Looking Backwards

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Title page of William Byrd’s “Psalms, Sonnets, and Songs of Sadness and Piety,” 1588

CHAPTER 51

Forging a Language

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The art of forgery did not fully flower and prosper until the eighteenth century. It has been associated, in particular, with the emergence of the relatively new phenomenon of professional authorship as well as with the contextual arrangements of trade publishing and commercial marketing. But the single most important alignment has gone largely unremarked. The most significant connection is to be found between forgery and the burgeoning movement known as “romanticism.” The forged document and the “romantic” personality are manifestations of the same change in taste. We might advert here to Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, in which the first “romantic” hero emerges out of faked conversations and dramatically staged encounters.

But there are more suggestive parallels. It is not inappropriate that the two greatest literary forgers of the eighteenth century, James Macpherson or “Ossian” and Thomas Chatterton or “Rowley,” have been said to herald or inspire the new romantic movement in letters; with their transcription of a respectively Celtic and medieval past, they created that enchanted landscape which became a dominant influence upon the romantic poets.

James Macpherson was a Scottish poet and teacher who in 1758, at the age of twenty-two, published a long poem entitled The Highlander in part as a response to the intense interest in Celtic literature and mythology. That burgeoning movement of taste has been denominated “the Celtic Revival” and can be taken to include Thomas Gray’s ode upon the “Bard,” Mason’s Caractacus and Evans’s Specimens of the Poetry of the Ancient Welsh Bards. It has been estimated that in the forty years from 1760 one volume was published each year upon Celtic myth. It is also the context in which James Macpherson perpetrated his forgeries. He was a Jacobite with a profound instinct, and love, for his native culture. It took only the enthusiasm of another literary nationalist, John Home, to unleash his powers of historical imagination and creative reinvention. His first faked production was “The Death of Oscar,” which he claimed to be a translation from the manuscript of a Gaelic original in his possession; it was immediately recognised as a work of primitive genius. A year later Macpherson was able to publish Fragments of Ancient Poetry, the preponderance of which were also his own inventions. The appetite for Celtic folklore and verse already existed; it was only natural that it should be fulfilled. Two years later, therefore, Macpherson brought to light six books of Fingal, An Ancient Epic Poem composed by a bard named “Ossian” in the more remote stretches of Scottish history. A specimen of Ossian reads, “Our youth is like the dream of the hunter on the hill of the heath. . . . Her steps were the music of songs. He was the stolen sigh of her soul. . . . The horn of Fingal was heard; the sons of woody Albion returned.” Such plangent writing exerted an immediate and powerful effect, and Ossian was extensively quoted by Goethe in The Sorrows of Young Werther. A cult sprang up closer to home, too, and various eminent literary tourists explored Ossian’s territory. Thomas Pennant discovered various Ossianic landmarks in the Scottish landscape, and the guide for Sir Joseph Banks on the island of Staffa pointed out “the cave of Fiuhn” or “ Fiuhn Mac Coul, whom the translator of Ossian’s works has called Fingal.” Oyster shells were dated with reference to the Ossianic fragments. So the forged poetry of Macpherson engendered caves and rocks and crustacea. Pennant wrote also of the local songs, which “vocal traditions state are the foundation of the works of Ossian.” A skilful faker had created a living communal tradition. It is testimony to the credulity of scholars and general readers alike, but it is also tribute to the creative power of Macpherson’s imagination. His forged words forged— in another sense—a new reality.

In his “Essay, Supplementary to the Preface” of Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth records that “Having had the good fortune to be born and reared in a mountainous country, from my very childhood I have felt the falsehood that pervades the volumes imposed upon the world under the name of Ossian. From what I saw with my own eyes, I knew that the imagery was spurious” and from the lips of a “Phantom . . . begotten by the snug embrace of an impudent Highlander upon a cloud of tradition.” At some point after his childhood, however, Wordsworth seems to have changed his opinion. The first lines of his poem entitled “Glen-Almain; Or, The Narrow Glen” reflect that:

In this still place, remote from men, Sleeps Ossian, in the NARROW GLEN;

The poem ends thus:

And, therefore, was it rightly said That Ossian, last of all his race! Lies buried in the lonely place.

