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Ch. 10: Thomas Chatterton

The history of English romanticism has its tragedy: the life and death of
Thomas Chatterton—

"The marvelous boy,
The sleepless soul that perished in his pride."[1]

The story has been often told, but it may be told again here; for, aside from its dramatic interest, and leaving out of question the absolute value of the Rowley poems, it is most instructive as to the conditions which brought about the romantic revival. It shows by what process antiquarianism became poetry.

The scene of the story was the ancient city of Bristol—old Saxon Bricgestowe, "place of the bridge"—bridge, namely, over the Avon stream, not far above its confluence with the Severn. Here Chatterton was born in 1752, the posthumous son of a dissipated schoolmaster, whose ancestors for a hundred and fifty years had been, in unbroken succession, sextons to the church of St. Mary Redcliffe. Perhaps it may be more than an idle fancy to attribute to heredity the bent which Chatterton's genius took spontaneously and almost from infancy; to guess that some mysterious ante-natal influence—"striking the electric chain wherewith we are darkly bound"—may have set vibrating links of unconscious association running back through the centuries. Be this as it may, Chatterton was the child of Redcliffe Church. St. Mary stood by his cradle and rocked it; and if he did not inherit with his blood, or draw in with his mother's milk a veneration for her ancient pile; at least the waters of her baptismal font[2] seemed to have signed him with the token of her service. Just as truly as "The Castle of Otranto" was sprung from Strawberry Hill, the Rowley poems were born of St. Mary's Church.

Chatterton's father had not succeeded to the sextonship, but he was a sub-chanter in Bristol Cathedral, and his house and school in Pile Street were only a few yards from Redcliffe Church. In this house Chatterton was born, under the eaves almost of the sanctuary; and when his mother removed soon after to another house, where she maintained herself by keeping a little dame's school and doing needle work, it was still on Redcliffe Hill and in close neighborhood to St. Mary's. The church itself—"the pride of Bristowe and the western land"—is described as "one of the finest parish churches in England,"[3] a rich specimen of late Gothic or "decorated" style; its building or restoration dating from the middle of the fifteenth century. Chatterton's uncle by marriage, Richard Phillips, had become sexton in 1748, and the boy had the run of the aisles and transepts. The stone effigies of knights, priests, magistrates, and other ancient civic worthies stirred into life under his intense and brooding imagination; his mind took color from the red and blue patterns thrown on the pavement by the stained glass of the windows; and he may well have spelled out much of the little Latin that he knew from "the knightly brasses of the tombs" and "cold hic jacets of the dead."

It is curious how early his education was self-determined to its peculiar ends. A dreamy, silent, solitary child, given to fits of moodiness, he was accounted dull and even stupid. He would not, or could not, learn his letters until, in his seventh year, his eye was caught by the illuminated capitals in an old music folio. From these his mother taught him the alphabet, and a little later he learned to read from a black-letter Bible. "Paint me an angel with wings and a trumpet," he answered, when asked what device he would choose for the little earthenware bowl that had been promised him as a gift.[4] Colston's Hospital, where he was put to school, was built on the site of a demolished monastery of Carmelite Friars; the scholars wore blue coats, with metal plates on their breasts stamped with the image of a dolphin, the armorial crest of the founder, and had their hair cropped short in imitation of the monkish tonsure. As the boy grew into a youth, there were numbered among his near acquaintances, along with the vintners, sugar-bakers, pipe-makers, apothecaries, and other tradesmen of the Bristol bourgeoisie, two church organists, a miniature painter, and an engraver of coats-of-arms—figures quaintly suggestive of that mingling of municipal life and ecclesiastical-mediaeval art which is reproduced in the Rowley poems.

"Chatterton," testifies one of his early acquaintances, "was fond of walking in the fields, particularly in Redcliffe meadows, and of talking of his manuscripts, and sometimes reading them there. There was one spot in particular, full in view of the church, in which he seemed to take a peculiar delight. He would frequently lay himself down, fix his eyes upon the church, and seem as if he were in a kind of trance. Then on a sudden he would tell me: 'That steeple was burnt down by lightning: that was the place where they formerly acted plays.'" "Among his early studies," we are told, "antiquities, and especially the surroundings of medieval life, were the favorite subjects; heraldry seems especially to have had a fascination for him. He supplied himself with charcoal, black-lead, ochre, and other colors; and with these it was his delight to delineate, in rough and quaint figures, churches, castles, tombs of mailed warriors, heraldic emblazonments, and other like belongings of the old world."[5]

Is there not a breath of the cloister in all this, reminding one of the child martyr in Chaucer's "Prioresse Tale," the "litel clergeon, seven yeer of age"?

"This litel child his litel book lerninge,
As he sat in the scole at his prymer,
He 'Alma redemptoris' herde singe,
As children lerned hir antiphoner."

A choir boy bred in cathedral closes, catching his glimpses of the sky not through green boughs, but through the treetops of the Episcopal gardens discolored by the lancet windows of the clear-stories; dreaming in the organ loft in the pauses of the music, when

"The choristers, sitting with faces aslant,
Feel the silence to consecrate more than the chant."

