writer in the Retrospective Review, (vol. IV. p. 231,) has founded the following bold assertion. "Mr. Singer was the first to question the authenticity of Walton's statement [concerning the author of the Poem], and his researches satisfied him that Chalkhill was altogether a fictitious personage." Unless this statement was drawn from a subsequent declaration of Mr. Singer, the result of further inquiry, it is contradicted by himself in the very Advertisement already quoted. For he there says, of the same poem, "it is said to bear marks of being only an unrevised fragment, and this is the only circumstance, if true, that would militate against the supposition of its having been written by Walton."

Now this circumstance does very strongly militate against it, for that it is a fragment, and not completely revised by its author, is evident; and Walton, who published it in the last year of his long life, would hardly have left it in that state, used as he was to the exercise of his pen, had it been a juvenile production of his own. Mr. Singer, therefore, does not seem, when he wrote his preface, to have been satisfied by his researches that Walton was the author. But the gentleman who conceived him to be so produces other arguments of his own. — "It is not easy to conceive, that a gentleman of his [Chalkhill's] taste and talents, who enjoyed the friendship of Spenser [as Walton asserted], should wholly escape the panegyrics or censures of his contemporaries, and the industrious researches of poetical biographers." — Observe here, that the industry of such biographers never existed till the Eighteenth Century. He proceeds, "Had he been more than a fictitious personage, honest Izaak would hardly have dismissed him with such a brief and unsatisfactory notice: the narrative old man would have treated us with some of the delightful garrulous details, in which he commemorated so many of his literary friends. The author of Thealma, the friend of Spenser, and a brother angler, certainly deserved, and would have received, a much more ample allowance of biographical gossip. The conclusion appears to us inevitable, that Chalkhill was merely a mere 'nomme de guerre,' like Peter Pindar or Barry Cornwall."

The writer then admits some possibility of doubt whether Walton might be the author, but strongly expresses his own conviction that he was: a conclusion which he attempts to establish by arguments.

The arguments, however, are specious, and have consequently convinced the Editor of a very recent and elegant edition of the Complete Angler; whether Mr. Major, the publisher, or some friend for him. [p. xlix.] Thus the opinion gains fresh force. Yet it is, probably, quite false. The honest, guileless Izaak, was little likely to publish his own verses under a false name; which he did thirty years before he sent out Thealma, if John Chalkhill meant himself; for the Complete Angler, where Chalkhill's two songs are given, was first published in 1655. As unlikely was he to crown such a fiction by a fictitious character of the supposed author, and to assert it for truth. "I have also this truth to say of the author, that he was in his time a man generally known and as well beloved; for he was humble and obliging in his behaviour, a gentleman a scholar, very innocent and prudent; and indeed his whole life was useful, quiet, and virtuous. God send the story may meet with, or make all his readers like him." Could this be Walton writing of a non-entity. or of himself?

Still more improbable is it (if more can be) that he should so bepraise the poem, if his own; saying that in it the reader "will find many hopes and fears finely painted, and feelingly expressed:" and that it "will leave in him more sympathising and virtuous impressions than ten times so much time spent in impertinent, critical, and needless disputes about religion." This from the truly modest and humble Walton, who seemed not to know, or not to think of asserting, his own most undoubted merits! Impossible!

But, to quit conjectures, what if the real John Chalkhill may yet be traced, as I think he may.

In the south cloister of Winchester Cathedral is, or was very lately, a monument to a John Chalkhill, of that very period; a Fellow of Winchester College, whose character, as given in the inscription, singularly accords with part of that given by Walton.

"H. S. E.

Joan. Chalkhill, A.M. hujus Coll'ii Annos 46 Socius, vir quoad vixit, Solitudine et Silentio, Temperantia et Castitate, Orationibus et Eleemosynis, Contemplatione et Sanctimonia, Ascetis vel primitivis par; qui cum a parvulo in regnum coelorum viam fecit, Octogenarius rapuit, 20 die Maij, 1679."

Now as Walton died at Winchester, in the prebendal house of his son-in-law, Dr. Hawkins, which probably he had always been accustomed to visit, so attached was he to his daughter and her husband, he doubtless personally knew and much esteemed this Mr. Chalkhill; and knew of him all that he has expressed in his eulogy. Nor is it improbable that, in the records of the College at Winchester, more particulars of him may yet be discovered; which, if Dr. Nott would kindly examine, he would confer an additional favour upon the friends of English literature.

The only objection that I perceive arises from the date (1678), subjoined to Walton's preface; that being the year previous to the death of Chalkhill, according to the monument. The probability is, that this date has no reference to the preface, which was most likely to be written near the time of the publication, in 1683. It might, therefore, only mark the time when the poem was put into Walton's hands by its author; being exactly a year before his death. Be this as it may, I think we have here a memorial of the real John Chalkhill.

I have no wish to deny the poetical powers of Izaak Walton: his verses on the death of Dr. Donne, prove not only that he had them, but that he was not afraid to exhibit them with his name. He wrote also, and published, verses addressed to several poets; to G. Herbert, Alex. Brome, Shirley, Cartwright, and a few lines to be subjoined to the portrait of Donne. I think it also most probable that he wrote some of the anonymous songs in his Angler. But let him not be made answerable for a poem which he did not write; and for artifices of fiction, which he surely would have considered as nothing less than dishonest. Nor let a real man be annihilated, of whom more, perhaps, may yet be discovered. N.