A ROMANTIC BIOGRAPHER
To my old friend and adviser
Peter Janson-Smith through thick and beastly thin
WE WERE AT a café table, under the plane trees, far in the south, with the evening light flowing away down the river. I was asking the beloved novelist those old, fascinating questions: How do you find your stories? Where do your ideas come from? When she said, with that sudden challenging smile of hers: ‘But how do you find your subjects; where do they come from?’ And I answered almost without thinking, between two mouthfuls of the cold white wine: ‘Down many sidetracks.’ She laughed and looked out into the gathering dark. ‘I think you’d better explain that,’ she said. So I have tried.
This book is my attempt to explore – as well as to explain – something of these mysterious biographical pathways. (I love the French word sentier for a track, because it also hints at the notion of a line of smell or perfume, as in ‘on the scent’.) It is a biographer’s collection of short pieces, rather like a novelist’s collection of short stories, but it has a theme and purpose. It is the fragmented tale of a single biographical quest, a thirty-year journey in search of the perfect Romantic subject, and the form to fit it. It is my personal casebook.
For me biography has always been a personal adventure of exploration and pursuit, a tracking. It is uncertain in its beginning, when even the first outline of a glimpsed subject may change into someone else, or become a minor role in another life, or simply fade away into the historical undergrowth. It is tantalizing in its final destination, when a completed biography invariably leaves so much else to be discovered, sometimes by other means. It is often surprising in retrospect, when previously hidden perspectives and retrospectives emerge. I conclude that no biography is ever definitive, because that is not the nature of such journeys, nor of the human heart which is their territory. Sometimes all one achieves is another point of departure. Such are the shifting themes of this collection.
Looking back I see, rather to my surprise, that I have written (or failed to write) one biography about every three or four years. This seems to be a languid, circadian rhythm that comes quite naturally to me. But during that slow, ruminative period of researching, travelling, dreaming and writing (which go on simultaneously), the journey also spreads out in many unexpected directions. It produces a great deal of material that, for one reason or another, never gets into the final book; or else erupts later as a kind of after-shock or aftermath. I suspect many biographers experience this.
Yet these wanderings from the main path, these seductive sidetracks over another part of the hill, are often the places where I have learned most about my subjects and have felt most free in their company. They also tell something about how a particular biography was brought to life. As Shakespeare’s Polonius put it (a very fond and foolish old fellow), ‘by indirections find directions out’.
So this book is organized, like a series of traveller’s tales or informal route-maps, around the main biographical voyages I have taken over the last thirty years. All of them concern more or less Romantic themes; some of them actually produced books; others signally failed to do so – and these I am particularly attached to. I think it is sometimes supposed that biographers advance steadily and relentlessly from publication to publication, along a kind of well-signed literary motorway. Perhaps some of them do; but I am more of a rambler and botanizer myself. As a matter of record, here is a list of my major biographical subjects, with their results in brackets.1969–70: Chatterton (an essay, no biography) 1971–74: Shelley (a biography, Shelley: The Pursuit) 1973–79: A Gothic Victorian (many sketches, no biography) 1975–79: Gautier and Nerval (sketches, translations, unpublished biography) 1979–80: Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (a single sketch) 1980–85: A Romantic Traveller (sketches, finally Footsteps) 1986–87: William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft (an essay, no biography) 1982–89: Coleridge (half a biography, Coleridge: Early Visions) 1990–94: Johnson (a fragment of biography, Dr Johnson & Mr Savage) 1994–98: Coleridge (second half of a biography, Coleridge: Darker Reflections) 1999 … A Runaway Life (but that could go anywhere)
The sidetracks that arose from these main expeditions take several, perhaps surprising forms. For I am fascinated by the many different ways in which a ‘true story’ can be told. Why should the biographer be limited to one kind of narrative voice, one kind of discursive prose? So they include two radio-plays, several travel pieces, a large number of character-sketches, some autobiographical fragments, some formal essays, and a very informal short story for BBC Radio Four’s ‘Book at Bedtime’. All of them were written as different ways of investigating biographical material: to see how far certain hints and possibilities could be taken down the path, explored and relished.
It is this love of imaginative displacement, of seeking and snuffling on the trail of another life, so essential to literary biography, which I hope also unites this collection. It is the history of a self-education, a sentimental education perhaps. It aims to record whatever I have learned about the peculiar magic, and haunting life-music, of this most contemporary, most lovable and perhaps most ephemeral of forms.
To be sidetracked is, after all, to be led astray by a path or an idea, a scent or a tune, and maybe lost for ever. But no true biographer would mind that, if he can take a few readers with him. To find your subject, you must in some sense lose yourself along the way. This is my record of such departures from the straight and narrow. I hope it will encourage others to turn aside, to reconnaître, to stray purposefully into the vast geography of the human heart by which we come to know ourselves.
LOOK BACK, and the past becomes a story. The fixed shadowy shapes begin to move again, and make new patterns in the memory, some familiar, some strange. I now see that this early essay strongly reflects my own first three years in London, where I arrived from Cambridge in summer 1967, aged twenty-one. Prospects were fair, work was easy to find in those days, and I had a good circle of friends. Yet the truth was that I felt suicidally lonely and depressed for much of the time. This was not particularly unusual for a young man coming to the big city. But I was mad to write, I felt I was nothing unless I could write. The inky demon drove me night and day, and I simply could not see how he (or she) could be appeased. I am not sure that this feeling has ever left me. I think all writers, of whatever kind, must have such a demon. I believe the demon follows them in the street and ends up sitting on their graves.
I started, by luck, with a little freelance journalism. As this was the late Sixties, I was soon commissioned to write a book called ‘Prodigy'. I think it was meant to be about poets, film stars and pop stars who died young. (It was the John Keats – James Dean – Janis Joplin thing.) Instead I became fascinated by the eighteenth-century poet Thomas Chatterton, and he led me back into the world of English Romanticism, and in a sense saved my life by giving it a new dimension. I took my first deliberate ‘footstepping’ trip down to Bristol, where he was born, and for the first time examined original manuscripts in London, where he died. I discovered the peculiar magic of historical research, and experienced that sense of imaginative displacement which intoxicates all writers. I began to live what is, I suppose, the conscious double-life of the biographer, with one foot in the present and the other continually in the past. Suddenly I had found that space in which it became possible to write: my own version of Virginia Woolf’s ‘room of one’s own'. The essay that emerged was taken by my friend Peter Janson-Smith to the publisher Jock Murray, who astonished me by giving up half an entire issue of the Cornhill Magazine to it. (The magazine closed shortly thereafter.)
One of the strangest things about the essay is that it contains – in walk-on parts – almost everybody that I have subsequently written about over the next thirty years. So I now see it, in a way, as a kind of audition for my vocation as a biographer. Not me auditioning them, but vice versa: my waiting subjects checking me out. The illogical feeling that your subjects somehow choose you is common to many biographers.
