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BORN 1752-DIED 1770.
I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous boy,
This highly-gifted and unfortunate youth was the posthu.
mous child of the master of a free-school in Bristol. Of his early childhood nothing wonderful is related. His mother taught him to read from an old black-letter Bible, and at eight years old he went to a charity-school, where he acquired some knowledge of writing and arithmetic. From his tenth year he discovered a strong passion for
reading. The silent progress of Chatterton's marvellous mind can
only be found in its premature fruits, for no friendly or observant eye marked its development. The story of Chatterton, and of many poets, proves how much natural genius will predominate over situation. Chatterton began to write verses at twelve years old, and at sixteen, being by that time apprenticed to a scrivener, he first attracted that notice which laid the foundation of his fame and of his misfortunes. The new bridge of Bristol was to be opened, and he sent to a journal of that city a paper entitled “ An account of the Monks first passing over the Old Bridge, taken from an ancient MS." It is probable that at this time Chatterton intended no fraud ; temptation was afterwards thrown upon him. This account of the procession of the monks, which excited much curi. osity, was traced to the friendless boy, and he was interrogated, it is said with threats, about the MSS, he possessed. Pride, shame, and interest, were thus combined to subvert his integrity. The possessor of a store of valuable ancient MSS. was a person of more consequence with the antiquaries and magnates of Bristol, than an unknown and uneducated boy, however great might be his genius. After some hesitation, Chatterton said he had found this particular paper in his mother's house. TẶe first step thus taken, the rest was easy. The “ Cofre of Maister Canynge," a rich Bristol merchant, who, in the reign of Edward IV., had rebuilt the church of St Mary Redcliffe, was the alleged repository of many MSS. A chest, or “ cofre," of this description had really been kept in the muniment-room of St Mary's, from which the father of Chatterton had been allowed to take old parchments to cover the copy-books of his scholars. Young Chatterton, succeeding in his first, and certainly unpremeditated fraud, and having suspicion so rudely fastened on him, now asserted that he possessed many ancient poems, written by Thomas Rowley, a priest, and the friend and correspondent of the owner of the “ cofre.” Specimens of these, written on small slips of vellum, were passed off on persons, who ought to have known better, as authentic old poems. In a youth more fortunately situated, the attempt of gulling the local literati, and even of imposing for a season on the boundless credulity of a few venerable antiquaries, as it presented almost irresistible temptation to a clever lively lad, might have been pardoned as a somewhat indecorous hoax; though, to the safety of such a project, some confidant might have been necessary, to vouch, had need been, for the good faith of the jester. Chatterton lived and died unconfessed; and sought to gain patrons by an imposition which soon assumed a more serious character than that of a juvenile frolic. We can now only regret, that his brief experience of life did not give him confidence to look for that sympathy and encouragement in his own person, which he endeavoured
to obtain under the fictitious character of Rowley. Succeeding so well with the learned men of Bristol, Chatterton was tempted to check at higher game. He wrote to the Hon. Horace Walpole, who was about that time engaged with his History of Painters, offering to furnish him with an account of the eminent ancient painters who had flourished in Bristol; and, after some correspondence, transmitted some of the contents of “ Maister Canyinge's Cofre," which Gray and Mason, both good judges, pronounced to be forgeries. Irritated at this barefaced attempt at imposition, when Chatterton, indignant at the neglect of the right honourable worshipper of all Gothic nicknacks, demanded back his MSS., they were returned in a blank cover. Mr Walpole has been severely blamed for his culpable neglect of Chatterton, though it is not easy to discover much wrong, nor any positive unkindness, in his conduct to a youth who had introduced himself to his notice by a glaring fraud. It is indeed to be regretted and wondered at, that neither himself nor his friends felt more curiosity about a youth who supported a literary forgery by such extraordinary proofs. One who, at the age of sixteen, could personate a poet of the 15th century with far greater beauty and ingenuity than any real poet of that age possessed, was surely an object of some attention, was almost worth trying to save and encourage, in spite of his youthful errors. A guardian friend at this critical period might have redeemed the unfortunate youth from all the consequences of the impropriety induced by want of knowledge of life,
concurring with an imperfect moral education. Before he was seventeen, Chatterton obtained a release
from his indentures, it is said, by repeated threats of committing suicide. A man that could employ such unworthy and base arts or threats to work on the feelings of those about him, would scarcely be worth saving from the fate he menaces; but Chatterton was still a boy-a boy of astonishing genius, strong passions, and misdirected pride, yet one whose native force of mind and high aspiration must have acted as a self-corrective had time been given him. Chatterton, on leaving his employer, went to London, with great confidence in his own powers, panting for distinction, and sanguine of success, but still possessing a very limited knowledge of life. In whatever he was deficient, he wanted not natural affection. His letters to his mother and sisters at this time were kind and sanguine, though probably many of his expressions of confidence were meant to sooth their anxiety for the young adventurer. While his short-lived prosperity continued, they shared in it; and the adverse fortune which rapidly followed was confined to his own bosom. Finding himself disappointed of procuring a living by writing for the book. sellers, and either unacquainted with the temporary shifts to which the literary adventurer must submit, or too proud to practise them, want of food-literal famine -led the way to a voluntary death. It is told, that the day before his death his landlady offered him a dinner, which he indignantly refused, saying he was not hungry. He was buried at the charge of the parish, in the bury
ing-ground of a workhouse. The genius of Chatterton, wonderful though it be, is less
extraordinary than its singular bent. A poetical anti. quary of sixteen is an anomaly in literature. The strongest proof on which the poems attributed by him to Rowley are pronounced forgeries, is, that they surpass the style of the age to which they are assigned. That these productions are throughout poetical and animated, is surely no great crime, at least in the eyes of those who prefer good to bad verse, though the former may have been written three centuries later, and by a youth of fifteen instead of an ancient priest. The strongest marks of antiquity which Chatterton's poems possess, is the apparently antiquated spelling, and the use of a few poetical epithets now become obsolete. Yet they bear
so well to be restored to modern orthography, that no scruple is made in adopting it in the following specimen selected from ELLA, a drama attributed by Chatterton to his imaginary Rowley, and thus supposed to be written long before any drama had appeared in the language.
THE MINSTREL'S SONG IN ELLA.
O! sing unto my roundelay,
For my love's dead,
Black his hair as winter night,
My love is dead, &c.
Sweet his tongue as throstle's note,
My love is dead, &c.
Hark! the raven flaps his wing
My love is dead, &c.