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   The Eighteenth Century. James Macpherson. Ossian. Thomas Chatterton. 
   His Poems. The Verdict. Suicide. The Cause.


The middle of the eighteenth century is marked as a period in which, while other forms of literature flourished, there arose a taste for historic research. Not content with the actual in poetry and essay and pamphlet, there was a looking back to gather up a record of what England had done and had been in the past, and to connect, in logical relation, her former with her latter glory. It was, as we have seen, the era of her great historians, Hume, Gibbon, and Robertson, who, upon the chronicles, and the abundant but scattered material, endeavored to construct philosophic history; it was the day of her greatest moralists, Adam Smith, Tucker, and Paley, and of research in metaphysics and political economy. In this period Bishop Percy collected the ancient English ballads, and also historic poems from the Chinese and the Runic; in it Warton wrote his history of poetry. Dr. Johnson, self-reliant and laborious, was producing his dictionary, and giving limits and coherence to the language. Mind was on the alert, not only subsidizing the present, but looking curiously into the past. I have ventured to call it the antiquarian age. In 1751, the Antiquarian Society of London was firmly established; men began to collect armor and relics: in this period grew up such an antiquary as Mr. Oldbuck, who curiously sought out every relic of the Roman times,—armor, fosses, and praetoria,—and found, with much that was real, many a fraud or delusion. It was an age which, in the words of old Walter Charleton, “despised the present as an innovation, and slighted the future, like the madman who fell in love with Cleopatra.”

There was manifestly a great temptation to adventurous men—with sufficient learning, and with no high notion of honor—to creep into the distant past; to enact, in mask and domino, its literary parts, and endeavor to deceive an age already enthusiastic for antiquity.

Thus, in the third century, if we may believe the Scotch and Irish traditions, there existed in Scotland a great chieftain named Fion na Gael—modernized into Fingal—who fought with Cuthullin and the Irish warriors, and whose exploits were, as late as the time of which we have been speaking, the theme of rude ballads among the highlands and islands of Scotland. To find and translate these ballads was charming and legitimate work for the antiquarian; to counterfeit them, and call them by the name of a bard of that period, was the great temptation to the literary forger. Of such a bard, too, there was a tradition. As brave as were the deeds of Fingal, their fame was not so great as that of his son Ossian, who struck a lofty harp as he recounted his father's glory. Could the real poems be found, they would verify the lines:

    From the barred visor of antiquity 
    Reflected shines the eternal light of Truth 
    As from a mirror.

And if they could not be found, they might be counterfeited. This was undertaken by Doctor James Macpherson. Catering to the spirit of the age, he reproduced the songs of Ossian and the lofty deeds of Fingal.

Again, we have referred, in an early part of this work, to the almost barren expanse in the highway of English literature from the death of Chaucer to the middle of the sixteenth century; this barrenness was due, as we saw, to the turbulence of those years—civil war, misgovernment, a time of bloody action rather than peaceful authorship. Here, too, was a great temptation for some gifted but oblique mind to supply a partial literature for that bare period; a literature which, entirely fabricated, should yet bear all the characteristics of the history, language, customs, manners, and religion of that time.

This attempt was made by Thomas Chatterton, an obscure, ill-educated lad, without means or friends, but who had a master-mind, and would have accomplished some great feat in letters, had he not died, while still very young, by his own hand.

Let us examine these frauds in succession: we shall find them of double historic value, as literary efforts in one age designed to represent the literature of a former age.

JAMES MACPHERSON.—James Macpherson was born at Ruthven, a village in Inverness-shire, in 1738. Being intended for the ministry, he received a good preliminary education, and became early interested in the ancient Gaelic ballads and poetic fragments still floating about the Highlands of Scotland. By the aid of Mr. John Home, the author of Douglas, and his friends Blair and Ferguson, he published, in 1760, a small volume of sixty pages entitled, Fragments of Ancient Poetry translated from the Gaelic or Erse Language. They were heroic and harmonious, and were very well received: he had catered to the very spirit of the age. At first, there seemed to be no doubt as to their genuineness. It was known to tradition that this northern Fingal had fought with Severus and Caracalla, on the banks of the Carun, and that blind Ossian had poured forth a flood of song after the fight, and made the deeds immortal. And now these songs and deeds were echoing in English ears,—the thrumming of the harp which told of “the stream of those olden years, where they have so long hid, in their mist, their many-colored sides.” (Cathloda, Duan III.)

