The legend named Thomas Chatterton is less marvellous than the boy it glorified, and far less rich or strange than the cultural history that includes the history of the legend itself. Chatterton committed suicide in August 1770. He was not yet 18 years old. With little formal education – seven years in a provincial school, followed by less than three years as a lawyer’s apprentice – he left his native Bristol to make his way as a writer in London, where he died only four months later. For at least three and possibly even six years before leaving Bristol, Chatterton was constructing the Rowley materials – creating what purported to be 15th-century vellum documents, and writing out texts that he represented as copies made from 15th-century documents. According to Chatterton, the originals came from a chest found in St Mary Redcliff.
Unlike Chatterton’s documentary and textual constructions, the chest was ‘real’, as was its supposed original owner, William Canynge, a prosperous citizen of 15th-century Bristol. And the chest did contain early vellum documents, which Chatterton used to construct his fakes. The chest eventually became such a mythic object that even Dr Johnson heaved himself to the top of the church to view it.
According to Chatterton’s mother – one of the more reliable of the earlier witnesses – her son’s imagination was fired by the sight of those early manuscripts, in particular an illuminated one. Chatterton threw himself into antiquarian studies. Before he was 15 he had amassed a considerable scholarly knowledge of heraldry, early English history and culture, medieval literary styles (both prose and poetry), and the local cultural history of his native Bristol. The knowledge underpinned his imaginative construction of a literary and cultural world whose central figure was the imaginary poet-priest Thomas Rowley.
In the space of some three or four years Chatterton produced a substantial body of Rowley materials. Only a few were published in his lifetime, and the corpus at the heart of the controversy – the Poems Supposed To Have Been Written At Bristol, By Thomas Rowley And Others, In The Fifteenth Century (1777) – was and still remains as misleading in its way as the hoax that Chatterton tried to carry off. Because this book, edited by Thomas Tyrwhitt, focused attention on the poetry, the authentication controversy continually swirled around questions of original genius, the literary value of the poems, and the character of Chatterton. To the defenders of the authenticity of the poetry, Chatterton could not possibly have produced such poetical achievements at his age. To the sceptics he was a prodigy whose forgeries proved that poetry (as opposed to prose) was properly a vehicle of an early state of cultural development. Eventually Chatterton became the ‘marvellous boy’, the romantic invention of Cottle, Southey, Coleridge and Wordsworth.
This collection of Early Sources and Responses maps the ground of the legend, which centres in the celebrated controversy over the so-called Rowley Poems. The idea of the collection is excellent; the texts are facsimile, and it is no deficiency that they come without scholarly notes or commentary. But it is a deficiency that the collection should lack certain of the most important early sources: Herbert Croft’s Love and Madness (1780), John Broughton’s edition of the Miscellanies in Verse and Prose; by Thomas Chatterton (1778) as well as the books by Dr Jeremiah Milles and Jacob Bryant.
In these (often amazing) Early Sources and Responses, the oddly neglected subject is Chatterton and his conception of himself and his work. A series of fake Chattertons, as it were, gets constructed in order to exemplify one or another set of cultural ideas: about poetry, about the relation of writers to society, about the cultural importance of imagination and aesthetic sensibility.
Two matters are crucial. First, by concentrating on the Rowley poems, the controversy made it difficult to see that Chatterton’s was primarily an ethnographic rather than an aesthetic hoax. The Rowley materials are by no means solely or even primarily poetical; and the aesthetic qualities of the poems are often not the most important thing about them. Chatterton forged a corpus of heterogeneous works, prose as well as poetry, literary as well as historical. The materials were all carefully integrated, with different texts containing information and references that ‘authenticated’ each other, or that built up some significant aspect of Chatterton’s myth of early England and, more important, Rowley’s relation to it. ‘The Battle of Hastings’ and the fragmentary ‘Goddwyn’, for instance, though aesthetically minor, reconstruct (from a Rowleyan 15th-century perspective) signal events of the 11th century. They are thus historically and ethno-graphically important.
