Thomas Chatterton

W. Theodore Watts, in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 3:400-08.

Chatterton has been neglected of late years, but Mr. Skeat's modernised version of the "Rowley" Poems will, very likely, direct as much attention to them as can be afforded by an age embarrassed already by the wealth it has inherited and by the luxuriance of its own poetic growths. And if in the following selections I have not availed myself of Mr. Skeat's modernised text, but have rather chosen a text of my own, it has been from no defective appreciation of the acuteness, the industry, and the learning apparent in every page of his edition, but because he sometimes seems to miss that peculiar musical movement governing Chatterton's ear, which often renders it impossible to replace, by any modern word whatsoever, an archaism or pseudo-archaism of his, whether invented by himself or found in Bailey or Speght. Dominated as he commonly was by eighteenth-century movements, Chatterton yet showed at times an originality of ear that has never been appreciated. As far as I know, indeed, his metrical inventiveness has never been perceived — certainly it has never been touched upon — by any of his critics, from Tyrwhitt downwards. Yet it seems necessary to touch upon it here — technical as the enquiry may seem — or how can we gauge the undeniable influence Chatterton has had, both as to spirit and as to form, upon the revival in the present century of the romantic temper — that temper, without which English poetry can scarcely perhaps hold a place at all when challenged in a court of universal criticism?

This influence has worked primarily through Coleridge, who (partly, it may be, from Chatterton's connexion with Bristol) was profoundly impressed both by the tragic pathos of Chatterton's life and by the excellence, actual as well as potential, of his work. And when we consider the influence Coleridge himself had upon the English romantic movement generally, and especially upon Shelley and Keats, and the enormous influence these latter have had upon subsequent poets, it seems impossible to refuse to Chatterton the place of the father of the New Romantic school. As to the romantic spirit, it would be difficult to name any one of his successors in whom the high temper of romance has shown so intense a life. And, as to the romantic form, it is matter of familiar knowledge, for instance, that the lyric octo-syllabic movement of which Scott made such excellent use in The Lay of the Last Minstrel, and which Byron borrowed from him, was originally borrowed (or rather stolen) by Scott from Coleridge, whose Christabel, while still in manuscript, was recited in the hearing of Scott by Coleridge's friend Stoddart. Coleridge afterwards, when Christabel was published, in 1816, speaks of the anapaestic dance with which he varies the iambic lines, as being "founded on a new principle"; and he has been much praised, and very justly, for such effects as this:—

And Christabel saw the lady's eye,
And nothing else saw she thereby,
Save the boss of the shield of Sir Leoline tall,
Which hung in a murky old niche in the wall.

That this "new principle" was known to Chatterton is seen in the following extract, which has exactly the Christabel ring — the ring which Scott only half caught and which Byron failed to really catch at all.

But when he threwe downe his asenglave,
Next came in Syr Botelier bold and brave,
The dethe of manie a Saraceen.
Theie thought him a devil from Hell's black den
Ne thinking that anie of mortalle menne
Could send so manie to the grave.
For his life to John Rumsee he render'd his thanks
Descended from Godred the King of the Manks.

With regard to octo-syllabics with anapaestic variations, it may be said no doubt that some of the miracle-plays (such as The Fall of Man) are composed in this movement, as is also one of the months in Spenser's Shepherds Calendar; but the irregularity in these is, like that of the Border ballads, mostly the irregularity of makeshift, while Chatterton's Unknown Knight, like Christabel, and like Goethe's Erl King, has several variations introduced (as Coleridge says of his own) "in correspondence with some transition in the nature of the imagery or passion." The "new principle," in short, was Chatterton's.

Again, in the mysterious suggestiveness of remote geographical names — a suggestiveness quite other than the pomp and sonority which Marlowe and Milton so loved — the world-involving echoes of Kubla Khan seem to have been caught from such lines as these in Chatterton's African eclogue Narva and Mored:

From Lorbar's cave to where the nations end....,
Explores the palaces on Lira's coast.
Where howls the war-song of the chieftain's ghost....,
Like the loud echoes on Toddida's sea,
The warrior's circle, the mysterious tree.

And turning to the question of Chatterton's influence upon Keats, it is not only indirectly through Coleridge that the rich mind of Keats shows signs of having drunk at Chatterton's fountain of romance: there is a side of Chatterton which Keats knew and which Coleridge did not.

