Thomas Chatterton, 1772-1770.—This Bristol boy was early in his teens impressed with Percy’s Reliques and with the fact that Macpherson’s claim to having discovered Ossian in old manuscripts had made him famous. Chatterton spent much time in the interesting old church of St.
Mary Redcliffe, of which his ancestors had been sextons for several generations. He studied the manuscripts in an old chest and began to write a series of poems, which he claimed to have discovered among the parchments left by Thomas Rowley, a fifteenth-century monk.
Chatterton was unsuccessful in finding a publisher, and he determined to go to London, where he thought that, like other authors, he could live by his pen. In April, 1770, at the age of seventeen, he left Bristol for London, where he took poison in August of the same year to escape a slower death by starvation.
His romantic poetry and pathetic end appealed to all the great poets. Wordsworth spoke of him as “the marvelous boy”; Coleridge called him “young-eyed Poesy”; Shelley honored him in Adonais; and Keats inscribed Endymion to his memory. Traces of his influence may be found in Coleridge and Keats.
The greatest charm of Chatterton’s verse appears in unusual epithets and unexpected poetic turns, such, for instance, as may be noted in these lines from his best “Rowley” poem, Aella, a Tragycal Enterlude:—
“Sweet his tongue as the throstle’s
Quick in dance as thought can be.”
“Hark! the raven flaps his wing
In the briar’d dell below;
Hark! the death-owl loud doth sing,
To the night-mares as they go.”
While Chatterton did not leave enough verse of surpassing merit to rank him as a great poet, his work nevertheless entitles him to be chosen from among all his boyish peers to receive the laurel wreath for song.
The Literature of Melancholy.—The choice of subjects in which the emotion of melancholy was given full sway shows one direction taken by the romantic movement. Here, the influence of Milton’s Il Penseroso can often be traced. The exquisite Ode to Evening, by William Collins (1721-1759), shows the love for nature’s solitudes where this emotion may be nursed. Lines like these:—
“...be mine the hut,
That, from the mountain’s side,
Views wilds and swelling floods,
And hamlets brown, and dim-discovered spires;
And hears their simple bell; and marks o’er all
Thy dewy fingers draw
The gradual dusky veil,”
caused Swinburne to say: “Corot on canvas might have signed his Ode to Evening.”
[Illustration: THOMAS GRAY.]
The high-water mark of the poetry of melancholy of this period was reached in Thomas Gray’s (1716-1771) Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751). The poet with great art selected those natural phenomena which cast additional gloom upon the scene. We may notice in the very first stanza that the images were chosen with this end in view:—