As we have only recently come to see – thanks to the publication of all of Chatterton’s texts – the point was not so much to invent poems as to raise up a highly concrete world. So Chatterton created prose texts to fill out a believable historical picture: Rowley’s biographical ‘Account’ of his patron Sir William Canynge; the famous ‘Bridge Narrative’, which effectively initiated the entire affair; ‘Craishes Herauldry’, ‘Englandes Glorye revyved in Maystre Canynge’, ‘A Discorse on Brystowe’, ‘The Parlyamente of Sprytes’, ‘Historie of Peyncters yn Englande’, and so forth. These texts came with various notes, often highly elaborate, which further thickened the descriptions. Although several of the authors included in the Early Sources and Responses used these materials, they handled them as peripheral texts, useful for elucidating (or so it seemed to them) the primary issues of aesthetics and document authentication.
Except for ‘An Excelente Balade of Charitie’, all of Chatterton’s Rowley materials were created before he went to London. His move to the metropolis exposes another matter of signal importance: that Chatterton’s literary inclinations were primarily satirical. Besides his two long satiric poems, ‘Kew Gardens’ and ‘The Whore of Babylon’, he wrote numerous shorter pieces, including ‘a series of letters to various high personages, assailing them with no little violence’. These letters, which overlap his departure for London, underscore Chatterton’s ruling passion: to make a name for himself in the public world of his time. Chatterton was no Keats. He went to London to make his fortune and gain preferment by his writing: ‘He is a poor author,’ Chatterton observed of party-writing in London, ‘who cannot write on both sides.’ The realms of gold he dreamed of were hard and current. Political writing especially attracted him because of the publicity he hoped it would bring. As soon as he reached London he put himself at the booksellers’ service and began hacking away.
The Chatterton legend feeds on the last four months of his lite: ‘We poets in our youth begin in gladness, / But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.’ Flushed with hope, Chatterton launched himself with funds of inexperience and self-illusion. So he writes to his mother at the beginning of May:
Good God! how superior is London to that despicable place Bristol! Here is none of your little meannesses, none of your mercenary securities ... The poverty of authors is a common observation, but not always a true one. No author can be poor who understands the arts of booksellers. – Without this necessary knowledge, the greatest genius may starve; and with it, the greatest dunce live in splendour. This knowledge I have pretty well dipped into.
He kept up this brave front in his letters to his mother and sister despite the precipitous descent of his meagre fortunes. In three months he would be starving to death, having earned less than £5 from his profound understanding of the arts of the booksellers.
The pathetic tale needs no rehearsing. We ought to realise, however, that Chatterton’s touching last letters to his family share an important common element with his Rowley constructions – indeed, with virtually all of his writing. Begun as fantasia, the letters quickly became self-consciously maintained illusions. The July letters are little hoaxes written for his family: ‘Almost all the next Town and Country magazine is mine. I have an universal acquaintance; my company is courted every where; and, could I humble myself to go into a compter, could have had twenty places before now: – but I must be among the great; state matters suit me better than commercial.’
The situation is easy enough to romanticise, in the manner of the Lake Poets and their inheritors. One might also be struck, however, by the resoluteness of Chatterton’s behaviour – by his utter lack of self-pity, and his determination to maintain the public form of his illusion at any cost. On the brink of starvation he buys presents for his mother and sister and sends them home with brave letters about moving among the great. These presents now appear to us to be like the pieces of forged vellum he earlier gave to his Rowley enthusiasts. They are the concrete proof – the ‘external evidence’ – supporting the textual representations he was constructing for his family.
