1902 Encyclopedia > Thomas Chatteron

Thomas Chatteron
English poet
(1752-70)




THOMAS CHATTERTON (1752-1770). Among the poets of the 18th century, Thomas Chatterton occupies a place altogether unique. He indeed claims scarcely less the interest of the psychologist as a marvellous example of matured intellectual precocity, than that of the student of English literature as a poet remarkable in an age of varied literary excellence. Fully to estimate the characteristics in which Chatterton stands out with such exceptional prominence, it has to be kept constantly in view that he was a posthumous child, the son of a poor widow, self-taught in all but the merest rudiments of education acquired at a charity school; that, so far from receiving encourage-ment, he was thwarted at every step in his strange, brief career; and that he was buried by strangers, in a pauper's grave, when only seventeen years of age.
Born though Chatterton was in a humble rank of life, his pedigree has a curious significance. The office of sexton of St Mary Redcliffe, at Bristol, one of the most beautiful specimens of parochial church architecture in England, had been transmitted for nearly two centuries in the Chatterton family ; and throughout the brief life of the poet it was held by his uncle, Richard Phillips. The poet's father— the first of the Chattertons who aspired to a position requiring education and natural ability—was a musical genius, somewhat of a poet, an antiquary, and a dabbler in occult arts. He was one of the subchanters of Bristol Cathedral, and master of the Pyle Street Free School in the vicinity of Redcliffe church. But whatever hereditary tendencies may have been transmitted from the father, the sole training of the boy necessarily devolved on his mother, who was in the fourth month of her widowhood at the time of his birth (20th November 1752).
The young widow established a girl's school, took in sewing and ornamental needlework, and so brought up her two children, a girl and boy, till the latter attained his eighth year, when he was admitted to Colston's Charity. But the Bristol blue-coat school had little share in the education of its marvellous pupil. The hereditary race of sextons had come to regard the church of St Mary Redcliffe as their own peculiar domain; and, under the guidance of his uncle, the orphan child found there his favourite haunt. The knights, ecclesiastics, and civic dignitaries, recumbent on its altar tombs, became his familiar associates ; and by and by, when he was able to spell his way through the inscriptions graven on their monuments, he found a fresh interest in certain quaint oaken chests in the muniment room over the porch on the north side of the nave, where parchment deeds, old as the Wars of the Roses, long lay unheeded and forgotten. His father, the schoolmaster, had already made free with them for wrappers to his copy books; his mother turned them to account for thread papers and patterns; and they formed the child's playthings almost from his cradle. He learned his first letters from the illuminated capitals of an old musical folio, and turned to account deeds and charters of the Henrys and Edwards as his primers. Wayward, as it seems, almost from his earliest years, and manifesting no sympathy with the ordinary pastimes of children, he was regarded for a time as deficient in intellect. But he was even then ambitious of distinction. One of his sister's earliest recollections of him was his thirst for pre-eminence. He was confident in his own resources, and while still little more than a child was wont to say that a man might do anything he chose. But from his earliest years he was liable to fits of abstrac-tion, sitting for hours in seeming stupor, or yielding after a time to tears, for which he would assign no reason. He had no one near him to sympathize in the strange world of fancy which his imagination had already called into being, or to feel any interest in the wonderful productions of his pen, which ere long were the fruits of such musings.
The influence of this lack of appreciative sympathy, along with the suspicions which his incomprehensible love of solitude excited, helped to foster his natural reserve, and beget that love of mystery which exercised so great an influence on the development of his genius. When the strange child had attained his sixth year his mother began to recognize his books that when unrestrained he would read from an early-hour till bed-time; and by the time he reached his eleventh year he had become a contributor to Felix Farley's Bristol Journal. A beautiful cross of curious workmanship had adorned the churchyard of St Mary Kedcliffe for upwards of three centuries, until, in 1763, it became an object of offence to an over zealous churchwarden, and was swept away. The spirit of veneration was strong in the boy ; and taking up his pen, he sent to the local journal a clever satire on the parish Vandal. Other juvenile productions followed, characteristic of the precocity of their author; and under various disguises he sported with the satiric muse, or in graver mood strove to awake some reverence for the past in the unsympathetic community amid which his lot was cast. He had a bold independent bearing; and except during his fits of reverie, he was frank and companion-able, and manifested a special fondness for female society. But his delight was to lock himself in a little attic which he had appropriated as his study, and there, with books, parchments, and drawing materials, the child already dallied with the muse, and began the strange literary maskings on which his fame depends.
