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story is commonplace—the execution of a knight by Edward the Fourth -- and is spun out into ninety-eight verses, though there is no
to tell, nothing but the various prayers to stay the hand of vengeance. Another, Aella, is a tragedy, or,
it is called, a tragical interlude.
It begins with epistle to Mastre Canynge, a letter to "the digne Mastre Canynge”, and an
“Entroductionne”. At the close of the first, “ Thomas Rowleie" condemns plays on Scriptural subjects; "we do the Godhead wrong”. The third is in the “rhyme royal” of Chaucer and the other two in modifications of it. Almost all the dialogue is in Spenserian stanza, a metre utterly unsuited to the drama, and chosen evidently for the archaistic atmosphere that has always hung round it in English. This feature alone might have shown that it could not have been written by a monk of the fifteenth century. But the language is as unrepresentative of its professed age as its metres ; there are ten times as many obsolete words in it as in any production even of Chaucer's time. It is a diction “of shreds and patches”; the poet seems to have been “at a feast of learning and stolen the scraps” like Holofernes in Love's Labour's Lost. He has followed even the blunders of Kersey's dictionary; for instance in the first line of the Introduction he brings in the word “cherisaunei” meaning comfort ; this was a printer's blunder in the dictionary for "cherisaunce." Kersey, of course, had taken his obsolete words from many centuries without marking their age. The result is that the Rowley language is a coat of many colours, such as never could have been worn in any age or any dialect. An Anglo-Saxon poem is not more difficult and is more living and yet more quaint than a Rowley poem. And Chatterton's knowledge of the meaning of the words he uses is very limited; where it fails him, he ekes it out by imagination and manufacture. Words are used by him in meanings that they never had and in forms that never existed even in the most eccentric scribe's manuscript. He had evidently come across the Faery Queen ; for most of the Rowley poems are saturated with Spenserianisms. But he outSpensers Spenser. The Elizabethan poet could be read by his contemporaries as he can be read by our time without
much difficulty. These poems absolutely demand a constant reference to Kersey's dictionary or to a glossary from it. The Englishmen of no age could have read them without some help. This alone would show how lacking the boy was in that poetic taste which is one of the essentials of the true poet. Not the most didactic or prosaic of the eighteenth century poets would have dabbled in such artificial and unfamiliar colours in order to attain the quaintness of an old production. Had his posthumous critics taken the trouble to understand his language, they would not have so over-praised his work. His precocity and the romance of his life account to some extent for the raptures over it ; ignorance of the medium in which it is written accounts for a good deal more. The controversialists just after his death eulogised the Rowley poems into a false antithesis to his other work in order to show that they were genuine and not forgeries. Later critics have kept up the strain.
4. This drama is perhaps the best of them, especially in its minstrel's songs. These prove that he had a true lyric vein worthy of development. That beginning “O sing unto my roundelay” has considerable natural beauty. Two of the best verses are these :
“ Hark! the raven flaps his wings
In the briared dell below;
To the night-mares as they go.
Whiter is my true love's shroud ;
Whiter than the evening cloud.” It is an echo of the ballad scraps that Ophelia sings, and that Percy had patched into his Friar of Orders Grey; and this is confirmed by the fact that the refrain
(“My love is dead
Gone to his death-bed ”) has the same source and that " A Friar of Orders White" is one of the Rowley poems. The story of Aella is one such as was common in the novels of Chatterton's time. The scene is laid in Anglo-Saxon times; but the sentiment is eighteenth century. Aella is just married to Birtha when the poem opens. The minstrels sing before them. But news is brought that the Danes have landed again and he must hasten off to repel their incursion, in spite of the pleadings and indignant protests of his young wife. . Celmonde who loves her and has designs upon her makes some flowery speeches and goes with him. The Danes are defeated, but Aella is wounded; yet he takes horse and hurries off to his bride. Celmonde has been before him and persuaded her to come to the battlefield to her husband. Deep in a wood he unfolds his love and his black purpose to her and she shrieks. Hurra the Danish leader hears, rescues her by slaying Celmonde and restores her to her husband; but it is too late ; in a fit of jealous anger at her disappearance he has stabbed himself; she has only time to see him die; and she dies upon his body. The characters have been much praised; but they were the ordinary types of the romance of Chatterton's day. The Spenserian stanzas are very monotonous and make the passion seem even more absurd than the artificial diction. And where true poetry does shine out, it is generally from the Faery Queen.
