Born: Charles Etienne Louis Camus, mathematician and author, 1699, Crecy en Brie.
Died: Gratianus, Roman emperor, assassinated, 383, Lyon; Louis IX of France (St Louis), 1270, Tunis, Africa; Henry VII, emperor of Germany, 1313, Sienna; Margaret of Anjou, queen of Henry VI of England,1482, France; Dr. David Hartley, philosopher (Observations on Man), 1757, Bath; Thomas Chatterton, poet, 1770, London; David Hume, philosopher and historian, 1776, Edinburgh; James Watt, celebrated improver of the steam-engine, 1819, Heathfield, near Birmingham; Sir William Herschel, eminent astronomer, 1822, Slough; Daniel Stuart, noted improver of the newspaper-press, 1846.
Feast Day: St. Ebba or Tabbs, virgin and abbess, 683. St. Gregory, abbot and confessor, 776. St. Louis, king of France, 1270.
The crowd through which we had to elbow our way, a few years ago, at the Manchester Art Exhibition, in order to get a sight of the picture of Chatterton, lying on his bed in his little London garret, set us thinking. It was not from any absolute merit in the picture, though that was great, that it attracted so many eyes. How was it then? No doubt the morbid feeling, which pushes through a crowd, to see the mangled remains of some traveller killed by an accident, drew some; doubtless that fondness for the horrible, which leads women to read all the tragic tales in news-papers, to the neglect of brilliant leading articles, drew many more; but in every connoisseur, more or less, there must have been mixed up a human sympathy with genius, and an interest in its fate, which the pitifulness of the sad history of the marvellous boy roused into activity.
Thomas Chatterton was born in Bristol, on the 20th of November 1752. His father was successively a writing-master, one of the cathedral choir, and master of a free school in the city, and died a short time before Chatterton was born; his mother, after her husband's death, supported herself by sewing, and keeping a small day-school. She seems to have been a very worthy and respectable person: beyond her fondness for her son, we hear little of her.
The boy, at first mistaken for a dunce, finally learned his letters from an old illuminated manuscript: then a change took place in him, and at eight years old, it is said, he would read without urging, and read anything and everything, from morning till night.
He was a moping boy. He would shut himself up in his bedroom, and cared for no companions. Sometimes, he would burst into tears; at others, stare in some one's face for many minutes together, without appearing to observe them. There were neighbours wise enough to see madness in these peculiarities, but none who discerned the self-absorption of genius. Indeed, until the lad was dead, no one seems to have regarded his eccentricities in that light.
In August 1760, being nearly eight years of age, Chatterton was admitted into a Bristol charity-school. While here, he would express disgust at being taught nothing but reading, writing, and arithmetic, and privately, though not neglecting school-tasks, turned his attention to other studies.
He read incessantly, and amongst other acquirements, made himself an adept in heraldry. And when he could, he haunted the buildings and the meadows of St. Mary Redcliffe, where he would lie and look fixedly at the church, as if he were ' in a kind of trance.' He betrayed an intense love of everything which was old. It is interesting to speculate as to what civilizing influences the advantages of a classical education, if he had been so favoured, would have exercised over him.
Before he had been at this school three years, certain poems made their appearance. Some verses of his, on a sacred subject, figured in Felix Farley's Bristol Journal for January 8, 1763; in less than a year after this he indulged a satirical vein, to the exposure of hypocrisy. He was a precocious boy, and his genius developed itself with astounding rapidity.
Chatterton's next feat was to provide Mr. Burgum, a pewterer, and 'fond of talking about his family,' with the following document: 'Account of the family of the De Berghams, from the Norman Conquest to this time, collected from Original Records, Tournament Rolls, and the Heralds of March and Garters' Records, By Thomas Chatterton.' This account, though unfinished, gave great satisfaction, and procured Chatterton five shillings; upon which he produced a continuation of it to the time of Charles II, at which point he paused. In this last portion, appeared the name of a poet, John de Bergham, and, as a specimen of his style, a poem, The Romaunte of the Cnyghte, with a modern rendering. Where did this poem come from? it was asked. Chatterton answered-from the manuscripts and old parchments, which his father had taken from the chest called Canynge's chest, in St. Mary Redcliffe's. That his father had taken such manuscripts was a known fact, and that Chatterton had the remains of them locked up in his garret, was admitted by his mother and sister: yet when foolish Mr. Burgum went up to London with his pedigree to the Herald's office, after Chatterton's death, it appears that he was laughed at.
