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THE

LIFE OF THOMAS CHATTERTON.

'BY MR. CHALMERS.

His

THIS extraordinary young man was born on the 20th of November 1752. father was originally a writing usher to a school in Bristol, afterwards a singing man in the cathedral, and lastly master of the free-school in Pyle-street in the same city. He died about three months before this son was born.-It is not quite unimportant, although in any other case it might seem ridiculous, to add that our poet was descended from a long line of ancestors who held the office of sexton of St. Mary Redcliffe: for it was in the muniment room of this church that the materials were found from which he constructed that system of imposture which has rendered his name celebrated, and his history interesting.

At five years of age he was sent to the school in Pyle-street, then superintended by a Mr. Love, but here he improved so little that his mother took him back. While under his care his childish attention is said to have been engaged by the illuminated capitals of an old musical manuscript in French, which circumstance encouraged her to initiate him in the alphabet, and she afterward taught him to read from an old black-letter Testament or Bible. That a person of her rank in life should be able to read the black-letter is somewhat extraordinary, but the fact rests upon her authority, and has been considered as an introduction to that fondness for antiquities for which he was afterwards distinguished'.

His next remove was to Colston's charity school, at the age of eight years, where he was taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, at the daily rate of nine hours in summer and seven in winter. Such at least was the prescribed discipline of the school, although far more tedious than a boy of his capacity required. One of his masters, Phillips, whom he has celebrated in an elegy, was a frequent writer of verses in the magazines, and was the mean of exciting a degree of poetical emulation among his scholars, but to this Chatterton appeared for some time quite indifferent. About his tenth year he began to read from inclination, sometimes hiring his books from a circulating library, and sometimes borrowing them from his friends; and before he was twelve, nad gone through about seventy 'Lord Orford derives his taste from an incident somewhat later. "I firmly believe that the first impression made on so warm and fertile an imagination was the sight of some old parchments at Bristol." Orford's Works, vol. iv. p. 232,

volumes, principally history and divinity. Before this time he had composed some verses, particularly those intitled Apostate Will, which although they bear no comparison with what he afterwards produced, discover at that early age a disposition to personal satire, and a consciousness of superior sense.

It would be more remarkable, were it true, that while at this school he is said to have shown to his master Phillips one of those manuscripts which he pretended had been found in a chest in Redcliffe church, but as neither Phillips nor another person to whom this treasure was exhibited, could read it, the commencement of his Rowleian impostures must be postponed to a future period.

At school he had gathered some knowledge of music, drawing, and arithmetic, and with this stock he was bound apprentice July 1767, to Mr. John Lambert, an attorney at Bristol, for seven years. His apprenticeship seems to have been of the lower order, and his situation more resembling that of a servant than a pupil. His chief employment was to copy precedents, which frequently did not require more than two hours in a day. The rest of his time was probably filled up by the desultory course of reading which he had begun at school, and which terminated chiefly in the study of the old English phraseology, heraldry, and miscellaneous antiquities: of the two last he acquired, not a profound knowledge, but enough to enable him to create fictions capable of deceiving those who had less. His general conduct during his apprenticeship was decent and regular. On one occasion only Mr. Lambert thought him deserving of correction for writing an abusive letter in a feigned hand to his old schoolmaster. So soon did this young man learn the art of deceit, which he was now preparing to practise upon a more extensive scale.

In the beginning of October 1768, the completion of the new bridge at Bristol suggested to him a fit opportunity for playing off the first of his public deceptions. This was an account of the ceremonies on opening the old bridge, said to be taken from an ancient manuscript, a copy of which he sent to Farley's Bristol Journal, in a short letter signed Dunhelmus Bristoliensis. Such a memoir, at so critical a time, naturally excited attention; and Farley, who was called upon to give up the author, after much inquiry, discovered that Chatterton had sent it. Chatterton was consequently interrogated, probably without much ceremony, where he had obtained it. And here his unhappy disposition showed itself in a manner highly affecting in one so young, for he had not yet reached his sixteenth year, and according to all that can be gathered, had not been corrupted either by precept or example. "To the threats," we are told, "of those who treated him (agreeably to his appearance) as a child, he returned nothing but haughtiness, and a refusal to give any account. By milder usage he was somewhat softened, and appeared inclined to give all the information in his power."