There is some ambiguity within the poem itself whether “Fancy” creates the presence of death, but Wordsworth’s overall ambivalence or confusion about Ossian reflects the general romantic sensibility. James Macpherson created a wild and sublime landscape of vision, from which emerged an ancient bard instilled with all the primitive simplicity of passion; here were romantic archetypes indeed. But if they were all faked or forged, what then? Could the products of the romantic sensibility themselves be fraudulent? Or, to put it in another manner, that which seems most genuine may be the most artificial.

In the same decade as James Macpherson was forging “fragments of ancient poetry . . . translated from the Gaelic or Erse Language,” Thomas Gray was in fact compiling his own authentic translations from Norse and Welsh poetry to add to his Poems of 1768; under these circumstances it is hardly surprising that Gray enthusiastically accepted the work of Ossian as that of a true original. Thus he joined William Blake and Johann Wolfgang Goethe in celebration of a notorious hoax which at the time satisfied the taste for the visionary sublime. The other most influential lyric poet of the period, William Collins, composed an “Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands” ten years before Ossian himself furnished precisely those superstitions to an admiring public. As Samuel Johnson wrote of Collins, “the grandeur of wildness, and the novelty of extravagance, were always desired by him”; but of course they were also desired by the two generations of romantic poets who professed their own debt to Gray and to Collins, to “Ossian” and to Chatterton’s Rowley. If forgery or fakery seems endemic to the whole enterprise, we will find it also in Collins, whose “Persian Eclogue” is composed in the “pretense that he was translating from the Persian.”His “Song from Cymbelyne” has also been described by his editor as a “skillful pastiche.”In the same context Horace Walpole, the quondam friend and admirer of Thomas Gray, published his novel The Castle of Otranto as a relic of the sixteenth century some four years before the youthful Chatterton tentatively began his own forgeries.

It ought to be recalled that in the early years of the eighteenth century forgery could be celebrated as a form of masquerade or carnival, part of the endless shifting game of identities. It was nothing against the work of Defoe or Swift that they faked the character of the “authors” of Robinson Crusoe or Gulliver’s Travels; in that ostensibly more stable and assured world, the notion of identity was neither precarious nor ambiguous. Daniel Defoe can plausibly and happily become “Robinson Crusoe” in 1714 and “Moll Flanders” in 1722; in the last decades of the century the subterfuge involved in such impersonations would become a matter for camouflage or indignant denial.

The latter half of the eighteenth century, however, the seed-bed from which the romantic movement emerged into the full light of the English imagination, has been well described as “An Age of Forgery.” 3 The crime of forgery itself reached its apogee in the period 1750–80 but of more significance, in a literary context, was the passing of a Copyright Act in 1709 which confirmed the individual ownership of words as “intellectual property.” Since the notion of individual ownership led in turn to the development of the literary personality and to the affirmation of the romantic selfhood, this act of legislation had aesthetic as well as economic consequences. It is often supposed that part of the “irritability” of the romantic genius sprang from its immersion in the literary market-place, and its prostitution in commercial trading, but this disquiet can be traced back to the recognition of individual “property” itself. It has been suggested by Paul Baines, an astute historian of forgery, that the new monetarism of the eighteenth century “threatened basic ideas of value, and the security of human exchanges and interactions.”4 Did not this new legislative sense of the individual, owning certain words and sets of words as private property, in turn threaten the old and more established ideas of selfhood as residing in a commonality of expression and perception? If the romantic self was first deemed to be a legal and financial unit, its origin might provoke deep unease and ambiguity in those who professed it. We will notice this in subsequent pages. If one anonymous discourse of the period can refer to “that chimerical ill-founded Medium, Paper Money,” then perhaps the individuality written upon paper might also possess a “fluctuating, abstract and possibly evanescent value.”As one historian has put it, “Once property was seen to have a symbolic value, expressed in coin or credit, the foundations of personality themselves appeared imaginary or at best consensual: the individual could exist, even in his own sight, only at the fluctuating value imposed upon him by his fellows.”It is interesting to observe in this light the assertion of personality in Wordsworth’s poetry, which emerges only to be assailed by doubt and anxiety as to its true nature. If there did indeed run “the need for a perfect, unassailable touchstone of human identity against which all falsifications could be measured,” 7 the romantic “I” offered only a tentative solution. If words as well as property have only “a symbolic value” expressed in the “coin or credit” which they obtain for their owner, then they too possess only a “fluctuating value” dependent upon the manner in which they are recognised or received as the true coin of feeling or imagination.

