Thomas Chatterton’s poetry is usually divided into his own poems, published in his lifetime, and those of his alter ego, the imaginary monk “Thomas Rowley” whom Chatterton asserted wrote many of the “fifteenth century” poems allegedly transcribed from vellum manuscripts found in the muniment room of St. Mary Redcliffe in Bristol and carried off by his father, the sexton, as curiosities useful for covering schoolbooks. Chatterton is remembered for his incredible facility in meters, for his suicide at seventeen, and for his imposture. The worst aspect of his last claim to fame was his attempt to impose on Horace Walpole, who had written a history of the development of styles, a fabricated transcription of a description of English painting in the fifteenth century; this hoax was a continuation of that by which Chatterton first got into print, his equally false transcription of ceremonies marking the opening of the old bridge across the Severn at Bristol, which Chatterton sent to the Bristol Journal in September, 1768, on the occasion of the opening of the new bridge. When he attempted to pass the Rowley poems as equally genuine, Chatterton became the victim not only of his provincial environment but of his age.
London and mid-eighteenth century England were booming with the mercantile revolution which was carrying British manufactures all over the world; the industrial and agricultural revolutions were shifting the bases of English society; the mental unrest and speculation accompanying these phenomena were pushing back the frontiers of space and time. Exotic locales were being employed in a literary style still grounded in classical modernation and exactitude, as in Samuel Johnson’s RASSELAS and his JOURNEY TO THE WESTERN ISLANDS OF SCOTLAND. Further, a curiosity about the past literature of the British Isles produced at first all sorts of curiousa from the dark and deliciously primitive past: the FRAGMENTS of the fake “Ossian” and Percy’s RELIQUES. The classical temper fought to control the “night thoughts” and “sentimental journeys,” but the public was infatuated with the Gothic. The whirlwind was reaped in the American and French revolutions and the Romantic Period before the century was out.
Chatterton shared and tried to capitalize on the changing taste of the time by creating a fifteenth century Bristol, his “city of refuge” as George Sherburn called it. In the verse and prose he managed to sell or publish from Bristol and, during his last four months, in London, he used conventional modes felicitously and sought the taste of time in his “African Eclogues” and the Rowley poems. But he could not endure the life of Grub Street and “perished in his pride,” caught exactly in the middle of the clash between old style and new taste which Thomson earlier avoided in the SEASONS and Crabbe later in THE VILLAGE, the beginning and the end of the pre-Romantic pastoral. Chatterton became the property of the Romantics as “the marvellous boy” of Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence,” which continues
We poets in our youth begin in glad-ness;But thereof come in the end despond-ency and madness.
The romantic feeling toward Chatterton, at once the pathos of blighted youth and of pure genius, is summed up in the well-known painting of his deathbed by Wallis.
The nineteenth century held that the Rowley poems were superior to the rest, but a finer ear both for the eighteenth century coventions of and for the true Chaucerian language and meters has reversed the verdict.
Although Chatterton probably actually faked only a few short poems on parchment (those now in the British Museum), he was able to press most of the more than forty pieces known as the...
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