1836 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Chatterton

L. L., in "English Poets" Southern Literary Messenger [Richmond] 2 (January 1836) 104-05.



I pass over several great names, and come to one whose life was too short for the attainment of the fame to which nature gave him a title. Thomas Chatterton, "the marvellous boy," realized the fable of the nightingale, and sang with his breast against a thorn; but he grew weary of the world at eighteen, and removed himself from it. And we can hardly wonder that he should have done so, when we remember the sad end to which his boyish dreamings came among the garrets and filthy alleys of London. To fall at once from the high atmosphere, whither a poet's early longings draw him as with a golden chain — to find one's castles in air tumbling about one's ears — to feel the veins ache for want of a little bread — to be driven by that ache to the very cellars and stews of literature — to rake from some foul corner wherewithal to support life — are enough to break a spirit stouter even than that of Chatterton. It did break his spirit, and subvert the pure principles with which he began life. What stronger proof do we need of this, than that most amusing yet villainous instance of his calculating powers, in which he feels "thirteen shillings and sixpence worth of joy at the Lord Mayor's death?" A charity student in Bristol; an apprentice sleeping up in an attic with a foot-boy — "the marvellous youth" had dreams, and adventured to London in search of their fulfilment. Here he published a volume of poems purporting to be the remains of "one Rowley." These were full of crabbed spelling and black-letter phrases, and had so much the appearance of genuine antiquity, that the world was long divided upon the question of their origin. These poems are certainly known at the present day to have been forgeries by Chatterton. He wrote many other poems, chiefly characterized by a reckless and fiery tone of feeling — by a restless yearning after "a something to fill the void of a hurt spirit withal" — and by a dark melancholy, only at rare times lighted up by a gleam of his wild heart's yet wilder hopes. In London he entered upon the field of politics, and soon became a caterer for a party newspaper. Then followed the grinding meanness of booksellers and editors; and maddened by the consciousness that his genius was poured out only as water on the dust — that the exertions which he had trusted would make him great among men, did not suffice to clothe him and allay hunger, — maddened with the knowledge of these sad truths, are we to marvel that poor Chatterton should "have done his own death?"

Chatterton was not unlike Byron. The morbid misanthropy hanging unfixedly about the formerfully developed in the latter — was in both but a retort upon their fellows. Both had hearts which only detraction or cold neglect could harden into a hatred of humanity. Both threw out venom against their enemies. But whence came this venom? The affections of both were at one time as pure as the sap of the fabled honey-tree. It was only by a fermentation produced by the hot atmosphere of hostility or cruel slight, that the sap, once blander than honey, became a bitter poison.

Chatterton was like Byron too in many other respects, — in his hunger after immortality — in his alternations of excess and abstinence — in his self-consciousness of genius — and in the most dark and deistic views of death. Need I, after all that I have said of his ambition, his struggles, and his most reckless tone of writing, say that Chatterton's was a fiery and determined spirit? "His affections were subordinate to the sterner leanings of the brain. He had the stout soul and the tender heart of the old-time troubadour; but his heart was less tender than his soul was stout."

Chatterton could never have been happy. The presence of ambition — that brain-ache — would have made him miserable, had he lived beyond the green season of youth even to its gratification. But why do I say that he could have never been happy? There are surely more kinds of happiness than the one quiet kind of which Darby and Joan are a fit instance. Is there not a thunder-storm kind? The mysterious joy which we see thrown from the heart to the face in the picture of "Byron on the sea-shore," is surely a species of happiness. Chatterton, with hope to support him, might have been happy in the darkest struggles of a dark career. With hope to support him! But "that was the misery." Despair came to him and he died, (not out of his boyhood) with no thought of future renown — with no thought but of present obscurity and present wretchedness.

But although he committed suicide with "no thought of future renown," he had scarcely been buried in a shell in the burying-ground of Shoe-lane Workhouse, before "honors began to gather about his memory." The famous Tyrwhitt published his poems, with a preface, introduction and glossary; a few years after, a very splendid edition was published by Dr. Mills, Dean of Exeter, with a dissertation and commentary; more lately, Southey, the best biographer of the age, has collected his works and written his life — and incidental tributes, without number, have been offered by great names at the pauper-shrine of "the boy of Bristol." There are some verses of his minstrel's song in "Ella," which may be considered as a personal elegy.

O sing unto my roundelay—
O drop the briny tears with me;
Dance no more at holiday—
Like a running river be.
My love is dead.
Gone to his death-bed,
All under the willow tree.

Black his hair as the summer night,
White his brow as the winter snow,
Red his face as the morning light,
Cold he lies in the grave below.
My love is dead,
Gone to his death-bed,
All under the willow tree.

Sweet his tongue as the throstle's note,
Quick in the dance as thought man be—
Deft his tabor — cudgel stout—
O he lies by the willow tree.
My love is dead,
Gone to his death-bed,
All under the willow tree.

Hist, the raven flaps his wing
To the night-mares as they go,
And the death-owl hoarse doth sing,
From the briared dell below.
My love is dead,
Gone to his death-bed,
All under the willow tree.

I have little or no more to say of Thomas Chatterton; I have already said too much. But the heart rules the head when we look upon the wretched career — least wretched in its wretched end — of one fitted for the loftiest achievements. A rocket with "the wide sky" before it — the blaze and the flight of his genius was scarcely beyond the fogs that lie near earth. It fell, blackened, and scorched, and lightless, to the dust. Had "the marvellous boy" feared death more than he been taught to fear life, the rocket would have been in "the wide sky," not in the dust — the wonder of men, not their pity.

Thomas Chatterton died in 1770, aged seventeen years and nine months.