Imágenes de página
PDF
ePub

stood. It did not develop itself in earliest childhood; and when it did show, there was in it nothing one-sided, nothing diseased, as in the painful precocity which in some children repels rather than attracts. It is important to bear this in mind in estimating Chatterton ; for assuredly it may be said of the human race, more emphatically than of any other, that any departure from the laws of growth of a species is not to be taken as a sign that the individual will exhibit, at maturity, any unusual amount or intensity of the qualities by which the species is denoted. If an oak sapling should show a rapidity of growth equal to that of a poplar, we should not be driven to infer therefrom that the mature tree would show a firmer texture of wood than an ordinary oak, or a greater power of producing acorns : how, then, can we expect to see other laws at work in man? But that incisive and masculine force of intellect which astonishes us in Chatterton did not show itself till puberty, and might therefore have been, for anything that experience teaches us to the contrary, the first outburst of a unique energy that would have gone on developing and gathering strength with years.

At the age of five the attempt to teach him even his letters had failed, and at six and a half his mother and sister still

thought he was an absolute fool. When close upon his eighth year he was admitted to Colston's Blue-coat School, Bristol. While absorbing, as a sponge absorbs water, all the knowledge to be got there, he ran through three circulating libraries ; and it was then that he began to show that passion for poetry and antiquities which soon began to dominate his life. The first form, as far as is known, taken by this passion was a strange one, that of a hoax played upon a pompous pewterer of Bristol, named Burgum, for whom Chatterton fabricated a false pedigree of great antiquity, with a poem written by one of the pewterer's ancestors, The Romaunte of the Cnyghte. This proving a complete success, though rewarded only with a crown-piece, Chatterton was induced to try his hand at the same kind of work again, and produced an imaginary account of the opening of Bristol Bridge in the time of Henry II, which deceived all the local antiquaries. This was followed by The Ryse of Peynctyne in Englande wroten by T. Rowlie 1469 for Master Canynge, which deceived Horace Walpole, to whom he sent it ; and finally a mass of pseudo-antique poetry, consisting of dramas, epic fragments and dramatic lyrics, which, under the name of the ‘Rowley Poems' gave rise after his death to almost as much angry discussion as the Ossian poetry itself. Some of this work was achieved at school, but most of it after he had been removed from school to the office of a Bristol attorney. A boyish freak resulted in his quitting Bristol for London, on the 24th of April, 1770, and beginning life there as a literary adventurer on a capital of something under five pounds, at a time when the struggle of London literary life was only less dire than it had been thirty years previously, when even the burly figure of Dr. Johnson was nearly succumbing.

He turned to every kind of literary work,-poems, essays, stories, political articles and squibs, burlettas, and even songs for the music gardens of the time at a few pence each. In May and June 1770, he had articles in The Freeholder's Magazine, The Town and Country Magazine, The London Museum, The Political Register, The Court and City Magazine, and even the Gospel Magazine. Among all the literary adventurers of his time there was none perhaps so indomitable as he. Yet, all the while, he cherished as fondly as ever those visions of the past that came to him from St. Mary Redcliffe as he lay dreaming on the grass at Bristol. He was half starving when he wrote The Ballad of Charity, which for reserved power and artistic completeness, no youthful poet has ever approached. Nor did he attack London, as other literary adventurers have done, from the bookseller's shop alone. His sagacity as a man of the world was as wonderful as his literary genius. The penniless country boy, living on a crust in Shoreditch, knew that to conquer London he must conquer the one or two magnates at whose feet the great city was content to lie. Thousands of ambitious Londoners of that day would have given much for an introduction to the potent Lord Mayor Beckford : before Chatterton had been in London two months he had achieved this, and had so impressed the great man, that Chatterton's future seemed assured. But before Beckford had time to hold out a hand to the young adventurer he suddenly died. This blow seemed fatal to a poor boy with starvation even then staring him in the face. But he fought bravely on, and would have ended victorious but for his pride. That which had been his strength was his weakness now. He would not stoop to conquer, and the time was come when it was necessary to stoop. To live by literature then was almost an impossibility, and he had determined to live by literature or die.

With a masterful pride, for which no parallel can be found, he had already quitted his friends in Shoreditch, lest they should be. come too familiar with his straits, and taken a garret at 39 Brooke Street, Holborn, where he produced a quantity of literary matter which under any circumstances would have been astonishing, but which is almost incredible if his landlady's story is true, that he was living sometimes on one loaf a week, 'bought stale to make it last longer. At last, when starvation seemed inevitable, he did make one frantic attempt to obtain the post of ship surgeon, but this failing, he refused to try the commercial world, and steadily rejecting the gift of a penny or a meal from neighbours who tried in vain to help him, he struggled with famine as long as it was possible, and then, on the evening of the 24th of August, 1770, he retired to his garret, locked himself in, tore up all his manuscripts, and poisoned himself with arsenic.