On the 3d of August 1760, when in his eighth year, Chatterton was admitted to all the privileges of Colston's Hospital. This charity is popularly styled the Blue-coat School of Bristol, and as such has been referred to as an institution of a similar character to that of Christ's Hospital, London. But except in the quaint, half-monkish garb of its inmates, Colston's Hospital bore little resemblance to the foundation where Barnes and Markland acquired their scholarship, and Lamb and Coleridge found culture for their genius. The " great house on St Augustine's Back," which had been converted to the use of Colston's Charity, was a fine civic mansion erected in Tudor times on the site of a dissolved house of Friars Carmelites. Queen Elizabeth had held court there in 1581; and when the Stuarts succeeded to the Tudors, its hospitalities had been exercised by Sire Ferdinand Gorges, one of the merchant princes of the old seaport. But though Edward Colston, as the representa-tive of a line of merchant adventurers who had flourished in Bristol in the reign of Edward III., no less deserved that title, the civic mansion when transferred to his care rather resembled the dwelling of the older friars, except in its lack of their redeeming feature of monkish learning. Bristol had its grammar school, with liberal endowments and university exhibitions, for the sons of its more favoured citizens. But the rules of Colston's Hospital 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. But Chatterton was too young, as yet, to comprehend the difference between the two schools. He was thirsting for knowledge, and was greatly elated at his election on the foundation, " thinking," as his foster-mother said, " that he should there get all the learning he wanted." But he speedily discovered that its meagre cur-riculum was inadequate to his cravings, and he indignantly complained that he could not learu so much as at home.
Chatterton remained an inmate of Colston's Hospital for upwards of six years, learning little more than the most ordinary elements of a common school education ; and its chief value was that it lightened to his poor mother the burden of his maintenance. Some influences, however, of a more congenial character are traceable to the friendly sympathy of one of its ushers. Thomas Phillips, himself a writer of verse, strove to excite a spirit of emulation among the older of his pupils and found in Chatterton a response to his appeal. Three of his companions are named along with him, as youths whom Phillips's taste for poetry stimulated to rivalry, and ere long enlisted among the contributors to Felix Farley's Journal. But Chatterton had already conceived more daring literary adventures ; and it was while still an inmate of Colston's Charity that he essayed on Phillips his first serious attempt to pass off verses of his own as the production of a poet of the 15 th century. Except, indeed, in the immaturity and inexperi-ence inseparable from his years, Chatterton was the superior of those to whose society he was limited, and was in all essential respects his own teacher. His little pocket-money was spent in borrowing books from a circulating library; and he early ingratiated himself with book collectors, by whose aid he found access to Weever, Dugdale, and Collins, as well as to Chaucer, Spenser, and other writers strangely out of the line of reading of a charity boy, or indeed of any boy of his age. His holidays were mostly spent at his mother's house ; and much of them in the favourite retreat of his attic study there. He had already conceived the romance of an imaginary monk of the 15th century, and lived for the most part in an ideal world of his own, relegated to that elder time when Edward IV. was England's king, and Master William Canynge-—familiar to him among the recumbent effigies in Bedcliffe church— still ruled in Bristol's civic chair. " The Storie of William Canynge," a poem of great beauty which constitutes one of the shorter pieces of his ingenious romance, represents the bard endowed by Truth, a heavenly maid, with divine insight, and so translated to those elder times, and that more real poetic life, in which Chatterton had revelled from his own childhood :—
"Straight was I carried hack to times of yore, Whilst Canynge swathed yet in fleshly bed, And saw all actions which had been before,
And all the scroll of Fate unravelled; And when the fate-marked babe acome to sight, I saw him eager gasping after light. In all his simple gambols and child's play,
In every merry-making, fair, or wake, I kenn'd a perpled light of wisdom's ray ;
He ate down learning with the wastel-cake; As wise as any of the aldermen, He'd wit enow to make a mayor at ten."
This beautiful picture of the childhood of the ideal patron of Rowley is in reality that of the poet himself,— " the fate-marked babe," with his wondrous child-genius, and all his romantic dreams realized. The first lines are, indeed, referred to by Mr Skeat, in his annotated edition of the poems, as " clearly an oversight," in which the poet writes in his own person and modern character, and so introduces "an unconscious admission of forgery." The literary masquerade which thus constituted the life-dream of the boy was wrought out by him with marvellous consistency into a coherent romance, until the credulous scholars and antiquaries of his day were persuaded into the belief that there had lain in the parish chest of Redcliffe church for upwards of three centuries, a collection of poems of rare merit, the work of Thomas Rowley, an unknown priest of Bristol in the days of Henry VI. and his poet laureate, John Lydgate.
