At the outset, the troubling problem of Thomas Chatterton’s identity as a literary forger must be faced. Traditionally, critics either piously indict him as an outcast and impostor in the history of belles lettres or else strain to rationalize the situation and dismiss his fabrications as only a boyish prank. Resolution of these biased positions is both impossible and unnecessary, for moral judgments are outside the task of criticism, the works themselves providing its proper basis. Thomas Rowley, like any of Chatterton’s other characters, stands beside Hamlet or Huckleberry Finn as a literary creation; the fraudulent means by which he was introduced to the world are irrelevant.
Chatterton’s poetry falls into three loose classes: the Rowley cycle, the non-Rowleyan miscellany, and that of the final stage in both Bristol and London. In all, there is evidence of Chatterton’s remarkable but uneven efforts to vary his modes and to perfect his poetic skills to secure patronage and an audience. In the Rowley poems, he seeks to glorify his idealized patron figure, the fifteenth century William Canynge, and to represent both the reality and spirit of the imaginary Bristol as an enlightened cultural center in those times under his leadership. It is here that Chatterton’s greatest artistic gifts lie: in his ability both to realize fresh and imaginative worlds of experience within realistic temporal and geographic frames, and to offer brief but beautiful glimpses into the pleasures of living in such a Camelot-like society.
Certainly much poetry that Chatterton wrote is lost, for he was not careful to preserve his work. Also, when depressed, he frequently tore his poems to bits. It is not surprising that a boy as precocious as Chatterton would be this erratic or that he would begin composing at a very early age, even though such juvenilia, whether religious hymns, didactic fables, or satiric verses, is highly derivative. The most noteworthy of these early works is “Eleanoure and Juga.” Although the controversy over the date of its composition is as yet unresolved, most critics place it in 1764, making it the first of Chatterton’s poems of antiquity. Also, it was the only Rowley poem published during the lifetime of the poet, appearing in Town and Country Magazine in 1769. A simple pastoral ballad in form, with a vivid setting but little characterization or plot, it features two speakers, young maidens left alone by the deaths of their lovers in the Wars of the Roses, who relate their sorrows to each other, futilely seeking comfort in their mutual loss.
The blank years
All his early work was completed by 1764, and then for a four-year period—what has been called his blank years—no Chatterton literary production remains. The boy poet apparently was totally occupied in creating in his imagination the idealized Bristol of the fifteenth century, the incredibly detailed setting for Thomas Rowley’s poems, as well as perfecting the special antique language in which he could express himself through Rowley. The minor poems that began to appear in 1768 are mostly nonlyrical and include several satires, both anti-Tory diatribes and attacks on specific individuals. Chatterton also wrote a number of insipid love lyrics for another youth to use in his courtships, but critics suggest that they too are in fact satiric, with only the poet recognizing them for what literary mockery is there. Quite moving is a 1769 elegy on the death of the poet’s good friend Thomas Phillips: “Now rest, my muse, but only rest to sleep.” Another side of his genius is found in his lines addressed to Horace Walpole after the connoisseur’s denial of help, even though the youth was persuaded not to send them to his would-be patron. He scorns Walpole’s mean heart and accuses him of perpetrating the same scheme—literary deceit—for which he now scorns Chatterton. Finally, the poet asserts that he and Rowley will stand united forever, even after Walpole has gone to hell.
Significant among the later non-Rowleyan poems of 1770 were the three “African Eclogues,” the first written in Bristol and the final two in London. These poems indicate Chatterton’s sensitivity to the plight of blacks and perhaps his identification with them as victims of unwarranted cruelty. Also part of the final Bristol period were the long, trenchant, satiric poem“Resignation,” assailing contemporary governmental crises, and the philippic “Kew Gardens” (originally conceived as “The Whore of Babylon”), a malicious attack on the unpopular dowager princess of Wales. “The Exhibition: A Personal Satyr” was the initial Chatterton London poem, an extended prurient and vulgar treatment of the trial of a Bristol cleric on morals charges. Shortly thereafter, Chatterton returned to his concern with African suffering in the sensuous and primitive “Narva and Mored” and “The Death of Nicou.”
“An Excelente Balade of Charitie . . .”
The last Rowley poem, “An Excelente Balade of Charitie, as wroten by the gode Prieste Thomas Rowley, 1464,” was in fact written in July, 1770, little more than a month before the poet’s suicide. As in much of Chatterton’s work, the style and dramatic imagery is more Elizabethan than medieval. The stanzaic form is rime royal, with occasional modifications of the iambic pentameter lines with a Spenserian Alexandrine. A fifteenth century version of the biblical Good Samaritan story, it is more personal than anything Chatterton had previously written. He alludes poignantly to his own helplessness and need in that of the “moaning pilgrim” with no home, friends, or money. Most critics now view it as one of his...
(The entire section is 2350 words.)