So enthusiastically were these poems received, that a subscription was raised to enable Macpherson to travel in the Highlands, and collect more of this lingering and beautiful poetry.

Gray the poet, writing to William Mason, in 1760, says: “These poems are in everybody's mouth in the Highlands; have been handed down from father to son. We have therefore set on foot a subscription of a guinea or two apiece, in order to enable Mr. Macpherson to recover this poem (Fingal), and other fragments of antiquity.”

FINGAL.—On his return, in 1762, he published Fingal, and, in the same volume, some smaller poems. This Fingal, which he calls “an ancient epic poem” in six duans or books, recounts the deliverance of Erin from the King of Lochlin. The next year, 1763, he published Temora. Among the earlier poems, in all which Fingal is the hero, are passages of great beauty and touching pathos. Such, too, are found inCarricthura and Carthon, the War of Inis-thona, and the Songs of Selma. After reading these, we are pleasantly haunted with dim but beautiful pictures of that Northern coast where “the blue waters rolled in light,” “when morning rose In the east;” and again with ghostly moonlit scenes, when “night came down on the sea, and Rotha's Bay received the ship.” “The wan, cold moon rose in the east; sleep descended upon the youths; their blue helmets glitter to the beam; the fading fire decays; but sleep did not rest on the king; he rode in the midst of his arms, and slowly ascended the hill to behold the flame of Sarno's tower. The flame was dim and distant; the moon hid her red face in the east. A blast came from the mountain; on its wings was the spirit of Loda.” In Carthon occurs that beautiful address to the Sun, which we are fortunate in knowing, from other sources than Macpherson, is a tolerably correct translation of a real original. If we had that alone, it would be a revelation of the power of Ossian, and of the aptitudes of a people who could enjoy it. It is not within our scope to quote from the veritable Ossian, or to expose the bombast and fustian, tumid diction and swelling sound of Macpherson, of which the poems contain so much.

As soon as a stir was made touching the authenticity of the poems, a number of champions sprang up on both sides: among those who favored Macpherson, was Dr. Hugh Blair, who wrote the critical dissertation usually prefixed to the editions of Ossian, and who compares him favorably to Homer. First among the incredulous, as might be expected, was Dr. Samuel Johnson, who, in his Journey to the Hebrides, lashes Macpherson for his imposture, and his insolence in refusing to show the original. Johnson was threatened by Macpherson with a beating, and he answered: “I hope I shall never be deterred from detecting what I think a cheat by the menaces of a ruffian ... I thought your book an imposture; I think it an imposture still ... Your rage I defy ... You may print this if you will.”

Proofs of the imposture were little by little discovered by the critics. There were some real fragments in his first volume; but even these he had altered, and made symmetrical, so as to disguise their original character. Ossian would not have known them. As for Fingal, in its six duans, with captional arguments, it was made up from a few fragments, and no such poem ever existed. It was Macpherson's from beginning to end.

The final establishment of the forgery was not simply by recourse to scholars versed in the Celtic tongues, but the Highland Society appointed a committee in 1767, whose duty it was to send to the Highland pastors a circular, inquiring whether they had heard in the original the poems of Ossian, said to be translated by Macpherson; if so, where and by whom they had been written out or repeated: whether similar fragments still existed, and whether there were persons living who could repeat them; whether, to their knowledge, Macpherson had obtained such poems in the Highlands; and for any information concerning the personality of Fingal and Ossian.

CRITICISM.—The result was as follows: Certain Ossianic poems did exist, and some manuscripts of ancient ballads and bardic songs. A few of these had formed the foundation of Macpherson's so-called translations of the earlier pieces; but he had altered and added to them, and joined them with his own fancies in an arbitrary manner.

Fingal and Temora were also made out of a few fragments; but in their epic and connected form not only did not exist, but lack the bardic character and construction entirely.

Now that the critics had the direction of the chase made known, they discovered that Macpherson had taken his imagery from the Bible, of which Ossian was ignorant; from classic authors, of whom he had never heard; and from modern sources down to his own day.

Then Macpherson's Ossian—which had been read with avidity and translated into many languages, while it was considered an antique gem only reset in English—fell into disrepute, and was unduly despised when known to be a forgery.