Yet of course the rise of the “individual author” long predates the work of Wordsworth and his contemporaries. Both Langland and Chaucer deliberately introduce themselves into their own narratives. The notion of individual authorship at this later time, however, extended beyond textual matters. It was also implicated in the relatively original notion of originality exemplified by Edward Young’s Conjectures on Original Composition (1759), published two years after Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful, to which it remains a natural and faithful companion. As one study of poetics has put it, the concern for sublimity of expression, that artistry beyond the familiar reach of art, “played no small part in the drift towards subjectivism . . . and ultimately in the rise of romanticism in poetry.”The obscure and the dark, the aweful and the mysterious, became legitimised by Burke’s enquiry in ways which he would have neither anticipated nor approved. They had a particular bearing, for example, upon Young’s affirmation of “original” composition. “Our spirits rouze at an Original; that is a perfect stranger, and all throng to learn what news from a foreign land. . . . All eminence, and distinction, lies out of the beaten road.” In a similar spirit he enjoins the writer, “Thyself so reverence as to prefer the native growth of thy own mind to the richest import from abroad.” Young’s own interest is clearly aligned with the material and financial imperatives of his culture, with the encomium upon the original writer whose words “will stand distinguished; his the sole Property of them; which Property alone can confer the noble title of an Author.” But his sentiments are no less clearly related to the burgeoning romantic movement in which spontaneity and originality are to be preferred over laboured imitation. The nature and nurture of Thomas Chatterton may be invoked here.

Some three years before Wordsworth composed his encomium upon Ossian he completed a poem, “Resolution and Independence,” which paid tribute to that paradigm of the romantic movement:

I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous Boy, The sleepless Soul that perish’d in his pride

Thomas Chatterton was the most celebrated faker of the eighteenth century, and he shares with James Macpherson the palm also of being the most successful. Chatterton was born, in Bristol, in the winter of 1752; his father, an antiquarian and a collector of old trifles, died before his son was born. That death had a crucial effect upon Chatterton, since all his life he was searching for his patrimony. It would be easy to say that he had inherited his father’s antiquarian passion, or that he identified antiquarianism with the invisible presence of his father. More significantly, however, he considered the past itself to be his true father. He learnt to read from sundry old folios scattered in his little house in Pyle Street, opposite the church of St. Mary Redcliffe; his passion for antiquity was such that, even before he left his charity school, he had started to compose “medieval” poetry. He may have been partly inspired by Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, published when Chatterton had reached the age of thirteen; it is ironic, too, that upon closer examination certain of Percy’s own ballads were shown to be less than the genuine article. But the essential truth is that Chatterton was inspired and animated by the past; he devoured texts like a library cormorant and, when not reading or writing, devised genealogies and created heraldic emblems. He invented a fifteenth-century monk, Thomas Rowley, who had resided in St. Mary Redcliffe and had written much poetry duly transcribed by the young Chatterton. On being challenged about the provenance of “Rowley’s” poems, Chatterton confessed that he had found them in an old chest within the muniment room of the church; he even managed to produce some stained antique documents to prove his assertions. His case was so plausible that, well into the nineteenth century, there were many who believed that no boy could have fashioned such masterpieces of an early date. But create them he did; the language of the past spoke through him, as it were, and his was a genius of assimilation and adaptation.

At the age of seventeen Chatterton travelled to London in order to find his fortune; he was noticeably successful, composing essays and satirical poetry on contemporary themes. Five months later, however, he was found dead in a Holborn attic with traces of arsenic poisoning in his teeth. It was necessary and inevitable that his death was deemed to be suicide, a last gesture to society from a doomed poet; more recent commentators have suggested that it was a botched effort to cure a bout of syphilis.

