studies, Chatterton had to write three times before he recovered his MSS. Walpole has been loaded with more than his just share of responsibility for the fate of the unhappy poet, of whom he admitted when too late, “I do not believe there ever existed so masterly a genius.”
Chatterton now turned his attention to periodical literature and politics, and exchanged Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal for the Town and County Magazine and other London periodicals. Assuming the vein of Junius—then in the full blaze of his triumph—he turned his pen against the duke of Grafton, the earl of Bute, and the princess of Wales. He had just despatched one of his political diatribes to the Middlesex Journal, when he sat down on Easter Eve, 17th April 1770, and penned his “Last Will and Testament,” a strange satirical compound of jest and earnest, in which he intimated his intention of putting an end to his life the following evening. Among his satirical bequests, such as his “humility” to the Rev. Mr Camplin, his “religion” to Dean Barton, and his “modesty” along with his “prosody and grammar” to Mr Burgum, he leaves “to Bristol all his spirit and disinterestedness, parcels of goods unknown on its quay since the days of Canynge and Rowley.” In more genuine earnestness he recalls the name of Michael Clayfield, a friend to whom he owed intelligent sympathy. The will was probably purposely prepared in order to frighten his master into letting him go. If so, it had the desired effect. Lambert cancelled his indentures; his friends and acquaintance made him up a purse; and on the 25th or 26th of the month he arrived in London.
Chatterton was already known to the readers of the Middlesex Journal as a rival of Junius, under the nom de plume of Decimus. He had also been a contributor to Hamilton’s Town and County Magazine, and speedily found access to the Freeholder’s Magazine, another political miscellany strong for Wilkes and liberty. His contributions were freely accepted; but the editors paid little or nothing for them. He wrote in the most hopeful terms to his mother and sister, and spent his first earnings in buying gifts for them. His pride and ambition were amply gratified by the promises and interested flattery of editors and political adventurers; Wilkes himself had noted his trenchant style, “and expressed a desire to know the author”; and Lord Mayor Beckford graciously acknowledged a political address of his, and greeted him “as politely as a citizen could.” But of actual money he received but little. He was extremely abstemious, his diligence was great, and his versatility wonderful. He could assume the style of Junius or Smollett, reproduce the satiric bitterness of Churchill, parody Macpherson’s Ossian, or write in the manner of Pope, or with the polished grace of Gray and Collins. He wrote political letters, eclogues, lyrics, operas and satires, both in prose and verse. In June 1770—after Chatterton had been some nine weeks in London—he removed from Shoreditch, where he had hitherto lodged with a relative, to an attic in Brook Street, Holborn. But for most of his productions the payment was delayed; and now state prosecutions of the press rendered letters in the Junius vein no longer admissible, and threw him back on the lighter resources of his pen. In Shoreditch, as in his lodging at the Bristol attorney’s, he had only shared a room; but now, for the first time, he enjoyed uninterrupted solitude. His bed-fellow at Mr Walmsley’s, Shoreditch, noted that much of the night was spent by him in writing; and now he could write all night. The romance of his earlier years revived, and he transcribed from an imaginary parchment of the old priest Rowley his “Excelente Balade of Charitie.” This fine poem, perversely disguised in archaic language, he sent to the editor of the Town and County Magazine, and had it rejected.
The high hopes of the sanguine boy had begun to fade. He had not yet completed his second month in London, and already failure and starvation stared him in the face. Mr Cross, a neighbouring apothecary, repeatedly invited him to join him at dinner or supper; but he refused. His landlady also, suspecting his necessity, pressed him to share her dinner, but in vain. “She knew,” as she afterwards said, “that he had not eaten anything for two or three days.” But he was offended at her urgency, and assured her that he was not hungry. The note of his actual receipts, found in his pocket-book after his death, shows that Hamilton, Fell and other editors who had been so liberal in flattery, had paid him at the rate of a shilling for an article, and somewhat less than eightpence each for his songs; while much which had been accepted was held in reserve, and still unpaid for. The beginning of a new month revealed to him the indefinite postponement of the publication and payment of his work. He had wished, according to his foster-mother, to study medicine with Barrett; in his desperation he now reverted to this, and wrote to Barrett for a letter to help him to an opening as a surgeon’s assistant on board an African trader. He appealed also to Mr Catcott to forward his plan, but in vain. On the 24th of August 1770, he retired for the last time to his attic in Brook Street, carrying with him the arsenic which he there drank, after tearing into fragments whatever literary remains were at hand.