It is difficult to conceive why he did not produce the work as his own, with a true story of its foundation: it is not so difficult to understand why, when he was detected, he persisted in the falsehood. For what it really is, it must be partially praised; and it will remain not only as a literary curiosity, but as a work of unequal but real merit. It was greatly admired by Napoleon and Madame de Stael, and, in endeavoring to consign it to oblivion, the critics are greatly in the wrong.

Macpherson resented any allusion to the forgery, and any leading question concerning it. He refused, at first, to produce the originals; and when he did say where they might be found, the world had decided so strongly against him, that there was no curiosity to examine them. He at last maintained a sullen silence; and, dying suddenly, in 1796, left no papers which throw light upon the controversy. The subject is, however, still agitated. Later writers have endeavored to reverse the decision of his age, without, however, any decided success. For much information concerning the Highland poetry, the reader is referred toA Summer in Skye, by Alexander Smith.

OTHER WORKS.—His other principal work was a Translation of the Iliad of Homer in the Ossianic style, which was received with execration and contempt. He also wrote A History of Great Britain from the Restoration to the Accession of the House of Hanover, which Fox—who was, however, prejudiced—declared to be full of impudent falsehoods.

Of his career little more need be said: he was too shrewd a man to need sympathy; he took care of himself. He was successful in his pecuniary schemes; as agent of the Nabob of Arcot, he had a seat in parliament for ten years, and was quite unconcerned what the world thought of his literary performances. He had achieved notoriety, and enjoyed it.

But, unfortunately, his forgery did fatal injury by its example; it inspired Chatterton, the precocious boy, to make another attempt on public credulity. It opened a seductive path for one who, inspired by the adventure and warned by the causes of exposure, might make a better forgery, escape detection, and gain great praise in the antiquarian world.

THOMAS CHATTERTON.—With this name, we accost the most wonderful story of its kind in any literature; so strange, indeed, that we never take it up without trying to discover some new meaning in it. We hope, against hope, that the forgery is not proved.

Chatterton was born in Bristol, on the Avon, in 1752, of poor parents, but early gave signs of remarkable genius, combined with a prurient ambition. A friend who wished to present him with an earthen-ware cup, asked him what device he would have upon it. “Paint me,” he answered, “an angel with wings and a trumpet, to trumpet my name over the world.” He learned his alphabet from an old music-book; at eight years of age he was sent to a charity-school, and he spent his little pocket-money at a circulating library, the books of which he literally devoured.

At the early age of eleven he wrote a piece of poetry, and published it in the Bristol Journal of January 8, 1763; it was entitled On the last Epiphany, or Christ coming to Judgment, and the next year, probably, a Hymn to Christmas-day, of which the following lines will give an idea:

    How shall we celebrate his name, 
    Who groaned beneath a life of shame, 
      In all afflictions tried? 
    The soul is raptured to conceive 
    A truth which being must believe; 
      The God eternal died.

    My soul, exert thy powers, adore; 
    Upon Devotion's plumage soar 
      To celebrate the day. 
    The God from whom creation sprung 
    Shall animate my grateful tongue, 
      From Him I'll catch the lay.

Some member of the Chatterton family had, for one hundred and fifty years, held the post of sexton in the church of St. Mary Redcliffe at Bristol; and at the time of which we write his uncle was sexton. In the muniment-room of the church were several coffers, containing old papers and parchments in black letter, some of which were supposed to be of value. The chests were examined by order of the vestry; the valuable papers were removed, and of the rest, as perquisites of the sexton, some fell into the hands of Chatterton's father. The boy, who had been, upon leaving school, articled to an attorney, and had thus become familiar with the old English text, caught sight of these, and seemed then to have first formed the plan of turning them to account, as The Rowlie papers.

OLD MANUSCRIPTS.—If he could be believed, he found a variety of material in this old collection. To a credulous and weak acquaintance, Mr. Burgum, he went, beaming with joy, to present the pedigree and illuminated arms of the de Bergham family—tracing the honest mechanic's descent to a noble house which crossed the Channel with William the Conqueror. The delighted Burgum gave him a crown, and Chatterton, pocketing the money, lampooned his credulity thus:

    Gods! what would Burgum give to get a name, 
    And snatch his blundering dialect from shame? 
    What would he give to hand his memory down 
    To time's remotest boundary? a crown! 
    Would you ask more, his swelling face looks blue— 
    Futurity he rates at two pound two!