His apparent suicide added immeasurably to his stature, however, while his celebrity was maintained by the revelation that the “Rowley” poetry was an imposture. There were pamphlets, essays and tracts issued by various interested parties. Almost immediately after his death he had been considered to be akin only to Shakespeare in his prolificity; Horace Walpole had commended him as a “masterly genius” and Joseph Warton had described him as “a prodigy of genius.” In 1780, ten years after his death, an epistolary novel on his life was published under the title of Love and Madness; in the following year Jacob Bryant’s Observations Upon the Poems of Thomas Rowley: in which the Authenticity of those Poems is Ascertained were published in two volumes. Six hundred pages of scholarship and testimony led ineluctably to the conclusion that the poems were “written too much from the heart to be a forgery.” That conclusion may still stand, if we deem the heart to be a capacious organ which includes inspiration, invention and historical memory. Chatterton composed as many fine lines of medieval poetry as came out of the medieval period itself; the language instinctively propelled him to this restoration, whereby ancient words and images float naturally if unexpectedly to the surface of consciousness.

His career as a forger, whose work was eventually compared with a “forged note” presented to a banker, would certainly not be evident from the tributes lavished upon him by his romantic successors. Coleridge revised his poem “Monody on the Death of Chatterton” until his own surcease; he first began writing it at the age of thirteen, and the final text was not published until the year of his death. It began in Pindarics and ended in pentameters, all the while chanting in borrowed metres the fate of “that heaven-born Genius.” Coleridge compared himself explicitly to the young poet, dead in a garret at the age of eighteen; apparently unwanted and unhonoured, Coleridge laments his “kindred woes.” In his agonies he is possessed by “the Ghosts of Otway and Chatterton” (Otway another penurious and unsuccessful writer) as if to confirm his own sense of doomed genius. Yet can “Genius” subsist in forgery?

In his poem upon the death of Keats, Adonais, Shelley paid stately tribute to the “solemn agony” of Chatterton; he is one of the “inheritors of unfulfilled renown” who, in the unstated argument of the poem, will reach fruition by means of Shelley’s productive genius. At a later date a memorial of Shelley was sculpted by Onslow Ford in the manner of Henry Wallis’s The Death of Chatterton. Whatever the circumstances of Chatterton’s compositions, that picturesque or theatrical pose survives as a token of romantic poetry itself. That is why Keats evinced the most effusive reaction to Chatterton’s unhappy fate. He composed a sonnet in 1815, “To Chatterton,” and lamented the “Dear child of sorrow—son of misery!” whose “Genius mildly flash’d.” Three years later he inscribed Endymion “to the memory of Thomas Chatterton” but, more significantly, in a letter of the following year he remarked that “the purest english I think—or what ought to be the purest—is Chatterton’s . . . Chatterton’s language is entirely northern” and free from “Chaucer’s gallicisms.” He went on to declare that “I prefer the native music of it to Milton’s cut by feet.” Keats was acquainted with the controversy surrounding Chatterton’s “medieval” poetry, but he considered it to be of little consequence beside the dead poet’s adoption and assimilation of a “native” or “northern” dialect—by which he means, in the context of Chaucer and Milton, an Anglo-Saxon cadence and vocabulary. In a letter of the same period he remarks that he has given up Hyperion because “there were too many Miltonic inversions in it,” but in the same paragraph he avers that Chatterton “is the purest writer in the English Language . . . ’tis genuine English Idiom in English words.” His abandonment of Hyperion suggests that he understood the dangers of imitation or plagiarism, but then how are we to estimate his praise of Chatterton’s forged verses as “genuine English Idiom”? Here lie mysteries which may or may not be resolved. It may be worth noting in this context that the poem in which Wordsworth celebrated the memory of Chatterton, “Resolution and Independence,” is written in the same metre as Chatterton’s fake medieval poem “An Excelente Balade of Charitie.” Wordsworth also owned a portrait of the dead poet, which was itself a forgery.