It contains many other premonitions too, some of which I am still discovering. The path to my book on Shelley, though then invisible, has now become obvious to me. The emphasis on solitude, the extreme sense of dislocation and isolation from a normal social world, which is one enduring version of the Romantic sensibility (though capable of both comic and tragic expression), was strongly in the ascendant, and would remain with me for a long time to come. I can clearly catch a young man’s voice, impatient and unreasonable with the adult world (Walpole, Johnson) that holds back a fuller understanding. But whose is the voice? Empathy is the most powerful, the most necessary, and the most deceptive, of all biographical emotions. It is instructive to look back on it, subtly at work, throwing both light and shadow into city streets which were already for me partly real, and partly imagined. The insistent rhythm of the opening paragraph was repeated, unconsciously, fifteen years later in the opening paragraph of Footsteps. Both end with the keyword ‘eighteen', a retrospective declaration of Romantic youth. But above all in ‘Chatterton', so much concerned with the dead, I first glimpsed the people and the period in history which were to become most dazzlingly alive for me.
The Case Reopened
‘For had I never known the antique lore I ne’er had ventur’d from my peaceful shore, To be the wreck of promises and hopes, A Boy of Learning, and a Bard of Tropes …’
‘Oh thou, or what remaines of thee, Ælla, the darlynge of futurity, Lett this mie songe bolde as thy courage be, As everlastynge to posteritie.’
1 ‘The brazen slippers alone remain’
IN THE HIGH SUMMER of 1770, while most of genteel and literary London was refreshing itself at continental spas, picnicking on country house lawns or promenading at the seaside resorts, in an angular third-floor attic above a Holborn side-street, in a locked room littered with minutely shredded pieces of manuscript, Thomas Chatterton died in acute pain from arsenic poisoning. He did not appear to have eaten for several days, but there were traces of opium in his mouth and between his teeth. He was not yet eighteen.
In his short lifetime Chatterton had written some six hundred pages of verse, one finished and one unfinished tragedy, a burletta, and so much freelance satirical journalism that it was still being published by London editors a year after his death. His name became the centre of the most fashionable literary controversy of the decade, in which many eminent scholars, writers and littérateurs fought tempestuously to establish that Chatterton was either a prodigy of poetical genius or a cheap, adolescent forger with the habits of a delinquent. When the immediate heat of this discussion had died down, it emerged that Chatterton’s achievement had been compared by many critics as second only to Shakespeare’s. Coleridge drafted a long Monody to him at the age of sixteen, and spent another thirty years of his life adding to it and making corrections. The Victorians went on to dedicate wildly partisan poetry and criticism on both sides of his reputation. David Masson published a warm melodramatic novel based on his life in 1874, and Rossetti became deeply obsessed with the figure of Chatterton in the closing years of his old age. The young Meredith posed as the model of Chatterton in puce silk pantaloons for the famous painting by Henry Wallis and while the work was being executed in Chatterton’s original attic room (later destroyed by fire) Meredith took the opportunity to open an affair with the painter’s wife. In France Alfred de Vigny produced a High Romantic play; and this in turn became a bad Italian opera by Leoncavallo. Chatterton’s works were translated into French and German, while new English editions followed each other steadily: in 1803, 1810, 1842, 1871, 1885, 1906 and 1911.
Then suddenly after the First World War the flow stopped. There have been no new editions; and with the exception of one faithful scholar, E. H. Meyerstein, there has been, until very recently indeed, almost no further critical interest. Even the Penguin Book of English Verse does not now acknowledge the existence of Chatterton, Thomas, in its index. Perhaps only a few lines of his remain current, with their curious haunting bitterness and their unstable dying rhythms:
Come, with acorne-cuppe and thorne
Drain my hertes blood away;
Lyfe and all its good I scorn
Daunce by night, or feast by day.
My love is dead
Gone to his death-bed
All under the wyllow-tree
In all this, in the mixture of strange, contradictory, challenging and sometimes oddly depressing circumstances, Chatterton is the great example of the prodigy-figure in English poetry. Prodigy has as its root meaning something out of the run of natural affairs and occurrences, something directly counter to natural processes themselves – a wonder, an exhilaration of the spirit. There is something particularly valuable about such a figure. He is like a precedent. He is like a guarantee for the wildest human hopes, and at the same time a talisman against failure or limitation or the pressures of mediocrity. He is an outpost of the imagination. With Chatterton, it has always tended to be the completed gesture of life which produced the writing, and not the writing alone, that has exercised the deepest fascination and influence on others. Only one generation after Chatterton’s death, this was already clear to William Hazlitt who gave his opinion in a long aside during his public lectures at the Surrey Institute on ‘The English Poets’ (1818).
‘As to those who are really capable of admiring Chatterton’s genius,’ said Hazlitt, who knew very well that Keats was in his audience, ‘I would only say that I never heard anyone speak of any of his works as if it were an old well-known favourite, and had become a faith and a religion in his mind. It is his name, his youth, and what he might have lived to have done, that excite our wonder and admiration. He has the same sort of posthumous fame that an actor of the last age has – an abstracted reputation which is independent of anything we know of his works’ (Lecture VII). The comparison with the actor is good, although with fifty years of film behind us now it loses some of its force. It is also rather an intriguing comparison. Hazlitt had no illusions about the true nature of Chatterton’s ‘forgeries’, but he still appears to have thought, unconsciously at least, in terms of the young prodigy playing out someone else’s part. In a literary and in a psychological sense this has a deep relevance to the life that Chatterton lived, and perhaps also to the death that he is reputed to have died.
Keats, incidentally, was disappointed with Hazlitt’s views, although it was almost certainly a previous lecture which kindled some real resentment against Hazlitt’s treatment of the poet to whom Keats had dedicated Endymion. The passage was probably this one, the closing peroration from Lecture VI; it is an important attitude and seems to express an element of jealousy, that essential but honest jealousy of the critic for the poet:
I cannot find in Chatterton’s works anything so extraordinary as the age at which they were written. They have a facility, vigour, and knowledge, which were prodigious in a boy of sixteen, but which would not have been so in a man of twenty. He did not show extraordinary powers of genius, but extraordinary precocity. Nor do I believe he would have written better, had he lived. Great geniuses, like great kings, have too much to think of to kill themselves; for their mind to them also ‘a kingdom is’. With an unaccountable power coming over him at an unusual age, and with the youthful confidence it inspired, he performed wonders, and was willing to set a seal on his reputation by a tragic catastrophe. He had done his best; and, like another Empedocles, threw himself into Aetna, to ensure immortality. The brazen slippers alone remain!
It is curious how the flourish, the joy with which Hazlitt the great Romantic critic flings off that last magnificent image to his Surrey Institute audience, effectively undermines his own case. He is responding, in spite of himself, in spite of his rational and deliberated critical strictures, to the quality of magnificence, of exhilaration, achieved by Chatterton’s life and work as a complete entity.
But by Lecture VII Hazlitt had altered his position, or at least his tone. ‘I am sorry that what I said in conclusion of the last Lecture respecting Chatterton, should have given dissatisfaction to some persons, with whom I would willingly agree on all such matters. What I meant was less to call in question Chatterton’s genius, than to object to the common mode of estimating its magnitude by prematureness.’ He then delicately delivers one of those republican bombshells that delighted Keats. ‘Had Chatterton really done more, we should have thought less of him … who knows but he might have lived to be poet-laureate?’ Yet overall his attitude remains the same, and his judgement on the prodigy-figure has a lasting and representative force, many times repeated, and especially sympathetic to the more sceptical and technical quality of appreciation almost universal today.