On the 1st of July 1767, Chatterton was made apprentice to Mr. Lambert, an attorney. He slept with the footboy, and took his meals with the servants, and he never liked the place: he was very proud. But he had not much employment; so he pored over Spenser, and Chaucer, and old English chronicles, and scribbled satirical poems of a loose, irreligious tendency. Chatterton has been charged with dissolute habits, and Masson, in his Story of the Year 1770, produces a curious proof that there was some ground for the charge, so far as regarded some female companion; but little, if anything, has been clearly established. His habits were regular, his diet simple, his intimate friends few; let any precocious boy of sixteen, who never had a father, whose moral training has been deficient, and whose too prying intellect has ranged through so many books for and against religion, that it leans to infidelity-if he finds himself with strong passions, and without sin, first cast a stone.
In September 1768, Chatterton blazed out into notoriety. A new bridge superseded an old one, with appropriate ceremonies, and to Felix Farley's Bristol Journal a certain Dunhelmus Bristoliensis contributed a 'Description of the Mayor's first passing over the Old Bridge, taken from an old Manuscript.' Astonished antiquarians besieged the editor, and Dunhelmus Bristoliensis turned out to be Thomas Chatterton. The original was demanded, and Dunhelmus prevaricated. Upon this the boy was treated roughly; till, drawing himself up to the height of his proud self-assurance, he referred them to those same old relics in his garret, and obstinately retained the key.
The attention which he excited by these matters introduced Chatterton to the pewterer's partner, a Mr. Catcott, and to Mr. Barrett, a surgeon, both respectable men, and the latter at the time busy compiling a history of Bristol. From the stores in the garret the boy supplied both these worthy literati with matter at once curious and valuable. Mr. Catcott was furnished with The Bristows Tragedy, Rowley's Epitaph, and other pieces of ancient poetry, by Thomas Rowley, poet-laureate to ' Maistre Canynge,' the wealthy founder of St. Mary Redcliffe, and quondam mayor of the city; and Mr. Barrett with interesting information, hitherto unknown, to be used in his history.
Some specimens of the original parchments were also produced in the boy's more generous moments, and were never in the least suspected, although, as it appears, their antiquity will wash off with a sponge.
But ere long the ambitious boy grew much dissatisfied with Bristol. His friends remunerated him, indeed, but inadequately; and as he had a deep affection for his mother and sister, and a curious desire to provide them with articles of dress better than their wont, he tried other means of raising funds and becoming a notoriety. He first expresses his dissatisfaction with Mr. Catcott by a little bill:
Mr. G. Catcott,
To the exors. of T. Rowley,
To pleasure recd in read his Historic works, £5 5 0. his poetic works, £5 5 0
Total: £10 10 0
Having given vent to his spleen by this humorous document, which was probably never sent, nor meant to be sent, he wrote to Dodsley, the London publisher. The old parchunents, it seems, had proved by this time so productive, that he had by then quite a stock of poems by Thomas Rowley: these he offered to Dodsley for publication. But nothing could be made of Dodsley. Upon which it occurred to Chatterton that Horace Walpole, recently much deceived in certain poems, styled Ossian's, which the boy had read, might feel an interest in Rowley; upon which a correspondence was commenced. He began by sending Walpole a series of notices of ancient painters, for his History of Painting, and receives a letter of thanks. Upon this he sends other notices, and also accounts of hitherto unknown poets, with specimens of their style, and the mind of Walpole became uneasy. Nevertheless he waited, to see if any fresh material would turn up; upon which Chatterton, growing indignant at Mr. Walpole's delay, and characteristically attributing the apparent neglect to his having confessed himself a poor woman's son, demanded his manuscripts. The author of The Castle of Otranto at once returned them, with a letter of advice about the extreme vileness of literary forging.
During this time the apprentice's views on religious subjects underwent further changes. He finally rejected Christianity, though not irreligiously. The man who draws and carries in his pocket articles of belief, entirely for his own private use, is in our opinion a religious man. Such a document, in Chatterton's handwriting, and much soiled, may be seen in the British Museum. Chatterton also, during this period, formed a connection with a London magazine, and wrote a considerable quantity of verse, chiefly satirical.