The posthumous comparison of Chatterton with Shakespeare does suggest what all the evidence implies—the 687 pages of his extant poetry and prose, in the “Oxford” edition of his works, is astonishing evidence of his precocity but it also bears testimony to the fact that he was a thoroughly English poet. If it were otherwise, his fame and fate would not be so congenial to the English imagination. There is, for example, the salient matter of Chatterton’s reverence for the past. The influence of Percy’s Reliques upon the young poet’s burgeoning poetic imagination has already been suggested, but the antiquated diction and meter of Percy’s specimens may have been less important than Percy’s belief that there existed “a peculiarly English characteristic of cultural history and national identity that derived from the Ancient Goths . . . the English minstrels were the inheritors of a national poetry.”In this same spirit Chatterton declared in a letter to Horace Walpole, alas un-sent, that “However Barbarous the Saxons may be calld by our Modern Virtuosos; it is certain we are indebted to Alfred and other Saxon Kings for the wisest of our Laws and in part for the British Constitution.” He evinces all the antiquarianism of the English imagination, therefore, but out of it he fashioned works of genius; he wanted to re-create, rather than rescue, past time. Like Edmund Spenser he invented a language with which to restore the proximity as well as the mystery of the past. Or can we say that the language invented him?

He dwelled in another life. There were many antiquarians willing to forge material objects and produce medieval coins, rings or chamberpots; but Chatterton spent the money, wore the ring, and shat into the pot. He restored the past, too, because he believed in its authority and efficacy. By the age of sixteen he had composed a long poem entitled “Bristowe Tragedie or the Dethe of Syr Charles Bawdin,” to which he appended a note claiming “the following little Poem wrote by Thomas Rowlie Priest, I shall insert the whole as a Specimen of the Poetry of those Days, being greatly superior to what we have been taught to believe.” It is indeed a vigorous ballad:

How oft ynne battaile have I stoode When thousands dy’d arounde; Whan smokynge streemes of crimson bloode Imbrew’d the fatten’d grounde;

How dydd I knowe thatt ev’ry darte That cutte the airie waie Myghte notte fynde passage toe my harte And close myne eyes for aie

Such diction materially affected the work of both Coleridge and Keats, to name only the two most celebrated examples. Only the foolish would dismiss it as pastiche. It is a genuinely new creation and, if genius may be defined as one who changes the nature of expression, then Chatterton has some claim to that honorific.

The question of plagiarism, however, presents itself. Chatterton was, in the native idiom, essentially a bookish writer who borrowed from a score of other English writers, most notably from Spenser, Pope, Dryden, Gay, Churchill and Collins. On occasions he seems to parody his own literary learning by indulging in exaggerated diction and over-elaborated tropes but, as one critic has maintained, “there was a consistent dynamic of plagiarism working beneath the veneer of forgery.”10 In one sense Chatterton was only doing that which all good English poets had previously done; he was stealing or lifting from great originals the material for his own verse. He cultivated a polyphonic personality. But as he was a great originator of the romantic myth, if not of the romantic sensibility, the accusation of plagiarism became a peculiarly sensitive one. We may discover, for example, how Coleridge and Keats themselves became preoccupied with just that charge.

There are other aspects of Chatterton’s antiquarianism which are inevitably associated with the course of the English imagination. It has been noted that in “poetry, prose and letters Chatterton makes use of the legends of Arthur, or the ‘Matter of Britain’ ”11 so that in the process English history might then become “both mythical and real.”12 It is interesting in this context, therefore, that there are “startling similarities between the respective canonisations of Chatterton and King Arthur.”13 Both exist on the interstices of the invented and the authentic, and both embody the essential ebullition or presentness of the past. The assumption may be that, like Arthur who is not dead and will return, Chatterton lives on in the work of successive poets and novelists.

