Thursday, July 10, 2008

Forgive the Suicidal Forger


Dear Everybody:

Today you get to feel superior, because I'm presenting something that every English major in world knows about, but very few have actually read: A poem by Thomas Rowley.

Who was Thomas Rowley, you ask? Ahh, that's the wrong question. Ask rather, Who was Thomas Chatterton? Here, clipped from the Web, is the background:

More than two centuries after his death, the poet and forger Thomas Chatterton remains one of the most fascinating figures in English literature. Born in Bristol, in 1752, Chatterton demonstrated his literary genius at an early age. As a youth, he was a voracious reader and developed an early interest in antiquity; he was also writing poetry by the age of eleven. By the time he was fourteen, Chatterton had left school and was apprenticed to an attorney. He retained his interests in history and poetry, though, and soon embarked upon the path which would bring him notoriety.

Chatterton's access to a chest in his parish church which contained historical documents enabled him to obtain scraps of ancient parchment. It was on such scraps that he began producing manuscript poems which he claimed were the work of a fifteenth-century Bristol monk and poet, Thomas Rowley. Initially, Chatterton's audience was limited to local antiquaries who were thrilled to learn of the existence of this early Bristol poet. Soon, however, Chatterton became more ambitious. He sent samples of his work, including some of the Rowley poems, to Town and Country Magazine. In an effort to gain patronage from Horace Walpole, whose gothic novel The Castle of Otranto (1765) had claimed to be a translation of a lost manuscript, Chatterton sent Walpole samples of his Rowley poems. But after initially encouraging the young prodigy, Walpole subsequently changed his position and pronounced the Rowley poems forgeries, denouncing Chatterton in the process.
Although one of the Rowley poems was published in Town and Country Magazine in May, 1769--making it the only Rowley poetry published during Chatterton's lifetime--after his rebuke by Walpole, Chatterton turned his pen to political satire and other writing he could sell to periodicals, usually writing under pseudonyms. Chatterton achieved moderate success through his writing, and developed a reputation of some note in literary circles. Despite his achievements, however, Chatterton led the life of a pauper. He became severely depressed and experienced other health and financial problems which he could not overcome. In August 1770, Chatterton committed suicide by swallowing poison and was dead by the age of seventeen.

Michael here again: This image, of the youthful and talented poet starving in a garret and ultimately committing suicide, has been Chatterton's enduring legacy, and was a major influence on the later Romantic poets. But the poems themselves are not bad. As witness the following. (An eclogue is a short poem, especially but not necessarily a pastorale or idyll.)

ECLOGUE THE THIRD

Wouldst thou know Nature in her better part
Go, search the huts and cottages of the peasant;

If they have any, it is rough-made art,
In them you see the plain form of nature.

Has your mind a liking of a mind?

Would it know every thing as it might be;

Would it hear phrase of the vulgar from the peasant,

Without philosopher words and wisdom-free,

If so, read this, which I sporting penned,

If nothing beside, its rhyme may it commend.

MAN


But whither, fair maid do ye go,

O where do ye bend your way?
I will know whither you go,

I will not be answered nay.

WOMAN

To Robin and Nell, all down in the Dell,

To help them at making of hay.

MAN
Sir Roger the Parson has hired me there,
Come, Come, let us trip it away;
We'll work and will sing, and will drink of strong Beer,

As long as the merry summer's day.


WOMAN

How hard is my fate to work!

Much is my woe:

Dame Agnes who lies in the Church,

With birlette gold;

With gilded borders of silver and gold strong untold,

What was she more than me, to be so?


MAN

I see sir Roger from afar,

Tripping over the Lea,

I ask why the lord's son

Is more than me.


SIR ROGER


The sultry sun doth speed apace his car.

From every beam a seed of life do fall;

Quickly gather up the hay upon the plain,

Methinks the cockse begin to grow tall:

This is alike our fate, the great, the small,

Must wither and be dried by Death's dart;

See the sweet flower hath no sweet at all;

It with the rank weed bears equal part,

The coward, warrior, and the wise be no more:

Alike to dry away, with those thele did lament.


