ePub 版

With regard to octo-syllabics with anapaestic variations, it may be said no doubt that some of the miracle-plays (such as The Fall of Man) are composed in this movement, as is also one of the months in Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar; but the irregularity in these is, like that of the Border ballads, mostly the irregularity of makeshift, while Chatterton's Unknown Knight, like Christabel, and like Goethe's Erl King, has several variations introduced (as Coleridge says of his own) 'in correspondence with some transition in the nature of the imagery or passion.' The 'new principle,' in short, was Chatterton's.


Again, in the mysterious suggestiveness of remote geographical names-a suggestiveness quite other than the pomp and sonority which Marlowe and Milton so loved the world-involving echoes of Kubla Khan seem to have been caught from such lines as these in Chatterton's African eclogue Narva and Mored:

[ocr errors]

From Lorbar's cave to where the nations end....,
Explores the palaces on Lira's coast,

Where howls the war song of the chieftain's ghost....
Like the loud echoes on Toddida's sea,
The warrior's circle, the mysterious tree.'

And turning to the question of Chatterton's influence upon Keats, it is not only indirectly through Coleridge that the rich mind of Keats shows signs of having drunk at Chatterton's fountain of romance: there is a side of Chatterton which Keats knew and which Coleridge did not.

It is difficult to express in words wherein lies the entirely spiritual kinship between Chatterton's Ballad of Charity and Keats's Eve of St. Agnes, yet I should be sceptical as to the insight of any critic who should fail to recognise that kinship. Not only are the beggar and the thunderstorm depicted with the sensuous sympathy and melodious insistance which is the great charm of The Eve of St. Agnes, but the movement of the lines is often the same. Take for instance the description of Keats's bedesman, 'meagre, barefoot, wan,' which is, in point of metrical movement, identical with Chatterton's description of the alms-craver, 'withered, forwynd, dead.'

More obvious perhaps, yet not more essentially true, is the like. ness between the famous passage in Keats's Isabella, beginning—

'For them the Ceylon diver held his breath,
And went all naked to the hungry shark,' &c.,

and these four lines in Chatterton's Narva and Mored

'Where the pale children of the feeble sun
In search of gold through every climate run,
From burning heat to freezing torments go,
And live in all vicissitudes of woe.'

It was perfectly fit therefore that Keats should dedicate his Endymion to the memory of Thomas Chatterton. Not that Keats or Coleridge stole from Chatterton: no two poets had less need to steal from any one. But the whole history of poetry shows that poetic methods are a growth as well as an inspiration.

So steeped indeed was Chatterton in romance, that, except in the case of the African Eclogues, his imagination seems to be never really alive save when in the dramatic masquerade of the monk of Bristol. And here we touch the very core and centre of Chatterton's genius-his artistic identification. This is what I mean: Pope 'lisped in numbers, for the numbers came'; and the Ode to Solitude written at twelve, shows how early may begin to stir the lyrical impulse—the impulse to give voice to the emotions of the soul that is born to express. The young Chatterton on a summer's day would lie down on the grass and gaze for hours at the church of St. Mary Redcliffe, not in order to gather and focus for expression the personal emotions caused by the spectacle, as the child Cowley or the child Pope might have done, but in order to reproduce the picturesque antique life he imagined to have once moved there; and, as metrical language is but the ideal and quintessential form in which a writer embodies that which in the world around him is ideal and quintessential, Chatterton 'lisped in numbers' too. Not that his egotism was less intense than theirs far from it. Such energy as his can only exist as the outcome of that enormous egotism which is at the heart of all lyric production. Yet his dramatic instinct was stronger still.

Here indeed is the keynote of Chatterton's work, and, if we will consider it, of his life too. As a youthful poet showing that power of artistic self-effacement which is generally found to be incompatible with the eager energies of poetic youth,-as a producer, that is to say, of work purely artistic and in its highest reaches unadulterated by lyric egotism, the author of the Rowley Poems (if we leave out of consideration his acknowledged pieces), however inferior to Keats in point of sheer beauty, stands alongside him in our literature, and stands with him alone.