There is an anecdote retold in the diaries of the poet W. S. Blunt which may help to suggest the pitch, the emotional frequency, which the phenomenon of the youthful prodigy, in this case of Chatterton, is capable of reaching in the minds and imaginations of other men, and especially writers, irrespective of the lapse of time or the fluctuations of critical assessment. It concerns the Victorian lyric poet Francis Thompson. Blunt had the story in 1907 from Wilfred Meynell, who had become a close friend and mentor of Thompson’s before his death in the November of that year. ‘He – Thompson – used, before I knew him, to sleep at night under the Arches of Covent Garden where every quarter of an hour he was liable to be kicked awake by the police and told to move on. It was in an empty space of ground behind the Market where the gardeners threw their rubbish, that, just before, he had resolved on suicide. He then spent all his remaining pence on laudanum, one large dose, and he went there one night to take it. He had swallowed half when he felt an arm laid on his wrist, and looking up he saw Chatterton standing over him and forbidding him to drink the other half. I asked him when he had told me of it how he had known that it was Chatterton. He said “I recognised him from the pictures of him – besides, I knew that it was he before I saw him” – and I remembered at once the story of the money which arrived for Chatterton the day after his suicide’ (My Diaries, Vol. 2, p. 191).
An illusion. A drug-induced hallucination. After all, no authentic picture of Chatterton was ever made. Yes, but it is an interesting and powerful kind of illusion, that prevents a man from taking his own life; and incidentally correctly forecasts the arrival of help – Meynell’s letter to Thompson reached him the next day. Chatterton is one of those very few artistic figures – there are many more in religion and politics – who seem at times to have taken command of certain areas of the psychic landscape. Their image has been conjured up, and their presence has produced a palpable effect. It can only be described delicately, tentatively. One is not talking about ghosts, although Chatterton with his marvellous instinct for the Gothic would undoubtedly have provided a classic specimen. Shelley, in his long poem Adonais on the death of Keats, wrote this:
When lofty thought
Lifts a young heart above its mortal lair And love and life contend in it, for what Shall be its earthly doom, the dead live there And move like winds of light on dark and stormy air.
It is informative to read this without preconceptions about High Romantic eulogizing, but as a straight description in slightly old-fashioned language of an unusual condition of mind. The dead live there and move like winds of light on dark and stormy air. (Shelley’s quality of verbal helium, the absolute clarity with which it renders and uplifts mental processes, has long required calm reassessment.)
The point is important for two reasons. First, because it suggests how the subject of Chatterton has always appealed to responses and judgements far deeper than mere literary taste. We encounter this again and again. To put it more sharply, it appeals to the recurrent need to idealize the image of others, and to interpret historical events and artistic achievements as the expression of something, by definition inexplicable, called ‘genius’. It appeals to our need to reassure ourselves with the past, and to see our own desires, and perhaps even our own faces, somehow magically canonized in the pale indistinct features of the wonderfully – but safely – dead. One has to be aware of that from the outset.
Second, it is – like Hazlitt’s actor comparison – suggestive of something that happened most powerfully and dramatically in Chatterton’s own mind.
2 ‘To the Garret quick he flies’
Chatterton was born in Bristol in November 1752 and he never seems to have got over it. He was never reconciled to his circumstances: always he was looking for some alternative place, or alternative age. Latterly, as for Rimbaud in Charleville, the capital city began to exercise an hypnotic attraction and he staked everything on getting there and taking it by storm.
But bred in Bristol’s mercenary cell
Condemned with want and penury to dwell, What generous passion can refine my line?
Chatterton’s home was the small schoolhouse in Pyle Street, directly opposite the marvellous looming Gothic buttresses and tracery of St Mary Redcliff church. St Mary Redcliff dominated Pyle Street with its massive shadowy presence; morning and evening St Mary Redcliff bells would fill the rooms of the house. Chatterton’s father had been the schoolmaster of the Pyle Street free-school and also sexton of St Mary Redcliff. The schoolhouse and the church were both his territory, and they both became Chatterton’s. The father was by all accounts a curious man. He was a singer, and had sung officially in the Bristol Cathedral choir; but he also sang unofficially to himself on the long walks that he was noted for taking, and talked to himself as well. He was a collector and something of an antiquarian. He collected old coins and books and manuscripts, and when he became sexton of St Mary Redcliff he found a rich source of material in the hitherto neglected Muniment Room, with its many boxes and chests of papers, whose long slit window looked out over the top of the North Porch. Many of these ancient papers were transferred from the Muniment Room to the schoolhouse, and in the course of time to the attic room which was Chatterton’s. These papers were the only direct link that Chatterton had with his father, who died in the summer before he was born. Chatterton also had an elder sister, who had been born out of wedlock.
For a prodigy he was a solitary child and a slow one. At seven he was still unable to read. He dawdled about the schoolhouse, and about the aisles and tombs of St Mary Redcliff.
Thys is the manne of menne, the vision spoke,
Then belle for Evensonge my senses woke.
But there was already another side to his character. His sister, later Mrs Newton, recalled eight years after his death: ‘My brother very early discovered a thirst for pre-eminence. I remember, before he was five years old, he would always preside over his playmates as their master, and they his hired servants.’ The Victorian biographers tell the most winsome of the childhood anecdotes to illustrate that same ‘thirst for pre-eminence’. At the age of five he was apparently offered a Delft cup as a present to be decorated with ‘a lyon rampant’. But instead Chatterton asked that the picture should represent an angel with a trumpet. When asked why, he replied airily – ‘to blow his name about’. The story is nice, but may be apocryphal; the temperament it illustrates is certainly authentic. In a fatherless household, one is not surprised. A Bristol friend remembered him at a later stage, as a schoolboy and legal apprentice: ‘That vanity, and an inordinate thirst after praise, eminently distinguished Chatterton, all who knew him will readily admit. From a long and intimate acquaintance with him, I venture to assert, that from the date of his first poetical attempt, until the final period of his departure from Bristol, he never wrote any piece, however trifling in its nature, and even unworthy of himself, but he first committed it to every acquaintance he met, indiscriminately, as wishing to derive applause from productions which I am assured, were he now living, he would be heartily ashamed of …’ (Letter from Mr Thistlethwaite to Dr Milles). There is a good deal of personal sourness and pique in this statement, and as to Chatterton communicating all his poems it is simply incorrect. But as a description of Chatterton’s impression on friends and everyday acquaintances, the touchiness, the arrogance, the self-importance, the ‘eagerness of applause even to an extreme’, it has the ring of truth.
Perhaps the most convincing and also the most amusing evidence comes from a distant relative of Chatterton’s, a certain Mrs Ballance, who was lodged in the same house as Chatterton when he first came to London. As a relation, she obviously tried to be neighbourly. She recalled with exasperation, ‘he was as proud as Lucifer. He very soon quarrelled with her for calling him “Cousin Tommy”, and asked her if she had ever heard of a poet’s being called Tommy. But she assured him she knew nothing of poets and only wished he would not set up for a Gentleman.’ Mrs Ballance added a pathetic and very human note: ‘He frequently said he should settle the nation before he had done; but how could she think her poor cousin Tommy was so great a man as she now finds he was? His mother should have written word of his greatness, and then, to be sure, she would have humoured the gentleman accordingly.’
