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A History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth

Particularly in Redcliffe meadows


Chatterton's

father had not succeeded to the sextonship, but he was a sub-chanter in Bristol Cathedral, and his house and school in Pile Street were only a few yards from Redcliffe Church. In this house Chatterton was born, under the eaves almost of the sanctuary; and when his mother removed soon after to another house, where she maintained herself by keeping a little dame's school and doing needle work, it was still on Redcliffe Hill and in close neighborhood to St. Mary's. The church itself--"the pride of Bristowe and the western land"--is described as "one of the finest parish churches in England,"[3] a rich specimen of late Gothic or "decorated" style; its building or restoration dating from the middle of the fifteenth century. Chatterton's uncle by marriage, Richard Phillips, had become sexton in 1748, and the boy had the run of the aisles and transepts. The stone effigies of knights, priests, magistrates, and other ancient civic worthies stirred into life under his intense and brooding imagination; his mind took color from the red and blue patterns thrown on the pavement by the stained glass of the windows; and he may well have spelled out much of the little Latin that he knew from "the knightly brasses of the tombs" and "cold _hic jacets_ of the dead."

It is curious how early his education was self-determined to its peculiar ends. A dreamy, silent, solitary child, given to fits of moodiness, he was accounted dull and even stupid. He would not,

or could not, learn his letters until, in his seventh year, his eye was caught by the illuminated capitals in an old music folio. From these his mother taught him the alphabet, and a little later he learned to read from a black-letter Bible. "Paint me an angel with wings and a trumpet," he answered, when asked what device he would choose for the little earthenware bowl that had been promised him as a gift.[4] Colston's Hospital, where he was put to school, was built on the site of a demolished monastery of Carmelite Friars; the scholars wore blue coats, with metal plates on their breasts stamped with the image of a dolphin, the armorial crest of the founder, and had their hair cropped short in imitation of the monkish tonsure. As the boy grew into a youth, there were numbered among his near acquaintances, along with the vintners, sugar-bakers, pipe-makers, apothecaries, and other tradesmen of the Bristol _bourgeoisie_, two church organists, a miniature painter, and an engraver of coats-of-arms--figures quaintly suggestive of that mingling of municipal life and ecclesiastical-mediaeval art which is reproduced in the Rowley poems.

"Chatterton," testifies one of his early acquaintances, "was fond of walking in the fields, particularly in Redcliffe meadows, and of talking of his manuscripts, and sometimes reading them there. There was one spot in particular, full in view of the church, in which he seemed to take a peculiar delight. He would frequently lay himself down, fix his eyes upon the church, and seem as if he were in a kind of trance. Then on a sudden he would tell me: 'That steeple was burnt down by lightning: that was the place where they formerly acted plays.'" "Among his early studies," we are told, "antiquities, and especially the surroundings of medieval life, were the favorite subjects; heraldry seems especially to have had a fascination for him. He supplied himself with charcoal, black-lead, ochre, and other colors; and with these it was his delight to delineate, in rough and quaint figures, churches, castles, tombs of mailed warriors, heraldic emblazonments, and other like belongings of the old world."[5]

Is there not a breath of the cloister in all this, reminding one of the child martyr in Chaucer's "Prioresse Tale," the "litel clergeon, seven yeer of age"?


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