For Chatterton, writing is a means to very worldly ends. This is why we must not separate the satiric writings from the forgeries. They are all of a piece. His daemon is parody, and his work is driven by a profound intuition of the theatrical potential of language. Even personal letters – like this to his friend William Smith – turn into imaginative performance:
Let this apologize for long silence. – Your request would have been long since granted, but I know not what it is best to compose: a Hindica-syllabum carmen Hexastichon, Ogdastich, Tetrametrum, or Septenarius. You must know I have been long troubled with a poetical cephalaphonia, for I no sooner begin an acrostic, but I wander into a threnodia. – The poem ran thus: the first line, an acatalictos; the second, an otislogia of the first; the third, an acyrologia: the fourth, an epanalepsis of the third; fifth, a diatyposis of beauty; sixth, a diaporesis of success; seventh, a brachy catalecton; eighth, an ecphonesis of explexis. In short, an enpynion could not sustain a greater synchysis of such accidents without syzygia. I am resolved to forsake the Parnassian mount, and would advise you to do so too, and attain the mystery of composing smegma. Think not I make a mysterismus in mentioning smegma. No; my mnemosque will not let me see (unless I have amblyopia) your great services, which shall always be remembered by
The last Rowley an forgery, created just before he left Bristol, was the ‘Account of the Family of the DeBerghams’. This work was part of an elaborate textual hoax designed to gull a Bristol pewterer named Burgum. Appealing to the man’s vanity, Chatterton invented a pedigree for Burgum, supposed to have been drawn up by Rowley, ‘from the Norman Conquest to this time’ (i.e. to the mid-15th century). He even told Burgum that one of his ancestors, a John De Burgham, was the author of a 14th-century romance. Chatterton copied out a brief excerpt from the poem and showed it to Burgum, who was – to use Chatterton’s apt term – completely ‘infatuated’ with it.
Chatterton worked a similar scheme on a breeches-maker of Salisbury named Stevens, and his Rowley texts were all part of a hoax he was perpetrating on various interested Bristolians, in particular the antiquarian Barrett and the literary enthusiast Catcott. Chatterton wanted to get money from his forgeries; he was also energised by his ability to carry off his remarkable, not to say brazen, deceptions. As one sees from his letters and satirical poetry, he had no high opinion of the people he deceived. And when he went to London, he hadn’t the slightest doubt that he would carry the world before him. As he wrote to his mother: ‘had Rowley been a Londoner, instead of a Bristowyan, I could have lived by copying his works.’
One of Chatterton’s most extraordinary creations is ‘The Last Will and Testament of Thomas Chatterton’, a polyglot work of verse and prose which he ‘Executed in the presence of Omniscience this 14th of April, 1770.’ A little reminiscent of Villon’s poetical Testament, the work is an outrageous piece of black comedy, though Chatterton’s suicide the following August has made critics and biographers chary of seeing it as such, or saying so. The Will proper is introduced with an extended fragment of satiric verse analysing several Bristol characters.
Gods! what would Burgum give to get a name
And snatch his blundering dialect from shame!
What would he give, to hand his memory down
To time’s remotest boundary? – A Crown.
We are told that the niggardly ‘prudence of this prudent place’ (Bristol) has led Chatterton to his decision to commit suicide ‘tomorrow night before eight o’clock ... the feast of the resurrection’. Chatterton gives detailed directions for a tomb of ‘six tablets’ with various inscriptions in three languages and four different character sets. Then comes the bequest, of which the following is a sample:
I give all my vigour and fire of youth to Mr George Catcott, being sensible he is most in want of it ... To Mr Burgum all my prosody and grammar, likewise one moiety of my modesty ... I leave also my religion to Dr Cutts Barton, dean of Bristol, hereby empowering the sub-sacrist to strike him on the head when he goes to sleep in church. My powers of utterance I give to the Reverend Mr Broughton, hoping he will employ them to a better purpose than reading lectures on the immortality of the soul: I leave the Reverend Mr Catcott, some little of my free-thinking, that he may put on spectacles of reason and see how vilely he is duped in believing the scriptures literally ... I leave my moderation to the politicians on both sides of the question ... I give and bequeath to Mr Matthew Mease a mourning ring, with this motto, ‘Alas, poor Chatterton!’ provided he pays for it himself.
The passage helps to explain the virulence of Chatterton’s detractors (who are not well represented in these Early Sources and Responses). To many of his contemporaries he was a perverted talent, all the more deplorable for his youth, his ideas reprehensible, and his bold manner worse still.
The ‘Last Will’ is prefaced by one of the most revealing texts Chatterton ever penned. It is a note dated four days prior to his departure for London, six days after he ‘executed’ the Will and five days after his promised suicide:
In a dispute concerning the character of David, Mr — argued that he must be a holy man, from the strains of piety that breathe through his whole works – I being of a contrary opinion, and knowing that a great genius can effect anything, endeavouring in the foregoing Poems to represent an enthusiastic Methodist ... and impose it upon the infatuated world as a reality; but thanks to Burgum’s generosity, I am now employed in matters of more importance.