But if Chatterton’s character was manifest from the start, his capabilities were not. The first important moment seems to have been when he began to read. The way any primary skill is first exercised – swimming, riding, reading – often has a decisive effect on its subsequent development. Chatterton began to read only very gradually, and then in a curious and highly significant fashion. Mrs Newton, his sister, again recalled: ‘He was dull in learning, not knowing many letters at four years old, and always objected to read in a small book. He learnt the alphabet from an old Folio music-book of my father’s, my mother was then tearing up for waste paper: the capitals at the beginning of the verses, I assisted in teaching him.’ The importance of this earliest reading material has never been fully realized.
From the very start, literature and the medieval legacy of the St Mary Redcliff papers were identified in Chatterton’s mind. And not only at an intellectual level. For Chatterton’s contact with this special past, so inextricably involved with both his dead father and the earlier inhabitants, writers and artists of St Mary Redcliff, had from the beginning a solid material presence of vellum and parchment scraps which filled the little schoolhouse with their dust and oily odour and resilient crackling touch. They were a vivid familiar presence, totally uninvested with the sacred and scholarly aura which museums, glass cases, and academic pincenez normally impart to such things. The Chatterton family were at times almost literally ankle-deep in the medieval past. We know that the mother quite casually used them for knitting patterns, or for ‘waste paper’ torn up presumably for fires or cleaning; and that many of the schoolhouse books were actually covered by these papers in the form of makeshift dust jackets. It was the large illuminated capitals on some of these sheets which first caught the young Chatterton’s eye. Gothic and medieval scripts were his earliest acquaintance. He read the tomb inscriptions and brasses as another child reads specially edited fairy tales. His first solid piece of reading was the bristling Germanic-Gothic pages of the family’s Black Letter Bible. In short, Chatterton came to literary consciousness in another world. It was Bristol, but it was late-medieval Bristol. It was the Bristol of the men like William Canynges who helped to rebuild and restore St Mary Redcliff, and of the late-medieval scholar-poets whom great men such as Canynges befriended and patronized, acting almost as a father might have done. It was above all (as it turned out), the Bristol of a brilliant poet-monk whose first name was oddly enough the same as Chatterton’s; an admirer of Chaucer, an admirer of St Mary Redcliff, an intimate friend of the fatherly William Canynges, the brilliant star of the whole company of talented poets. This poet-monk’s name was Thomas Rowley. But Thomas Rowley never existed. Only in Thomas Chatterton’s head. From a single inscription on a tomb, Chatterton was to create this man’s life, his letters, his poems, his ballades, his Tragedies, his most intimate concerns with the problems of living and literature. Thomas Rowley was everything that Thomas Chatterton desired to be. And in the most real and most disturbing sense, Thomas Rowley was Thomas Chatterton.
At the age of seventeen, just before he left Bristol for London, Chatterton was to write one of his most outlandish and ambivalent documents, a Will. In it, he addressed his stupid and ungenerous patrons of reality, and to one of them wrote this:
Thy friendship never could be dear to me;
Since all I am is opposite to thee. If ever obligated to thy purse Rowley discharges all; my first chief curse! For had I never known the antique lore I ne’er had ventur’d from my peaceful shore, To be the wreck of promises and hopes, A Boy of Learning, and a Bard of Tropes; But happy in my humble sphere had mov’d Untroubled, unsuspected, unbelov’d.
Of course, it asserts nothing except Rowley’s primary importance and responsibility. The whole piece is shot through with a bitter ironic flare characteristic of Chatterton. Those last three epithets are much more curious than they seem at first sight; and the idea that Chatterton would ever conceivably have been ‘happy in his humble sphere’ is laughable. Chatterton must have laughed as he wrote it. But if so, the laughter must have sounded harsh.
The creation of Rowley is one of the most extraordinary events in English literature. It is not easily accounted for. A body of scholars stood out against it for some thirty years after Chatterton’s death. Chatterton’s own acquaintances – who invariably and incorrectly thought that they were his intimates, a notable point – were adamant almost to a man. One Mr T. Cary writing in 1776: ‘Not having any taste for ancient poetry, I do not recollect his ever having shewn them to me; but that he often mentioned them, at an age, when (great as his capacity was) I am convinced he was incapable of writing them himself, I am very clear in, and confess it to be astonishing, how any person, knowing these circumstances, can entertain even a shadow of a doubt of their being the works of Rowley.’ (Interestingly, Cary then adds a sentence which reveals in a flash his deep but unconscious sense of the ambiguity of identity in Chatterton: ‘Of this I am very certain, that if they are not Rowley’s, they are not Chatterton’s.’) Even in this present age, when every sixth-former is drilled with Ezra Pound’s idea of the poetic persona and T. S. Eliot’s concept of impersonality and the ‘objective correlative’, the Rowley–Chatterton relationship remains as extraordinary and mysterious as ever. Though W. P. Ker in The Cambridge History of English Literature has a perceptive observation: ‘Nothing in Chatterton’s life is more wonderful than his impersonality; he does not make poetry out of his pains or sorrows, and when he is composing verse, he seems to have escaped from himself.’ That last phrase can be taken more literally than Ker meant.
The crucial fact about the creation of Rowley is that Rowley grew as Chatterton grew. In 1760, when Chatterton was eight, he was sent to board at Colston Hall, a local charity school, and he remained there until he was fifteen. Colston served bad food and bad education. Its curriculum ran to the Three Rs only, with nothing remotely scientific or classical. It is said that owing to the combination of too much free time and too little free space, the pupils usually slept for ten or twelve hours a day, and this generally with two or three of them to a single bed. It makes one speculate on what strange world of half-waking companionship this unusual situation fostered. The single most suggestive fact, however, concerns a tiny detail of the Colston Hall uniform which went unnoticed for almost a century. The Colston Hall charity boys were required to wear a blue gowned overall belted at the waist, and to have their hair cut short and tonsured, like so many little novices in a monastery. The adolescent Chatterton must indeed have felt a curiously vivid and physical identity with his poet-monk Thomas Rowley: a presence as yet unnamed, but nevertheless swiftly growing now from its childhood origins in the Muniment Room with its high slit windows above the North Porch of St Mary Redcliff.
One of Chatterton’s earlier recorded poems has a striking bearing on the psychology of this long moment of wonderful but also sinister gestation. It was written in 1763 when he was eleven. It is not a so-called Rowley poem, but his first excursion into the snappy, efficient, satirical style currently fashionable: all couplets and nudges. From the start, Chatterton could turn this out effortlessly. The poem is called ‘Sly Dick’. It purports to tell of someone who receives a visitation from the Devil during the night, which informs him how he may make his fortune – dishonestly of course. How conscious Chatterton was of the underlying drama of this little piece of doggerel – particularly in its terms of night-visitation, temptation, hidden location of fortune, and secretive manner of exploitation – the reader may judge for himself.
Sharp was the frost, the wind was high
And sparkling Stars bedeckt the Sky, Sly Dick in arts of cunning skill’d, Whose Rapine all his pockets fill’d, Had laid him down to take his rest And soothe with sleep his anxious breast. ‘Twas thus a dark infernal sprite A native of the blackest Night, Portending mischief to devise Upon Sly Dick he cast his eyes; Then strait descends the infernal sprite, And in his chamber does alight: In vision he before him stands, And his attention he commands.