In his childhood, so occupied was Chatterton's mind by the impression upon it of the external world through the senses, that for a long time it refused to be distracted by the common processes of education. Up to about his seventh or eighth year he could not be taught his letters, and even then this was effected through his delight in colour. To use his mother's words, 'he fell in love' with the illuminated letters upon an old piece of French music; and afterwards 'took to' the picturesque characters of a black letter Bible, and so learned to read. And this passion for art was universal in its scope: poetry, music, painting, sculpture, and even heraldry,—from each and all of these he drew such delights as are undreamed of save by the truly artistic mind.

Now with Keats it was not till he came at the very last to write The Eve of St. Agnes and La belle Dame sans merci, that he produced anything so purely objective as Chatterton's Ballad of Charity, given on page 409 of these selections. Yet, here is the difficulty in criticising Chatterton's work: the circumstances attending the production of such purely objective and impersonal poetry as the Rowley Poems were so exceptional that, unlike the poetry of Keats-unlike any other purely artistic poetry—it must be read entirely in connexion with the poet's life. This indeed is as necessary, in order to fully appreciate it, as though the impulse had been that of pure personal emotion such as we get in Shelley's lyrics and in the more passionate outpourings of Burns. For, with Chatterton, far more than with any other poet of the representative kind, the question, What was the nature of his artistic impulse? is mixed up with the question, What was the nature of the man? Do these Rowley poems show the vitalising power which only genius can give? and if they do, was Chatterton's impulse to exercise that power the impulse of the dramatic poet having 'the yearning of the Great Vish'nu to create a world'? or, was it that of the other class of artists, whose skill lies in 'those more facile imitations of prose, promissory notes,' among whom Horace Walpole would place him? For neither the assailants nor the defenders of Chatterton's character seem to see that between these two conclusions there is no middle one. Either Chatterton was a born forger, having, as useful additional endowments, poetry and dramatic imagination almost unmatched among his contemporaries, or he was a born artist, who, before mature vision had come to show him the power and the sacredness

of moral conscience in art, was so dominated by the artistic conscience-by the artist's yearning to represent, that, if perfect representation seemed to him to demand forgery, he needs must forge.

If the latter supposition is the true one, it does not, to be sure, excuse the delinquencies that shocked the ingenuous author of The Castle of Otranto-that work of 'Neapolitan origin' and mediaeval translation,-but it explains an apparent anomaly in Nature it gives a kind of harmony to a character which has hitherto been considered so inharmonious; it clears Nature of the impeachment of having endowed a man possessing the instincts of a common forger, with human characteristics so noble and so precious as poetic genius, lofty intelligence, 'courage to do or die,' the pride that gives in to death but not to men, joined to a depth of filial affection, a loyalty to kindred, such as stirs within us the deepest emotion whenever we recall the name of Chatterton Chatterton, the premature man who was also to the last the loving child, who, a few days before his death, went out from his forlorn garret in Brooke Street to spend in presents for his mother and sister those precious pence that would have saved him from famine, and England from the loss of a son so noble and so gifted as he.

The barest outline of his story will show what I mean :- The posthumous child of a poor subchanter of Bristol Cathedral, whose family had been sextons for a century and a half, Chatterton may be said to have succeeded to poverty by inheritance, and to have been reared, from his cradle, beneath the shadow of that wing which is apt to cow genius if it does not silence it-apt to stifle that haughty independence and pride which mostly accompanies genius, and of which Chatterton had more than any poet in our literature, or perhaps in any other. Yet, if the cards of life were so far against him, he was on the other hand dowered by Nature with her very choicest gifts. To a physique healthy and, according to all accounts, beautiful,-possessing indeed that quality of 'strangeness' which Bacon says is essential to the highest beauty, were added a precocity only less wonderful than the energy which accompanied it,—an intelligence which all the world, including those who reject his claims to the highest poetical gifts, have agreed to call prodigious. It was this precocity indeed which at first attracted attention to him, and which has now caused the reaction against him.

Art has nothing to do with prodigies. But Chatterton's precocity has, like everything else in connexion with him, been misunder

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

« 上一頁繼續 »