Bard of Tropes

Jonathan Lamb

  • Thomas Chatterton and Romantic Culture by Nick Groom
    Palgrave, 300 pp, £55.00, September 1999, ISBN 0 333 72586 7

Chatterton could ‘do’ any poet from Chaucer to the recently dead Charles Churchill; and after his own death poets ‘did’ him. This stanza from ‘Bristowe Tragedie or the Dethe of Syr Charles Bawdin’, is a blend of the Spenserian antique and ballad poetry, a combination which uses phrases that are heard again in Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’:

How dydd I know thatt ev’ry darte
Thatt cutte the airie waie
Mighte nott fynde a passage to my harte
And close myne eyes for aie?

‘Half the poetry of the 18th century is probably written by him,’ a character says in Peter Ackroyd’s novel Chatterton. Yet he appeals equally to defenders and opponents of the canon. Chatterton was convinced of his own talent and ambitious to be recognised as one of the great English poets; but he chose to attract public attention with pastiche and forgery. Chatterton not only invented the character and work of Thomas Rowley, supposedly a Bristol monk, but also carefully presented it in faded ink on artificially aged parchment, strangely intent on fooling connoisseurs of medieval literature such as Horace Walpole, author of the earliest Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, and publishers such as James Dodsley, who had done a great deal to popularise antiquarian poetry. At the same time, Chatterton was innocently eager for their applause.

In this collection of essays he has a chameleon presence. He is seen by Claude Rawson as a fluent parodist in the Augustan mode, and by Carolyn Williams as a pioneer of post-colonial resistance to the hegemony of Received Standard English. As several essays here make clear, he is the poet who, above all others, forced the early historians of English literature such as Thomas Warton, Thomas Percy and Samuel Johnson to review the grounds of their judgments. He is at the same time the lonely outsider commemorated by Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and (more cannily) Wordsworth. David Fairer maintains that their Wertherisation of Chatterton’s alleged suicide concentrated the Romantic poets’ minds on their own social isolation, on the necessary dissidence of the poet’s task and the short time reserved for its performance.

Chatterton is at once typical and unique, then, and all the contributors to this volume are interested in his poetry as representing the transition from one set of literary assumptions to another. But it is hard to get rid of the image of Chatterton dead in a garret. Henry Wallis’s picture, inevitably adorning the book’s dust-jacket, is a study in the waste of beauty and genius. The autodidact poets discussed by Bridget Keegan – Ann Yearsley, Mary Robinson, Henry Headley and later John Clare – were all of one mind about this. Chatterton, they thought, had died by his own hand in poverty and despair, neglected by the metropolitan world. Michael Suarez’s account here shows that Chatterton’s relations with the book trade after he arrived in London were far busier and more profitable than is commonly supposed. In the early summer of 1770 he was networking at Tom’s and the Chapter, coffee-houses patronised by the booksellers of St Paul’s. Even before he came to the city he was being published in London journals, and once there he appeared frequently enough in papers such as the Middlesex Journal and the Town and Country Magazine to suggest that his boastful remarks about knowing how to make money as a writer were not empty. Shortly before he died he wrote to his sister Mary: ‘I employ my money now in fitting myself fashionably; and getting into good company . . . I will send you two silks this summer.’ He bought china for her and a snuffbox for his mother. His suicide is advertised in ‘Will’, an incoherent fantasy written ‘in the utmost Distress of Mind’ three months before he died; but it is more likely that he killed himself by miscalculating a dose of the arsenic he was using to treat a venereal infection.

Nor was he neglected. His exposure as a forger was seasoned with a widespread enthusiasm for his poetry, even among critics such as Johnson, who had no reason to be pleased with the satirical remarks Chatterton made about him in ‘Kew Gardens’. Johnson said: ‘This is the most extraordinary young man that has encountered my knowledge. It is wonderful how the whelp has written such things.’ Warton thought Chatterton’s verse was too good to be medieval: ‘The poems before us are poetical and animated . . . they have no imbecillities of style or sentiment.’ Edmond Malone believed him ‘to have been the greatest genius that England has produced since the days of Shakespeare’. His career, in other words, looks like a success.