Thus Chatterton's sensitive genius was taking the impress of its environment. As he pored upon the antiquities of his native city, the idea of its life did sweetly creep into his study of imagination; and he gradually constructed for himself a picture of fifteenth-century Bristol, including a group of figures, partly historical and partly fabulous, all centering about Master William Canynge. Canynge was the rich Bristol merchant who founded or restored St. Mary Redcliffe's; was several times mayor of the city in the reigns of Henry VI. and Edward IV., and once represented the borough in Parliament. Chatterton found or fabled that he at length took holy orders and became dean of Westbury College. About Canynge Chatterton arranged a number of dramatis personae, some of whose names he discovered in old records and documents, such as Carpenter, Bishop of Worcester, and Sir Theobald Gorges, a knight of Wraxhall, near Bristol; together with others entirely of his own invention—as John a Iscam, whom he represents to have been a canon of St. Augustine's Abbey in Bristol; and especially one Thomas Rowley, parish priest of St. John's, employed by Canynge to collect manuscripts and antiquities. He was his poet laureate and father confessor, and to him Chatterton ascribed most of the verses which pass under the general name of the Rowley poems. But Iscam was also a poet and Master Canynge himself sometimes burst into song. Samples of the Iscam and the Canynge muse diversify the collection. The great Bristol merchant was a mediaeval Maecenas, and at his house, "nempned the Red Lodge," were played interludes—"Aella," "Goddwyn," and "The Parliament of Sprites"—composed by Rowley, or by Rowley and Iscam collaborating. Canynge sometimes wrote the prologues; and Rowley fed his patron with soft dedication and complimentary verses: "On Our Lady's Church," "Letter to the dygne Master Canynge," "The Account of W. Canynges Feast," etc. The well-known fifteenth-century poet Lydgate is also introduced into this literary cénacle, as John Ladgate, and made to exchange verse epistles with Rowley in eighteenth-century fashion. Such is the remarkable fiction which the marvelous boy erected, as a scaffolding for the fabric of sham-antique poetry and prose, which he build up during the years 1767 to 1770, i.e., from the fifteenth to the eighteenth year of his age.

There is a wide distance between the achievements of this untaught lad of humble birth and narrow opportunities, and the works of the great Sir Walter, with his matured powers and his stores of solid antiquarian lore. But the impulse that conducted them to their not dissimilar tasks was the same. In "Yarrow Revisited," Wordsworth uses, à propos of Scott, the expression "localized romance." It was, indeed, the absorbing local feeling of Scott, his patriotism, his family pride, his attachment to the soil, that brought passion and poetry into his historical pursuits. With Chatterton, too, this absorption in the past derived its intensity from his love of place. Bristol was his world; in "The Battle of Hastings," he did not forget to introduce a Bristowan contingent, led by a certain fabulous Alfwold, and performing prodigies of valor upon the Normans. The image of mediaeval life which he succeeded in creating was, of course, a poor, faint simulacrum, compared with Scott's. He lacked knowledge, leisure, friends, long life—everything that was needed to give his work solidity. All that he had was a creative, though undisciplined imagination, together with an astonishing industry, persistence, and secretiveness. Yet with all his disadvantages, his work, with all its imperfections, is far more striking than the imitative verse of the Wartons, or the thin, diffused medievalism of Walpole and Clara Reeve. It is the product of a more original mind and a more intense conception.

In the muniment room over the north porch of St. Mary Redcliffe's were several old chests filled with parchments: architectural memoranda, church-wardens' accounts, inventories of vestments, and similar parish documents. One of these chests, known as Master Canynge's coffer, had been broken open some years before, and whatever was of value among its contents removed to a place of safety. The remainder of the parchments had been left scattered about, and Chatterton's father had carried a number of them home and used them to cover copy-books. The boy's eye was attracted by these yellow sheep-skins, with their antique script; he appropriated them and kept them locked up in his room.

How early he conceived the idea of making this treasure-trove responsible for the Rowley myth, which was beginning to take shape in his mind, is uncertain. According to the testimony of a schoolfellow, by name Thistlethwaite, Chatterton told him in the summer of 1764 that he had a number of old manuscripts, found in a chest in Redcliffe Church, and that he had lent one of them to Thomas Philips, an usher in Colston's Hospital. Thistlethwaite says that Philips showed him this manuscript, a piece of vellum pared close around the edge, on which was traced in pale and yellow writing, as if faded with age, a poem which he thinks identical with "Elinoure and Juga," afterward published by Chatterton in the Town and Country Magazine for May, 1769. One is inclined to distrust this evidence. "The Castle of Otranto" was first published in December, 1764, and the "Reliques," only in the year following. The latter was certainly known to Chatterton; many of the Rowley poems, "The Bristowe Tragedie," e.g., and the ministrel songs in "Aella," show ballad influence[6]; while it seems not unlikely that Chatterton was moved to take a hint from the disguise—slight as it was—assumed by Walpole in the preface to his romance.[7] But perhaps this was not needed to suggest to Chatterton that the surest way to win attention to his poems would be to ascribe them to some fictitious bard of the Middle Ages. It was the day of literary forgery; the Ossian controversy was raging, and the tide of popular favor set strongly toward the antique. A series of avowed imitations of old English poetry, however clever, would have had small success. But the discovery of a hitherto unknown fifteen-century poet was an announcement sure to interest the learned and perhaps a large part of the reading public. Besides, instances are not rare where a writer has done his best work under a mask. The poems composed by Chatterton in the disguise of Rowley—a dramatically imagined persona behind which he lost his own identity—are full of a curious attractiveness; while his acknowledged pieces are naught. It is not worth while to bear down very heavily on the moral aspects of this kind of deception. The question is one of literary methods rather than of ethics. If the writer succeeds by the skill of his imitations, and the ingenuity of the evidence that he brings to support them, in actually imposing upon the public for a time, the success justifies the attempt. The artist's purpose is to create a certain impression, and the choice of means must be left to himself.

In the summer of 1764 Chatterton was barely twelve, and wonderful as his precocity was, it is doubtful whether he had got so far in the evolution of the Rowley legend as Thistlethwaite's story would imply. But it is certain that three years later, in the spring of 1767, Chatterton gave Mr. Henry Burgum, a worthy pewterer of Bristol, a parchment emblazoned with the "de Bergham," coat-of-arms, which he pretended to have found in St. Mary's Church, furnishing him also with two copy-books, in which were transcribed the "de Bergham," pedigree, together with three poems in pseudo-antique spelling. One of these, "The Tournament," described a joust in which figured one Sir Johan de Berghamme, a presumable ancestor of the gratified pewterer. Another of them, "The Romaunte of the Cnyghte," purported to be the work of this hero of the tilt-yard, "who spent his whole life in tilting," but notwithstanding found time to write several books and translate "some part of the Iliad under the title 'Romance of Troy.'"