The effect, however, of this mild usage was, that instead of all or any part of the information in his power, he tried two different falsehoods: the first," that he was employed to transcribe the contents of certain ancient manuscripts by a gentleman, who had also engaged him to furnish complimentary verses inscribed to a lady with whom that gentleman was in love." But as this story was to rest on proofs which he could not produce, he next asserted, "that he had received the paper in question, together with many other manuscripts, from his father, who had found them in a large chest in the upper room over the chapel, on the north side of Redcliffe church."

As this last story is the foundation of the whole controversy respecting Chatterton, it will be necessary to give the circumstances as related in his life, written for the Biographia Britannica, and prefixed to the recent edition of his works.

"Over the north porch of St. Mary Redcliffe church, which was founded, or at least rebuilt, by Mr. W. Canynge, (an eminent merchant of Bristol in the fifteenth century, and in the reign of Edward the Fourth) there is a kind of muniment room, in which were deposited six or seven chests, one of which in particular was called Mr. Canynge's cofre; this chest, it is said, was secured by six keys, two of which were intrusted to the minister and procurator of the church, two to the mayor, and one to each of the church-wardens. In process of time, however, the six keys appear to have been lost: and about the year 1727, a notion prevailed that some title deeds, and other writings of value, were contained in Mr. Canynge's cofre. In consequence of this opinion, an order of vestry was made, that the chest should be opened under the inspection of an attorney: and that those writings which appeared of consequence should be removed to the south porch of the church. The locks were therefore forced, and not only the principal chest, but the others, which were also supposed to contain writings, were all broke open. The deeds immediately relating to the church were removed, and the other manuscripts were left exposed as of no value. Considerable depredations had, from time to time, been committed upon them, by different persons: but the most insatiate of these plunderers was the father of Chatterton. His uncle being sexton of St. Mary Redcliffe gave him free access to the church. He carried off, from time to time, parcels of the parchments, and one time alone, with the assistance of his boys, is known to have filled a large basket with them. They were deposited in a cupboard in the school, and employed for different purposes, such as the covering of copy-books, &c. in particular Mr. Gibbs, the minister of the parish, having presented the boys with twenty Bibles, Mr. Chatterton, in order to preserve these books from being damaged, covered them with some of the parchments. At his death, the widow being under a necessity of removing, carried the remainder of them to her own habitation. Of the discovery of their value by the younger Chatterton, the account of Mr. Smith, a very intimate acquaintance, which he gave to Dr. Glynn of Cambridge, is too interesting to be omitted. When young Chatterton was first articled to Mr. Lambert, he used frequently to come home to his mother, by way of a short visit. There, one day, his eye was caught by one of these parchments, which had been converted into a thread-paper. He found not only the writing to be very old, the characters very different from common characters, but that the subject therein treated was different from common subjects. Being naturally of an inquisitive and curious turn, he was very much struck with their appearance, and, as might be expected, began` to question his mother what those thread-papers were, how she got them, and whence they came. Upon further inquiry, he was led to a full discovery of all the parchments which remained: the bulk of them consisted of poetical and other compositions, by Mr. Canynge, and a particular friend of his, Thomas Rowley, whom Chatterton at first called a monk, and afterwards a secular priest of the fifteenth century. Such, at least, appears to be the account which Chatter

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ton thought proper to give, and which he wished to be believed. It is, indeed, confirmed by the testimony of his mother and sister. Mrs. Chatterton informed a friend of the dean of Exeter (Dr. Milles) that on her removal from Pyle-street, she emptied the cupboard of its contents, partly into a large long deal box, where her husband used to keep his clothes, and partly into a square oak box of a smaller size: carrying both with their contents to her lodgings, where, according to her account, they continued neglected and undisturbed, till her son first discovered their value: who having examined their contents, told his mother that he had found a treasure, and was so glad nothing could be like it.' That he then removed all these parchments out of the large long deal box, in which his father used to keep his clothes, into the square oak box: that he was perpetually ransacking every corner of the house for more parchments, and, from time to time, carried away those he had already found by pockets full: that one day happening to see Clarke's History of the Bible covered with one of those parchments, he swore a great oath, and stripping the book, put the cover into his pocket, and carried it away: at the same time stripping a common little Bible, but finding no writing upon the cover, replaced it again very leisurely. Upon being informed of the manner in which his father had procured the parchments, he went himself to the place, and picked up four more."