Thus spake the sprite – Hearken my friend,
And to my counsels now attend. Within the Garret’s spacious dome There lies a well stor’d wealthy room. Well stor’d with cloth and stockings too, Which I suppose will do for you …
When in the morn with thoughts erect
Sly Dick did on his dream reflect,
Why faith, thinks he, ‘tis something too,
It might – perhaps – it might – be true I’ll go and see – away he hies, And to the Garret quick he flies, Enters the room, cuts up the clothes And after that reeves up the hose: Then of the cloth he purses made, Purses to hold his filching trade.
The true identity of the ‘Garret’s spacious dome’, and the store of cloth which he ‘cuts up’ to make his fortune, flash up at one instantly. They are of course the Muniment Room and the ancient papers within it. Without leaning on this little piece too much, it seems likely that the eleven-year-old Chatterton at some level or other was powerfully aware of the peculiar forces now gathering in and around him ready for his disposal. They had not yet taken the shape of Rowley. But already he was deeply divided as to whether it would be for the best or for the worst. His second early poem, ‘Apostate Will’, about a Methodist preacher who turns High Anglican when a convenient place is offered, contains a similar sense of a ‘filching trade’, and also that characteristic feeling of ambivalent identity which is so marked in Chatterton and the nature of his creative gift. (Both poems also have strong elements of childish plagiarism, relating to fables by John Gay.)
Strictly speaking, this is to anticipate. The first piece of ‘medieval’ writing was not actually made public by Chatterton until he was fifteen and had left school; and then, in answer to inquiries, he was to say – defending his ‘originals’ from first to last – that he had only recently discovered such great treasures in his mother’s house. But it seems unquestionable that Rowley and the world of Rowley’s fifteenth-century Bristol had been maturing long and steadily in Chatterton’s mind and imagination. Colston Hall, built on the site of the medieval Priory of St Augustine’s Back, was always remembered favourably by him in this connection. In his ‘Will’ he adopts the satiric medieval practice, used notably by François Villon, of bequeathing his better qualities (such as Modesty) to the various public figures who are most in need of them. His ‘disinterestedness’ is bequeathed as follows, in a wry passage which connects Rowley and Colston Hall: ‘Item … To Bristol all my spirit and disinterestedness, parcels of goods unknown on her quay since the days of Canning and Rowley! ‘Tis true a charitable Gentleman, one Mr Colston, smuggled a considerable quantity of it, but it being proved that he was Papist, the Worshipful Society of Aldermen endeavoured to throttle him with the Oath of Allegiance.’ Chatterton rarely had anything good to say for a modern institution of Bristol, and when he does, it is remarkable.
Colston served him in two ways. First by providing an embryo group of friends, or at least acquaintances, in whom he could begin to satisfy his need for notice and applause. And second, in failing to weigh his mind down with any academic material of the depressing kind which such establishments are formally designed to provide, but rather allowing him freedom to pursue his own private and increasingly idiosyncratic reading and research. His sister, Mrs Newton: ‘About his tenth year he began (with the trifle my mother allowed him for pocket-money) to hire books from the circulating library … Between his eleventh and twelfth year, he wrote a catalogue of the books he had read, to the number of seventy: History and Divinity were the chief subjects. At twelve he was confirmed by the Bishop … Soon after this, in the week he was door-keeper (at Colston), he made some verses on the last day, I think about eighteen lines; paraphrased the ninth chapter of Job; and not long after, some chapters in Isaiah. He had been gloomy from the time he began to learn, but we remarked he was more cheerful after he began to write poetry. Some satirical pieces we saw soon after.’ Now he was started.
Chatterton left Colston some time in the winter of 1766, or the spring of 1767; at any rate when he had turned fourteen. Before that time had come, a number of events occurred whose significance was great but indirect. He formed a close friendship with a boy somewhat older than himself, Thomas Phillips. The relationship was to be tragically short, but Phillips was one of those invaluable personalities, a catalyst. A school-friend gave this typically portentous picture: ‘The poetical attempts of Phillips had excited a kind of literary emulation amongst the elder classes of the scholars; the love of fame animated their bosoms, and a variety of competitors appeared to dispute the laurel with him.’ This helped; it was the first materialization of Chatterton’s company of poets. Related to it, the death of the brilliant contemporary satirist, Charles Churchill, who had gone to visit Wilkes (exiled in Boulogne on account of the notorious No. 45 of the North Briton), served to give the young writers both a literary and political martyr. Churchill died in 1764. In the following year there was a notable publishing event, the appearance in three duodecimo volumes of Percy’s celebrated Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. These certainly came into Chatterton’s hands, one of the primary texts of the Romantic revival. So the hidden medieval world was nourished as well.
When Chatterton left Colston, he was extremely lucky to be apprenticed to a Bristol attorney, John Lambert Esq. He took up the job in July 1767. It was a remarkable success for an ex-Colston boy; but in practice it involved mere clerical copying and drudgery, and Chatterton did not find himself occupied fully for more than two or three hours a day. He continued to haunt the circulating libraries; he took to walking certain young ladies on the green; and most important of all, he began to take old St Mary Redcliff papers and parchments with him to work. Friends referred to vague ‘copying’ and ‘transcribing’ processes. He covered many parchment scraps with his own version of medieval script. He became fascinated by architecture and heraldry and the business of family trees. These subjects also fascinated Thomas Rowley. For Rowley now existed.
After such a long gestation, things moved quickly. The main external events were as follows. In July 1768, the old bridge across the river Avon was replaced by a new one, and Chatterton, making his first of many bids for fame, sent a fictitious account of the opening of the original bridge, purporting to have been drawn from a medieval manuscript, to Felix Farley’s Journal. The Journal was the local Bristol magazine and gossip column, and the publication of his contribution soon brought two Bristol littérateurs, George Catcott and William Barrett, snuffling on to the young man’s trail. Catcott and Barrett are two wholly comic figures, part fools and part villains, who stumble through this period of Chatterton’s career as if Laurel and Hardy had tried to organize the Fourth Act of Hamlet. For the next eighteen months they pose as Chatterton’s patrons, lending him books and showing him off to their friends at numerous little soirées, while encouraging him to bring forth a stream of letters, ballads, elegies and dramatic poetry, all also purporting to be medieval: notably the work of the fifteenth-century writers who surrounded William Canynges in Bristol, and above all of the poet-monk and intimate of Canynges – Thomas Rowley. (Barrett was writing a History of Bristol, and for him Chatterton conveniently produced descriptions of medieval painting and architecture, grotesque family trees, and gorgeous examples of local heraldic devices – all spurious.)
One of the finest of the early Rowley productions was this fragment which praised St Mary Redcliff and its great restorer William Canynges. It is of particular interest in that it performs a strange transmutation of the ‘Sly Dick’ poem; it is a vision and a supernatural command, but this time the opposite of Satanic. Moreover, in using the same short four-stress line and rhyming couplets, it yet manages to produce a simplicity quite literally worlds away from ‘Sly Dick’s’ satiric jingle. ‘Onn Oure Ladies Chyrche’ by Thomas Rowley–
As on a hille one eve sittinge,
At oure Ladies Chyrche muche wonderinge,
The cunninge handieworke so fine
Han well nighe dazzeled mine eyne.