It is difficult to express in words wherein lies the entirely spiritual kinship between Chatterton's Ballad of Charity and Keats's Eve of St. Agnes, yet I should be sceptical as to the insight of any critic who should fail to recognise that kinship. Not only are the beggar and the thunderstorm depicted with the sensuous sympathy and melodious insistence which is the great charm of The Eve of St. Agnes, but the movement of the lines is often the same. Take for instance the description of Keats's bedesman, "meagre, barefoot, wan," which is, in point of metrical movement, identical with Chatterton's description of the alms-craver, "withered, forwynd, dead."

More obvious perhaps, yet not more essentially true, is the likeness between the famous passage in Keats's Isabella, beginning—

For them the Ceylon diver held his breath.
And went all naked to the hungry shark, &c.

and these four lines in Chatterton's Narva and Mored—

Where the pale children of the feeble sun
In search of gold through every climate run,
From burning heat to freezing torments go,
And live in all vicissitudes of woe.

It was perfectly fit therefore that Keats should dedicate his Endymion to the memory of Thomas Chatterton. Not that Keats or Coleridge stole from Chatterton: no two poets had less need to steal from any one. But the whole history of poetry shows that poetic methods are a growth as well as an inspiration.

So steeped indeed was Chatterton in romance, that, except in the case of the African Eclogues, his imagination seems to be never really alive save when in the dramatic masquerade of the monk of Bristol. And here we touch the very core and centre of Chatterton's genius — his artistic identification. This is what I mean: Pope "lisped in numbers, for the numbers came"; and the Ode to Solitude written at twelve, shows how early may begin to stir the lyrical impulse — the impulse to give voice to the emotions of the soul that is born to express. The young Chatterton on a summer's day would lie down on the grass and gain for hours at the church of St. Mary Redcliffe, not in order to gather and focus for expression the personal emotions caused by the spectacle, as the child Cowley or the child Pope might have done, but in order to reproduce the picturesque antique life he imagined to have once moved there; and, as metrical language is but the ideal and quintessential form in which a writer embodies that which in the world around him is ideal and quintessential, Chatterton "lisped in numbers" too. Not that his egotism was less intense than theirs: far from it. Such energy as his can only exist as the outcome of that enormous egotism which is at the heart of all lyric production. Yet his dramatic instinct was stronger still.

Here indeed is the keynote of Chatterton's work, and, if we will consider it, of his life too. As a youthful poet showing that power of artistic self-effacement which is generally found to be incompatible with the eager energies of poetic youth, — as a producer, that is to say, of work purely artistic and in its highest reaches unadulterated by lyric egotism, — the author of the Rowley Poems (if we leave out of consideration his acknowledged pieces), however inferior to Keats in point of sheer beauty, stands alongside him in our literature, and stands with him alone.

In his childhood, so occupied was Chatterton's mind by the impression upon it of the external world through the senses, that for a long time it refused to be distracted by the common processes of education. Up to about his seventh or eighth year he could not be taught his letters, and even then this was effected through his delight in colour. To use his mother's words, "he fell in love" with the illuminated letters upon an old piece of French music; and afterwards "took to" the picturesque characters of a black letter Bible, and so learned to read. And this passion for art was universal in its scope: poetry, music; painting, sculpture, and even heraldry, — from each and all of these he drew such delights as are undreamed of save by the truly artistic mind.

Now with Keats it was not till he came at the very last to write The Eve of St. Agnes and La belle Dame sans merci, that he produced anything so purely objective as Chatterton's Ballad of Charity, given on page 409 of these selections. Yet, here is the difficulty in criticising Chatterton's work: the circumstances attending the production of such purely objective and impersonal poetry as the Rowley Poems were so exceptional that, unlike the poetry of Keats — unlike any other purely artistic poetry — it must be read entirely in connexion with the poet's life. This indeed is as necessary, in order to fully appreciate it, as though the impulse had been that of pure personal emotion such as we get in Shelley's lyrics and in the more passionate outpourings of Burns. For, with Chatterton, far more than with any other poet of the representative kind, the question, What was the nature of his artistic impulse? is mixed up with the question, What was the nature of the man? Do these Rowley poems show the vitalizing power which only genius can give? and if they do, was Chatterton's impulse to exercise that power the impulse of the dramatic poet having "the yearning of the Great Vish'nu to create a world"? or, was it that of the other class of artists, whose skill lies in "those more facile imitations of prose, promissory notes," among whom Horace Walpole would place him? For neither the assailants nor the defenders of Chatterton's character seem to see that between these two conclusions there is no middle one. Either Chatterton was a born forger, having, as useful additional endowments, Poetry and dramatic imagination almost unmatched among his contemporaries, or he was a born artist, who, before mature vision had come to show him the power and the sacredness of moral conscience in art, was so dominated by the artistic conscience — by the artist's yearning to represent, that, if perfect representation seemed to him to demand forgery, he needs must forge.

