1794
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Monody on the Death of Chatterton.

Poems, supposed to have been written at Bristol in the 15th Century, by Thomas Rowley. [Lancelot Sharpe, ed.]

Samuel Taylor Coleridge


The England which spurned Chatterton had likewise abused Edmund Spenser, "gentlest Bard divine." In writing an elegy for a suicide, Coleridge naturally takes the Despair episode from the first book of the Faerie Queene as a point of departure, along with Astrophel and Lycidas. He also imitates the passage ("Is this the land") James Beattie had used to taunt Churchill in Verses occasioned by the Death ... of Charles Churchill (1765). The Monody, which originally appeared anonymously, was written when Coleridge was a pupil at Christ's Hospital, and preserved in the master's "Golden Book;" it subsequently underwent considerable revision in this and later versions. The Despair motif had earlier been employed in Hannah Cowley's Monody on the Death of Chatterton, printed in the Scots Magazine 51 (September 1789) 444-45, a poem in couplets.

John Aikin: "the first piece [in Coleridge's Poems] is a Monody on the Death of Chatterton; a subject to which the author was naturally led from a proximity of birth-place, and also, as we are sorry to find, from a melancholy resemblance in disappointed hope. It is in a wild irregular strain, suited to the theme, with some very moving and some very fanciful touches. We could with pleasure transcribe a few passages, but we rather leave it to entertain the reader as a whole. It concludes with an allusion to a project of which we have already heard, as emanating from the fervid minds of this poet and two or three congenial friends, to realize a golden age in some imaginary 'undivided dale of freedom:' but which, on sober reflection, we do not wonder to find him call — 'vain Phantasies! the fleeting brood | Of woe self-solac'd in her dreamy mood!'" Monthly Review NS 20 (June 1796) 195.

A.B.C.D.: "To the Editor of the Monthly Magazine. SIR, I observer with astonishment, the following sentence in your Miscellany, for October, 1796: 'There were, at least, two monodies written on Chatterton superior to the poem in question, in the three great requisites of feeling, description, and harmony; and these written by two of the best poets this century has given birth to.' (I suppose Warton and Amwell). Now, sir, notwithstanding this strong decree of Crito, I will venture to affirm that Mr. COLERIDGE, in his monody, eminently excels his competitors. That he is superior to them in harmony, no one can entertain the least doubt; and few, who have compared the poems, will hesitate to pronounce him equally superior in feeling and description. I hope, sir, your candour will allow me to pay this fair tribute to poetical merit. I remain, sir, your's, &c." Monthly Magazine 4 (December 1797) 427.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "SIR, I hope, that this letter may arrive time enough to answer its purpose. I cannot help considering myself as having been placed in a very ridiculous light, by the gentlemen who have remarked, answered, and rejoined concerning my monody on Chatterton. I have not seen the compositions of my competitors (unless indeed the exquisite poem of Warton's, entitled The Suicide, refer to this subject) but this I know, that my own is a very poor one. It was a school exercise, somewhat altered; and it would have been omitted in the last edition of my poems, but for the request of my friend, Mr. Cottle, whose property those poems are" Monthly Magazine 5 (January 1798) 8.

Joseph Dennie: "The author of this pathetic poem, however erroneous in his political creed, is a man of genius and a poet. The description of Chatterton's first literary adventure, the budding and blasting of the Tree of Hope, and the imagery of Maternal Affection, Indignation and Despair beside the forlorn pallet of the neglected Minstrel, are all excellent; the last, in particular, reminds us of the style of the gloomy Dante. The conclusion of this poem, in which the author, in a spirit of poetry, though of the most profound ignorance of his subject, begins to rant about Freedom's 'undivided' dale in this distracted country, and imagines himself on the banks of the Susquehannah and 'all that,' alludes to a wild scheme that he and Southey and one or two more hair-brained young men had formed for migrating to the woods of Pennsylvania, where the proposed 'to fleet the time carelessly as they did in the golden age.' This project, equally romantic and ridiculous, was abandoned probably in consequence of the sinister luck of their friend Priestly. Since his ill-omen'd adventure, we have heard no more of this 'pastoral' visit to 'Arcadian' America" Port Folio [Philadelphia] NS 1 (23 August 1806) 105-06.

Joseph Cottle: "Butler, Otway, Collins, Chatterton, Burns, and men like them, instead of suffering in public estimation from the difficulties they encountered, absolutely challenge in every generous mind an excess of interest from the very circumstances that darkened the complexion of their earthly prospects" Reminiscences (1847) 7.

W. Theodore Watts: "This influence [of Chatterton on the romantics] 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.... 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" The English Poets, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 3:401-02.

Patricia Parker: "The parallel between his elegiac task and that of Milton in Lycidas is constantly being undermined by the reminder that Chatterton, unlike King, committed suicide.... Coleridge sees only too well the tendencies in himself that ally him to the earlier poet, and the one saving hope in his 'monody' is that the very temporality of this evening decline of poetry might ... bring on the new dawn" "The Progress of Phaedria's Bower" (1973) 391-92.

