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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 63.2 (2002) 141-165
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"Everlastinge to Posterytie":
Chatterton's Spirited Youth
Margaret Russett and Joseph A. Dane
It grows a hard case on our ancestors, who have every day bastards laid to them, five hundred or a thousand years after they are dead. Indeed [some] . . . are so fair as to beget the fathers as well as the children.
All quest-romances of the post-Enlightenment, meaning all Romanticisms whatsoever, are quests to re-beget one's own self, to become one's own Great Original.
The brief career of the "marvellous Boy" Thomas Chatterton and the genesis of the pseudomedieval poems he attributed to Thomas Rowley have the vague familiarity of Romantic myth. So far as academic literary history is concerned, however, Chatterton has usually figured as an oddball enthusiasm, as the obscure occasion of an overblown debate, or as an avatar of modern celebrity. While recent criticism has begun to regard him as an exemplary exception rather than an isolated curiosity, two modes prevail: one focuses on the psychodynamics of the Rowley story, considered as an exaggerated version of adolescent fantasy, while the other examines how Chatterton's generic experiments and dealings with patrons illuminate conditions in the late-eighteenth-century literary market. The present essay combines elements of the psychoanalytic and the cultural-materialist approaches both to reflect on how the literary world conspired in Chatterton's fantasy and to understand how fantasy structures empirical reception. Cowritten by a Romanticist and a medievalist, the essay itself participates formally and thematically in the discontinuous histories it describes. Our analysis, an extended meditation on the metaphor of literary "genealogy," alternates between intensive and extensive approaches, moving freely between the eighteenth-century context and [End Page 141] its reverberations in nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholarship and criticism. The methodological and historical eclecticism follows from our central contention, that Chatterton is synonymous with temporal recursion for early Romantic culture and its belated readers alike. Beginning, therefore, with a reading of Chatterton's Romantic legacy, we proceed backward to consider the begetting of his inheritance; relate this fantasy to the critical daydream of a continuous literary lineage; examine selected case studies in the forging of an authorial Chatterton; and conclude with a few remarks on what the great theorist of literary genealogy, Harold Bloom, inherits from his Enlightenment original.
Among Chatterton's acknowledged contributions to canonical Romanticism is the form he bequeathed to his own memorial, Wordsworth's tribute in "Resolution and Independence." As is well known, this poem borrows its broad outlines from Chatterton's variation on the parable of the good Samaritan, "An Excelente Balade of Charitie." Recounting his mysterious fall from delight into dejection, Wordsworth's speaker thinks "of Chatterton, the marvellous Boy, / The sleepless Soul that perish'd in its pride," thereby calling attention to how the seven-line stanza (rime royale with a final alexandrine), the setting, and the economic theme all mimic the last of the so-called Rowley poems. 1 E. H. W. Meyerstein, Chatterton's biographer, exaggerates when he describes the "burden" of the two poems as "the same," but it is fair to say that Wordsworth's poem enacts a clinamen from the earlier work. 2 "Resolution [End Page 142] and Independence" turns on the encounter between "a happy Child of earth" (l. 31) and a man so antique as to seem inhuman:
not all alive nor dead,
Nor all asleep—in his extreme old age:
His body was bent double, feet and head
Coming together in their pilgrimage.
The metaphor links the old man with the "hapless pilgrim" of Chatterton's poem, who, "pore in his view, ungentle in his weede . . . woe- be-gone . . . withered, forwynd, dead," is first spurned by a wealthy abbot and then generously aided by a humble "Limitour." 3 But the old man's plea for "an almes" (l. 57) is omitted in Wordsworth's version, and the lines of agency are reversed (instead of needing rescue, Wordsworth's old man somehow rescues the...