5. The same may be said of both his long narrative pjems called The Battle of Hastings. The battles and gore repeat themselves as monotonously as the stanza, or as the favourite long-drawn simile of the falling oak or elm or rock; “So have I seen a mouatain oak". Modern sentiments and modern words mingle in the same crude way with the piebald vocabulary. “Before his optics danced a shade of night” is one instance; and Chatterton adds the note "eyes”. The English Metamorphosis, an imitation of the second book of the Faery Queen in versifying parts of Geoffrey of Monmouth, and The Tournament are in the same verse and the same style. Goddwyn, a fragment of another drama of the time of Edward the Confessor, is in Spenserian stanza, though the Chorus at the close, a vigorous picture of freedom, is in the long and short ballad verse alternating. His Ballad of Charitie, written not long before his death, is a return to the Chaucerian style and adopts the rhyme royal; it is a very picturesque mediaeval setting of the parable of the good Samaritan. Two of his Eclogues, Robert and Ralph
a dialogue of two soldiers of the Wars of the Roses, and Nigel a lament of a son for his father who has gone with King Richard to Palestine, are Spenserian and in Spenserian stanza; the third, a dialogue between a man and a woman who are about to be married by a priest, Sir Roger, is partly in this and partly in lyrics; the fourth, Elinoure and Juga, the alternating lament of two maidens over their lovers slain in the wars, is in Chaucer's stanza. The story of William Canynge is in a modification of it. The Parliament of Sprites, called "a most merry interlude," is a series of somewhat feeble poems spoken by various ghosts chiefly of old real or imaginary Bristol heroes and chiefly in heroic couplets. The World is a similar series of verses by minstrels who stand each for some abstract quality or allegorical personage. There are also a canto of "The Unknown Knight or the Tournament”, a fragment of a dialogue between two cockneys Philpot and Walworth, a fragment of The Merry Tricks of Lamyngtown a Bristol pirate, a Pindaric ode called Song to Aella, and one or two Songs of saints; these are marked neither by any original power nor by any good poetic echoes.
6. Of his acknowledged poems the best are the satires already mentioned and the African Eclogues manifestly imitative of Collins's Persian Eclogues. There is less of story in the eclogues ; but they are like their model in adopting heroic couplet, in their love of the poetry of foreign name, and in the attempt to introduce features appropriate to the scene. Narva and Mored is the most poetical ; it celebrates the suicide of two lovers who were sworn to celibacy and the priesthood of a god; there are more felicities in it than in most of the Rowley poems, though even these are echoes; one will suffice; a dance is described ;
“ Furious they twist around the gloomy trees
Like leaves in Autumn twirling with the breeze”. Its similes and grandeur are largely Ossianesque. The death of Nicou is a story of love, war, and vengeance. Heccar and Gaira is in dialogue form and is a setting of a story of the slave trade. These are perhaps the most real and original of all his poems. They were written in London when the thought of suicide was clouding his mind; two of them end in suicide and all of them have an atmosphere of tragic pathos. His burlettas, The Revenge, a musical burlesque on the amours of Jupiter, Juno, and Bacchus, somewhat coarse, though promising in its lyrics, and The Woman of Spirit, are slight echoes of the musical farces of the day. His Elegies, especially that on Alderman Beckford and that on his old schoolmaster Phillips, are to some extent imitations of Gray's, at least in the melody; but they are stiff and artificial. His lyrics and occasional verses are but attitudinisings; they are not equal to his mock-heroic “February”, and his mock elegy on the death of a tabby cat.
7. The promise of all his poems is much greater than the performance. His ambition was as great as his pride and forced him into innumerable experiments in order to catch the ear of the public. There is little that is truly original in him, though Mr. Theodore Watts claims that the deliberate alternation of octosyllabics and anapaestic verse in The Unknown Knight suggested the metre of Coleridge's Christabel and therefore of Scott's poems, and that the Ballad of Charity inspired the Eve of St. Agnes and other poems of Keats. Hence it is that we seldom see any poem of his in any modern selection or any quotation from him in any writer. TH
ccasional epithets that show him to have had poetic power, as for example, "massy
muscled strength", hyacinthal star”, self-sprighted fear ”, “the shadowy cell” of Remembrance, “hart-swift legs
” the owl's "eve-speck’t wing”, “king-cupped meads”. But the prosaic spirit of the eighteenth century more frequently moulds his epithets, as for example, "the proto-slain man of the field”, is the chorded shell”, “painted woe”, velvet-vested mead”. It is the romance of his life that has fixed his name so indelibly on the page of English literature and made us look for far more in his work than we could expect from a boy of seventeen. If only he had been able to control his ambition for fame and his injured pride at the world's coldness till he had gained knowledge of himself and his true powers, and sufficient wisdom to do more than echo what he had read in his omnivorous study of literature !