Among the Bristol patrons of Chatterton, Mr George Catcott and Henry Burgum, his partner in their trade as pewterers, occupy a prominent place. The former was one of the most zealous accreditors of Rowley, the imaginary priest and poet of the times of the Roses, and continued to collect his reputed writings long after the death of their real author. The credulity of the other was subjected to a more severe test. He had come from Gloucestershire to Bristol, a poor friendless boy, and himself owed to one of Colston's charities his first start in life. He had risen, mainly by his own exertions, to the position of a success-ful tradesman, and gave full licence to the vanity with which he asserted the claims of his new position. On him, accordingly, the blue-coat boy palmed off the Bergham pedigree, and other equally apocryphal evidences of the pewterer's descent from an ancestry old as the Norman Conquest. The De Bergham quarterings, blazoned on a piece of parchment doubtless recovered from the Eedcliffe muniment chest, was itself supposed to have lain for centuries in that ancient depository. The pedigree was professedly collected by Chatterton from original records, including " The Rowley MSS." Into this he introduced an ingenious romance of one of the pewterer's ancestors, who was also a metallurgist, though after a more dignified fashion. According to this the De Bergham of that elder time obtained from Henry VI. a royal patent to play the alchemist, and so to transmute pewter and other base metals into gold. He left issue four sons, one of whom figures as " Edward Asheton of Chatterton, in Com. Lane, in the right of his wife, the daughter and heiress of Radcliffe de Chatterton of Chatterton, the heir general of many families." The pedigree still exists in Chatterton's own handwriting, copied into a book in which he had previously transcribed portions of antique verse, under the title of " Poems by Thomas Rowley, priest of St John's, in the city of Bristol;" and in one of these, " The Tourna-ment," Syrr Johan de Berghamme plays a conspicuous part. The ennobled pewterer rewarded Chatterton with five shillings, and was satirized for this valuation of a noble pedigree in some of his latest verse. The pedigree and all its accessories are crude enough; but as the production of a boy not fourteen years of age, whose whole education had been acquired in a charity school, it is a remarkable evidence of precocity.
On the 1st of July 1767, before he had completed the seventh year of his residence in Colston's Hospital, Chatterton was transferred to the office of Mr John Lambert, attorney, to whom he was bound apprentice as a clerk. There he was left much alone; and after fulfilling the routine duties devolving on him, he found leisure for his own favourite pursuits. An ancient stone bridge on the Avon, built in the reign of Henry II., and altered by many later additions into a singularly picturesque but inconvenient thoroughfare, had been displaced by a structure better adapted to modern requirements. In the month of September 1768, when Chatterton was in the second year of his apprenticeship, the new bridge was partially opened for traffic. Shortly afterwards the editor of Felix Farley's Journal received from a correspondent, signing himself Dunelmus Bristoliensis, a " description of the mayor's first passing over the old bridge," professedly derived from an ancient MS. Mr William Barrett, F.S.A., surgeon and antiquary, who was then accumulating materials for a history of Bristol, secured the original manuscript, which is now preserved in the British Museum, along with other Chatterton MSS., most of which were ultimately incorporated by the credulous antiquary into a learned quarto volume, entitled the History and Antiquities of the City of Bristol, published nearly twenty years after the poet's death.
The publication of the description of the ancient opening of the bridge naturally excited inquiry ; for the picturesque narrative acquired a suitable flavour of antiquity, without being too much obscured for the general reader, by its archaic language and spelling; and so a desire was mani-fested to trace it to its source. Chatterton was ere long recognized as its contributor, on presenting himself at the office of the Bristol Journal with another of his productions; and then it was that the definite story made its appear-ance—over which critics and antiquaries wrangled for nearly a century—of numerous ancient poems and other MSS. taken by the elder Chatterton from a coffer in the muniment room of Redcliffe church, and transcribed, and so rescued from oblivion, by his son.