He was only seventeen years and nine months old; but the best of his numerous productions, both in prose and verse, require no allowance to be made for the immature years of their author, when comparing him with the ablest of his contemporaries. He pictures Lydgate, the monk of Bury St Edmunds, challenging Rowley to a trial at versemaking, and under cover of this fiction, produces his “Songe of Ælla,” a piece of rare lyrical beauty, worthy of comparison with any antique or modern production of its class. Again, in his “Tragedy of Goddwyn,” of which only a fragment has been preserved, the “Ode to Liberty,” with which it abruptly closes, may claim a place among the finest martial lyrics in the language. The collection of poems in which such specimens occur furnishes by far the most remarkable example of intellectual precocity in the whole history of letters. Collins, Burns, Keats, Shelley and Byron all awaken sorrow over the premature arrestment of their genius; but the youngest of them survived to his twenty-fifth year, while Chatterton was not eighteen when he perished in his miserable garret. The death of Chatterton attracted little notice at the time; for the few who then entertained any appreciative estimate of the Rowley poems regarded him as their mere transcriber. He was interred in a burying-ground attached to Shoe Lane Workhouse, in the parish of St Andrew’s, Holborn, which has since been converted into a site for Farringdon Market. There is a discredited story that the body of the poet was recovered, and secretly buried by his uncle, Richard Phillips, in Redcliffe Churchyard. There a monument has since been erected to his memory, with the appropriate inscription, borrowed from his “Will,” and so supplied by the poet’s own pen—“To the memory of Thomas Chatterton. Reader! judge not. If thou art a Christian, believe that he shall be judged by a Superior Power. To that Power only is he now answerable.”
Bibliography.—Poems supposed to have been written at Bristol by Thomas Rowley and others, in the Fifteenth Century (1777) was edited by Thomas Tyrwhitt; Thomas Warton, in his History of English Poetry (1778), vol. ii. section viii., gives Rowley a place among the 15th century poets; but neither of these critics believed in the antiquity of the poems. In 1782 a new edition of Rowley’s poems appeared, with a “Commentary, in which the antiquity of them is considered and defended,” by Jeremiah Milles, dean of Exeter. The controversy which raged round the Rowley poems is discussed in A. Kippis, Biographia Britannica (vol. iv., 1789), where there is a detailed account by G. Gregory of Chatterton’s life (pp. 573-619). This was reprinted in the edition (1803) of Chatterton’s Works by R. Southey and J. Cottle, published for the benefit of the poet’s sister. The neglected condition of the study of earlier English in the 18th century alone accounts for the temporary success of Chatterton’s mystification. It has long been agreed that Chatterton was solely responsible for the Rowley Poems, but the language and style are analysed in confirmation of this view by Prof. W. W. Skeat in an introductory essay prefaced to vol. ii. of The Poetical Works of Thomas Chatterton (1871) in the “Aldine Edition of the British Poets.” This, which is the most convenient edition, also contains a memoir of the poet by Edward Bell. The spelling of the Rowley poems is there modernized, and many of the archaic words are replaced by modern equivalents provided in many cases from Chatterton’s own notes, the theory being that Chatterton usually composed in modern English, and inserted his peculiar words and his complicated orthography afterwards. For some criticism of Prof. Skeat’s success in the very difficult task of reconstituting the text, see H. B. Forman, Thomas Chatterton and his latest Editor (1874).