Early in 1770, Chatterton was dismissed from the service of Mr. Lambert, and the occasion was this: In some strange humour of mind, made up of vexation and satirical spleen, with a temporary touch, it may be, of that infirmity, lunacy, under which his sister afterwards laboured, he penned a document professing to be his will, and 'wrote between 12 and 2 o'clock, Saturday, in the utmost distress of mind.' This will he enclosed in a letter to a Mr. Mayfield, with information that the writer, by the time it should reach that gentleman, would 'be no more.' In some way or other this letter fell into Mr. Lambert's hands, and a boy of seventeen, who could meditate suicide, was considered much too dangerous an individual to be retained in the house.
What object Chatterton had in composing this will, or whether, 'between 12 and 2 o'clock,' He was really in earnest about putting an end to his life, must remain an unsolved problem; but certainly a more singular document we never read. He satirises a few friends, in some fifty lines of verse; gives directions about his body and tomb-stone; furnishes inscriptions for the latter in French, Latin, and English; describes how his arms are to be quartered; leaves Mr. Catcott his 'vigour and fire of youth;' the Rev. Mr. Camplin his humility; his moderation ' to the politicians on both sides of the question;' and so on. Gleams of pathetic earnestness flash at intervals through the solemn banter:
I give and bequeath to Mr. Matthew Mease, a mourning-ring, with this motto
Alas, poor Chatterton! provided he pays for it himself.'
I leave my mother and sister to the protection of my friends, if I have any.
And one of his epitaphs, which, in fact, was after-wards adopted for his monument in Bristol, ran thus:
To the Memory of THOMAS CHATTERTON
Reader, judge not; if thou art a Christian, believe that he shall he judged by a superior Power: to that Power alone is he now answerable.
However, the end was not yet, for Chatterton went to London-with a friendly group, to see him start, let us mention, though it may seem some-what of a reproach to his pride-and having found lodgings in Shoreditch-which he afterwards changed for No. 4 Brook Street, Holborn-proceeded with great assurance to look up his London correspondents-Dodsley and others. Chatterton's London career only extended over four months, and the records of his life during that period are obscure and untrustworthy. it is true that he sent glowing descriptions of his rising fame to friends in Bristol; it is true that he found money to purchase useless articles of finery for his mother and sister; and also that he did his utmost to form profitable connections; but that any large amount of success or remuneration encouraged his extraordinary efforts, is more than doubtful. He wrote political letters ' on both sides,' and numerous articles in prose and verse. At one time he seemed in a fair way to fame, for Beckford, lord mayor, received him with favour, and allowed him to dedicate an essay to him; but before the essay could appear, Beckford died. The accounts sent home to friends and relatives were probably chiefly intended to produce an impression that he could well afford to live without Bristol help. As an evidence of his scanty resources, we find a small memorandum extracted from his pocket-book:
There is tolerably clear proof that when he had sent home the finery for his mother and sister, and the pipe for his grandmother, Chatterton did not find himself many shillings in pocket. At length work failed him. Ere long he began to starve. He grew so sickly and famished in appearance, that his landlady, as also a neighbour, ventured, in spite of his pride, to offer him a meal. These ill-managed charities he indignantly refused. Once only, when the invitation must have been made with peculiar delicacy, did he sit down at another's table. Day after day he remained shut up in his room, and said he was not hungry; and, on the morning of the 25th of August 1770, he was found lying on his bed, stiff and cold, with remains of arsenic between his teeth. He was interred, after the inquest, in the pauper's burial-ground: at least so it was believed, but after-evidence went far to prove that his body was removed to Bristol. and secretly stowed away in the churchyard of St. Mary Redcliffe. It will be remarked that the life of Chatterton, filled as it was with incident and a variety of works, extended to only seventeen years and three-quarters.
Pride will ruin angels, we are told, and pride destroyed Chatterton, who was not by any means an angel. He exhibited in his career extraordinary recklessness about the little niceties of literary morality. He could write, as we have seen, ' on either side' of a question; he could corrupt learned histories by forged documents; he could invent pedigrees; he could put his case in a letter, as he wished it to appear, without in the least being impeded by the stubborn facts; all which things, nevertheless, seem to us signs, not so much of a corrupt nature, as of a nature too rapidly developed in the midst of corruption, without adequate bias of moral training, joined to a pride of intellectual power, which led him to unloosen for himself all the ties of religion, and to despise his fellow-beings.