The dream of the boy-poet was of an age devoid of all the sordid meanness of his own, and of a patron of the muses generous as the ideal Canynge of his romance. Living in this imaginary world, he continued to invent, and ascribe to the authorship of the good priest Thomas Rowley, dramatic, lyrical, and descriptive poems, along with letters, fragments of local or general history, and other miscellaneous productions in prose,—nearly all of them pertaining to the romance of Rowley and Master Canynge, the old citizen and mayor of Bristol. "With a persistent coherence to this ideal, which he had formed in his own mind while still a mere child, Chatterton produced nearly all the marvellous literary creations on which his fame depends. In the interval between his first-known antique ballad, the "Elinoure and Juga," written while still an inmate of Colston's Hospital, and his leaving Bristol at the age of seventeen, his pieces include the "Bristowe Tragedy," another and longer ballad ; his "iElla, a Tragycal Interlude," as he styles it, but in reality a dramatic poem of sustained power and curious originality of structure; his "Goddwyn," another dramatic poem; his "Tour-nament," "Battle of Hastings," "The Parliament of Sprites," with numerous smaller pieces of autique verse—forming altogether a goodly volume of poetry, the rare merit of which is indisputable, wholly apart from the fact that it was the production of a mere boy.
Yet this only partially illustrates the fertility of his genius. During the same period he had thrown off numerous lyrics, and had given vent to his satirical humour in several lengthened poems, which, though for the most part inferior in merit to his antique verse, would excite wonder as the sole productions of any boy of his age. But the authorship even of those modern poems was rarely avowed. The habit of secretiveness grew ere long into a love of mystery, which ultimately proved prejudicial to the boy. Unfortunately for him, his ingenious romance had either to be acknowledged as his own creation, and so in all probability be treated with contempt, or it had to be sustained by the manufacture of spurious antiques. To this accordingly Chatterton resorted, and found no difficulty in gulling the most learned of his credulous dupes with his parchments.
The literary labours of the boy, though diligently pursued at his desk, were not allowed to interfere with the duties of Mr Lambert's office. Nevertheless such a mode of employing any portion of his time was peculiarly distasteful to the Bristol attorney. He was wont to search his apprentice's drawer, and to tear up any poems or other manuscripts that he could lay his hands upon ; so that it was only during the absences of Mr Lambert from Bristol that he was able to expend his unemployed time in his favourite pursuits. But repeated allusions, both by Chatterton and others, seem to indicate that such intervals of freedom were of frequent occurrence. Then he could finish his average two hours of legitimate office work, attend to whatever other duties devolved upon him, and thereafter betake himself to song or satire, or abandon himself to the romance of that antique world in which his pleasantest hours were passed.
But such intervals of freedom only tended to increase his dislike for the restraints of office-life under his master's eye. In every changing mood of mind he was prone to seek relief in his pen ;— yielding at times to earnest thought, and giving lyrical form to his religious feelings and convictions ; at other times giving freest scope to his satirical humour, and subjecting all who came within its range to ridicule or scornful invective; or again, lapsing into ro-mantic reverie, and revelling in the creations of his antique muse. Some of his modern poems, such as the piece entitled '' Resignation," are of great beauty ; and these, with the satires, in which he took his revenge on all the local celebrities whose vanity or meanness had excited his ire, are alone sufficient to fill a volume. The Catcotts, Burgum, Barrett, and others of his patrons, figure in these satires, in imprudent yet discriminating caricature, along with mayor, aldermen, bishop, dean, and other notabilities of Bristol. But such satirical sallies were the mere sportive effusions of the boy, in which he thoughtlessly exposed even the foibles of his friends. Towards Lambert his feelings were of too keen a nature to find relief in such sarcasm. When he does give utterance to them, it is with a bitter sense of one deeply wronged. Doubtless the abilities of the attorney's clerk were widely different from what he had bargained for ; but it is obvious that the boy whom he had received into his house was regarded by him with no more sympathy than any transient menial who drudged for hire. At length, in 1770, Chat-terton's connexion with Lambert was brought to an abrupt close. Thus far the muse had rewarded him only by the pleasure of secret hours spent in her service. The very appreciation of his antique poems by the few to whom they had been communicated was accom-panied by an utter ignoring of any capacity on the part of their real author ; and every attempt to win recognition of his merits only sub-jected him to fresh slights. The ambition to be able to hold his place among his companions, in dress, and in the pastimes suited to their age, made him increasingly sensitive to his menial position, and tempted him to look to his pen for other returns than the pleasure derived from his romantic dream. Mr Cottle gives an extract from a letter written about this time, in which he curses the Muses, exclaiming, " I abominate them and their works. They are the nurses of poverty and insanity."
