My eyes were quite pleased upon seeing Johnson’s name everywhere in the Trumpener reading.
Because my impressions of Johnson were formed a long time ago – shall I say I was brainwashed? – and they are nestled amidst very pleasant memories in my brain. Of collegiate possibility, of mentorship. Or new learning, New England.
And because of all these positive associations, I can just ignore things I don’t like. As a result, I can feel vaguely indifferent upon reading, over and over again, that Johnson’s travel-guide-of-sorts through the Hebrides was, in effect, a racist diatribe against the Scottish. (It’s bad to be racist.)
Instead I’ll focus on the things that feel right, like the following quote, which just seems like harmless, straightforward description of the era:
One “of the first full-dress professional men of letter,” Johnson “is both grandly generalizing sage and ‘proletarianized’ hack.” With its enforced, continual productivity in a multiplicity of genres, his career typifies the tenuous livelihood of professional literati in a commercial society. Yet Johnson’s philosophical prose style and his elaboration, in Lives of the Poets, of a new, biographically based account of authorship (which insists on the links between an author’s life experience and his poetic production, and on the power of art to transcend even tragic material circumstances) work to counter the effects of the market. 79
This quotation contains quite a bit. It describes “authorial intent” as one of those literary preoccupations frequently associated with the 18th century. It expounds that a focus on authorial intent was directly in opposition against the rapid change of 18th century Britain, which entailed explosive growth and an increasing commodification of just about everything, definitely including literature. The fact that Thomas Chatterton represented a youthful, rustic idealism – he was from Bristol – that was shattered by the disappointment of London’s rejection made the young poet a darling of the Romanticists. Wordsworth and Keats both loved him; and he became forever immortalized in this beauty of a painting.
I have to admit that it has been very difficult for me to judge the few Chatterson pieces I’ve read, because old spellings really throw me off, and as a result, I find myself unable to speak to the talent that is supposedly inherent within his Rowley poems. Criticism here and there will tell me why the Rowley poems are so good – poetryfoundation.com (ever the authority) tells me that “Chatteron’s Rowley uses language to convey a reality not of cognition but of the imagination. His verse, whether dramatic or lyrics, excels in its sense of occasion, physicality, color, and incantation” – but truth be told, I can’t make sense of this.
What I do notice, however, is how many of the criticism pieces talk about Chatterton’s personality. I’m not citing them right now out of laziness (sorry), but right off the top of my head, the words most frequently associated with him have been: pride, pride, fame, precocity, tragedy, poverty, pride. It’s only the apologetic view of Chatterton that would claim that he wasn’t terribly interested in fame, but rather in the beauty of the work alone, which would supposedly explain why he decided to share the credit for his own poems with the persona of the 15th century monk, Rowley (who, pay attention people, has the same first name as Chatterton!). But I think that by designating Rowley as the rightful author of some of these poems, Chatterton is actually able to claim for himself double the glory – as both discoverer of the Rowley manuscripts, and as translator.
But I can hypothesize all I want, as can all the rest of the scholars. Thomas Tyrwhitt published Poems, supposed to have been written at Bristol, by Thomas Rowley, and Others, in the Fifteenth Century (talk about a creative title) in 1777; Warton included substantial chunks of “Rowley’s” work in his 1781 History of English Poetry. I think the existent narrative about Chatterton, the tragic tortured genius, is just that – a narrative – because he never had the opportunity to define himself apart from his early death in 1770.
I can read Johnson how I want, and the world over will carry on postulating, as it will, about Chatterton.