Pat Rogers argues that the success was constructed out of a deliberate failure. Chatterton’s arch letters to Walpole and Dodsley about his discovery of Rowley’s papers, and his clumsy attempts to antiquate the parchments, were easily penetrated. The antiquary Thomas Percy called it ‘the most glaring & undoubted fraud’. Johnson found it unaccountable that a posthumous controversy could be generated out of the question of Rowley’s authenticity. Rogers’s ingenious explanation draws on Anthony Grafton’s Forgers and Critics (1990) to suggest that philological research of the sort that had led to the foundational histories of English Literature – Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, Warton’s History of English Poetry and Percy’s Reliques – required the presence of some sort of textual corruption, whether transposition, error, interpolation or outright forgery, in order to set a standard by which the true text might be tried. Bentley’s edition of Paradise Lost is a good example of how the domestication of classical philology supposes an agent of corruption, in this case an errant scribe, whose alleged defacements of the original must be detected and removed if it is to be properly appreciated. The search for the authentic in literature relies on the presence of the inauthentic; without it the recovery of the original cannot begin. ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, the most daring of Coleridge’s poems, embeds the corrupting presence in the text, notably by means of the marginal glosses inserted into later editions, which even have a Rowleyised orthography – ‘the Ancyent Marinere’ and so on. Chatterton supplied his poems with their own corruption so that his originality might be more vividly displayed, hence his paradoxical desire at once to deceive his readers and to be recognised by them as a genius. This seems to be the burden of his reproach to Walpole, who in spurning him because of his forgeries was doing the opposite of what his genius deserved: ‘Say, didst thou ne’er indulge in such Deceit?/Who wrote Otranto?’ Incredulous that Walpole could miss the parallel, Chatterton supposes that difference in rank is being used to support a false judgment about the value of cheating. Walpole had claimed that The Castle of Otranto was a translation from a medieval original, but like Chatterton’s medievalisms this was intended as a penetrable disguise, and when it was penetrated no one called Walpole a cheat. Chatterton asked for the same allowance; when it was not forthcoming, he wrote to Walpole: ‘I feel myself injured, Sir; and did not you know my circumstances, you would not treat me thus.’

Chatterton’s most astute readers may then have been the 18th-century philologists rather than the Romantic poets, despite the emphasis in the title of this book. Probably the best Romantic summary of Chatterton’s career is Wordsworth’s, because he skirts the issues of poverty and obscurity that Chatterton raises in his attack on Walpole, and concentrates instead on pride and poetic self-deification. As an exemplar of the egotistical sublime, Wordsworth’s Chatterton makes Rowley the idol of his pride, the projection of what Hobbes called ‘gloriation of mind’. But even this elevates more than it deserves a literary daring that sprang from a linguistic predicament, cited by Chatterton as the reason for his not being appointed travelling tutor to the young Duke of Northumberland: ‘Alas! I speak no tongue but my own!’ In the ‘Whore of Babylon’ he alludes to this again: ‘Burgum and I in ancient Lore untaught/ Are always with our Nature in a fault.’ Chatterton called learning the ‘putrid Foetus of a barren brain’ in ‘Epistle to the Revd Mr Catcott’, but no poet could afford to be without it. ‘The Bard alone by Nature taught’ is also ‘a rhiming, staring, am’rous Ass’ (‘To Miss Lydia C---’). At Colston’s School in Bristol neither Latin nor Greek was taught, so ‘ancient lore’ had to come to Chatterton via the eclogues and satires of those poets whose experiments in the vernacular were informed by a knowledge of at least the Roman poets. Convinced that ‘a great genius can affect every thing,’ he started to write pastiche. But this, like his satire, is often too tinnily accomplished and too broad in its reference to be plausible.