As the boy began to realize the practical necessities of life, and indulge in dreams of fame and fortune consequent on the recognition of his merits, he resolved to attempt the introduction of Rowley to the world. Accordingly in December 1768, while still only entering on his seventeenth year, he wrote to Dodsley, the London publisher, stating his ability to procure for him "copies of several ancient poems, and an interlude, perhaps the oldest dramatic piece extant, wrote by one Rowley, a priest in Rristol, who lived in the reigns of Henry VI. and Edward IV." To this letter he appended the initials of his favourite pseudonym, Dunelmus Bristoliensis, but directed the answer to be sent to the care of Thomas Chatterton, Redcliife Hill, Bristol. To this, as well as to another letter enclosing an extract from the tragedy of ".fflla," no answer appears to have been returned. The diplomacy of the romancer was only too characteristic of his inexperience ; though we have a hint in the second letter of another and perhaps more practical idea for the publication of his antique drama. " If it should not suit you, I should be obliged to you if you would calculate the expense of printing it, as I will endeavour to publish it by subscription on my own account."
In the Rowley romance, Chatterton pictures the old poet as the chaplain and confidential friend of Master Canynge, mayor of Bristol, builder of the church of St. Mary on Redcliffe Hill, and patron of all liberal arts,—who rejoiced in gathering round him a group of poets, and making them the sharers of his bounty. Rowley sends to him his verses from time to time, ever sure of some liberal acknowledgment in return ; and Master Canynge supplies him with funds that he may expend them in travelling and collecting manuscripts for his library. Dean Milles, President of the Society of Antiquaries, and one of the most zealous maintainers of the genuineness of the imaginary Rowley, describes the old mayor and his literary associates as a parallel to Maecenas with his three friends, Virgil, Horace, and Varus. No wonder, therefore, that Chatterton, conceiving the idea of finding sympathy and aid at the hand of some modern Canynge, bethought him of Horace Walpole, subsequently fourth earl of Orford. This patrician virtuoso loved to dally with the muses, and had made art and letters the business of his life. He professed extreme social liberalism, and not only indulged in a mediaeval renaissance of his own, but was the reputed author of the Castle of Otranto, a spurious antique of times akin to those in which Chatterton had in like fashion delighted to revel. From the point of view of the inexperienced youth, the idea of finding in Walpole the patron of whom he dreamt was by no means an extravagant one. He accordingly addressed a letter to him, giving him an account of the Rowley poems and other MSS. as genuine antiques of the fifteenth century, and enclosing, as a specimen, a brief poem on Richard I.—probably his Eclogue styled " Nygelle," which extends to eight stanzas. To this Walpole replied with courteous acknowledgments. He characterized the verses as " wonderful for their harmony and spirit," and added, "Give me leave to ask you where Rowley's poems are to be had ? I should not be sorry to print them ; or at least a specimen of them, if they have never been printed." The courtesy of his correspondent tempted the poor boy to a more unreserved communication. He replied, enclosing additional specimens of antique verse, and telling Walpole that he was the son of a poor widow, and clerk to an attorney, but had a taste for more refined studies, and hinted a wish that he might help him to some more congenial occupation. Walpole's manner underwent an abrupt change. The specimens of verse had been submitted to his friends Gray and Mason, the poets, and pronounced modern. They did not thereby furfeit the wonder-ful harmony and spirit which Walpole had already professed to recognize in them. But he now coldly replied, advising the boy to stick to the attorney's office ; and "when he should have made a fortune," he might betake himself to more favourite studies.
Walpole has been loaded with more than his just share of re-sponsibility for the fate of the unhappy poet. That he shut his eyes to the merits of the wonderful poems sent to him by a boy of sixteen, and dwelling alone on the mystification with which they were palmed on him as genuine antiques, returned them to their author and thought no more about them, is what hundreds would do in like circumstances. Yet the literary fraud was no more than he himself had practised in his Castle of Otranto; and all the fame which he so greedily coveted was as nothing, compared with what he might have made his own, had he befriended the boy, of whom he admitted when too late "I do not believe there ever existed so masterly a genius."