Quod I: some cunninge fairy hande
Yreer’d this chapelle in this lande;
Full well I wot, so fine a sighte
Was n’ere yreer’d of mortal wighte.
Quod Truth: thou lackest knowledgynge;
Thou forsooth ne wotteth of the thinge.
A Rev’rend Fadre, William Canynge hight [called]
Yreered up this chapelle bright;
And eke another in the Towne
Where glassie bubblinge Trymme doth roun.
Quod I: ne doubt for all he’s given
His soule will certes goe to heaven.
Yea, quod Truth, then go thou home
And see thou do as he hath done.
Quod I: I doubte, that can ne be,
I have ne gotten markes three.
Quod Truth: as thou hast got, give almes-deeds so:
Canynges and Gaunts could do ne moe.
This and many other small pieces, together with the brilliant narrative ballad ‘The Death of Sir Charles Bawdin’, the two poetic tragedies ‘Godwyn’ and especially ‘Æella’ (of which the famous and beautiful Minstrel’s Song is a mere chorus), and numerous Epistles, Prologues and Songs, were all accepted blandly and beamingly by Catcott and Barrett who never dreamed of looking a gift-horse let alone a prodigy in the mouth; they calmly accepted everything as genuine curios and antiquities pouring forth in a gratuitous flood at their feet, as if young Chatterton were the keeper of some magic casket of inexhaustible delights. It never seemed to cross their minds that beauty is the most terrible and merciless of masters. Mrs Newton: ‘He was introduced to Mr Barrett and Mr Catcott; his ambitions increased daily. His spirits were rather uneven, sometimes so gloom’d, that for many days together he would say but very little, and that by constraint. When in spirits, he would enjoy his rising fame; confident of advancements, he would promise my mother and me should be partakers of his success … About this time he wrote several satirical poems, one in the papers, on Mr Catcott’s putting the pewter plates in St Nicholas towers. He began to be universally known among the young men. He had many cap acquaintances, but I am confident few intimates.’ ‘Many cap acquaintances’ is apt. The role of the satirical poetry was now becoming obvious; it kept him on balance in a situation fluctuating violently between tragedy and farce which only an English provincial city with its mixture of greed, pomposity and eloquent mediocrity could ever have provided.
When occasionally Chatterton was asked to exhibit his ‘originals’, he either prevaricated successfully or else forged with excruciating crudeness (forty-two scraps still survive in the British Museum) practically illegible parchments which he then aged with ochre, candle-flame, glue, varnish, or plain floor-dirt. Catcott and Barrett, the redoubtable double, stored them away without a murmur. At the same time they judiciously criticized his public forays into the local exchange of satirical verses. And had their noses, or rather their ears, nearly bitten off for it–
No more, dear Smith, the hackney’d Tale renew:
I own their censure, I approve it too. For how can Idiots, destitute of thought, Conceive, or estimate, but as they’re taught?
Say, can the satirising Pen of Shears,
Exalt his name, or mutilate his ears? None, but a Lawrence, can adorn his Lays, Who in a quart of Claret drinks his praise.
This poisonous piece, which continues for some hundred lines and is one among many, is gently accompanied by the following: ‘Mr Catcott will be pleased to observe that I admire many things in his learned Remarks. This poem is an innocent effort of poetical vengeance, as Mr Catcott has done me the honour to criticise my Trifles.’
At the same time, Chatterton was also writing this, for his own private satisfaction:
Since we can die but once, what matters it,
If rope or garter, poison, pistol, sword, Slow-wasting sickness or the sudden burst Of valve arterial in the noble parts Curtail the miseries of human life? Tho’ varied is the Cause, the Effect’s the same: All to one common Dissolution tends.
And yet, all the while, the tonsured figure of Thomas Rowley was walking through the streets of Bristol or brooding by the apprentice’s chair in the office of John Lambert. Through Rowley’s eyes the scorn and enmity of authority, and the imminent threat of death, were transmuted. They assumed a bold narrative line which gloried in the simplicity of the issues at stake, and, as in ‘The Death of Sir Charles Bawdin’, marched forward in that hypnotic pageantry of primal emotions which the medieval ballad traditionally invokes:
King Edward’s soule rush’d to his face,
He turned his hedde away, And to his broder Gloucester He thus did speke and say:
‘To him that so-much-dreaded Death
Ne ghastlie terrors bringe, Behold the manne! He spake the truth He’s greater thanne a Kinge!’
‘So let him die!’ Duke Richard sayde;
‘And may echone our foes
Bend down they’re neckes to bloudie axe
And feede the carrion crowes.’
And now the horses gentlie drewe
Sir Charles up the highe hille; The axe did glyster in the sunne, His precious bloode to spille.
It was Coleridge, the great admirer of Chatterton, who wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner some twenty years later.
Chatterton tried other outlets. He sent a copy of an ‘original’ piece of a medieval painting catalogue to Horace Walpole in London. After an exchange of correspondence, Walpole somewhat callously rebuffed the young poet on the grounds that his material seemed suspect. Walpole, who had recently achieved a succès de scandale with his faked Castle of Otranto, should have known better. He suffered for it later. Chatterton had more success with the London publisher Dodsley of Pall Mall; and in May of 1769 he even managed to place one of his ‘medieval’ Eclogues in the newly founded Town and Country magazine. It made him increasingly restless. He chafed at Lambert’s office. He flung out extended satires with titles like ‘The Whore of Babylon’ and shocked many Bristol worthies by his bitter and scurrilous attacks. He took to producing execrable love-poetry, elephantine in its sub-Miltonic ornament, for his friends – his cap acquaintances – to give to their current amours. One can imagine how choicely it amused him. Possibly he had an affair himself. There was a certain Miss Ramsey. But time seemed to be running out. In the late summer of 1769, two of his intimates died. The first was Thomas Phillips, the extent of whose contribution and support we shall never know. Chatterton wrote a long elegy to him, but the pain was too close, and for the most part it is numb. There is one place, however, where a moment of intense atmospheric and visual sharpness breaks through, presaging Chatterton’s final achievement in the amazing ‘African Eclogues’ he was to write in the last weeks in London. The passage describes the shuffling figure of Winter who carries the frozen landscape about his shoulders like a cloak; perhaps also it describes a final vision of Phillips; or even of that other, inward Thomas, Thomas Rowley who was so blasted by the chill reception of a modern and indifferent Bristol:
Pale rugged Winter bending o’er his tread,
His grizzled hair bedropt with icy dew; His eyes, a dusky light congeal’d and dead, His robe, a tinge of bright etherial blue.
His train a motley’d sanguine sable cloud,
He limps along the russet dreary moor, Whilst rising whirlwinds, blasting keen and loud, Roll the white surges to the sounding shore.
The other friend was Peter Smith. He committed suicide.
