Protest, "Nativism," and Impersonation in the Works of Chatterton and Keats
Lau, Beth, Studies in Romanticism
THOMAS CHATTERTON'S INFLUENCE ON JOHN KEATS HAS BEEN ADDRESSED by a number of critics, most of whom point out echoes of Chatterton s poetry in Keats's work or trace the importance of Chatterton's image as a frail victim of a hostile society on Keats's conception of the poet and of literary fame. (1) No critic who has analyzed Chatterton's significance for Keats has claimed that the latter engaged in precisely the same genre or project, the forgery of ancient texts, as Chatterton did. In a number of ways, however, we can note similarities between strategies and techniques in Chatterton's poetic enterprise and Keats's. Moreover, these characteristics of Chatterton's and Keats's work are informed by both poets' class backgrounds and political views. (2)
Chatterton's influence has been detected in Keats's Medieval poems The Eve of St. Agnes and The Eve of St. Mark, the latter of which even includes a passage of pseudo-Middle English verse. (3) A closer parallel to Chatterton's recreation of fifteenth-century Bristol in the Rowley poems, however, may be Keats's depiction of ancient Greece in Endymion, a poem dedicated "to the Memory of Thomas Chatterton." (4) For both poets, the attempt to revive a past world is in part a consequence of their social positions and has political implications.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, both historiography and the study or interpretation of classical literature were preserves of the elite, educated classes and therefore considered off-limits to young men trained as legal copyists and surgeon apothecaries like Chatterton and Keats. In presuming to participate in antiquarian research or "[touch] the beautiful mythology of Greece" (Preface to Endymion; Poems 103), Chatterton and Keats were presumptuously aspiring beyond their traditional class prerogatives, as is made clear by the criticism to which both were subjected by conservative critics. Or rather, Chatterton and Keats were part of a growing number of middle-class people claiming a right to engage in activities once the exclusive preserves of gentlemen, and the harsh condemnations they and others of their class received reflect the anxieties of those in authority who feared a breakdown in traditional social hierarchies. (5)
Lolla notes that a major impulse behind both Chatterton's Rowley project and the arguments of those who defended the poems' authenticity in the controversy following Chatterton's death was a desire to challenge the establishment version of English literary history propounded by scholars such as Thomas Warton and Edmond Malone. Indeed, the Rowley controversy in many respects was a debate over who had the right to construct and interpret the national literary past. In particular, Chatterton and the Rowleyans after him disputed the progressive view of English literary history, which claimed that poetry steadily evolved from crude primitive origins to a more advanced, sophisticated state. Instead, Chatterton and the Rowleyans wished to prove that Medieval English poetry was vital and accomplished, perhaps even more so than the supposedly more refined literature that replaced it. Chatterton and the Rowleyans in this respect are similar to the eighteenth-century Irish, Scottish, and Welsh nationalist historians and antiquarians who likewise challenged a progressive view of British history and championed ancient, bardic poetry as a way of celebrating and preserving their Celtic culture and rejecting the English culture that had been imposed upon them. The resistance of these Celtic nationalist historians to the establishment view of British history clearly has political implications, reflecting the protest of a subjugated group to a dominant one. In the same way Chatterton's and the Rowleyans' efforts to rewrite the narrative of English literary history can be seen as the challenge of a suppressed but rising social class to those in power. (6) One correspondent of the St. James Chronicle in 1782 makes clear the class and political implications of his support for the Rowleyan cause when, addressing Warton, he declares that recent challenges to the latter's theory of literary history "will infallibly demolish that long-established Tory System of Passive Obedience and Non Resistance to your Decrees" (quoted in Lolla 159).