As a monoglot poet of nature, Chatterton occupied a position idealised by the learned. Ever since Addison reinforced his doubts about the value of poetic imitation by praising the artless simplicity of The Ballad of Chevy Chase, the recovery of primitive genius had been the aim not only of philology but also of Gothic taste. The popularity of the ballads edited by Thomas Percy and Joseph Ritson – Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) and Ancient English Metrical Romances (1802) – and the patriotic cherishing of a largely speculative Cambro-British and Saxon past, meant that public opinion tended to favour frauds such as Macpherson’s Ossian and Chatterton’s Rowley. Wordsworth appealed to the same taste when he installed as the criterion of all good verse ‘the real language of men’. Chatterton, meanwhile, affected learning in an effort to seem more, or at least other, than he was. But the callow strain of his imitations, especially of Macpherson (‘His spear, like the fury of a thunderbolt, swept down whole armies’) and Collins (‘Self-frighted Fear creeps silent through the Gloom’), indicates that the parodic edge of Gay and Pope was not being transfused to his verse – only with Rowley and his mock medievalism does the quality of ‘double voicedness’ come into play to unparody parody, as Bridget Keegan, Michael Wood and Claude Rawson propose. The double voice is a species of irony; it allows for the restriction of imitation and the liberation this allows the tongue and the mind.

Why Rowley was different is explained partly by the ‘Will’, in which Chatterton tells Burgum:

For had I never known the antique Lore
I ne’er had ventur’d from my peaceful Shore
To be the wreck of promises and hopes
A Boy of Learning and a Bard of Tropes.
But happy in my humbler Sphere had mov’d
Untroubled unrespected unbelov’d.

‘Saxon’ – his name for Rowley’s Middle English – was Chatterton’s Latin. Using it seems to have stimulated his imagination (compare the battle scenes of ‘Hastynges I’ with ‘Kenrick’, for example) and the language was sufficiently detectable as fake to ensure that what really belonged to Chatterton would be esteemed at its true rate – at least by readers other than Walpole. Although Rowley says that ‘the Glorie of a Carveller shulde be in ungarmented Imagerie’ (images that come from the ‘carver’s brain’, in Keats’s ‘Eve of St Agnes’), the difference between the wood and its adornment needs to be recognised, for ‘wythout unlykenesse nothynge could bee made.’ Thus Gendolyn in ‘Englysh Metamorphosis’ is clothed or ‘dight’ in the colours of various flowers: ‘The mornynge tynge, the rose, the lillie floure,/In ever ronneynge race on her dyd peyncte theyre powere’. ‘An Excelente Balade of Charitie’ begins with the earth ‘dighte in its mose defte aumere’ (‘daintiest garb’), and tells a story of the putting on and taking off of garments, a sort of metaphor for forgery and detection. ‘Dight’ is an important word for Chatterton, as it was for Milton, whose ‘storied windows’ are ‘richly dight’ (‘Il Penseroso’). Chatterton ‘dight’ the naked sheets of Rowley’s work with ink and ochre to make them look something they were not. In Ackroyd’s Chatterton, George Meredith says to Henry Wallis: ‘There are no words to stamp the indefinite thing.’ Only when ‘steyned with Goere, the Harte of Warre is seen’. Learning and nature, forgery and originality, stand in paradoxical relation in Chatterton’s poems. This is the drift of Nick Groom’s distinction between the philologist and the mock-learned poet: ‘For Percy, manuscripts were merely traces of minstrelsy . . . for Chatterton, however, manuscripts were the very matter of literature.’ Unlike the Romantics, who believed as powerfully as the philologists in a core of uncorrupted truth, Chatterton knew experimentally that there is no flower that does not have an exotic and corrupt surface, and no original that can be known without artifice. That he did not think this as depressing as Blake (‘O Rose, thou art sick . . .’) links Chatterton with the stauncher sensibilities of pre-Romantic culture. Empson characterised the double voice of 18th-century burlesque as the ability to make room for the ideas it laughed at. In the same spirit Chatterton makes room for nature, truth and genius while doing his best to pervert and ‘dight’ them with ‘lore’, unlike those who used simplicity and innocence as an alibi for the learning which they only affected to disdain.