Chatterton sat out the winter of 1769–70. Now he was seventeen. In April he made his bid for London, propelled by a moment of crisis which seems to have been partly stage-managed and partly genuine. As ever, the ambivalent mixture. ‘Between 11 and 2 o’clock’ on the evening of Saturday April the 14th, ‘in the utmost distress of mind’ Chatterton dashed off his ‘Will’ containing both verse and prose, with the clear indication that he intended to commit suicide: ‘If after my death which will happen tomorrow night before eight o’clock, being the Feast of the Resurrection, the Coroner and Jury bring it in Lunacy, I will and direct that Paul Farr Esq and Mr John Flower, at their joint expense, cause my body to be interred in the Tomb of my Father’s …’ This document was discovered by John Lambert on his clerk’s desk, and Chatterton was hastily hunted out, appeased, and released from his articles with the attorney, thus freeing him from all obligations in Bristol. Neither Lambert nor anyone else appears to have picked up the element of angry satire and pure youthful outrage which so clearly motivated Chatterton’s writing: ‘This is the last Will and Testament of me Thomas Chatterton, of the city of Bristol; being sound in body, or it is the fault of my last Surgeon; the soundness of my mind, the Coroner and Jury are to be judges of, desiring them to take notice, that the most perfect Masters of Human Nature in Bristol distinguish me by the title of the Mad Genius; therefore, if I do a mad action, it is conformable to every action of my life, which savour’d of insanity.’ Chatterton unfurls the idea of insanity like a battle flag: he shakes it under the nose of his elders, slyly mocking their own provincial limitations, their own humdrum eighteenth-century commercial notions of ‘Human Nature’. One recognizes a quality of icily controlled desperation. ‘Insanity’ was also his flag of freedom. Released from Lambert’s drudgery, his copy of ‘Æella’ sold to the obliging Catcott for a few paltry guineas, leave taken of his many cap acquaintances and firm promises of success made to his mother and sister, Chatterton caught the Bristol stage and journeyed up to the capital in a snow-storm.
The last four months of Chatterton’s life, those spent in London between the end of April and the end of August 1770, are the most closely documented of all, with some dozen extant letters of his to Bristol, and the material accumulated by Herbert Croft and published in Love and Madness (1780), from interviews with Chatterton’s landladies and fellow lodgers. The many essays and quirky ‘character’ tales which he contributed at this time to London journals also throw a vivid though oblique light on his changing fortunes. His two extraordinary ‘African Eclogues’, with their unique sense of tropical sweltering claustrophobia and almost hallucinogenic visions of tribal violence, are dated in May and June. And the last and greatest Rowley poem, ‘The Excelente Balade of Charitie’, belongs with certainty to the very end. The picture forms a coherent dramatic whole, though with a number of poignant and tragic omissions. It is the eye of the myth inherited, and then misinterpreted, by the Romantics.
The remaining chronology is simple. Chatterton first stays near relations in Shoreditch (the helpful Mrs Ballance); later, in June, he moves to seedier lodgings in Brooke Street, Holborn. He sells a Burletta to the Marylebone Gardens for five guineas, but it is not performed. He catches a ‘cold’, then apparently gets better. He writes songs, more journalism, works all night but earns nothing. His landlady offers him meals. He writes to Barrett that he wants to become a ship’s surgeon. He has conversations with Mr Cross, the corner chemist. He appears hungry; people see him less frequently. On the 25th of August 1770 his door is broken open and, in the words of the Coroner, he is found ‘to have swallowed arsenic in water, on the 24th of August, and died in consequence thereof, the next day’. Barrett’s account is as follows: ‘He took a large dose of opium, some of which was picked out from between his teeth after death, and he was found the next morning, a most horrid spectacle, with limbs and features distorted as after convulsions, a frightful and ghastly corpse. Such was the horrible catastrophe of T. Chatterton, the producer of Rowley and his poems to the world.’ At the end he even confused the surgeons.
3 ‘The Muses have no Credit here’
Yet that was nothing as compared with the confusion of the London literati. The first of ‘Rowley’s Poems’ appeared in an anonymous pirated edition of 1772, price half-a-crown; and five years later in 1777 the first major and authoritative collection appeared with over 300 pages of poems and a scholarly Introduction by Mr Tyrwhitt: ‘Poems, Supposed to have been written at Bristol, by Thomas Rowley’. Thereafter a steady flow of new editions, new Commentaries, new Appendices and Remarks and Observations set up something like a Chatterton Industry. (He even became voguish – ‘Chatterton handkerchiefs’ were sold in the street as ladies’ favours.) The confusion arose initially because the literary detection and polemics on the ‘Rowley or Chatterton’ issue rapidly became the prime aspect of the Chatterton affair. Very few writers attempted to make any estimate of the value of the poems themselves; almost no one considered the impact of Chatterton’s mixture of Gothic and simplistic styles and material on the hard, intricate, neo-classic sheen of contemporary verse; and no one at all realized the immense symbolic potential such a prodigy-poet, such a miracle of youth and ‘inspiration’ and inward, hidden creativity, would give to the later poets and theorists of the Romantic revolution. They were limited to their urbane and London-centred concepts of poetry, and they did not see what had happened. They did not see that already in Chatterton the eighteenth-century ‘cool’ intellect had been disestablished in favour of remote landscapes and distant provincial tones – the West Country, and shortly Cumberland, the Lowlands of Scotland, Northamptonshire (Coleridge, Wordsworth, Burns, Clare), and ultimately Italy and Greece (Keats, Shelley, Byron, Landor, Browning). This was later to be summed up in the feeling that went about among the poets that London, which had received and nourished Dryden, Pope and Johnson, had rejected and murdered Chatterton. London had turned her face away. The poets never really trusted London again until the 1890s, when gangling and fragile men like Ernest Dowson and Lionel Johnson began to woo her once more in an effete but insistent manner, telling her that she was as beautiful and mysterious as Paris after all, and drinking themselves stupid in her dingier bars.
The greatest critics of the time were deeply perplexed. Chatterton had broken the rules. He was too young. He was dishonest. He was a provincial. Worst of all, he was ‘uneducated’, lower class, a charity-school boy and an attorney’s clerk. The matter was impossible. In their judgements of his work, they found they were having to take into account both his circumstances and his youth, and this galled them because it was highly irregular and had nothing to do with the accepted neo-classical standards of aesthetic achievement. Indeed, their position is curiously close to the exclusive aesthetic orthodoxy of criticism today.
Thus Dr Johnson is recorded in 1776 by Anna Seward in one of his inimitable peremptory outbursts: ‘Pho, child! Don’t talk to me of the powers of a vulgar uneducated stripling. He may be another Stephen Duck. It may be extraordinary to do such things as he did, with means so slender; – but what did Stephen Duck do, what could Chatterton do, which, abstracted from the recollection of his situation, can be worth the attention of Learning and Taste? Neither of them had opportunities of enlarging their stock of ideas. No man can coin guineas, but in proportion as he has gold.’ The last remark somehow makes one wince: it had a tragic and literal application to Chatterton’s case, and the droptic Doctor – who had himself started out as a local schoolmaster – should have had more feeling than to use it. The ideals of ‘Learning and Taste’ take on a sharply elitist and self-complacent quality in this context; though they are powerful enough elsewhere. Most important, however, is the underlying argument: that something called ‘genius’ cannot be produced out of a hat – it requires a special milieu and a special training in which the ‘stock of ideas’ can be enlarged. These Chatterton did not, in the Doctor’s opinion, have; and hence, gold could not be coined from air. Johnson did in fact visit Chatterton’s birthplace, and it would be fascinating to know just how large a range of ‘ideas’ he imagined could be absorbed there, and just what his impressions of the milieu were.
