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There was a little boy, in Bristol, whose fathers, for many generations, had been the sextons of St. Mary Redcliffe. The veneration for this beautiful fabric, from the habit of ages, might be said to be woven into the frames and infused into the blood of this family. The office was gone out of the family; the boy's father had become a schoolmaster, and died three weeks previous to the child's birth. His uncle had been the last to fill this post, but he too was deceased. The boy's mother, however, lived in a small house in a back court, nearly opposite to this church; and the lad, very likely led by what he heard her say of the former long connexion of their family with it, was in the habit of going into it when open, and wandering about it for hours. At that time, nearly a century ago, neither churches nor churchyards were so rigidly locked up as at present, and ample and often was the time when a little boy on the watch might enter, and while marriage or burial ceremony went on, while the cleaners and sweepers were at work, or while the evening and the morning bell was rung, might stroll to and fro, and gaze, and wonder to his heart's content. That this was his dearest occupation was soon well known to his family. "His mother's house," says one of his biographers, was close to the fine structure of St. Mary Redcliffe, and they well knew that the boy's favourite haunts were the aisles and towers of that noble pile. And there they would find the truant, seated generally by the tomb of Canynge, or lodged in one of the towers, reading." And what effect this church-haunting had upon him was very early visible. At five years of age he went to the day-school in Pyle-street, which had formerly been taught by his father, but here he was dull and stupid; and till he was six and a half years old, his master could trace no sign of intellectual progress in him, and his poor mother began to think him an absolute fool. But the objects of the silent church had not fallen in vain on his infant fancy. Those quaint and gorgeous paintings, and those antique letters engraven on floor brasses, had acquired a strong hold upon him, and, without doubt, led him to seize as he did, with an avidity new to him, on the old musical manuscript in French, adorned with illuminated capitals, which he found at home. "He fell in love with it," said his mother; and the shrewd woman catching at this discovered charm, brought him an ancient black-letter Bible, which she pos sessed, to read, and the boy's inner nature came to light,-"he was no longer a dunce." At eight he was a voracious devourer of books. He read morning, noon, and night, from the hour that he awoke to that in which he went to bed. But another cause now contributed to strengthen the impressions of antiquity which he had received in St. Mary's church. He was become an inmate of the blue-coat school of Bristol, on St. Augustine's Back, founded by Colston, a merchant, in 1708. Here, in an institution which, though not of ancient date, was yet conducted in the ancient fashion, he was arrayed in long blue coat and belt, and scarlet stockings, and tonsure cap. Here, say some of his schoolfellows, he took no part in the poetical and literary emulations which arose. An usher wrote poetry, and his example stimulated others to a like ambition; but Chatterton
"possessed apparently neither the inclination nor ability for literary pursuits;" he contented himself with the ordinary sports and pastimes of his age. But, in truth, he was secretly gleaning up knowledge wherever he could lay hands on it. Long before, he had begged of a painter "to paint him an angel, with wings and a trumpet to trumpet his name over the world!" This spirit, once awoke, was not likely to die again, even in the bosom of a child. He had continually in his heart that cry which haunted Cowley :—
"What shall I do to be for ever known?"
From the time he had begun to read, a great change had passed over him. "He grew thoughtful and reserved. He was silent and gloomy for long intervals together, speaking to no one, and appearing angry when noticed or disturbed. He would break out into sudden fits of weeping, for which no reason could be assigned; would shut himself in some chamber, and suffer no one to approach him, nor allow himself to be enticed from his seclusion. Often he would go to the length of absenting himself from home altogether, for the space sometimes of many hours; and his sister remembered him being most severely chastised for a long absence, at which, however, he did not shed one tear, but merely said, 'It was hard, indeed, to be whipped for reading?' This was before his entering Colston's school, but there he kept up the zealous reading. He is reported to have stood aloof from the society of his schoolmates, to have made few acquaintances, and only amongst those whose disposition inclined them to reflection. His money, all that he could procure, went for the perusal of books; and on Sundays, and holidays, and half-holidays, he was either wandering solitarily in the fields, sitting beside the tomb of Canynge in the church, or was shut up in a little room at his mother's, attending to no meal-times, and only issuing out, when he did appear, begrimed with ochre, charcoal, and black-lead.