All this stuff was greedily swallowed by Burgum, and the marvelous boy next proceeded to befool Mr. William Barrett, a surgeon and antiquary who was engaged in writing a history of Bristol. To him he supplied copies of supposed documents in the muniment room of Redcliffe Church: "Of the Auntiaunte Forme of Monies," and the like: deeds, bills, letters, inscriptions, proclamations, accounts of churches and other buildings, collected by Rowley for his patron, Canynge: many of which this singularly uncritical historian incorporated in his "History of Bristol," published some twenty years later. He also imparted to Barrett two Rowleian poems, "The Parliament of Sprites," and "The Battle of Hastings" (in two quite different versions). In September, 1768, a new bridge was opened at Bristol over the Avon; and Chatterton, who had now been apprenticed to an attorney, took advantage of the occasion to send anonymously to the printer of Farley's Bristol Journal a description of the mayor's first passing over the old bridge in the reign of Henry II. This was composed in obsolete language and alleged to have been copied from a contemporary manuscript. It was the first published of Chatterton's fabrications. In the years 1768-69 he produced and gave to Mr. George Catcott the long tragical interude "Aella," "The Bristowe Tragedie," and other shorter pieces, all of which he declared to be transcripts from manuscripts in Canynge's chest, and the work of Thomas Rowley, a secular priest of Bristol, who flourished about 1460. Catcott was a local book-collector and the partner of Mr. Burgum. He was subsequently nicknamed "Rowley's midwife."

In December, 1768, Chatterton opened a correspondence with James Dodsley, the London publisher, saying that several ancient poems had fallen into his hands, copies of which he offered to supply him, if he would send a guinea to cover expenses. He inclosed a specimen of "Aella." "The motive that actuates me to do this," he wrote, "is to convince the world that the monks (of whom some have so despicable an opinion) were not such blockheads as generally thought, and that good poetry might be wrote in the dark days of superstition, as well as in these more enlightened ages." Dodsley took no notice of the letters, and the owner of the Rowley manuscripts next turned to Horace Walpole, whose tastes as a virtuoso, a lover of Gothic, and a romancer might be counted on to enlist his curiosity in Chatterton's find. The document which he prepared for Walpole was a prose paper entitled "The Ryse of Peyncteynge yn Englande, wroten by T. Rowleie, 1469, for Mastre Canynge," and containing inter alia, the following extraordinary "anecdote of painting" about Afflem, an Anglo-Saxon glass-stainer of Edmond's reign who was taken prisoner by the Danes. "Inkarde, a soldyer of the Danes, was to slea hym; onne the Nete before the Feeste of Deathe hee founde Afflem to bee hys Broder Affrighte chanynede uppe hys soule. Gastnesse dwelled yn his Breaste. Oscarre, the greate Dane, gave hest hee shulde bee forslagene with the commeynge Sunne: no tears colde availe; the morne cladde yn roabes of ghastness was come, whan the Danique Kynge behested Oscarre to arraie hys Knyghtes eftsoones for Warre. Afflem was put yn theyre flyeynge Battailes, sawe his Countrie ensconced wyth Foemen, hadde hys Wyfe ande Chyldrenne brogten Capteeves to hys Shyppe, ande was deieynge wythe Soorowe, whanne the loude blautaunte Wynde hurled the battayle agaynste an Heck. Forfraughte wythe embolleynge waves, he sawe hys Broder, Wyfe and Chyldrenne synke to Deathe: himself was throwen onne a Banke ynne the Isle of Wyghte, to lyve hys lyfe forgard to all Emmoise: thus moche for Afflem."[8]

This paper was accompanied with notes explaining queer words and giving short biographical sketches of Canynge, Rowley, and other imaginary characters, such as John, second abbot of St. Austin's Minster, who was the first English painter in oils and also the greatest poet of his age. "Take a specimen of his poetry, 'On King Richard I.':

"'Harte of Lyone! Shake thie Sworde,
Bare this mortheynge steinede honde,' etc."

The whole was inclosed in a short note to Walpole, which ran thus:

"Sir, Being versed a little in antiquitys, I have met with several curious manuscripts, among which the following may be of Service to you, in any future Edition of your truly entertaining Anecdotes of Painting.[9] In correcting the mistakes (if any) in the Notes, you will greatly oblige Your most humble Servant, Thomas Chatterton."

Walpole replied civilly, thanking his correspondent for what he had sent and for his offer of communicating his manuscripts, but disclaiming any ability to correct Chatterton's notes. "I have not the happiness of understanding the Saxon language, and, without your learned notes, should not have been able to comprehend Rowley's text." He asks where Rowley's poems are to be found, offers to print them, and pronounces the Abbot John's verses "wonderful for their harmony and spirit." This encouragement called out a second letter from Chatterton, with another and longer extract from the "Historie of Peyncteynge yn Englande," including translations into the Rowley dialect of passages from a pair of mythical Saxon poets: Ecca, Bishop of Hereford, and Elmar, Bishop of Selseie, "fetyve yn Workes of ghastlienesse," as ecce signum:

"Nowe maie alle Helle open to golpe thee downe," etc.

But by this time Walpole had begun to suspect imposture. He had been lately bitten in the Ossian business and had grown wary in consequence. Moreover, Chatterton had been incautious enough to show his hand in his second letter (March 30). "He informed me," said Walpole, in his history of the affair, "that he was the son of a poor widow . . . that he was clerk or apprentice to an attorney, but had a taste and turn for more elegant studies; and hinted a wish that I would assist him with my interest in emerging out of so dull a profession, by procuring him someplace." Meanwhile, distrusting his own scholarship, Walpole had shown the manuscripts to his friends Gray and Mason, who promptly pronounced them modern fabrications and recommended him to return them without further notice. But Walpole, good-naturedly considering that it was no "grave crime in a young bard to have forged false notes of hand that were to pass current only in the parish of Parnassus," wrote his ingenious correspondent a letter of well-meant advice, counseling him to stick to his profession, and saying that he "had communicated his transcripts to much better judges, and that they were by no means satisfied with the authenticity of his supposed manuscripts." Chatterton then wrote for his manuscripts, and after some delay—Walpole having been absent in Parish for several months—they were returned to him.