It is not to make capital out of the painful interest attaching to Chatterton's life that I glance at it here on his behalf. Assuredly the personal interest in a poet having such a story as his, is what the critic has specially to guard against in trying to find his proper place in the firmament of our poetic literature. To divest 'the marvellous boy' of that sensational kind of interest which has been associated with his name for more than a century, and at the same time to do justice to an intelligence which Malone compared with Shakspeare's, and a genius which inspired Wordsworth and Coleridge with awe, would require an exhaustive study of that most puzzling chapter of literary history—the chapter that deals with literary forgery. And my defence of him is simply this; that, if such a study were prosecuted, we should find that in matters of literary forgery, besides the impulse of the mere mercenary impostor--as Chatterton appears to empirical critics like Warton-besides the impulse of the masquerading instinct, so strong in men of the Ireland and Horace Walpole type, there is another impulse altogether, the impulse of certain artistic natures to represent, such as we see in Sir Walter Scott (when tampering with the historical ballads), and such as we see in Chatterton when, struggling in his dark garret with famine and despair, he turns from the hack-work that at least might win him bread, to write The Ballad of Gharity, the most purely artistic work perhaps of his time.

W. THEODORE WATTS.

AN EXCELLENT BALLAD OF CHARITY.

In Virginè the sultry Sun 'gan sheene

And hot upon the meads did cast his ray :
The apple ruddied from its paly green,
And the soft pear did bend the leafy spray ;

The pied chelàndry? sang the livelong day : 'Twas now the pride, the manhood of the year, And eke the ground was dight in its most deft aumere 2

The sun was gleaming in the mid of day,

Dead still the air and eke the welkin blue, When from the sea arist in drear array

A heap of clouds of sable sullen hue,

The which full fast unto the woodland drew,
Hiding at once the Sunnè's festive face ;
And the black tempest swelled and gathered up apace.

Beneath an holm, fast by a pathway side

Which did unto Saint Godwyn's convent lead, A hapless pilgrim moaning did abide,

Poor in his view, ungentle in his weed,

Long breast-full of the miseries of need. Where from the hailstorm could the beggar fly? He had no housen there, nor any convent nigh.

Look in his gloomèd face; his sprite there scan,

How woe-begone, how withered, sapless, dead ! Haste to thy church-glebe-house, accursèd man,

Haste to thy coffin, thy sole slumbering-bed?!

Cold as the clay which will grow on thy head Are Charity and Love among high elves ; The Knights and Barons live for pleasure and themselves.

? Used by Chatterton as “mantle.' 8 • Dortoure bedde.' Dourloure, a sleeping room.'—Chatterton.

i Goldfinch.

The gathered storm is ripe ; the big drops fall ;

The sunburnt meadows smoke and drink the rain ;
The coming ghastness doth the cattle appal,

And the full flocks are driving o'er the plain ;

Dashed from the clouds, the waters gush? again;
The welkin opes, the yellow levin flies,
And the hot fiery steam in the wide flame-lowe? dies.

List! now the thunder's rattling clamouring 3 sound

Moves slowly on, and then upswollen clangs,
Shakes the high spire, and lost, dispended, drown’d,

Still on the affrighted ear of terror hangs ;

The winds are up; the lofty elm-tree swangs;
Again the levin and the thunder pours,
And the full clouds are burst at once in stormy showers.

Spurring his palfrey o’er the watery plain,

The Abbot of Saint Godwyn's convent came;
His chapournette was drenched with the rain,

His painted girdle met with mickle shame;
He backwards 4 told his bederoll at the same.
The storm increased, and he drew aside,
With the poor alms-craver near to the holm to bide.

His cope was all of Lincoln cloth so fine,

With a gold button fastened near his chin ;
His autremete 5 was edged with golden twine,

And his peak'd shoe a lordling's might have been ;

Full well it showed he counted cost no sin :
The trammels of the palfrey pleased his sight,
For the horse-milliner 6 his head with roses dight.

· Here Chatterton's text-word is 'flott,' and his gloss 'fly.' "Gush seems more appropriate.

2 • lowings'-flames. -Chatterton.

3 • Clymmynge,' noisy.--Chatterton. •Clamouring' is adopted as nearer in sound to his text-word.

4 •To signify cursing.'-Chatterton.
5 • A loose white robe worn by priests.'--Chatterton.

6 Steevens, being in Bristol in 1776, saw horse-milliner'inscribed over 2 shop door, outside which stood a wooden horse decked with ribbons.

« AnteriorContinuar »