"From twelve to seven, each Saturday, he was always at home; returning punctually a few minutes after the clock had struck, to get to his little room, and to shut himself up. In this room he always had by him a great piece of ochre in a brown pan; pouncebags full of charcoal dust, which he had from a Miss Sanger, a neighbour; also a bottle of black-lead powder, which they once took to clean the stove with, and made him very angry. Every holiday, almost, he passed at home, and often, having been denied the key when he wanted it, because they thought he hurt his health, and made himself dirty, he would come to Mrs. Edkins, and kiss her cheek, and coax her to get it him, using the most persuasive expressions to effect his end; so that this eagerness of his to be in this room so much alone, the apparatus, the parchments (for he was not then indentured to Mr. Lambert), both plain as well as written on, and the begrimed figure he always presented when he came down at tea-time, his face exhibiting many stains of black and yellow-all these circumstances began to alarm them; and when she could get into his room, she would be very inquisitive, and peep about at everything. Once he put his foot on a parchment on the floor, to
prevent her from taking it up, saying-You are too curious and clear-sighted-I wish you would bide out of the room-it is my room. To this she answered by telling him that it was only a general lumber-room, and that she wanted some parchment to make threadpapers of; but he was offended, and would not permit her to touch any of them, not even those that were not written on; but at last, with a voice of entreaty, said-'Pray don't touch anything here,' and seemed very anxious to get her away; and this increased her fears, lest he should be doing something improper, knowing his want of money, and his ambition to appear like others.* At last, they got a strange idea that these colours were to colour himself with, and that perhaps he would join some gipsies, one day or other, as he seemed so discontented with his station in life, and unhappy."†
But the true secret was one far beyond the conception of his simple relatives. Coining and forging, indeed, he was bent upon, and meant to join himself, some day or other, to a company which, in their eyes, would have appeared stranger than a troop of gipsies. He was already, child as he was, forging the name and deeds of Thomas Rowley, and fathering upon him the glorious coinage of his own brain. A great and immortal guest was theirs, and they did not know it. One of themselves was marked by the passing angel of destiny, as the one of all his generation doomed to the fearful sacrifice of a sad but eternal fame. The spirit which had stolen upon him and taken possession of him as he had roamed the dim aisles of the old church, and gazed on the great sacred scene of the Ascension of Christ, and on the light avenues of lofty columns, and sat by the tomb of Master Canynge, was now busy with him. It was this which had made him gloomy and retiring, which had caused him to burst into passions of tears for which no reason could be assigned. A new world had dawned before his inner vision! the sensibilities of the poet were now quivering in every nerve; mysterious shapes moved around him, which one day he must report of to the worldshapes, the offspring of that old church, and its tombs and monuments, and traceries and emblazonments, mingled with the spirit of his solitary readings in history, divinity, antiquities; and that melancholy foreboding, that Ahnung of the future, as the Germans term it, which, like a present angel of prophecy, unseen but felt, hangs on the heart of youthful genius with an overpowering sadness, was spread over him like a heavenly cloud, which made the physical face of life dreary and insipid to him.
This was the boy of eleven or twelve years old, who had already commenced satirist, and launched his arrows of sarcasm at offenders, in Felix Farley's Bristol Journal; where "Sly Dick," and "Apostate Will," were pilloried before the whole city by so young a hand. This was the boy of, perhaps, fourteen, who astonished the worthy pewterer, Burgum, by bringing to him an historic account of his pedigree, with coats of arms all elaborately painted on parchment,
Of a scene supposed to occur in this lumber-room, a beautiful mezzotint engraving has been published by Mr. Mitchell of Bristol, from a painting by Mr. Lewis of that city G. Cumberland, Esq. in Dix's Life.
