Protest, "Nativism," and Impersonation in the Works of Chatterton and Keats

Article excerpt

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). …


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