Page images




"To wryte of a Mannes Lyfe mote bee enowe to saie of somme he was ybore and deceased; odher somme lacketh recytalle, as manie notable matteres bee contained in yer storie."

Lyfe of W. Canynge, bie Rowley,


His Birth-Parentage-Education.

THOMAS CHATTERTON,* whose life we are about to record, was born at Bristol on the 20th of November, 1752. He was of humble origin. His father in the early part of his life is said to have filled the office of writing-usher to a classical school. He was afterwards appointed one of the choir in the Cathedral of Bristol, and subsequently became the master of the Free-school, situated in Pyle-street, in the same city,

The materials for this biography are derived from Dean Milles's Preliminary Dissertation to Rowley's Poems; Dr. Gregory's Life of Chatterton; Bryant's Observations; Sir Herbert Croft's Love and Madness; Warton's Enquiry into the Authenticity of the Poems attributed to Rowley, and the eighth section of his History of English Poetry; Malone's Cursory Observations; Barrett's History of Bristol; Life of Chatterton, by Chalmers; Edition of his Works, by Southey and Cottle; Britton's History of Redcliffe Church; Campbell's Specimens of the British Poets; Chatterton's Life, by Dix; Cottle's Early Recollections of Coleridge, and miscellaneous articles in various Magazines and Reviews.-ED.


which latter situations he continued to hold conjointly till the time of his death, which took place in August, 1752, three months before the birth of his son, who was thus ushered, a posthumous child, into the world. This parent, if we may credit the statements and authorities of the poet's last biographer, was scarcely competent to have supplied the careful attention and control for which Dr. Gregory-on the boy's partdeplores his premature loss.* That he was clever and fond of study, there is evidence to prove. He believed, moreover, in magic, and was deeply read in Cornelius Agrippa.

Of the mother of Chatterton little is known previous to her husband's death. She appears to have been a plain, worthy woman; of gentle, though somewhat melancholy disposition,-of mild and amiable qualities, and possessing withal a most devoted attachment to her children, of which Thomas, the subject of this memoir, was the second, -the eldest, a girl, being at the time of his birth, apparently some

By the premature loss of his father he was deprived of that careful attention which would probably have conducted his early years through all the difficulties that circumstances or disposition might oppose to the attainment of knowledge.-DR. GREGORY.

That he (Chatterton's father) was a man of some talent and shrewdness, is evident from the various testimonials of those who knew him well: but he was inclined to dissipated habits, and was of a "brutal disposition." The house in which he lived had only two sitting-rooms, and he often passed the whole night roaring out catches in one of them, with some of the lowest rabble of the parish. His wife he always treated with the greatest indifference, and once, on being asked why he married her, he coolly replied, "solely for a house-keeper." That he was not likely to experience much "careful attention" from his father, may be inferred from the fact of the ill-usage Mrs. Chatterton received from him; and few will doubt, that, as the wife was treated with harshness and neglect, the son would have experienced similar treatment.-Dix's Life of Chatterton.-(1837)

years old. In order to support her family, now relying entirely on her own exertions, she opened a day-school, and advertised herself as a milliner or sempstress-a resource which the attention of her neighbours, who very greatly esteemed her, appears to have rendered valuable, both by their patronage and assistance.

The infancy of Chatterton is distinguished by little that is worthy of record. At the age of five years, he was sent to the school in Pyle-street, formerly under the superintendence of his father, and then kept by a Mr. Love. Here, however, he exhibited no symptoms of that precocious genius which, ere long, was to make grey-headed erudition bend before it." On the contrary, he was remarkably dull and stupid, receiving into his apparently obtuse skull no portion of the luminous instruction which the pedagogue of a free-school could be supposed to impart.*


Indeed, it seemed pretty plain that the young Chatterton was about to turn out an incorrigible dunce. The most ordinary attainments acquired by the generality of children while yet in the nurse's arms, the commonest rudiments of knowledge,—the very letters of the alphabet, though insinuated by no harsh master, but by the care of a fond and anxious mother, seemed to baffle every attempt made to penetrate the hopeless stupidity, which there was reason

Either his faculties were not yet opened, or the waywardness of genius, which will pursue only such objects as are self-approved, incapacitated him from receiving instruction in the ordinary method.DR. GREGORY.

to apprehend he would always exhibit. This circumstance appears to have caused his poor parent, to whom he was sent back on the score of incapacity, a great deal of uneasiness; and we are told by a neighbour, that "until he was six years and a half old, she thought him to be an absolute fool, and often when correcting him, told him so."


But a change was soon to be displayed. There chanced to be in her possession an old musical manuscript, in French, and adorned with illuminated capitals. It arrested the child's attention to use his mother's words, he "fell in love" with it.* He began to read. An ancient black-letter Bible, which she brought to her assistance, completed the attraction. Thomas Chatterton was no more a dunce.

How much of what is commonly called genius-or at least, how much of the secondary direction of genius, which marks its varieties, and gives it a specific distinctive character-depends on accidents of the slightest kind, that modify the general tendencies of suggestion, by the peculiar liveliness which they give to certain trains of thought. I am aware, indeed, that in cases of this sort, we may often err-and that we may probably err, to a certain extent, in the greater number of them -in ascribing to the accident, those mental peculiarities which existed before it was observed, and which would afterwards, as original tendencies, have developed themselves in any circumstances in which the individual might have been placed; but the influence of circumstances, though apt to be magnified, is not on that account the less real; and though we may sometimes err, therefore, as to the particular ex amples, we cannot err as to the general influence itself.

We are told in the life of Chatterton, that, in his early boyhood, he was reckoned of very dull intellect, till he "fell in love," as his mother expressed it, with the illuminated capitals of an old musical manuscript, in French, from which she afterwards taught him to read. It is impossible to think of the subsequent history of this wonderful young man, without tracing a probable connexion of those accidental circumstances, which could not fail to give a peculiar importance to certain conceptions, with the character of that genius, which was afterwards to make grey-headed erudition bend before it, and to astonish at least all those on whom it did not impose.-BROWN's Philosophy of the Mind.

He was taught to read from an old black-letter Testament, or Bible. Perhaps the bent of most men's studies may, in some measure,

His mental cultivation now commenced in earnest. He read with the utmost avidity. He stormed the bookshelves of all his acquaintance. He devoured, not volumes, but libraries. "At seven," says the same neighbour, who was much in the house," he visibly improved: at eight years of age he was so eager for books, that he read from the moment he waked, which was early, until he went to bed, if they would let him." And the dreams of ambition were already commenced. A manufacturer promised to make the children a present of some earthenwarea cup or plaything that might gratify a child: he asked the boy what device should be inscribed on his.


Paint me," replied the future creator of Rowley"Paint me an angel, with wings and a trumpet, to trumpet my name over the world." This anecdote rests upon credible authority-that of his sister.

[ocr errors]

My brother," writes the same relation, in her expressive letter to Sir Herbert Croft, "very early discovered a thirst for pre-eminence. I remember, before he was five years old he would always preside over his playmates as their master, and they his hired servants. He was dull in learning, not knowing many letters at four years old, and always objected to read in a small book. He learnt the alphabet from an old folio music-book of my father's, my mother was then tearing up for waste paper: the capitals at

be determined by accident, and frequently in very early life; nor is it unreasonable to suppose that his peculiar attachment to antiquities may, in a considerable degree, have resulted from this little circumstance. DR. GREGORY.

One of his biographers has expressed surprise that a person in his mother's rank of life should have been acquainted with black-letter.

« PreviousContinue »