tracing his descent, with minute detail of personages, from no less a distance than the Saxon period, and from no less a person than the great Waltheof, Earl of Northumberland, Northampton, and Huntingdon! Great has been the laughter at poor Burgum, for swallowing the pleasant deceit; but let any one imagine to himself a charity schoolboy, in old-fashioned costume, and his innocent boy's face, appearing before him, and presenting so matter-of-fact a document, as found in a chest in the muniment-room of St. Mary's church, in which this boy was known to pore and hunt about. Could any suspicion of such a boy's forgery of the document at first be entertained? Would any feelings but those of wonder and curiosity be excited? Burgum was completely taken in, and a thousand others who have since laughed at him would have been taken in too. And now began to be sounded abroad that famous story of the iron-bound chest of Master Canynge, in the muniment-room over the north porch of St. Mary Redcliffe church, from which Chatterton's father had been allowed to carry home whole heaps of parchments, and from which heaps Chatterton professed to have drawn this pedigree of the De Bergham family. This was the prolific source of the strange documents, which from time to time came issuing forth, in the shape of transcripts by the boy Chatterton. His fifteenth year, however, saw him, in one day, metamorphosed from a Colston's charity boy into a lawyer's apprentice. He was bound to one Lambert, a man of little practice, and who, besides, is termed "a vulgar, insolent, imperious man; who, because the boy wrote poetry, was of a melancholy and contemplative disposition, and disposed to study and reading, thought him a fit object of insult and contemptuous rage." Need we ask why his mother bound him to such a man? To whom can the poor bind their children? Had Lambert been a pleasant fellow, and in great practice, he would have had rich men's sons offered, and would have demanded a fee that would effectually exclude the poor. Here Chatterton's life was the life of insult and degradation, which might pretty safely be calculated upon with such a man, and such a practice. Twelve hours he was chained to the office, i.e. from eight in the morning till eight at night, dinner hour only excepted; and in the house he was confined to the kitchen, slept with the footboy, and was subjected to indignities of a like nature, at which his pride rebelled, and by which his temper was embittered. Yet here it was, during this life of base humiliation, that Thomas Chatterton worked out the splendid creations of his imagination. In less than three years of the life of a poor attorney's apprentice, fed in the kitchen, and lodged with the footboy, did he here achieve an immortality such as the whole life of not one in millions is sufficient to create.
In the long solitary hours of this empty office,-for, not having any business, even the master was very often absent, he had ample leisure and secure opportunity to give scope to the feelings and fancies which had sprung up in the aisles of St. Mary's; but which had since grown with the aliment of historic and poetic knowledge, gathered from Fuller, Camden, Chaucer, and the old chroniclers.
From time to time, as I have said, came flying forth some precious old piece of local history, which astonished the good people of Bristol, and was always traced to this same wonderful lad, and his inexhaustible parchments from the old chest. A new bridge is built, and in Felix Farley's Journal appears an account of the opening of the old bridge, ages before, with all the ceremonies and processions of civil officers, priests, friars, and minstrels, with all their banners and clarions. Then Mr. Barrett, a surgeon, is writing his history of the place, and lacks information respecting the ancient churches; and lo! the prolific MSS. of Maister Canynge supply not only histories of all churches, but of castles and palaces, with the directions of the ancient streets, and all the particulars of the city walls, and all their gates. Never was an historian so readily and so affluently supplied! Whoever now sees the ponderous quarto of Barrett's History of Bristol, with all the wonders palmed upon the author by Chatterton, must be equally amazed at the daring of the lad and the credulity of the man. He restored in a fine drawing the ancient castle, in a style of architecture such as surely never was seen in any castle before. There were towers of a most lofty and unique description, yet extremely beautiful; there were battlements as unique, as if the ancient knights who defended them had left their shields lying upon them. There were tiers of arches, circles and stars one above another, in fronts of the most fanciful kind. There were other parts where pilasters ran from ground to battlement, ornamented with alternating cross-keys, human figures, lozenges, ovals, zigzag lines, and other ornaments, such as never could have originated but in a poetical and daring brain; yet was the whole worthy of the residence of some knight or king of old romance. It was beautiful, and might suggest to architects, in these threadbare days, ideas of a style piquantly original and refreshing. This was the view of Bristol Castle in 1138; Rowlie Canonicus, delineator, 1440, to be seen in Barrett's History. But deeper and deeper does this fortunate youth dive into the treasures of the chest, and more and more amazing are the wonders that he brings up. Never was so rich a chest stowed away in cloisters of the rich old middle ages. Now came up poets, painters, carvers, heralds, architects, and stainers of glass, besides warriors of proudest renown, all flourishing in times that we are wont to deem barren of such glories; and a more than chivalric reign of Arthur-a more than Elizabethan constellation of genius in arts and arms, astonishes the senses of those deeply learned, who fancied that they had explored all possible mines of the past knowledge. The dark ages grow brighter and brighter as the necromantic stripling rubs his lamp in the office of the attorney Lambert, till the living are almost blinded by the blaze of light from the regions of the forgotten dead. No less than eleven poets of great fame did he bring to light, of whom Abbot John, who flourished in 1186, he says, was one of the greatest that ever lived; and Maister John à Iscam not much less, living in the time of the great Maister Canynge, himself also a fine poet! But of all men, most versatile and rich in lore and intellect was Thomas Rowley, the friend