Thomas Chatterton was the balloon boy of eighteenth-century British literary circles.
Even at this date, far removed from the last four decades of the eighteenth century, it is very nearly impossible to view the legend of Thomas Chatterton with a dispassionate eye. The sentimental story of his suicide seemed to become a signal for the display of sensibility and romantic fervor. Here was young David taking his stand against Goliath. In this case the Biblical giant happened to be an effeminate gentleman of letters, a Horace Walpole, but no matter he was still Goliath, dressed in silks and ribbons and reclining in an armchair at Strawberry Hill.
Out of the veritable mountain of facts concerning the subject of a nine-year study, Mr. Meyerstein clarifies the issue between the young poet and his boyish hoax and the effort on the part of a man of letters to defend his reputation as an antiquarian. In fact, the Walpole-Chatterton controversy becomes the central point of interest in this biography; it is here that Mr. Meyerstein makes his original contribution to the history of English poetry.
The original hoax, hacked by two Bristol historians, William Barrett and George Catcott, was immediately placed under suspicion by Walpole and Dr. Johnson. Literary mysteries, however, have a method of self-propagation that carries them far beyond the limits of human reason. It was not until the latter half of the nineteenth century that the question of Chatterton’s remarkable vocabulary was definitely settled by the famous philologist W. W. Skeat. Mr. Meyerstein has amplified Skeat’s discoveries by a detailed account of the Walpole episode and a careful revaluation of Chatterton’s famous “Rowley Cycle” as the work of a highly gifted and original poet.
The story of the Walpole-Chatterton dispute is closely associated with Chatterton’s conception of himself as an artist, and is therefore of primary importance. The facts that Mr. Meyerstein presents may be summed up as follows: Chatterton, at the time he appealed to Walpole for criticism and assistance, had fully identified himself with Thomas Rowley, a fifteenth-century character of his own creation. Barrett and Catcott, the Bristol historians, were delighted with Rowley — here at last was a poet of which all Bristol could be proud. To prove him false would leave them barren indeed, and Bristol’s annals of antiquity, deprived of their hero, would be decidedly less glorious and imposing. Walpole received Chatterton’s manuscript with great enthusiasm, and then suddenly grew cool, fearful of being made the victim of a hoax. Meanwhile, Chatterton, insulted by Walpole’s neglect of the merit contained in the poetry he had sent him for critical examination, saw the frustration of his hopes. He never forgave Walpole and, what is more, disclosed his hatred. Walpole, in self-defense, circulated lies concerning his entire relationship with young Chatterton. It was not until after Chatterton had come to London and died in poverty that Walpole began to see merit in the work that had been offered him by his young enemy. Mr. Meyerstein refuses to sentimentalize over details of the Chatterton suicide. It is quite possible that the motives for Chatterton’s suicide may be found in his revolt against himself. The real Thomas Chatterton was Thomas Rowley, not the brilliant hack who made a precarious living by writing political satire. The death of Rowley — murdered by critics such as Walpole and Dr. Johnson — found a logical conclusion in Chatterton’s suicide.
Mr. Meyerstein’s excellent analysis of Chatterton’s poetry is worth the consideration of anyone interested in a definitive study of the romantic tradition in English literature.