In 1769 Chatterton had begun contributing miscellaneous articles, in prose and verse, to the Town and Country Magazine, a London periodical. Among these appeared the eclogue of "Elinoure and Juga,"[10] the only one of the Rowley poems printed during its author's lifetime. He had now turned his pen to the service of politics, espousing the side of Wilkes and liberty. In April, 1770, he left Bristol for London, and cast himself upon the hazardous fortunes of a literary career. Most tragical is the story of the poor, unfriended lad's struggle against fate for the next few months. He scribbled incessantly for the papers, receiving little or no pay. Starvation confronted him; he was too proud to ask help, and on August 24 he took poison and died, at the age of seventeen years and nine months.

With Chatterton's acknowledged writings we have nothing here to do; they include satires in the manner of Churchill, political letters in the manner of Junius, squibs, lampoons, verse epistles, elegies, "African eclogues," a comic burletta, "The Revenge"—played at Marylebone Gardens shortly after his death—with essays and sketches in the style that the Spectator and Rambler had made familiar: "The Adventures of a Star," "The Memoirs of a Sad Dog," and the like. They exhibit a precocious cleverness, but have no value and no interest today. One gets from Chatterton's letters and miscellanies an unpleasant impression of his character. There is not only the hectic quality of too early ripeness which one detects in Keats' correspondence; and the defiant swagger, the affectation of wickedness and knowingness that one encounters in the youthful Byron, and that is apt to attend the stormy burst of irregular genius upon the world; but there are things that imply a more radical unscrupulousness. But it would be harsh to urge any such impressions against one who was no more than a boy when he perished, and whose brief career had struggled through cold obstruction to its bitter end. The best traits in Chatterton's character appear to have been his proud spirit of independence and his warm family affections.

The death of an obscure penny-a-liner, like young Chatterton, made little noise at first. But gradually it became rumored about in London literary coteries that manuscripts of an interesting kind existed at Bristol, purporting to be transcripts from old English poems; and that the finder, or fabricator, of the same was the unhappy lad who had taken arsenic the other day, to anticipate a slower death from hunger. It was in April, 1771, that Walpole first heard of the fate of his would-be protégé. "Dining," he says, "at the Royal Academy, Dr. Goldsmith drew the attention of the company with an account of a marvelous treasure of ancient poems lately discovered at Bristol, and expressed enthusiastic belief in them; for which he was laughed at by Dr. Johnson, who was present. I soon found this was the trouvaille of my friend Chatterton, and I told Dr. Goldsmith that this novelty was known to me, who might, if I had pleased, have had the honor of ushering the great discovery to the learned world. You may imagine, sir, we did not all agree in the measure of our faith; but though his credulity diverted me, my mirth was soon dashed; for, on asking about Chatterton, he told me he had been in London and had destroyed himself."

With the exception of "Elinour and Juga," already mentioned, the Rowley poems were still unprinted. The manuscripts, in Chatterton's handwriting, were mostly in the possession of Barrett and Catcott. They purported to be copies of Rowley's originals; but of these alleged originals, the only specimens brought forward by Chatterton were a few scraps of parchment containing, in one instance, the first thirty-four lines of the poem entitled "The Storie of William Canynge"; in another a prose account of one "Symonne de Byrtonne," and, in still others, the whole of the short-verse pieces, "Songe to Aella" and "The Accounte of W. Canynge's Feast." These scraps of vellum are described as about six inches square, smeared with glue or brown varnish, or stained with ochre, to give them an appearance of age. Thomas Warton had seen one of them, and pronounced it a clumsy forgery; the script not of the fifteenth century, but unmistakably modern. Southey describes another as written, for the most part, in an attorney's regular engrossing hand. Mr. Skeat "cannot find the slightest indication that Chatterton had ever seen a MS. of early date; on the contrary, he never uses the common contractions, and he was singularly addicted to the use of capitals, which in old MSS. are rather scarce."

Boswell tells how he and Johnson went down to Bristol in April, 1776, "where I was entertained with seeing him inquire upon the spot into the authenticity of Rowley's poetry, as I had seen him inquire upon the spot into the authenticity of Ossian's poetry. Johnson said of Chatterton, 'This is the most extraordinary young man that has encountered my knowledge. It is wonderful how the whelp has written such things.'"

In 1777, seven years after Chatterton's death, his Rowley poems were first collected and published by Thomas Tyrwhitt, the Chaucerian editor, who gave, in an appendix, his reasons for believing that Chatterton was their real author, and Rowley a myth.[11] These reasons are convincing to any modern scholar. Tyrwhitt's opinion was shared at the time by all competent authorities—Gray, Thomas Warton, and Malone, the editor of the variorum Shakspere, among others. Nevertheless, a controversy sprang up over Rowley, only less lively than the dispute about Ossian, which had been going on since 1760. Rowley's most prominent champions were the Rev. Dr. Symmes, who wrote in the London Review; the Rev. Dr. Sherwin, in the Gentleman's Magazine; Dr. Jacob Bryant,[12] and Jeremiah Milles, D.D., Dean of Exeter, who published a sumptuous quarto edition of the poems in 1782.[13] These asserters of Rowley belonged to the class of amateur scholars whom Edgar Poe used to speak of as "cultivated old clergymen." They had the usual classical training of Oxford and Cambridge graduates, but no precise knowledge of old English literature. They had the benevolent curiosity of Mr. Pickwick, and the gullibility—the large, easy swallow—which seems to go with the clerico-antiquarian habit of mind.

Nothing is so extinct as an extinct controversy; and, unlike the Ossian puzzle, which was a harder nut to crack, this Rowley controversy was really settled from the start. It is not essential to our purpose to give any extended history of it. The evidence relied upon by the supporters of Rowley was mainly of the external kind: personal testimony, and especially the antecedent unlikeliness that a boy of Chatterton's age and imperfect education could have reared such an elaborate structure of deceit; together with the inferiority of his acknowledged writings to the poems that he ascribed to Rowley. But Tyrwhitt was a scholar of unusual thoroughness and acuteness; and, having a special acquaintance with early English, he was able to bring to the decision of the question evidence of an internal nature which became more convincing in proportion as the knowledge necessary to understand his argument increased; i.e., as the number of readers increased, who knew something about old English poetry. Indeed, it was nothing but the general ignorance of the spelling, flexions, vocabulary, and scansion of Middle English verse, that made the controversy possible.