Of course the “Rowley” poems are themselves set in the medieval rather than the Arthurian period, and provide a curious parallel with the “Gothic” revival of the nineteenth century. There was a “Gothick” style of the eighteenth century, but that was the work of connoisseurs and virtuosi. The medieval work of Chatterton was much more vigorous and invigorating, anticipating the strong and powerful Gothic of the Victorians. He believed in the presence of the past in part because it was the means of defining his own genius. This, again, is an abiding English preoccupation. The analogy with the master of early nineteenth-century Gothic, A. W. N. Pugin, is inescapable; it has been said that Pugin’s “knowledge of real medieval work was so profound that he could instinctively produce new designs . . . in a vivid Gothic detail, full of richness and variety.”14

Pugin is the true child of Chatterton in more than one sense. The young poet had written that “the Motive that actuates me to do this, is, to convince the world that the Monks (of whom some have so despicable an Opinion) were not such Blockheads, as generally thought and that good Poetry might be wrote, in the days of Superstition as well as in these more inlightened Ages.” The letter, of 15 February 1769, was written in the same month as he composed a medieval eulogy on the churches of Bristol. It is as if the old religion were still very much in his head, as it was in that of Pugin. Chatterton’s own recourse to “Superstition” and to the supernatural in his poetry suggests that he had little respect for the “inlightened” learning of his own time. His principal character is a Catholic monk and bard, and one critic has noted “the religious atmosphere of Rowley’s world.”15It allowed Chatterton to re-create in native fashion a world of visions and dreams, drawing material from the past in order to sustain his sense of the sacred; the antiquarians were the visionaries of the eighteenth century. It is appropriate that he should have appeared in vision to the nineteenth-century poet Francis Thompson, and dissuaded him from self-murder. “I recognised him from the pictures of him,” Thompson said later. “Besides I knew that it was he before I saw him.” Chatterton attained a kind of psychic or psychological reality, as a token of all that the eighteenth century had lost or abandoned; he was the wraith of faith.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Chatterton had a very powerful sense of place and of the genius loci. Certain spots were still holy. A posthumous account reveals how he stared at the church of St. Mary Redcliffe, memorial of an earlier age, and said, “This steeple was once burnt by lightning; this was the place where they formerly acted plays”; theatricality and supernatural visitation are in his imagination twinned. This intuitive sense of territory has been one of the objects of study in this volume, and the sole matter of the “Rowley” poems is the city of Bristol itself—the medieval city, at least, which rises like a vision all around him. It is part of his patrimony. His father had once been singing-master in St. Mary Redcliffe; Chatterton had never seen him, but in entering the old church he was also entering the house of his father. The establishment which Chatterton had attended as a boy, Colston’s School, was erected on the site of an old Carmelite convent. So all the forces of his own past, and those of his territory, are aligned. This is the source of his historical mission. To restore a lost past and, at the same time, to restore a lost selfhood—here, once more, we may see how he impinged upon the romantic movement to which he bequeathed so much.

If we now draw the outlines of Chatterton and Macpherson together and see them as a compound figure, we glimpse the sublime and the fantastical mixed; the ancient and medieval landscapes of their imagination haunt their successors. Macpherson created “Ossian,” the inspired bard who sang of his own especial soil in tones of plangency and woe; Chatterton embodied the “marvellous Boy” whose apparent suicide provoked contemplations of a solitary genius despised and neglected by contemporaneous society. These two poets, more than any others, created the romantic image. But it was of crucial significance to their literary successors that it should be deeply imbued with forgery and fakery, pastiche and plagiarism.

It might even be said that the recognition or detection of plagiarism and pastiche, in particular, began with the romantic movement itself. In previous centuries, as Walter Ong noted in his The Art of Logic, “no one hesitated to use lines of thought or even quite specific wordings from another person without crediting the other person, for these were all taken to be—and most often were—part of a common tradition.” But when that tradition was broken or discontinued in the rise of the private and personal voice, then apparent originality of expression became of paramount importance. As a result, as if they were intense shadows created by a sudden light, the dangers of plagiarism and pastiche became evident in the first generation of the romantic movement. In one prefatory epistle Milton wrote: “I have striven to cram my pages even to overflowing, with quotations drawn from all parts of the Bible and to leave as little space as possible for my own words.”16 Wordsworth or Coleridge could never admit so much even if, in Coleridge’s case, a similar confession might have been appropriate. The introduction to an important volume of essays upon English romanticism, Romanticism and Language, poses an interesting question: “Is it pure coincidence, for example, that several of the essays [here] fix on the metaphor of theft?”17 Romanticism and plagiarism occupy the same area of the English imagination.

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