Chatterton now abandoned the antique muse, turned his attention to periodical literature and the politics of the day, and exchanged Felix Farley's Bristol Journal for the Town and County Magazine and other London periodicals. Assuming the vein of Junius— then in the full blaze of his triumph—he turned his pen against the duke of Grafton, the earl of Bute, and the princess of Wales. It was while thus busied with politics and modern satire, that another and very different production was penned, which, whether written in jest or earnest, brought his Bristol career abruptly to a close. He had just despatched one of his political diatribes to the Middlesex Journal, when he sat down on Easter Eve 17th April
1770, and penned his "Last Will and Testament," a strange
satirical compound of jest and earnest, in which he intimated his intention of putting an end to his life the following evening. Among his satirical bequests, such as his "humility" to the Rev. Mr Camplin, his "religion" to Dean Barton, and his "modesty" along with his " prosody and grammar " to Mr Burgum, he leaves " to Bristol all his spirit and disinterestedness, parcels of goods unknown on its quay since the days of Canynge and Rowley." In more genuine earnestness he recalls the name of Mr Clayfield, a friend to whom he owed intelligent sympathy, and leaves to him "the sincerest thanks my gratitude can give,"—adding, with grave humour, the bequest of a full valuation to be paid to Mr Clayfield, as his executor, of " whatever any person may think the pleasure of reading my works worth." According to his foster-mother' account, the will was purposely prepared in order to frighten hit master into letting him go. If so, it had the desired effect. Lam-bert cancelled his indentures ; his friends ano. acquaintance made him up a purse ; and so, with light heart, and a bundle of manu-scripts of rare worth by which he still fondly hoped that his fortune was to be achieved, he set forth, at the age of seventeen, to play his brief part as a man of letters in the great metropolis.
Chatterton was already known to the readers of the Middlesex Journal as a rival of Junius, under the nom de plume of Decimus. He had also been a contributor to Hamilton's Town and Country Magazine, and speedily found access to the Freeholder's Magazine, another political miscellany strong for Wilkes and liberty. His contributions were freely accepted ; and the sanguine youth nattered himself that his position was already established, and his fortune sure. He wrote accordingly in the most hopeful terms to his mother and sister, and spent the first money received by him in purchasing acceptable gifts for both. His pride and ambition were amply gratified by the promises and interested flattery of editors and political adventurers ; Wilkes himself had noted his trenchant style, "and expressed a desire to know the author;" and Lord Mayor Beckford graciously acknowledged a political address of his, and greeted him '' as politely as a citizen could." But of actual money he received but little. He was not only frugal, but abstemious, while he flattered himself with dreams of coming triumphs and ample recompense. His diligence was great, and his versatility wonderful. He could assume the style of Junius or Smollett, reproduce the satiric bitterness of Churchill, parody Macpherson's Ossiau, or in graver mood ape the rythmical niceties of Pope, or the polished grace of Gray and Collins. He wrote political letters, eclogues, lyrics, operas, and satires, both in prose and verse. He played in all ways the versatile mocking-bird, while still planning the resumption of his antique romance, with the hope of winning thereby not only fortune but enduring fame.
In the month of June 1770—after Chatterton had been some nine weeks in London—he removed from Shoreditch, where he had hitherto lodged with a relative, to an attic in Brook Street, Holborn. His busy pen had dashed off songs, pasquinades, a burletta, an oratorio, satirical sketches, and political articles enough to fill more than one month's magazine. But for most of those the payment was delayed ; and now state prosecutions of the press rendered letters in the Junius vein no longer admissible, and threw him back on the lighter resources of his pen. In Shoreditch, as in his lodging at the Bristol attorney's, he had only shared a room ; but now, for the first time, in his new lodging, he enjoyed the delights of uninter-rupted solitude. His bed-fellow at Mr Walmsley's, Shoreditch, noted that much of the night was spent by him in writing ; and now that all restraint was removed the dawn frequently found him still at work. Fancy once more had free play ; the romance of his earlier years revived, and he transcribed from an imaginary parch-ment of the old priest Rowley his " Excelente Balade of Charitie." This fine poem, perversely disguised in archaic language, he sent to the editor of the Town and County Magazine, and had it rejected.