MAN


All-a-Boon sir Priest, all-a-boon,
Bye your priesthood now say unto me:

Sir Gaufryd the knight, who lives hard by,

Why should he, than me

Be more great,

In honor, knighthood and estate?

SIR ROGER


Turn thine eyes around this hayed mead,

Carefully look around the sun-burn dell;

An answer to thy ballad here see,

This withered flower will a lesson tell

Arisen, it blossomed, it flourished, and did well,

Looking disdainfully upon the neighbor green,
Yet with the disdained green, its gory fell,

Full soon it shrank upon the day-burned plain,

Did not its look, whilst it there did stand,

To crop it in the body move some dread hand.

Such is the way of life: the lord's purse

Moves the robber him therefore to slay:

If thou has ease, the shadow of content,

Believe the truth, there's none more happy than thee:

Thou workest; well, can that a trouble be?

Sloth more would jade thee than the roughest day,

Couldst thou the secret part of souls see,

Thou wouldst full soon see truth, in what I say;

But let me hear thy way of life; and then

Hear thou from me the lives of other men.

MAN


I rise with the Sun,

Like him to drive the wain

And ere my work is done

I sing a song or twain.
I follow the plough tail,

With a long jug of ale.

But of the maidens, oh!
It lacketh not to tell;

Sir Priest might not cry woe,

Could his bull do as well
I dance the base heiedeygnes,
And baffle the wisest feints.

On every Saint's day,

With the minstrel am I seen,

All a footing it away,

With maidens on the green

But oh! I wish to be more great,

In renown, tenure and estate.


SIR ROGER


Has thou not seen a tree upon a hill,

Whose unbounded branches reach far to sight;

When furious tempests do the heaven fill,

It shaketh dire in woe and much affright:

Whilst the dwarf flower humbly decked,

Standeth unhurt, unharmed by the storm;

So is a picture of life: the man of might,

Is tempest-beaten: his woe great as his form

Thyself a flower of a small account,

Wouldst harder feel the wind, as higher thee didst mount.


Okay, pretty straightforward there. A "birlette" is a hood, or covering for the back of a woman's head. "All-a-boon" is simply a means of asking a favor. "Cockse" is, I'm guessing, some plant. "Thele" I have no idea about; perhaps it's a typo. And "heiedeygnes" are a kind of country dance. (Don't laugh. My generation used to dance the Hully-Gully and the Mashed Potatoes) The basic message -- "Be Happy With What You've Got. Donald Trump Pays for All His Wealth With Worry" is still with us. And I can think of only two more things to add to your reading.

First, note that the poem is much more interesting if you think it was actually written when it claims to be. It opens a window into the thinking of the times. But, knowing it for a forgery, we lose that. A pity, too.

Second, I'd like you to appreciate the work I've done cleaning up the spelling and vocabulary of the original, so you could appreciate it. Here's how it originally appeared:


ECLOGUE THE THIRD

Wouldst thou kenn Nature in her better parte

Go, serche the logges and bordels of the hynde;

If they have anie, it is roughe-made art,
In hem you see the blakied form of nature.

Haveth your mind a liking of a mind?

Would it kenne every thing as it might bee;

Would it here phrase of the vulgar from the hynde,

Without wiseegger1 words and knowlache11 free,

If soe, rede this, which Iche disporting1 pende,
If nete beside, its rhyme may it commend.

MANNE

But whether, fair maid do ye go,

O where do ye bend your way?

I wile know whether you go,
I will not be asseled1 nay.

WOMANNE


To Robyn and Nell, all down in the Dell,

To help them at making of hay.


MANNE


Syr Rogerre the Parsone hav hired me there,

Come, Come, let us trip it away;

We'll wurche and will sing, and will drenche of
strong Beere,
As long as the merrie sommers day.


WOMANNE


How harde is my dome to wurch!

Much is my woe:

Dame Agnes who lies in the Church,

With birlette golde;

With gelten aumeres strong ontolde,

What was she more than me, to be soe?


MANNE


I see sir Roger from afar,

Tripping over the Lea,
I ask why the lord's son

Is more than me.

SIR ROGERE


The sweltrie sun doth hie apace his wayne.