E. H. Coleridge in Poems (1912) reprints the manuscript version of 1790.



When faint and sad o'er Sorrow's desart wild,
Slow journeys onward, poor Misfortune's child,
When fades each lovely form by Fancy drest,
And inly pines the self-consuming breast;
No scourge of Scorpions in thy right arm dread,
No helmed Terrors nodding o'er thy head,
Assume, O DEATH! the Cherub Wings of PEACE,
And bid the heart-sick Wanderer's Anguish cease!

Thee, CHATTERTON! yon unblest Stones protect
From Want, and bleak freezings of Neglect!
Escap'd the sore wounds of Affliction's rod,
Meek at the Throne of Mercy, and of God,
Perchance thou raisest high th' enraptured hymn
Amid the blaze of Seraphim!

Yet oft ('tis Nature's bosom-starting call)
I weep, the heaven-born Genius so should fall,
And oft in Fancy's saddest hour my soul
Averted shudders at the poison'd Bowl.
Now groans my sickening Heart, as still I view
The Corse of livid hue;
And now a Flash of Indignation high
Darts thro' the Tear, that glistens in mine Eye!
Is this the Land of song-enobled Line?
Is this the Land, where Genius ne'er in vain
Pour'd forth her lofty strain?
Ah me! yet Spenser, gentlest Bard divine,
Beneath chill Disappointment's deadly shade
His weary Limbs in lonely Anguish lay'd!
And o'er her Darling dead
Pity hopeless hung her head,
While "mid the pelting of that pitiless storm,"
Sunk to the cold Earth Otway's famish'd form!

Sublime of Thought and confident of Fame,
From Vales, where Avon winds, the Minstrel came,
Light-hearted Youth! aye, as he hastes along,
He meditates the future Song,
How dauntless Aella fray'd the Danish foes;
And as floating high in air,
Glitter the sunny Visions fair,
His eyes dance rapture, and his bosom glows!
Friend to the friendless, to the sick man Health;
With generous Joy he views th' ideal Wealth;
He hears the Widow's heaven-breath'd prayer of Praise;
He marks the shelter'd Orphan's tearful gaze;
Or, where the sorrow-shrivell'd Captive lay,
Pours the bright Blaze of Freedom's noon-tide Ray;
And now indignant grasps the patriot steel,
And her own iron rod he makes Oppression feel.

Clad in Nature's rich array,
And bright in all her tender hues,
Sweet Tree of Hope! thou loveliest Child of Spring!
How fair didst thou disclose thine early bloom,
Loading the west-winds with its soft perfume!
And Fancy hovering round on shadowy wing,
On every blossom hung her fostering dews,
That changeful wanton'd to the orient Day!
Ah! soon upon the poor unshelter'd Head
Did Penury her sickly mildew shed:
And soon the scathing Lightning bade thee stand,
In frowning Horror o'er the blighted Land!

Wither are fled the charms of vernal Grace,
And Joy's wild gleams, that lighten'd o'er thy face!
Youth of tumultuous Soul, and haggard Eye!
Thy wasted form, thy hurried steps I view:
On thy cold forehead starts the anguish'd Dew:
And dreadful was that bosom-rending Sigh!

Such were the struggles of the gloomy Hour,
When Care of wither'd brow
Prepar'd the Poison's death-cold power:
Already to thy Lips was rais'd the Bowl,
When near thee stood Affection meek,
(Her Bosom bare, and wildly pale her Cheek)
Thy sullen gaze she bade thee roll
On Scenes that well might melt thy Soul;
Thy native Cot she flash'd upon thy view,
Thy native Cot, where still at close of Day
Peace smiling sate, and listen'd to the Lay;
Thy Sister's shrieks she bade thee hear,
And mark thy Mother's thrilling tear;
See, see her Breast's convulsive throe,
Her silent Agony of Woe!
Ah! dash the poison'd Chalice from thy Hand!
And thou had'st dash'd it at her soft command,
But that Despair and Indignation rose,
And told again the Story of thy Woes;
Told the keen Insult of th' unfeeling Heart,
The dread Dependence on the low-bread mind,
Told every pang, at which thy Soul might smart,
Neglect, and grinning Scorn, and Want combin'd!
Recoiling quick thou bad'st the Friend of Pain,
Roll the dark tide of Death thro' every freezing Vein!

Ye Woods! that wave o'er Avon's rocky steep,
To Fancy's ear sweet is your murm'ring deep!
For here she loves the Cypress Wreath to weave,
Watching with wistful eye the sad'ning tints of Eve.
Here far from men amid this pathless grove,
In solemn thought the Minstrel wont to rove,
Like Star-beam on the rude sequester'd Tide,
Lone-glittering, thro' the Forest's murksome pride.

And here Inspiration's eager Hour
When most the big soul feels the mad'ning Power,
These wilds, these caverns roaming o'er,
Round which the screaming Sea-gulls soar
With wild unequal steps he pass'd along,
Oft pouring on the winds a broken song:
Anon upon some rough Rock's fearful Brow,
Would pause abrupt — and gaze upon the waves below.

[pp. xxv-xxviii]