The high hopes of the sanguine boy had begun to fade. He had not yet completed his second month in London, and already failure and starvation stared him in the face. Mr Cross, a neighbouring apothecary whose acquaintance he had made, and who had been fascinated by his fine conversational powers, discerned ere long the evidence of the privations to which he was reduced, and repeatedly invited him to join him at dinner or supper ; but he repelled the proffered hospitality. His landlady also, suspecting his necessity, pressed him to share her dinner, but in vain. " She knew," as she afterwards said, '' that he had not eaten anything for two or three days." But he was offended at her urgency, and assured her that he was not hungry. Only a month before, he had written to his sister in the highest spirits, with talk of china, silver fans, and fine silks in store for them, and had actually sent them valued presents bought with his first earnings. But the needy political adventurers in whose service he had enlisted changed their tone when he began to press for payment for his contributions ; and the note of his actual receipts, found in his pocket-book after his death, shows that Hamilton, Fell, and other editors who had been so liberal in flattery, had paid the inexperienced youth at the rate of a shilling for an article, and somewhat less than eightpence each for his songs ; while much which had been accepted was held in reserve, and still unpaid for. The beginning of a new month revealed to him the indefinite postponement of their publication, and with it of the prospect either of payment or of further demand for his labours. He had wished, according to his foster-mother, to study medicine with Barrett; and one of his companions specially refers to the charm which the practice of physic had for him. In his desperation he now reverted to this, and wrote to Barrett for such a letter as might help him to an opening as a surgeon's assistant on board an African trader. He appealed also to Mr Catcott to forward his plan, but in vain. The letters were written before the middle of the month, and he continued to hope against hope, as he awaited their replies. What these were we can only surmise. On the 24th of August 1770, he retired for the last time to his attic in Brook Street, carry-ing with him the poison which he there drank, after tearing into fragments whatever literary remains were at hand. In the morning he was found, with limbs and features distorted by his last con-vulsions, a ghastly corpse.
Thus perished by his own hand, in an obscure lodging in London, among strangers and in absolute want, a youth assuredly without his equal in that eighteenth century. He was only seventeen years and nine months old ; yet he had already written poems which fill two ample volumes, and which now, upwards of a century after his death, command our admiring wonder for the rare evidence of genius and sustained power which they display. The intelligent labours of the Kev. W. W. Skeat have at length presented them in a form worthy of their unique merit, not only as evidence of fine poetic genius, but as an unparalleled example of youthful precocity displayed in spite of every disadvantage that poverty and adverse fate could interpose to prevent its display. Yet even now comparatively few know what a rich vein of romance and true poetry ies concealed under the antique guise of the Rowley poems, or how singular is the study which they involve. The best of his numerous productions, both in prose and verse, require no allowance to be made for the immature years of their author, when comparing him with the ablest of his contemporaries. Yet he was writing spirited satires at ten, and he produced some of the finest of his antique verse before he was sixteen years of age. He pictures Lydgate, the monk of Bury St Edmunds, challenging Eowley to a trial at versemaking, and under cover of this fiction, produces his "Songe of iElla," a piece of rare lyrical beauty, worthy of comparison with any antique or modern production of its class. Again, inhis "Tragedy of Goddwyn," of which only a fragment has been preserved, the '' Ode to Liberty," with which it abruptly closes, is a wonderful specimen of bold imagery which may claim a place among the finest martial lyrics in the 1 inguage.
The collection of poems in which such specimens occur furnishes by far the most remarkable example of intellectual precocity in the whole history of letters ; nor is it the least among all the notable features which distinguish the boy's writings, that, from first to last, he consistently maintained his romance of Canynge and Eowley through all the diverse scenes of verse and prose in which those imaginary characters are made to figure. The age at which he died, before he had even reached manhood, adds to the tender pity which his fate awakens even now, upwards of a century after his death. Collins, Burns, Keats, Shelley, and Byron all awaken sorrow over the premature arrestment of their genius ; but the youngest of them survived to his twenty-fifth year, while Chatterton was only seventeen when he perished despairingly in his miserable garret.
The death of Chatterton attracted little notice at the time ; for
the few who then entertained any appreciative estimate of the
Rowley poems regarded him as their mere transcriber. He was
interred in a burying ground attached to Shoe Lane Workhouse,
in the parish of St Andrew's, Holborn, which has since been con-
verted into a site for Farringdon Market. But a story has been
current from an early date, and credited by some trustworthy in-
vestigators, that the body of the poet was recovered through the
intervention of one of his London relatives, and secretly interred by
his uncle, Richard Phillips, in Redcliffe Churchyard. There a
monument has since been erected to his memory, with the appro-
priate inscription, borrowed from his "Will," and so supplied
by the poet's own pen—"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 only is he now
answerable." (D. W.)







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