If the latter supposition is the true one, it does not, to be sure, excuse the delinquencies that shocked the ingenuous author of The Castle of Otranto — that work of "Neapolitan origin" and mediaeval translation, — but it explains an apparent anomaly in Nature: it gives a kind of harmony to a character which has hitherto been, considered so inharmonious; it clears Nature of the impeachment of having endowed a man possessing the instincts of a common forger, with human characteristics so noble and so precious as poetic genius, lofty intelligence, "courage to do or die," the pride that gives into death but not to men, joined to a depth of filial affection, a loyalty to kindred, such as stirs within us the deepest emotion whenever we recall the name of Chatterton — Chatterton, the premature man who was also to the last the loving child, who, a few days before his death, went out from his forlorn garret in Brooke Street to spend in presents for his mother and sister those precious pence that would have saved him from famine, and England from the loss of a son so noble and so gifted as he.

The barest outline of his story will show what I mean: — The posthumous child of a poor subchanter of Bristol Cathedral, whose family had been sextons for a century and a half, Chatterton may be said to have succeeded, to poverty by inheritance, and to have been reared, from his cradle, beneath the shadow of that wing which is apt to cow genius if it does not silence it — apt to stifle that haughty independence and pride which mostly accompanies genius, and of which Chatterton had more than any poet in our literature, or perhaps in any other. Yet, if the cards of life were so far against him, he was on the other hand dowered by Nature with her very choicest gifts. To a physique healthy and, according to all accounts, beautiful, — possessing indeed that quality of "strangeness" which Bacon says is essential to the highest beauty, — were added a precocity only less wonderful than the energy which accompanied it, — an intelligence which all the world, including those who reject his claims to the highest poetical gifts, have agreed to call prodigious. It was this precocity indeed which at first attracted attention to him, and which has now caused the reaction against him.

Art has nothing to do with prodigies. But Chatterton's precocity has, like everything else in connexion with him, been misunderstood. It did not develop itself in earliest childhood; and when it did show, there was in it nothing one-sided, nothing diseased, as in the painful precocity which in some children repels rather than attracts. It is important to bear this in mind in estimating Chatterton; for assuredly it may be said of the human race, more emphatically than of any other, that any departure from the laws of growth of a species is not to be taken as a sign that the individual will exhibit, at maturity, any unusual amount or intensity of the qualities by which the species is denoted. If an oak sapling should show a rapidity of growth equal to that of a poplar, we should not be driven to infer therefrom that the mature tree would show a firmer texture of wood than an ordinary oak, or a greater power of producing acorns: how, then, can we expect to see other laws at work in man? But that incisive and masculine force of intellect which astonishes us in Chatterton did not show itself till puberty, and might therefore have been, for anything that experience teaches us to the contrary, the first outburst of a unique energy that would have gone on developing and gathering strength with years.