At any rate, worthy of the attention of Learning and Taste it emphatically was not. Johnson’s opinion is still a representative one.
The opinion of Thomas Warton, poet laureate and equally weighty judgement, also implicitly condemned Chatterton for his lack of maturity and of ‘correct’ training and situation. Nevertheless, Warton’s attitude in the second edition of his monumental History of English Poetry (1776) is strikingly different to Johnson’s in that he at least appreciated how remarkably Chatterton had broken the rules and dazzled normal expectation: ‘Chatterton’, he surmised, ‘will appear to have been a singular instance of prematurity of abilities: to have acquired a store of general information far exceeding his years, and to have possessed that comprehension of mind, and activity of understanding, which predominated over his situation in life and his opportunities of instruction.’ In fact this is a judgement of an altogether different calibre, for in that slightly nebulous phrase – ‘the comprehension of mind, and activity of understanding’ – Warton is genuinely trying to reach for some (ultimately Romantic) concept of innate imaginative ability by which Chatterton could have reached out beyond his immediate limitations. All the same, Warton was no Lakelander but had the moral bottom of his age. He disapproved. In his final summary, he says this: ‘He was an adventurer, a professed hireling in the trade of literature, full of projects and inventions, artful, enterprising, unprincipled, indigent, and compelled to subsist by expedients.’ This was the same Chatterton that Keats was to call a ‘flow’ret’, blasted by cruel winds.
But fundamentally these opinions lack any awareness of the extraordinary dual relationship that Chatterton developed and acted out with his surroundings and native city, Bristol. For Bristol, in the present, was the focus for all his outrage and contempt; while Bristol, in the late-medieval past, was the projection of everything he loved and desired and imagined.
Historically, Chatterton’s Bristol of the 1760s was the second city in the kingdom, renowned – as say Birmingham is today – for its raw mercantile spirit, seething with new commercial enterprises; it was a city dominated by the power of local trading interests, and famed for its street riots, its civic pageants, its rowdy bought elections. There was a continuous cycle of demolition and new building, and the population was around 45,000 and increasing. The first recorded lock-out in England occurred in Bristol in 1762; and guild festivals, burnings in effigy of politicians and prize-fighting were all popular pastimes. Many of the streets were still unnavigably narrow, and goods traffic was often restricted to the same horse-drawn sleds which pulled Sir Charles Bawdin to his execution; now, however, they moved at high and unceremonious pace. Many shop doors and windows were hung with offensive advertisement sheets and boards; and one visitor complained that every single shop-boy seemed to be wearing silk stockings. Pope described it distastefully as ‘if Wapping and Southwark were ten times as big, or all their people ran into London’. The poet Richard Savage – who died there in misery and penury – apotheosed it as a city of
Upstarts and mushrooms, proud relentless hearts,
Thou blank of Sciences, thou dearth of Arts!
Living in such a city, it seems even more remarkable that Chatterton should have spent his time engrossed in old documents, or mooning round the shadowy vaulted nave of St Mary Redcliff reading the brasses, or gazing vacantly at the then blunted spire from nearby Temple Meads. But that, we know, is what he did.
A particularly vivid account was taken by Dr Milles from William Smith, a Colston Hall friend, and brother of the Peter Smith who committed suicide. ‘Chatterton was very fond of walking in the fields,’ he recorded, ‘and particularly in Redcliffe meadows; of talking with (Smith) about these MSS and reading them to him: “You and I” (says he) “will take a walk in Redcliff meadow, I have got the cleverest thing for you that ever was: it is worth half a crown to have a sight of it only, and to hear me read it to you.” He would then produce and read the parchment. He used to fix his eyes in a kind of reverie on Redcliff church, and say “this steeple was once burnt by lightning; this was the place where they formerly acted plays” ‘ (Dr Milles, Rowley, 1782). Chatterton’s ability to bring to life and dramatize the inanimate remnants of the past, even to display them to his friends as something still magically active in the present, is an essential element in the imagination which dramatized itself as Thomas Rowley. In this, St Mary Redcliff is a central feature, a palpable proof of both historical and psychological continuity. In these last two stanzas of Rowley’s second poem ‘Onn Oure Ladies Chyrche’, one can see exactly how Chatterton brings the stone to life:
Thou seest this mastrie of a human hand,
The pride of Bristowe and the Westerne lande,
Yet is the Builders vertues much moe greate
Greater than can by Rowlies pen be scande.
Thou seest the saints and kinges in stonen state,
That seemd with breath and human soule dispande:
As pared to us enseem these men of slate,
Such is greate Conynge’s minde when pared to God elate.
[dispande – swelling, expanding
pared – compared]
and then, his anger at the cheap mercantile and mediocre ambitions of his contemporary Bristolians rises also to Rowley’s tongue and is there transformed:
Well mayest thou be astounde, but viewe it well;
Go not from hence before thou see thy fill
And learn the Builders vertues and his name;
Of this tall spire in every countye tell
And with thy tale the lazing rich men shame.
Showe how the glorious Canynge did excelle,
How he good man a friend for kinges became
And glorious paved at once the way to heaven and fame.
For this Chatterton has condensed a stanza from Spenser, but with a characteristic and brilliant addition of a final clarion alexandrine which gives a tone at once both proud and deeply nostalgic. It is interesting to note the word on which the last stress of the completed poem falls, and settles.
These qualities of pride, nostalgia and hard ambitious anger probably find their finest expression in Rowley’s ‘Ælla: A Tragycal Enterlude’ with its high chivalric story-line and firmly localized Bristol setting. In the ‘Song to Ælla’ which forms a Prologue, Chatterton suddenly creates a beautiful and haunting melodic cadence of differing line-lengths, surging outwards and falling softly back, which is so far from the automated verse-movements of the eighteenth century, and so completely and richly Romantic in its uncircumscribed flux of emotions, that one begins to see why Keats and Rossetti held him in such special reverence. The bold Gothic effect of coloured violence is uniquely Chatterton’s.
Oh thou, or what remaines of thee,
Ælla, the darlynge of futurity,
Lett this mie songe bolde as thy courage be
As everlastynge to posteritie.
When Dacia’s sons, whose haires of bloode redde hue
Like kinge-cuppes brastinge withe the morning dew
Arrang’d in dreare array
Upon the lethale day
Spred far and wide on Watchets shore;
Then dydst thou furiouse stande
And by thy valiante hande
Beesprengedd all the mees withe gore.
The best comment ever made on Rowley’s curious language and spelling is by the modernist Irish poet, Austin Clarke. How often only a poet understands how another poet has worked. Clarke said: ‘To Chatterton, these bristling consonants and double vowels were like the harness and martial gear of medieval days. Plain words, mailed in strange spellings, might move like knights in full armour amid the resounding panoply of war.’
But for Chatterton in the other mercantile Bristol, the war was bitterly direct, and the weaponry of style was brittle and contemporary. There he did not summon up the gentle imaginative influence of Spenser, but instead he turned to radical political figures like Robert Wilkes and to Wilkes’ comrade in letters, the coarse and fluent satirist, Charles Churchill. So it came about that the poet who could lie gazing in Redcliff meadows and produce the hymn to ‘Oure Ladies Chyrche’, could also within a few months produce ