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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Thomas Chatterton (1752–1770)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
TO the third quarter of the eighteenth century belongs the tragedy of the life of Thomas Chatterton, who, misunderstood and neglected during his brief seventeen years of poetic revery, has by the force of his genius and by his actual achievement compelled the nineteenth century, through one of its best critics, to acknowledge him as the father of the New Romantic school, and to accord him thereby a place unique among his contemporaries. His family and early surroundings serve in a way to explain his development. He was born at Bristol, a town rich in the traditions and monuments of bygone times. For nearly two hundred years the office of sexton to the church of St. Mary Redcliffe had been handed down in the family. At the time of the poet’s birth it was held by a maternal uncle; for his father, a “musical genius, somewhat of a poet, an antiquary and dabbler in occult arts,” was the first to aspire to a position above the hereditary one, and had taken charge of the Pyle free schools in Bristol. He died before his son’s birth, and left his widow to support her two children by keeping a little school and by needlework. The boy, reserved and given to revery from his earliest years, was at first considered dull, but one day, seeing an old musical folio in his mother’s hands, he fell in love with the illuminated capitals. The Gothic characters of an old black-letter Bible further fascinated him, and by the time he was eight he had become a voracious reader. He would, even at that age, neglect food and sleep for his books; and he kept much by himself in an old lumber room, where he was teaching himself to draw knights and castles and heraldic designs.  1
  He spent much of his time with his uncle, in and about the church. St. Mary Redcliffe, one of the finest specimens of mediæval church architecture in England, is especially rich in altar tombs with recumbent carved figures of knights, and ecclesiastic and civic dignitaries of bygone days. These became the boy’s familiar associates, and he amused himself on his lonely visits by spelling out the old inscriptions on their monuments. There he got hold of some quaint oaken chests in the muniment room over the porch, filled with parchments old as the Wars of the Roses, and these deeds and charters of the Henrys and Edwards became his primers. In 1760 he entered Colston’s “Blue-Coat” charity school, located in a fine old building of the Tudor times. The rules of the institution provided for the training of its inmates “in the principles of the Christian religion as laid down in the Church catechism,” and in fitting them to be apprenticed in due course to some trade. During the six years of his stay, Chatterton received only the rudiments of a common-school education, and found little to nourish his genius. But being a voracious reader, he went on his small allowance through three circulating libraries, and became acquainted with the older English poets, and also read history and antiquities. He very early entertained dreams of ambition, without however finding any sympathy; so he lived in a world of his own, conceiving before the age of twelve the romance of Thomas Rowley, an imaginary clerk of the fifteenth century, and his patron Master William Canynge, a former mayor of Bristol whose effigy was familiar to him from the tomb in the church. This fiction, which after his death gave rise to the celebrated controversy of the ‘Rowley Poems,’ matured at this early age as a boy’s life-dream, he fashioned into a consistent romance, and wove into it among the prose fragments the ballads and lyrics on which his fame as poet now rests. His earliest literary forgery was a practical joke played on a credulous pewterer at Bristol, for whom he fabricated a pedigree dating back to the time of the Norman Conquest, which he professed to have collected from ancient manuscripts. It is remarkable as the work of a boy not yet fourteen. He was rewarded with a crown piece, and the success of this hoax encouraged him further to play upon the credulity of his townspeople, and to continue writing prose and verse in pseudo-antique style.  2
  In 1767 he was bound apprentice to John Lambert, attorney. The office duties were light. He spent his spare time in poetizing, and sent anonymously transcripts from professedly old poems to the local papers. Their authorship being traced to him, he now claimed that his father had found numerous old poems and other manuscripts in a coffer of the muniment room at Redcliffe, and that he had transcribed them. Under guise of this fiction he produced, within the two years of his apprenticeship, a mass of pseudo-antique dramatic, lyric, and descriptive poems, and fragments of local and general history, connected all with his romance of the clerk of Bristol. A scholarly knowledge of Middle English was rare one hundred and thirty years ago, and the self-taught boy easily gulled the local antiquaries. He even deceived Horace Walpole, who, dabbling in mediævalism, had opened the way for prose romances with his ‘Castle of Otranto,’ a spurious antique of the same time in which Chatterton had placed his fiction. Walpole at first treated him courteously, even offering to print some of the poems. But when Gray and Mason pronounced them modern, he at once gave Chatterton the cold shoulder, entirely forgetting his own imposition on a credulous public.  3
  Chatterton now turned to periodical literature and the politics of the day, and began to contribute to various London magazines. In the spring of 1770 he finally came up to London, to start on the life of a literary adventurer on a capital of less than five pounds. He lived abstemiously and worked incessantly, literally day and night. He had a wonderful versatility; he would write in the manner of any one he chose to imitate, and he tried his hand at every species of book-work. But even under the strain of this incessant productivity he found time to turn back to his boyhood dreams, and produced one of his finest poems, the ‘Ballad of Charity.’ At first his contributions were freely accepted, but he was poorly paid, and sometimes not at all. Yet out of his scanty earnings he bought costly presents for his mother and sister, as tokens of affection and an earnest of what he hoped to do for them. After scarcely two months in London he was at the end of his resources. He made an attempt to gain a position as surgeon’s assistant on board of an African trader, but was unsuccessful. He now found himself face to face with famine; and, too proud to ask for assistance or to accept even the hospitality of a single meal, he on the night of August 25th, 1770, locked himself into his garret, destroyed all his note-books and papers, and swallowed a dose of arsenic. It is believed that he was privately buried in the churchyard of St. Mary Redcliffe. There a monument has been erected, with an inscription from his poem ‘Will’:—
          “To the memory of Thomas Chatterton. Reader! judge not. If thou art a Christian, believe that he shall be judged by a superior power. To that power alone is he now answerable.”
