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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

X. The Literary Influence of the Middle Ages

§ 17. The Rowley Imposture

The poems attributed to Thomas Rowley are Elizabethan, where they are not later, in style; the spelling is freely imitated from the worst fifteenth century practice; the vocabulary is taken largely from Speght’s glossary to Chaucer, from Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708) and Bailey’s Universal Etymological Dictionary (1737). Chatterton does not seem to have cared much for Chaucer except as an authority for old words; he studied the glossary, not the text, and does not imitate Chaucer’s phrasing. His poetry and his medieval tastes are distinct; his poetry is not medieval, and his medieval fictions (like those of Scott, to a great extent) are derived from admiration of the life and manners, from architecture and heraldry, from the church of St. Mary Redcliffe, from the black-letter Bible in which he learned to read, and from the appearance of the old parchments which his father took from Canynge’s coffer in the neglected muniment room of the church. His grandfather and great-grandfather had been sextons there, and the church was the ancestral home of his imagination, “the pride of Brystowe and the Westerne lande.” The child made an imaginary Bristol of the fifteenth century, with personages who were seen moving about in it and distinctly known to him; the childhood of Sordello in Browning’s poem is the same sort of life as Chatterton’s. As he grew out of childhood and became a poet with a mastery of verse, he still kept up his fictitious world; his phantom company was not dispersed by his new poetical knowledge and skill, but was employed by him to utter his new poetry, although this was almost wholly at variance with the assumed age and habit of Thomas Rowley and his acquaintances. The Rowley poems are not an imitation of fifteenth century English verse; they are new poetry of the eighteenth century, keeping wisely, but not tamely, to the poetical conventions of the time, the tradition of heroic verse—with excursions, like those of Blake, into the poetry of Shakespeare’s songs, and one remarkable experiment (noted by Watts-Dunton) in the rhythm of Christabel, with likeness to Scott and Byron:

  • Then each did don in seemlie gear,
  • What armour eche beseem’d to wear,
  • And on each sheelde devices shone
  • Of wounded hearts and battles won,
  • All curious and nice echon;
  • With many a tassild spear.
  • But this, The Unknown Knight (which is not in the early editions of the Rowley poems), is an accident. Chatterton had here for a moment hit on one kind of verse which was destined to live in the next generation; but neither in the principal Rowley poems nor in those avowedly his own does he show any sense of what he had found or any wish to use again this new invention.

    Thomas Chatterton was born in November, 1752, and put to school at Colston’s hospital when he was nine; in 1765, he was apprenticed to a Bristol attorney. In April, 1770, his master released him, and he came to London to try his fortune as an author and journalist. He had been a contributor to magazines for some time before he left home, and possessed very great readiness in different kinds of popular writing. He got five guineas for a short comic opera, The Revenge (humours of Olympus), and seems to have wanted nothing but time to establish a good practice as a literary man. He does not seem to have made any mistake in judging his own talents; he could do efficiently the sort of work which he professed. But he had come to a point of bad luck, and his pride and ambition would not allow him to get over the difficulty by begging or sponging; so he killed himself (24 August, 1770).

    The nature of his impostures is now fairly well ascertained. They began in his childhood as pure invention and imaginary life; they turned to schoolboy practical joking (the solemn bookish schoolboy who pretends to a knowledge of magic or Hebrew is a well-known character); then, later, came more elaborate jokes, to impose upon editors—Saxon Atchievements is irresistible—and, then, the attempt to take in Horace Walpole with The Ryse of Peyncteyning in Englande writen by T. Rowleie 1469 for Mastre Canynge, a fraud very properly refused by Walpole. The Rowley poems were written with all those motives mixed; but of fraud there was clearly less in them than in the document for the history of painting, because the poems are good value, whatever their history may be, whereas the document is only meant to deceive and is otherwise not specially amusing.

    Chatterton was slightly influenced by Macpherson, and seems to have decided that the Caledonians were not to have all the profits of heroic melancholy to themselves. He provided translations of Saxon poems:

  • The loud winds whistled through the sacred grove of Thor; far over the plains of Denania were the cries of the spirits heard. The howl of Hubba’s horrid voice swelled upon every blast, and the shrill shriek of the fair Locabara shot through the midnight sky.
  • There is some likeness between Macpherson and Chatterton in their acknowledged works: Macpherson, in his poems The Hunter and The Highlander, has great fluency with the heroic verse, and in prose of different sorts he was a capable writer. The difference is that Chatterton was a poet, with every variety of music, seemingly, at his command, and with a mind that could project itself in a hundred different ways—a true shaping mind. Nothing in Chatterton’s life is more wonderful than his impersonality; he does not make poetry out of his pains or sorrows, and, when he is composing verse, he seems to have escaped from himself. His dealing with common romantic scenery and sentiment is shown in the quotation above from Elinoure and Juga; he makes a poetical use of melancholy motives, himself untouched, or, at any rate, undeluded.