Infatuated Worlds

Jerome McGann

  • Thomas Chatterton: Early Sources and Responses
    Routledge/Thoemmes, £295.00, July 1993, ISBN 0 415 09255 8

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.

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