Tyrwhitt pointed out that the Rowleian dialect was not English of the fifteenth century, nor of any century, but a grotesque jumble of archaic words of very different periods and dialects. The orthography and grammatical forms were such as occurred in no old English poet known to the student of literature. The fact that Rowley used constantly the possessive pronominal form itts, instead of his; or the other fact that he used the termination en in the singular of the verb, was alone enough to stamp the poems as spurious. Tyrwhitt also showed that the syntax, diction, idioms, and stanza forms were modern; that if modern words were substituted throughout for the antique, and the spelling modernized, the verse would read like eighteenth-century work. "If anyone," says Scott, in his review of the Southey and Cottle edition, "resists the internal evidence of the style of Rowley's poems, we make him welcome to the rest of the argument; to his belief that the Saxons imported heraldry and gave armorial bearings (which were not known till the time of the Crusades); that Mr. Robert [sic] Canynge, in the reign of Edward IV., encouraged drawing and had private theatricals." In this article Scott points out a curious blunder of Chatterton's which has become historic, though it is only one of a thousand. In the description of the cook in the General Prologue to the "Canterbury Tales," Chaucer had written:

"But gret harm was it, as it thoughte me,
That on his schyne a mormal hadde he,
For blankmanger he made with the beste."

Mormal, in this passage, means a cancerous sore, and blankmanger is a certain dish or confection—the modern blancmange. But a confused recollection of the whole was in Chatterton's mind, when among the fragments of paper and parchment which he covered with imitations of ancient script, and which are now in the British Museum,—"The Yellow Roll," "The Purple Roll," etc.,—he inserted the following title in "The Rolls of St. Bartholomew's Priory," purporting to be old medical prescriptions; "The cure of mormalles and the waterie leprosie; the rolle of the blacke mainger"; turning Chaucer's innocent blankmanger into some kind of imaginary black mange.

Skeat believes that Chatterton had read very little of Chaucer, probably only a small portion of the Prologue to the "Canterbury Tales." "If he had really taken pains," he thinks, "To read and study Chaucer of Lydgate or any old author earlier than the age of Spenser, the Rowley poems would have been very different. They would then have borne some resemblance to the language of the fifteenth century, whereas they are rather less like the language of that period than of any other. The spelling of the words is frequently too late, or too bizarre, whilst many of the words themselves are too archaic or too uncommon."[14] But this internal evidence, which was so satisfactory to Scott, was so little convincing to Chatterton's contemporaries that Tyrwhitt felt called upon to publish in 1782 a "Vindication" of his appendix; and Thomas Warton put forth in the same year an "Enquiry," in which he reached practically the same conclusions with Tyrwhitt. And yet Warton had devoted the twenty-sixth section of the second volume of his "History of English Poetry" (1778,) to a review of the Rowley poems, on the ground that "as they are held to be real by many respectable critics, it was his duty to give them a place in this series": a curious testimony to the uncertainty of the public mind on the question, and a half admission that the poems might possibly turn out to be genuine.[15]

Tyrwhitt proved clearly enough that Chatterton wrote the Rowley poems, but it was reserved for Mr. Skeat to show just how he wrote them. The modus operandi was about as follows: Chatterton first made, for his private use, a manuscript glossary, by copying out the words in the glossary to Speght's edition of Chaucer, and those marked as old in Bailey's and Kersey's English Dictionaries. Next he wrote his poem in modern English, and finally rewrote it, substituting the archaic words for their modern equivalents, and altering the spelling throughout into an exaggerated imitation of the antique spelling in Speght's Chaucer. The mistakes that the he made are instructive, as showing how closely he followed his authorities, and how little independent knowledge he had of genuine old English. Thus, to give a few typical examples of the many in Mr. Skeat's notes: in Kersey's dictionary occurs the word gare, defined as "cause." This is the verb gar, familiar to all readers of Burns,[16] and meaning to cause, to make; but Chatterton, taking it for the noun, cause, employs it with grotesque incorrectness in such connections as these:

"Perchance in Virtue's gare rhyme might be then":
"If in this battle luck deserts our gare."

Again the Middle English howten (Modern English, hoot) is defined by Speght as "hallow," i.e., halloo. But Kersey and Bailey misprint this "hollow"; and Chatterton, entering it so in his manuscript list of old words, evidently takes it to be the adjective "hollow" and uses it thus in the line:

"Houten are wordes for to telle his doe," i.e.,
Hollow are words to tell his doings.

Still again, in a passage already quoted,[17] it is told how the "Wynde hurled the Battayle"—Rowleian for a small boat—"agaynste an Heck." Heck in this and other passages was a puzzle. From the context it obviously meant "rock," but where did Chatterton get it? Mr. Skeat explains this. Heck is a provincial word signifying "rack," i.e., "hay-rack"; but Kersey misprinted it "rock," and Chatterton followed him. A typical instance of the kind of error that Chatterton was perpetually committing was his understanding the "Listed, bounded," i.e., edged (as in the "list" or selvage of cloth) for "bounded" in the sense of jumped, and so coining from it the verb "to liss"=to jump:

"The headed javelin lisseth here and there."

Every page in the Rowley poems abounds in forms which would have been as strange to an Englishman of the fifteenth as they are to one of the nineteenth century. Adjectives are used for nouns, nouns for verbs, past participles for present infinitives; and derivatives and variants are employed which never had any existence, such as hopelen=hopelessness, and anere=another. Skeat says, that "an analysis of the glossary in Milles's edition shows that the genuine old English words correctly used, occurring in the Rowleian dialect, amount to only about seven per cent, of all the old words employed." It is probable that, by constant use of his manuscript glossary, the words became fixed in Chatterton's memory and he acquired some facility in composing at first hand in this odd jargon. Thus he uses the archaic words quite freely as rhyme words, which he would not have been likely to do unless he had formed the habit of thinking to some degree, in Rowleian.