We say, to forge documents and invent pedigrees. We have traced the course of Chatterton's literary life without comment, and much controversy raged after his death as to the genuineness of the Rowley poems; but now the fact is universally admitted, that Chatterton himself was Thomas Rowley. It is indeed difficult to read the poems, with the least previous suspicion, without feeling the fact of their modernness take irresistible hold upon us. There is nothing ancient about them, except the spelling, and at times the phraseology. The great difficulty is, how did he write them? By moonlight, said his sister; in the Redcliffe meadows, says Masson; and both statements are true. Every man has two souls-an outer, which all men can read; an inner, which he hides. Every man lives two lives-a relative life, to suit his friends, his circumstances, his baser nature; and an essential life, which is his real life. The inner soul and essential life of Chatterton brooded purely and intensely over visions of noble truth and exquisite beauty, which he felt that he could share with none; and these, to keep them pure, he clothed in antique form; his outer and relative life led him to scatter round him, carelessly and recklessly, the lighter products of his pen, such as expressed the baser and evanescent passion or weakness of the moment, and which seemed to him good enough for those for whom they were intended.
THE MONTYON PRIZE FOR VIRTUE
On the 25th of August 1823, took place one of those distributions of the Montyon prizes which form so pleasant a feature in the social condition of France. The Baron de Montyon, or Monthyon, was a wealthy man, who, during the second half of the last century, occupied a distinguished place in the estimation of his countrymen; chiefly in various judicial capacities, in which his probity and honour were universally admitted. He established, at various periods of his life, no less than eight prizes, to be awarded to worthy recipients by the Académie des Sciences, the Académie Francaise, and the Faculté de Medicine. They were briefly as follows: In 1780, he invested 12,000 francs, the interest to be spent as an annual prize for inventions and discoveries useful in the arts. In 1782, he invested an equal sum, for an annual prize for any literary work likely to be most useful to society; and a similar one for lessening the unhealthiness of trades and manufactures. In 1783, another of equal amount for the benefit of the poor of Poitou and Berri; one for assisting poor men of letters; one for simplifying certain special mechanical arts; and one for rewarding acts of virtue among the poor. In 1787, and subsequent years, he established other prizes-all for good and worthy objects. The revolution drove him to Switzerland, and then to England, whence he did not return to France till 1815. His prize for virtue had been suppressed by the revolutionists; but he took care, by his will, to remodel it on a permanent and enlarged basis. This good man died in 1820, at the advanced age of eighty-seven.
The distribution in 1823 will serve as well as any other, to show the mode in which the Montyon prize for virtue is awarded. Five prizes were given to five persons-four women and one man. One of the women, although her husband earned but sixteenpence a day, had taken into her house and supported a poor destitute female neighbour. Another, a milliner, had for twelve years supported the mistress under whom she had served as an apprentice, and who was afflicted with an incurable malady. A third had, in a similar way, supported for seventeen years a mistress under whom she had acted as a servant, and who had fallen into abject poverty. A fourth, who was a portress, had shewn her charity in a somewhat similar way. These four persons received one thousand francs each. But the chief prize was awarded to an old clothesman, Joseph Bécard. During the French Revolution, one M. Chaviffiac, of Arras, had first been imprisoned, and then put to death.
Many years afterwards, in 1812, his widow came to Paris, to obtain, if possible, some property which had belonged to her husband. In this she failed, and she was reduced to the lowest pitch of want. Bécard, when a servant to the Marquis de Steinfort, at Arras, had known the Chavilliacs as persons of some consideration in the place; and happening now to meet the poor lady in her adversity, he resolved to struggle for her as well as for himself, for grief had made her blind and helpless. He begged coarse food for himself, in order that he might buy better food for her out of his small incomings as an old clothesman. She became ill, and occupied the only bed he possessed; and he slept on a chair for three months-or rather kept resolutely awake during the greater part of the night, in order that he might attend upon the sick lady. Pain and suffering made her peevish and sour of temper; but he bore it all patiently, never once departing from his custom of treating her as a lady-higher in birth and natural condition than himself. This life continued for eleven years, she being the whole of the time entirely dependent on that noble-spirited but humble man. The lady died in May 1823. Bécard gave a small sum to a cure, to offer up prayers for her soul; he carved with his own hands a small wooden cross; and he placed it, together with an inscription, on her grave. Such was the man to whom the Academic Francaise, acting under the provisions of the Montyon bequest, awarded a prize of fifteen hundred francs, a gold medal, and honourable commendation in presence of the assembled academicians.