  4
  His death attracted little notice, for he was regarded merely as the transcriber of the ‘Rowley’ poems. They were collected after his death, from the various persons to whom he had given the manuscripts, and occasioned a controversy that has lasted almost down to the present generation. But only an age untrained in philological research could ever have received them as genuine productions of the fifteenth century: for Chatterton, who knew little of the old authors antedating Spenser, constructed with the help of Bailey’s and Kersey’s English dictionaries a lingo of his own; he strung together old words of all periods and dialects, and even coined words himself to suit the metre. His lingo resembles anything rather than Middle English. It is supposed that he wrote first in modern English, and then translated into his own dialect; for the poems do not suffer by retranslation,—on the contrary, they are more intelligible and often more rhythmical. Chatterton had a wonderful memory, and having read enormously, there are frequent though perhaps unconscious plagiarisms from Spenser, Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, Gray, and others.  5
  Yet after all has been said against the spurious character of the ‘Rowley’ poems, Chatterton’s two volumes of collected writings, produced under the most adverse circumstances, are a record of youthful precocity unparalleled in literary history. He wrote spirited satires at ten, and some of his best old verse before sixteen. ‘Ælla’ is a dramatic poem of sustained power and originality, and its songs have the true lyric ring; the ‘Ode to Liberty,’ a fragment from the tragedy of ‘Goddwyn,’ is with its bold imagery one of the finest martial lyrics in the language; the ‘Ballad of Charity,’ almost the last poem he wrote, comes in its objectivity and artistic completeness near to some of Keats’s best ballad work. But more wonderful perhaps than this early blossoming of his genius is its absolute originality. At a time when Johnson was the literary dictator of London, and Pope’s manner still paramount, Chatterton, unmindful of their conventionalities and the current French influence, instinctively turned to earlier models, and sought his inspiration at the true source of English song. Bishop Percy’s ‘Reliques of Old English Poetry,’ published in 1765, first made the people acquainted with their fine old ballads; but by that year Chatterton had already planned the story of the monk of Bristol and written some of the poems. Gifted with a rich vein of romance, he heralded the coming revival of mediæval literature. But he not only divined the new movements of poetry—he was also responsible for one side of its development. He had a poet’s ear for metrical effects, and transmitted this gift to the romantic poets through Coleridge; for the latter, deeply interested in the tragedy of the life of the Bristol boy, studied his work; and traces of this study, resulting in freer rhythm and new harmonies, are found in Coleridge’s own verse. The influence of the author of ‘Christabel’ on his brother poets is indisputable; hence his indebtedness to Chatterton gives to the latter at once his rightful position as the father of the New Romantic school. Keats also shows signs of close acquaintance with Chatterton; and he proves moreover by the dedication of his ‘Endymion’ that he cherished the memory of the unfortunate young poet, with whom he had, as far as the romantic temper on its objective side goes, perhaps the closest spiritual kinship of any poet of his time.  6
  But quite apart from his youthful precocity and his influence on later poets, Chatterton holds no mean place in English literature because of the intrinsic value of his performance. His work, on the one hand, aside from the ‘Rowley’ poems, shows him a true poet of the eighteenth century, and the best of it entitles him to a fair place among his contemporaries; but on the other hand he stands almost alone in his generation in possessing the highest poetic endowments,—originality of thought, a quick eye to see and note, the gift of expression, sustained power of composition, and a fire and intensity of imagination. In how far he would have fulfilled his early promise it is idle to surmise; yet what poet, in the whole range of English, nay of all literature, at seventeen years and nine months of age, has produced work of such excellence as this “marvelous boy,” who, unrecognized and driven by famine, took his own life in a London garret?  7
 
 
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