The question now occurs, apart from the tragic interest of Chatterton's career, from the mystery connected with the incubation and hatching of the Rowley poems, and from their value as records of a very unusual precocity—what independent worth have they as poetry, and what has been the extent of their literary influence? The dust of controversy has long since settled, and what has its subsidence made visible? My own belief is that the Rowley poems are interesting principally as literary curiosities—the work of an infant phenomenon—and that they have little importance in themselves, or as models and inspirations to later poets. I cannot help thinking that, upon this subject, many critics have lost their heads. Malone, e.g., pronounced Chatterton the greatest genius that England had produced since Shakspere. Professor Masson permits himself to say: "The antique poems of Chatterton are perhaps as worthy of being read consecutively as many portions of the poetry of Byron, Shelley, or Keats. There are passages in them, at least, quite equal to any to be found in these poets."[18] Mr. Gosse seems to me much nearer the truth: "Our estimate of the complete originality of the Rowley poems must be tempered by a recollection of the existence of 'The Castle of Otranto' and 'The Schoolmistress,' of the popularity of Percy's 'Reliques' and the 'Odes' of Gray, and of the revival of a taste for Gothic literature and art which dates from Chatterton's infancy. Hence the claim which has been made for Chatterton as the father of the romantic school, and as having influenced the actual style of Coleridge and Keats, though supported with great ability, appears to be overcharged. So also the positive praise given to the Rowley poems, as artistic productions full of rich color and romantic melody, may be deprecated without any refusal to recognize these qualities in measure. There are frequent flashes of brilliancy in Chatterton, and one or two very perfectly sustained pieces; but the main part of his work, if rigorously isolated from the melodramatic romance of his career, is surely found to be rather poor reading, the work of a child of exalted genius, no doubt, yet manifestly the work of a child all through."[19]

Let us get a little closer to the Rowley poems, as they stand in Mr. Skeat's edition, stripped of their sham-antique spelling and with their language modernized wherever possible; and we shall find, I think, that tried by an absolute standard, they are markedly inferior not only to true mediaeval work like Chaucer's poems and the English and Scottish ballads, but also to the best modern work conceived in the same spirit: to "Christabel" and "The Eve of St. Agnes," and "Jock o'Hazeldean" and "Sister Helen," and "The Haystack in the Flood." The longest of the Rowley poems is "Aella," "a tragycal enterlude or discoorseynge tragedie" in 147 stanzas, and generally regarded as Chatterton's masterpiece.[20] The scene of this tragedy is Bristol and the neighboring Watchet Mead; the period, during the Danish invasions. The hero is the warden of Bristol Castle.[21] While he is absent on a victorious campaign against the Danes, his bride, Bertha, is decoyed from home by his treacherous lieutenant, Celmond, who is about to ravish her in the forest, when he is surprised and killed by a band of marauders. Meanwhile Aella has returned home, and finding that his wife has fled, stabs himself mortally. Bertha arrives in time to hear his dying speech and make the necessary explanations, and then dies herself on the body of her lord. It will be seen that the plot is sufficiently melodramatic; the sentiments and dialogue are entirely modern, when translated out of Rowleian into English. The verse is a modified form of the Spenserian, a ten-line stanza which Mr. Skeat says is an invention of Chatterton and a striking instance of his originality.[22] It answers very well in descriptive passages and soliloquies; not so well in the "discoorseynge" parts. As this is Chatterton's favorite stanza, in which "The Battle of Hastings," "Goddwyn," "English Metamorphosis" and others of the Rowley series are written, an example of it may be cited here, from "Aella."

Scene, Bristol. Celmond, alone.
The world is dark with night; the winds are still,
Faintly the moon her pallid light makes gleam;
The risen sprites the silent churchyard fill,
With elfin fairies joining in the dream;
The forest shineth with the silver leme;
Now may my love be sated in its treat;
Upon the brink of some swift running stream,
At the sweet banquet I will sweetly eat.
This is the house; quickly, ye hinds, appear.

Enter a servant.

Cel. Go tell to Bertha straight, a stranger waiteth here.

The Rowley poems include, among other things, a number of dramatic or quasi-dramatic pieces, "Goddwyn," "The Tournament," "The Parliament of Sprites"; the narrative poem of "The Battle of Hastings," and a collection of "eclogues." These are all in long-stanza forms, mostly in the ten-lined stanza. "English Metamorphosis" is an imitation of a passage in "The Faërie Queene," (book ii. canto x. stanzas 5-19). "The Parliament of Sprites" is an interlude played by Carmelite friars at William Canynge's house on the occasion of the dedication of St. Mary Redcliffe's. One after another the antichi spiriti dolenti rise up and salute the new edifice: Nimrod and the Assyrians, Anglo-Saxon ealdormen and Norman knights templars, and citizens of ancient Bristol. Among others, "Elle's sprite speaks":

"Were I once more cast in a mortal frame,
To hear the chantry-song sound in mine ear,
To hear the masses to our holy dame,
To view the cross-aisles and the arches fair!
Through the half-hidden silver-twinkling glare
Of yon bright moon in foggy mantles dressed,
I must content this building to aspere,[23]
Whilst broken clouds the holy sight arrest;
Till, as the nights grow old, I fly the light.
Oh! were I man again, to see the sight!"

Perhaps the most engaging of the Rowley poems are "An Excelente Balade of Charitie," written in the rhyme royal; and "The Bristowe Tragedie," in the common ballad stanza, and said by Tyrwhitt to be founded on an historical fact: the excecution at Bristol, in 1461, of Sir Baldwin Fulford, who fought on the Lancastrian side in the Wars of the Roses. The best quality in Chatterton's verse is its unexpectedness,—sudden epithets or whole lines, of a wild and artless sweetness,—which goes far to explain the fascination that he exercised over Coleridge and Keats. I mean such touches as these:

"Once as I dozing in the witch-hour lay."

"Brown as the filbert dropping from the shell."

"My gorme emblanchèd with the comfreie plant."

"Where thou may'st here the sweetè night-lark chant,
Or with some mocking brooklet sweetly glide."

"Upon his bloody carnage-house he lay,
Whilst his long shield did gleam with the sun's rising ray."

"The red y-painted oars from the black tide,
Carved with devices rare, do shimmering rise."

"As elfin fairies, when the moon shines bright,
In little circles dance upon the green;
All living creatures fly far from their sight,
Nor by the race of destiny be seen;
For what he be that elfin fairies strike,
Their souls will wander to King Offa's dyke."

