The verdict of literary criticism is that of the medical art—he was insane; and to what extent this mania acted as a monomania, that is, how far he was himself deceived, the world can never know. One thing, at least; it redeems all his faults. Precocious beyond any other known instance of precocity; intensely haughty; bold in falsehood; working best when the moon was at the full, he stands in English literature as the most singular of its curiosities. His will is an awful jest; his declaration of his religious opinions a tissue of contradictions and absurdities: he bequeathes to a clergyman his humility; to Mr. Burgum his prosody and grammar, with half his modesty—the other half to any young lady that needs it; his abstinence—a fearful legacy—to the aldermen of Bristol at their annual feast! to a friend, a mourning ring—“provided he pays for it himself”—with the motto, “Alas, poor Chatterton!” Fittest ending to his biography—“Alas, poor Chatterton!”
And yet it is evident that the crazy Bristol boy and the astute Scotchman were alike the creatures of the age and the peculiar circumstances in which they lived. No other age of English history could have produced them. In an earlier period, they would have found no curiosity in the people to warrant their attempts; and in a later time, the increase in antiquarian studies would have made these efforts too easy of detection.
POETRY OF THE TRANSITION SCHOOL.
The Transition Period. James
Thomson. The Seasons. The Castle of
Indolence. Mark Akenside. Pleasures of the Imagination. Thomas Gray.
The Elegy. The Bard. William Cowper. The Task. Translation of Homer.
THE TRANSITION PERIOD.
The poetical standards of Dryden and Pope, as poetic examples and arbiters, exercised tyrannical sway to the middle of the eighteenth century, and continued to be felt, with relaxing influence, however, to a much later period. Poetry became impatient of too close a captivity to technical rules in rhythm and in subjects, and began once again to seek its inspiration from the worlds of nature and of feeling. While seeking this change, it passed through what has been properly called the period of transition,—a period the writers of which are distinctly marked as belonging neither to the artificial classicism of Pope, nor to the simple naturalism of Wordsworth and the Lake school; partaking, indeed, in some degree of the former, and preparing the way for the latter.
The excited condition of public feeling during the earlier period, incident to the accession of the house of Hanover and the last struggles of the Jacobites, had given a political character to every author, and a political significance to almost every literary work. At the close of this abnormal condition of things, the poets of the transition school began their labors; untrammelled by the court and the town, they invoked the muse in green fields and by babbling brooks; from materialistic philosophy in verse they appealed through the senses to the hearts of men; and appreciation and popularity rewarded and encouraged them.