Such is the story of the discovery of the poems attributed to Rowley, which Chatterton evidently made up from the credulity of his mother and other friends, who could not read the parchments on which he affected to set so high a value, and which he afterwards endeavoured to render of public importance by producing these wonderful treasures of Canynge's coffre. In his attempt, already related, respecting the old bridge, he had not been eminently successful, owing to his prevarication. He now imparted some of these manuscripts to George Catcot, a pewterer of Bristol, who had heard of the discovery, and desired to be introduced to Chatterton. The latter very readily gave him the Bristowe Tragedy, Rowley's Epitaph on Canynge's Ancestor, and some smaller pieces. These Catcot communicated to Mr. Barret, a surgeon, who was writing a history of Bristol, and would naturally be glad to add to its honours that of having produced such a poet as Rowley. In his conversations with Barret and Catcot he appears to have been driven to many prevarications, sometimes owning that he had destroyed several of these valuable manuscripts; and at other times asserting that he was in possession of others which he could not produce. These contradictions must have entirely destroyed his evidence in any other case, in the opinion of thinking and impartial judges: but the historian of Bristol could not forego the hopes of enriching his book by originals of so great importance; and having obtained from Chatterton several fragments, some of considerable length, he actually printed them as authentic in his history, long after the controversy ceased which had convinced the learned world that he had been egregiously duped.

In return for these contributions, Barret and Catcot supplied Chatterton occasionally with money, and introduced him into company. At his request, too, Mr. Barret lent our poet some medical authors, and gave him a few instructions in surgery; but still his favourite studies were heraldry and English antiquities, which he pursued with as much success as could be expected from one who

knew no language but his own. Camden's Britannia appears to have been a favourite book: and he copied the glossaries of Chaucer and others with indefatigable perseverance, storing his memory with antiquated words. Even Bailey's Dictionary has been proved to have afforded him many of those words which the advocates for Rowley thought could be known only to a writer of his pretended age.

During all these various pursuits, he employed his pen in essays, in prose and verse, chiefly of the satirical kind. He appears to have read the party pamphlets of the day, and imbibed much of their abusive spirit. In 1769, we find him a very considerable contributor to the Town and Country Magazine, which began about that time. His ambition seems to have been to rise to eminence entirely by the efforts of his genius, either in his own character or that of some of the heroes of the Redcliffe chest, in which he was perpetually discovering a most convenient variety of treasure, with which to reward his admirers and secure their patronage. Mr. Burgum, another pewterer, maintains the authenticity of Rowley's poems. Chatterton rewards him with a pedigree from the time of William the conqueror, allying him to some of the most ancient families in the kingdom, and presents him with the Romaunt of the Cnyghte, a poem, written by John de Bergham, one of his own ancestors, about four hundred and fifty years before. In order to obtain the good opinion of his relation Mr. Stephens of Salisbury, he informs him that he is descended from Fitzstephen, grandson of the venerable Od, earl of Blois, and lord of Holderness, who flourished about the year 1095. In this manner Chatterton contrived to impose on men who had no means of appreciating the value of what he communicated, and were willing to believe what, for one reason or other, they wished to be true.

But the most remarkable of his pretended discoveries issued in an application to one who was not so easily to be deceived. This was the celebrated Horace Walpole, the late lord Orford, who had not long before completed his Anecdotes of Painters. In March 1769, Chatterton, with his usual attention to the wants or prejudices of the persons on whom he wished to impose, sent to Mr. Walpole a letter, offering to furnish him with accounts of a series of great painters who had flourished at Bristol, and remitted also a small specimen of poems of the same remote era. Mr. Walpole, although he could not, as he informs us, very readily swallow "a series of great painters at Bristol," appears to have been in some measure pleased with the offer, and discovered beauties in the verses sent. He therefore returned a polite and thankful letter, desiring further information. From this letter Chatterton appears to have thought he had made a conquest, and, in his answer, thought proper to come to the direct purpose of his application. He informed his correspondent that he was the son of a poor widow, who supported him with great difficulty; that he was an apprentice to an attorney, but had a taste for more elegant studies; he affirmed that great treasures of ancient poetry had been discovered at Bristol, and were in the hands of a person who had lent him the specimen already transmitted, as well as a pastoral (Elinoure and Juga) which accompanied this second letter. He hinted also a wish that Mr. Walpole would assist him in emerging from so dull

See an ingenious summary of his various forgeries, drawn up by Mr. Cottle, in the edition of Chatterton's works lately published, vol. i. p. 509. C.

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