The charming wildness of Chatterton's imagination—which attracted the notice of that strange, visionary genius William Blake[24]—is perhaps seen at its best in one of the minstrel songs in "Aella." This is obviously an echo of Ophelia's song in "Hamlet," but Chatterton gives it a weird turn of his own:

"Hark! the raven flaps his wing
In the briared dell below;
Hark! the death owl loud doth sing
To the nightmares, as they go.
My love is dead.
Gone to his death-bed
All under the willow tree.

"See the white moon shines on high,[25]
Whiter is my true-love's shroud,
Whiter than the morning sky,
Whiter than the evening cloud.
My love is dead," etc.

It remains to consider briefly the influence of Chatterton's life and writings upon his contemporaries and successors in the field of romantic poetry. The dramatic features of his personal career drew, naturally, quite as much if not more attention than his literary legacy to posterity. It was about nine years after his death that a clerical gentleman, Sir Herbert Croft, went to Bristol to gather materials for a biography. He talked with Barrett and Catcott, and with many of the poet's schoolmates and fellow-townsmen, and visited his mother and sister, who told him anecdotes of the marvelous boy's childhood and gave him some of his letters. Croft also traced Chatterton's footsteps in London, where he interviewed, among others, the coroner who had presided at the inquest over the suicide's body. The result of these inquiries he gave to the world in a book entitled "Love and Madness" (1780).[26] Southey thought that Croft had treated Mrs. Chatterton shabbily, in making her no pecuniary return from the profits of his book; and arraigned him publicly for this in the edition of Chatterton's works which he and Joseph Cottle—both native Bristowans—published in three volumes in 1803. This was at first designed to be a subscription edition for the benefit of Chatterton's mother and sister, but, the subscriptions not being numerous enough, it was issued in the usual way, through "the trade."

It was in 1795, just a quarter of a century after Chatterton's death, that Southey and Coleridge were married in St. Mary Redcliffe's Church to the Misses Edith and Sara Fricker. Coleridge was greatly interested in Chatterton. In his "Lines on Observing a Blossom on the First of February, 1796," he compares the flower to

"Bristowa's bard, the wondrous boy,
An amaranth which earth seemed scarce to own,
Blooming 'mid poverty's drear wintry waste."

And a little earlier than this, when meditating his pantisocracy scheme with Southey and Lovell, he had addressed the dead poet in his indignant "Monody on the Death of Chatterton," associating him in imagination with the abortive community on the Susquehannah:

"O Chatterton, that thou wert yet alive!
Sure thou would'st spread thy canvas to the gale,
And love with us the tinkling team to drive
O'er peaceful freedom's undivided dale;
And we at sober eve would round thee throng,
Hanging enraptured on thy stately song,
And greet with smiles the young-eyed poesy
All deftly masked as hoar antiquity. . .
Yet will I love to follow the sweet dream
Where Susquehannah pours his untamed stream;
And on some hill, whose forest-frowning side
Waves o'er the murmurs of his calmer tide,
Will raise a solemn cenotaph to thee,
Sweet harper of time-shrouded ministrelsy."

It might be hard to prove that the Rowley poems had very much to do with giving shape to Coleridge's own poetic output. Doubtless, without them, "Christabel," and "The Ancient Mariner," and "The Darke Ladye" would still have been; and yet it is possible that they might not have been just what they are. In "The Ancient Mariner" there is the ballad strain of the "Reliques," but plus something of Chatterton's. In such lines as these:

"The bride hath paced into the hall
Red as a rose is she:
Nodding their heads before her, goes
The merry minstrelsy;"

or as these:

"The wedding guest here beat his breast
For he heard the loud bassoon:"

one catches a far-away reverberation from certain stanzas of "The Bristowe Tragedie:" this, e.g.,

"Before him went the council-men
In scarlet robes and gold,
And tassels spangling in the sun,
Much glorious to behold;"

and this:

"In different parts a godly psalm
Most sweetly they did chant:
Behind their backs six minstrels came,
Who tuned the strung bataunt."[27]

Among all the young poets of the generation that succeeded Chatterton, there was a tender feeling of comradeship with the proud and passionate boy, and a longing to admit him of their crew. Byron, indeed, said that he was insane; but Shelley, in "Adonais," classes him with Keats among "the inheritors of unfulfilled renown." Lord Houghton testifies that Keats had a prescient sympathy with Chatterton in his early death. He dedicated "Endymion" to his memory. In his epistle "To George Felton Mathew," he asks him to help him find a place

"Where we may soft humanity put on,
And sit, and rhyme, and think on Chatterton."[28]

Keats said that he always associated the season of autumn with the memory of Chatterton. He asserted, somewhat oddly, that he was the purest writer in the English language and used "no French idiom or particles, like Chaucer." In a letter from Jane Porter to Keats about the reviews of his "Endymion," she wrote: "Had Chatterton possessed sufficient manliness of mind to know the magnanimity of patience, and been aware that great talents have a commission from Heaven, he would not have deserted his post, and his name might have been paged with Milton."

Keats was the poetic child of Spenser, but some traits of manner—hard to define, though not to feel—he inherited from Chatterton. In his unfinished poem, "The Eve of St. Mark," there is a Rowleian accent in the passage imitative of early English, and in the loving description of the old volume of saints' legends whence it is taken, with its

"—pious poesies Written in smallest crow-quill size Beneath the text."

And we cannot but think of the shadow of St. Mary Redcliffe falling across another young life, as we read how

"Bertha was a maiden fair
Dwelling in th' old Minster-square;
From her fireside she could see,
Sidelong, its rich antiquity,
Far as the Bishop's garden-wall";

and of the footfalls that pass the echoing minster-gate, and of the clamorous daws that fall asleep in the ancient belfry to the sound of the drowsy chimes. Rossetti, in so many ways a continuator of Keats' artistry, devoted to Chatterton the first of his sonnet-group, "Five English Poets,"[29] of which the sestet runs thus:

"Thy nested home-loves, noble Chatterton;
The angel-trodden stair thy soul could trace
Up Redcliffe's spire; and in the world's armed space
Thy gallant sword-play:—these to many an one
Are sweet for ever; as thy grave unknown
And love-dream of thine unrecorded face."

