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“NOBODY,” says Johnson, can write the life of a man, but one who has eat and drunk, and lived in social intercourse with him.” The time, therefore, is past for writing a true life of Chatterton ; for on the 24th of August, 1870, a century will have elapsed since his brief career ended in despair. But it is not too late, but rather, perhaps, a fitting time, for an appeal against the judgment pronounced on him by interested or vindictive contemporaries. Did I not believe that the boy-poet has been misjudged, and that the biographies hitherto written of him are not only imperfect but untrue, I should not now produce this study of a life which has long been to myself a subject of interest.
The first editions of Chatterton's works were not only very defective, but their editors proceeded on the assumption that he was not the author. The earliest edition with any pretension to completeness is that of Southey and Cottle; but to all appearance the former contributed little more than the preface. Writing to his co-editor in August 1892, Southey says: “Well done, good and faithful editor. I suspect that it is fortunate for the edition of Chatterton that its care has devolved upon you.” He had previously said of Dr. Gregory's life of the poet : “It is a bad work. Coleridge should write a new one; or, if he declines it, let it devolve on me.” Nevertheless the co-editor had to prefix this condemned work to their collection of the poet's writings. If generous kindliness of heart could have sufficed for all editorial
functions, Mr. Joseph Cottle was well qualified for his task. But the edition abounds in misreadings and careless blunders, many of which have continued to be reproduced to the present time.
In 1842 a more complete edition of the poems, accompanied Ly an anonymous biography of their author, was published by Mr. W. P. Grant of Cambridge. This includes additional poems and carefully collated versions of some other pieces. But much of it is a mere reprint from Cottle's edition ; from which also the “De Bergham Pedigree" and the “Will" are copied with all his errors. A popular edition of Chatterton's Poems is still a desideratum. If his assumption of archaic orthography is to be retained, reference must be made as far as possible to Chatterton's own MSS. Unfortunately Mr. George Catcott's zeal to enhance the value of his presumed antiques tempted him to exaggerate their disguise. “By comparing Mi. Catcott's copy with the original,” says Cottle, “it appeared that Mr. C. had very generally altered the orthography, so as to give the appearance of greater antiquity, as ‘lette' for “let,' and 'onne' for 'on,' &c.”] Excepting in one or two brief extracts, designedly selected to illustrate the disguise of the poet, I have, in the following pages, modernised the spelling of the poems, and even replaced coined or obsolete words by the equivalents furnished in Chatterton's own foot-notes, where this could be done without marring the rhythm of the passages quoted. Until the best of his antique pieces are edited in the same manner, the “ Rowley Poems will remain a sealed book to the great mass of English readers ; while the few among them who actually turn to Chatterton's works will be tempted to judge of him by his modern satires and other ephemeral pieces, most of which were never designed for publication.
Cottle's Reminiscences of Coleridge and Southey, p. 227.
At this late date no great additions to the materials for the poet's biography could be looked for; but unfortunately the chances have been further diminished by a fire which destroyed “ Manuscript Chattertoniana" collected by the late Mr. J. M. Gutch, and Mr. William Tyson, F.S.A.; and further augmented by their last possessor, Mr. Thomas Kerslake of Bristol. The value of some of those was, indeed, sufficiently dubious; for they included Dix's autograph version—the only copy ever produced, -of the “ Coroner's Inquest,” which excited such lively discussion, when first contributed by Mr. Gutch to “ Notes and Queries.” But the loss of the collection as a whole is justly to be regretted.
Amongst other very favourable advantages enjoyed by Mr. John Dix as a biographer of Chatterton, he acknowledges his indebtedness to Mr. Gutch “ for the use of his unrivalled collection of Chatterton papers.” He also refers to obligations to Dr. Southey, Mr. Joseph Cottle, and others, for valuable aid ; and more recently he has named Southey as the contributor of the report of the Coroner's Inquest. The use he made of it was sufficiently strange. If genuine, its value to the poet's biographer could scarcely be exaggerated. But, though he had it in his "ssession at the very time when he was eking out his "life" with familiar papers, such as Walpole's narrative and correspondence, transferred wholesale from the most accessible sources; he handed over the “Inquest” to Mr. Gutch, to augment bis “Chattertoniana,” without even referring to its existence, or naming Southey in connexion with it, till after his death. In reality Mr. Dix's book is rather a collection of materials than a life. Of its 297 pages, exclusive of the Appendix, upwards of 200 are occupied with the “Kew Gardens," the Walpole vindication, and papers and letters of Chatterton : for the most part reprinted, without note or elucidation, from Southey, Cottle, and Croft, the Gentleman's Maga