In September, 1768, the inauguration or opening of the new bridge across the Avon took place; and, taking advantage of the temporary interest it excited, Chatterton, then sixteen, produced in the Bristol Journal a full description of the opening of the old bridge two hundred years before, which he said he found among the old papers: “A description of the Fryers first passing over the old bridge, taken from an ancient manuscript,” with details of the procession, and the Latin sermon preached on the occasion by Ralph de Blundeville; ending with the dinner, the sports, and the illumination on Kynwulph Hill.

This paper, which attracted general interest, was traced to Chatterton, and when he was asked to show the original, it was soon manifest that there was none, but that the whole was a creation of his fancy. The question arises,—How did the statements made by Chatterton compare with the known facts of local history?

There was in the olden time in Bristol a great merchant named William Canynge, who was remembered for his philanthropy; he had altered and improved the church of St. Mary, and had built the muniment-room: the reputed poems, some of which were said to have been written by himself, and others by the monk Rowlie, Chatterton declared he had found in the coffers. Thomas Rowlie, “the gode preeste,” appears as a holy and learned man, poet, artist, and architect. Canynge and Rowlie were strong friends, and the latter was supposed to have addressed many of the poems to the former, who was his good patron.

The principal of the Rowlie poems is the Bristowe (Bristol) Tragedy, or Death of Sir Charles Bawdin. This Bawdin, or Baldwin, a real character, had been attainted by Edward IV. of high treason, and brought to the block. The poem is in the finest style of the old English ballad, and is wonderfully dramatic. King Edward sends to inform Bawdin of his fate:

    Then with a jug of nappy ale 
    His knights did on him waite; 
    “Go tell the traitor that to daie 
    He leaves this mortal state.”

Sir Charles receives the tidings with bold defiance. Good Master Canynge goes to the king to ask the prisoner's life as a boon.

    “My noble liege,” good Canynge saide, 
      “Leave justice to our God; 
    And lay the iron rule aside, 
      Be thine the olyve rodde.”

The king is inexorable, and Sir Charles dies amid tears and loud weeping around the scaffold.

Among the other Rowlie poems are the Tragical Interlude of Ella, “plaied before Master Canynge, and also before Johan Howard, Duke of Norfolk;” Godwin, a short drama; a long poem on The Battle of Hastings, and The Romaunt of the Knight, modernized from the original of John de Bergham.

THE VERDICT.—These poems at once became famous, and the critics began to investigate the question of their authenticity. From this investigation Chatterton did not shrink. He sent some of them with letters to Horace Walpole, and, as Walpole did not immediately answer, he wrote to him quite impertinently. Then they were submitted to Mason and Gray. The opinion of those who examined them was almost unanimous that they were forgeries: he could produce no originals; the language is in many cases not that of the period, and the spelling and idioms are evidently factitious. A few there were who seemed to have committed themselves, at first, to their authenticity; but Walpole, the Wartons, Dr. Johnson, Gibbon the historian, Sheridan, and most other literary men, were clear as to their forgery. The forged manuscripts which he had the hardihood afterwards to present, were totally unlike those of Edward the Fourth's time; he was entirely at fault in his heraldry; words were used out of their meaning; and, in his poem on The Battle of Hastings, he had introduced the modern discoveries concerning Stone Henge. He uses the possessive case yttes, which did not come into use until long after the Rowlie period. Add to these that Chatterton's reputation for veracity was bad.

The truth was, that he had found some curious scraps, which had set his fancy to work, and the example of Macpherson had led to the cheat he was practising upon the public. To some friends he confessed the deception, denying it again, violently, soon after; and he had been seen smoking parchment to make it look old. The lad was crazy.

HIS SUICIDE.—Keeping up appearances, he went to London, and tried to get work. At one time he was in high spirits, sending presents to his mother and sisters, and promising them better days; at another, he was in want, in the lowest depression, no hope in the world. He only asks for work; he is entirely unconcerned for whom he writes or what party he eulogizes; he wants money and a name, and when these seem unattainable, he takes refuge from “the whips and scorns of time,” the burning fever of pride, the gnawings of hunger, in suicide. He goes to his little garret room,—refusing, as he goes, a dinner from his landlady, although he is gaunt with famine,—mixes a large dose of arsenic in water, and—“jumps the life to come.” He was just seventeen years and nine months old! When his room was forced open, it was found that he had torn up most of his papers, and had left nothing to throw light upon his deception.

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.