The story of Chatterton's life found its way into fiction and upon the stage. Afred de Vigny, one of the French romanticists, translator of "Othello" and "The Merchant of Venice," introduced it as an episode into his romance, "Stello ou les Diables Bleus," afterward dramatized as "Chatterton," and first played at Paris on February 12, 1835, with great success. De Vigny made a love tragedy out of it, inventing a sweetheart for his hero, in the person of Kitty Bell, a role which became one of Madame Dorval's chief triumphs. On the occasion of the revival of De Vigny's drama in December, 1857, Théophile Gautier gave, in the Moniteur,[30] some reminiscences of its first performance, twenty-two years before.

"The parterre before which Chatterton declaimed was full of pale, long-haired youths, who firmly believed that there was no other worthy occupation on earth but the making of verses or of pictures—art, as they called it; and who looked upon the bourgeois with a disdain to which the disdain of the Heidelberg or Jena 'fox' for the 'philistine' hardly approaches. . . As to money, no one thought of it. More than one, as in that assembly of impossible professions which Theodore de Banville describes with so resigned an irony, could have cried without falsehood 'I am a lyric poet and I live by my profession.' One who has not passed through that mad, ardent, over-excited but generous epoch, cannot imagine to what a forgetfulness of material existence the intoxication, or, if you prefer, infatuation of art pushed the obscure and fragile victims who would rather have died than renounce their dream. One actually heard in the night the crack of solitary pistols. Judge of the effect produced in such an environment by M. Afred Vigney's 'Chatterton'; to which, if you would comprehend it, you must restore the contemporary atmosphere."[31]


Footnotes:


[1] Wordsworth, "Resolution and Independence."

[2] January 1, 1753.

[3] "The Poetical Works of Thos. Chatterton. With an Essay on the Rowley Poems by the Rev. Walter W. Skeat and a Memoir by Edward Bell"; in two volumes. London, 1871, Vol. I. p. xv.

[4] Willcox's edition of "Chatterton's Poetical Works," Cambridge, 1842, Vol. I. p. xxi.

[5] "Memoir by Edward Bell," p. xxiv.

[6] Cf. ("Battle of Hastings," i. xx)

"The grey-goose pinion, that theron was set,
Eftsoons with smoking crimson blood was wet"

With the lines from "Chevy Chase" (ante, p. 295). To be sure the ballad was widely current before the publication of the "Reliques."

[7] See ante, p. 237.

[8] Walter Scott quotes this passage in his review of Southey and Cottle's edition of Chatterton in the Edinburgh Review for April, 1804, and comments as follows: "While Chatterton wrote plain narrative, he imitated with considerable success the dry, concise style of an antique annalist; but when anything required a more dignified or sentimental style, he mounted the fatal and easily recognized car of the son of Fingal."

[9] Publication begun 1761: 2d edition 1768. Chatterton's letter was dated March 25 [1769].

[10] See ante, p. 346.

[11] "Poems supposed to have been written at Bristol by Thomas Rowley and others in the fifteenth century. The greatest part now first published from the most authentic copies, with engraved specimens of one of the MSS. To which are added a preface, an introductory account of the several pieces, and a glossary. London: Printed for T. Payne & Son at the Mews Gate. MDCCLXXVII."

[12] "Observations upon the Poems of Thomas Rowley," 2 vols. 1781.

[13] Poems supposed to have been written at Bristol in the fifteenth century by Thomas Rowley, Priest, etc. With a commentary in which the antiquity of them is considered and defended.

[14] "Essay on the Rowley Poems:" Skeat's edition of "Chatterton's Poetical Works," Vol. II. p. xxvii.

[15] For a bibliography of the Rowley controversy, consult the article on Chatterton in the "Dictionary of National Biography."

[16] "Ah, gentle dames! It gars me greet." —Tam o'Shanter

[17] Ante, p. 350.

[18] "Chatterton. A Story of the Year 1770," by David Masson London, 1874.

[19] "Eighteenth Century Literature," p. 334.

[20] A recent critic, the Hon. Roden Noel ("Essays on Poetry and Poets," London, 1886), thinks that "'Aella' is a drama worthy of the Elizabethans" (p. 44). "As to the Rowley series," as a whole, he does "not hesitate to say that they contain some of the finest poetry in our language" (p. 39). The Choric "Ode to Freedom" in "Goddwyn" appears to Mr. Noel to be the original of a much admired passage in "Childe Harold," in which war is personified, "and at any rate is finer"!

[21] See in Wm. Howitt's "Homes of the Poets," Vol. I. pp. 264-307, the description of a drawing of this building in 1138, done by Chatterton and inserted in Barrett's "History."

[22] For some remarks on Chatterton's metrical originality, see "Ward's English Poets," Vol. III, pp. 400-403.

[23] Look at.

[24] Blake was an early adherent of the "Gothic artists who built the Cathedrals in the so-called Dark Ages . . . of whom the world was not worthy." Mr. Rossetti has pointed out his obligations to Ossian and possibly to "The Castle of Otranto." See Blake's poems "Fair Eleanor" and "Gwin, King of Norway."

[25] Chatterton's sister testifies that he had the romantic habit of sitting up all night and writing by moonlight. Cambridge Ed. p. lxi.

[26] Other standard lives of Chatterton are those by Gregory, 1789, (reprinted and prefixed to the Southey and Cottle edition): Dix, 1837; and Wilson, 1869.

[27] Rowleian: there is no such instrument known unto men. The romantic love of color is observable in this poem, and is strong everywhere in Chatterton.

[28] See also the sonnet: "O Chatterton, how very sad thy fate"—Given in Lord Houghton's memoir. "Life and Letters of John Keats": By R. Monckton Milnes, p. 20 (American Edition, New York, 1848).

[29] Chatterton, Blake, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley. "The absolutely miraculous Chatterton," Rossetti elsewhere styles him.

[30] "Historie du Romantisme," pp. 153-54.

[31] "Chatterton," a drama by Jones and Herman, was played at the Princess' Theater, London, May 22, 1884.

Henry Augustin Beers

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