From every beme, a seme of life do fall;

Swythyn scille oppe the haie upon the plain,

Methynckes the cockse begineth to grow tall:

This is alike our doome, the great, the smalle,

Moste withe and be forwyned by Death's darte;

See the sweet flowere hath no sweet at alle;
Itte with the ranke wede berethe evalle parte,
The cravent, warriour, and the wise be blent:

Alike to drie away, with those thele did lament.


MANNE


All-a-Boon sir Priest, all-a-boon,

Bye your priestschype now saye unto mee:

Sir Gaufryd the knight, who lyveth harde by,
Whie should hee, than me

Be more great,

In honor, knighthood and estate?


SIR ROGERE


Attourne thine eyes around this haied mee,

Tentyflie look around the chaper delle;

An answer to thy barganette here see,

This welked flouertte will a leson tell

Arist, it blew, it florished, and did welle,

Loking ascance upon the naighbour green,
Yet with the deigned green, its rennome felle,

Eftsoons it shronke upon the day-brente plain,

Didde not its look, whilst it there did stonde,
To croppe it in the bodde move some drede hand.

Such is the way of lyffe: the lord's purse,
Mooveth the robber him therfor to slay:
If thou has ease, the shadow of contente,

Believe the trothe, theres none more haile yan thee:

Thou wurchest; welle, canne thatte, a trobble bee?

Slothe more wulde jade thee, than the roughest day,

Couldst thou the kivercled of soughlys see,

Thou wuldst full soon see trothe, in what I say;

But let me heere thy way off lyffe; and thenne

Heare thou from me the lyffs of odher men.


MANNE.


I ryse with the Sun,

Like him to dryve the wayne
And eere my wurche is don

I sing a song or twayne.
I
follow the plough tayle,

With a long jubb of ale.

But of the maidens, oh!

Itte lacketh not to telle;

Syr Priest might not cry woe,

Could his bull do as well
I dance the bese heiedeygnes,
And foile the wysest feygnes.
On every Saints his day,
With the mynstrelle am I seen,

All a footing it away,

With maidens on the green

But oh! I wyshe to be more greate,

In rennome, tenure and estate.


SIR ROGERRE.


Has thou ne sene a tree upon a hylle,

Whose unliste branchs reachn far to sight;

When fuired unwers do the heaven fylle,

Itte shaketh deere in dole and much affright:
Whilst the congeon flowrette abessie decked,

Stondeth unhurte, unquaced by the storme;

So is a picte of lyffe: the man of might,

Is tempest-chaft: his woe greate as his forme

Thyself a flowere of a small accounte,

Wouldst harder fell the wind, as hygher thee didste mount.

To which I can only say: Ouch! But let's not remember our poor, suicidal forger unkindly. When you remove Ye Olde Spellinge and head-scratching vocabulary from his work, he was capable of lines as simple and sweet as:

On every Saint's day,
With the minstrel am I seen,
A
ll a footing it away,

With maidens on the green


Ah, happy man! Even if it was all a lie.

All best,
Michael

*

2 comments:

saladinahmed said...

"Cleaning up"!? No, no, no -- the olde tymie fake-Middle English was
Chatterton's badge of cred. That's like cleaning up Spenser, man!

Great page, nonetheless...

I'm a new fan. Saw you read at Readercon (I was a longhiared bearded guy who snatched up one signed copy of your sentient [?] house story), and have since gobbled up (and quite enjoyed) a few of your short stories.

PS -- Also worth checking out re: 18th c. hoaxes of poetic chronology: Macpherson's Ossian poems, a great ancient Highlands epic that, um, wasn't so ancient.

Michael Swanwick said...

I thought it was necessary because the purpose of the original emails was to convince teenagers who hadn't been exposed much to real poetry that it wasn't actually scary. Rebecca Ore did something similar when she taught college-level Shakespeare by telling her students to read the Cliffs Notes first. They were horrified, of course. But, as she pointed out, the original audiences went into the play already knowing the plot.

I've been meaning to check out the Ossian poems since forever. Thanks for the noodge.

M.

p.s. I've since tweaked the ending of "Steadfast Castle." So your copy is all but unique.