The ‘matters of more importance’ are his new London projects.
The note explains why we ought to see Chatterton not as the precursor of Keats, but a forecast of Poe. Chatterton thinks about writing in terms similar to the author of ‘Von Kempelen and His Discovery’ and the other literary hoaxes, of ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ and ‘How to Write a Blackwood’s Article’. If anything, Chatterton seems more calculating, even cynical. It is this cynicism which catalyses his naivety, on one hand, and his great verve for language, on the other, and brings certain of his literary works very close to greatness.
‘Aella’, for example, whose naive face, like that of all the Rowley texts, is pure mask. The work is best read in its entirety: that is to say, along with the three introductory poems that secure the fictive context of the piece. That context underscores the work’s contemporary (18th-century) status. It is a topical text, a mannered rhetorical performance much closer (generically) to satire than to its nominal character as ‘A Tragycal Enterlude’. The work asks to be read simultaneously at two radically different levels. As ‘Rowley’ observes in his introductory ‘Letter to Mastre Canynge’: ‘Wee wylle ne cheynedd to one pasture bee, / Botte sometymes soare ’bove trouthe of hystorie’. Largely concerned to elevate the claims of ‘poesie’ against ‘hystorie’, which ‘Rowley’ sees as exerting an excessive cultural dominance, the ‘Letter’ completely warps the traditional shape of the argument. For in this case (i.e. Chatterton’s poem) the power of ‘poesie’ comes not from any transcendental pretensions, but from the extreme particularity of its inventive range. Chatterton’s antique manner is a better index to what is living and present than it is to what is dead and gone.
Chatterton wrote one Rowley poem, ‘The Storie of William Canynge’, in which he put his cards face up for the infatuated world. Tyrwhitt describes it as ‘part of a prose-work ... giving an account of Painters, Carvellers, Poets, and other eminent natives of Bristol, from the earliest times [to] be published by Mr Barrett, with remarks and large additions’. Appropriately for Chatterton’s comic muse, ‘The Storie’ is a vision poem. It begins: ‘Anent a brooklette as I laye reclyned’, where the ‘I’ is understood to be Thomas Rowley, who falls asleep and gets visions of bygone days (‘brave Aelle’, ‘holie Wareburghus’, ‘Fitz Hardynge, Brithrickus, and twentie moe’). The visions march down the course of time until Rowley’s friend and Maecenas, William Canynge, also ‘Ynne visyonne fore mie phaniasie dyd goe’. In the poet’s culminating ‘visyonne’ of Canynge, however, the sleeping Rowley turns into an Adam’s dream, and begins awakening to his true identity, Thomas Chatterton.
In the poem the transition is marked by the visionary appearance of ‘a mayde, / Whose gentle tresses mov’d not to the wynde’. Rowley may need a vision to recover Aelle, Wareburghus, and the others, but ‘Trouthis wordes’ come to tell Canynge’s storie to the poet.
I’m Trouthe, that dyd decende from heavenwere,
Goulers and courtiers doe not kenne mee welle;
Thie inmoste thoughtes, thie labrynge brayne I sawe,
And form thie gentle dreeme will thee adawe.
These words speak ‘trouthe’ in a double sense, one for Rowley, another for Chatterton. In the poem’s fiction Rowley doesn’t ‘adawe’ until the last line, but at the poem’s performative level the Adamic dream is dispelled with a Brechtian gesture. Preserving the magical apparatus to the end, Chatterton translates Rowley’s ‘labrynge brayne’ into his own. An imaginary figure for unconscious mind (Rowley’s vision) appears as the deliberated rhetorical move of a self-conscious writer. Visionary verse is a game of poetic wit.
The textual formalities may easily remind us of Keats. The manner is very different. This is no ‘tender night’ of romantic imagination, it is the brainy world of an artist whose delight lies in hoaxing and masking. The line to Oscar Wilde is direct.