At the age of five the attempt to teach him ever his letters had failed, and at six and a half his mother and sister still "thought he was an absolute fool." When close upon his eighth year he was admitted to Colston's Blue-coat School, Bristol. While absorbing, as a sponge absorbs water, all the knowledge to be got there, he ran through three circulating libraries; and it was then that he began to show that passion for poetry and antiquities which soon began to dominate his life. The first form, as far as is known, taken by this passion was a strange one, that of a hoax played upon a pompous pewterer of Bristol, named Burgum, for whom Chatterton fabricated a false pedigree of great antiquity, with a poem written by one of the pewterer's ancestors, The Romaunte of the Cnygte. This proving a complete success, though rewarded only with a crown-piece, Chatterton was induced to try his hand at the same kind of work again, and produced an imaginary account of the opening of Bristol Bridge in the time of Henry II, which deceived all the local antiquaries. This was followed by The Ryse of Peynctyne in Englande, wroten by T. Rowlie 1469 for Master Canynge, which deceived Horace Walpole, to whom he sent it; and finally a mass of pseudo-antique poetry, consisting of dramas, epic fragments and dramatic lyrics, which, under the name of the "Rowley Poems" gave rise after his death to almost as much angry discussion as the Ossian poetry itself. Some of this work was achieved at school, but most of it after he had been removed from school to the office of a Bristol attorney. A boyish freak resulted in his quitting Bristol for London, on the 24th of April, 1770, and beginning life there as a literary adventurer on a capital of something under five pounds, at a time when the struggle of London literary life was only less dire than it had been thirty years previously, when even the burly figure of Dr. Johnson was nearly succumbing.

He turned to every kind of literary work, — poems, essays, stories, political articles and squibs, burlettas, and even songs for the music gardens of the time at a few pence each. In May and June 1770, he had articles in The Freeholder's Magazine, The Town and Country Magazine, The London Museum, The Political Register, The Court and City Magazine, and even The Gospel Magazine. Among all the literary adventurers of his time there was none perhaps so indomitable as he. Yet, all the while, he cherished as fondly as ever those visions of the past that came to him from St. Mary Redcliffe as he lay dreaming on the grass at Bristol. He was half starving when he wrote The Ballad of Charity, which for reserved power and artistic completeness, no youthful poet has ever approached. Nor did he attack London, as other literary adventurers have done, from the bookseller's shop alone. His sagacity as a man of the world was as wonderful as his literary genius. The penniless country boy, living on a crust in Shoreditch, knew that to conquer London he must conquer the one or two magnates at whose feet the great city was content to lie. Thousands of ambitious Londoners of that day would have given much for an introduction to the potent Lord Mayor Beckford: before Chatterton had been in London two months he had achieved this, and had so impressed the great man, that Chatterton's future seemed assured. But before Beckford had time to hold out a hand to the young adventurer he suddenly died. This blow seemed fatal to a poor boy with starvation even then staring him in the face. But he fought bravely on, and would have ended victorious but for his pride. That which had been his strength was his weakness now. He would not stoop to conquer, and the time was come when it was necessary to stoop. To live by literature then was almost an impossibility, and he had determined to live by literature or die.

With a masterful pride, for which no parallel can be found, he had already quitted his friends in Shoreditch, lest they should become too familiar with his straits, and taken a garret at 39 Brooke Street, Holborn, where he produced a quantity of literary matter which under any circumstances would have been astonishing, but which is almost incredible if his landlady's story is true, that he was living sometimes on one loaf a week, "bought stale to make it last longer." At last, when starvation seemed inevitable, he did make one frantic attempt to obtain the post of ship surgeon; but this failing, he refused to try the commercial world, and steadily rejecting the gift of a penny or a meal from neighbours who tried, in vain to help him, he struggled with famine as long as it was possible, and then, on the evening of the 24th of August, 1770, he retired to his garret, locked himself in, tore up all his manuscripts, and poisoned himself with arsenic.

It is not to make capital out of the painful interest attaching to Chatterton's life that I glance at it here on his behalf. Assuredly the personal interest in a poet having such a story as his, is what the critic has specially to guard against in trying to find his proper place in the firmament of our poetic literature. To divest "the marvellous boy" of that sensational kind of interest which has been associated with his name for more than a century, and at the same time to do justice to an intelligence which Malone compared with Shakspeare's, and a genius which inspired Wordsworth and Coleridge with awe, would require an exhaustive study of that most puzzling chapter of literary history — the chapter that deals with literary forgery. And my defence of him is simply this; that, if such a study were prosecuted, we should find that in matters of literary forgery, besides the impulse of the mere mercenary impostor — as Chatterton appears to empirical critics like Warton — besides the impulse of the masquerading instinct, so strong in men of the Ireland and Horace Walpole type, there is another impulse altogether, the impulse of certain artistic natures to represent, such as we see in Sir Walter Scott (when tampering with the historical ballads), and such as we see in Chatterton when, struggling in his dark garret with famine and despair, he turns from the hack-work that at least might win him bread, to write The Ballad of Charity, the most purely artistic work perhaps of his time.