Warton's contributions to the Rowley controversy in turn express his desire to retain the study of early English literature as the preserve of the educated classes. He begins his Enquiry into the Authenticity of the Poems Attributed to Thomas Rowley with the apologetic admission that many readers might consider "a dispute about ... a blue-coat boy of Bristol newly converted into an attorney's clerk, who could imitate the language of Chaucer and Lydgate ... too trifling to admit of any further discussion." Warton later deplores the fact that, "in the present age, literary topics, even of the most abstruse and recondite nature, are communicated and even familiarised to all ranks and all ages, by Reviews, Magazines, Abridgements, Encyclopedes, and other works of a similar kind, which form the school of the people." (7) Warton further discredits "the school of the people" when he exposes the sources of the Rowley poems as not the actual "life or practice" of fifteenth-century Britons or even primary texts such as Chaucer's poetry and the Doomsday Book but instead "glossaries and etymological English lexicons," "plays, poems, novels, histories, and other books of entertainment," and in one instance "a miscellany called the MUSES LIBRARY, printed in 1738, a book likely to be found in a Circulating Library" (Warton 43, 53, 72, 110). Warton concludes his Enquiry by claiming that disputes about ancient literature are best settled according to "principles of taste, from analogical experiment, [and] from a familiarity with antient poetry" by "A man furnished with a just portion of critical discernment." As Lolla notes, this passage betrays Warton's "aristocratic disdain for the lower classes and their acquired knowledge" (Warton 124; Lolla 160).
Class bias also informs attacks on Keats's treatment of classical mythology in Endymion. John Gibson Lockhart's "Cockney School" essay on Keats abuses the poem in these terms. Keats's Endymion, writes Lockhart,
is not a Greek shepherd, loved by a Grecian goddess; he is merely a young Cockney rhymester, dreaming a phantastic dream at the full of the moon. Costume ... is violated in every page of this goodly octavo. From his prototype Hunt, John Keats has acquired a sort of vague idea, that the Greeks were a most tasteful people, and that no mythology can be so finely adapted for the purposes of poetry as theirs. It is amusing to see what a hand the two Cockneys make of this mythology; the one confesses that he never read the Greek Tragedians, and the other knows Homer only from Chapman, and both of them write about Apollo, Pan, Nymphs, Muses, and Mysteries, as might be expected from persons of their education. We shall not, however, enlarge at present on this subject, as we mean to dedicate an entire paper to the classical attainments and attempts of the Cockney poets. (8)
Like Chatterton and his supporters, Keats is abused for his supposed misunderstanding and misrepresentation of a field of knowledge considered off-limits to persons of his social position. Like Chatterton too, Keats is ridiculed for relying on second-hand sources such as translations, classical dictionaries, and other reference works for his familiarity with classical texts. (9) As Roe and others have noted, however, Lockhart's sneering attack on the deficiencies of Keats's "classical attainments" reveals his anxiety at the threat posed to his own class privilege by a rising group of talented, ambitious writers from the middling classes who claimed a right to participate in the cultural and political life of the nation (Roe 60-69). Jeffrey Cox asserts that Keats's poems with Greek subjects are "part of a Cockney project of wresting the control of the definition of the classical from the conservative defenders of a deadening ... tradition" (Cox 186). Chatterton's reconstruction of Medieval Bristol history and verse and Keats's retellings of Greek myth were in similar ways audacious political acts that challenged the traditional power structure of the country.
Chatterton's and Keats's treatment of the past comment on contemporary British society in other ways. Chatterton's Medieval Bristol is a vital society populated by generous patrons of the arts like William Canynge, brilliant poets such as Thomas Rowley, and noble heroes such as Charles Bawdin from Bristowe Tragedie. Carolyn Williams notes the contrast between Chatterton's depictions of eighteenth- as opposed to fifteenth-century Bristohans. Bristol in the past was for Chatterton a world of honor, generosity, and vitality, whereas modern Bristol is condemned as a society of crass, greedy tradespeople indifferent to knowledge and the arts. (10) For example, in the mock Will Chatterton wrote before he left Bristol for London, he satirizes a number of individual Bristol citizens and bequeaths to the city as a whole "all my Spirit and Disinterestedness parcells of Goods unknown on her Key since the days of Canynge and Rowley." (11) The satirical poem The Whore of Babylon, an attack on the Bishop of Bristol, Lord Bute, and other of George III'S ministers, contains the following condemnation of Chatterton's native city.
The Muses have no Credit here, and Fame Confines itself to the Mercantile Name Then clip Imagination's Wing, be wise And great in Wealth, (the real Greatness) rise Damn'd narrow Notions! Tending to disgrace The boasted Reason …
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Publication information: Article title: Protest, "Nativism," and Impersonation in the Works of Chatterton and Keats. Contributors: Lau, Beth - Author. Journal title: Studies in Romanticism. Volume: 42. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 2003. Page number: 519+. © 2008 Boston University. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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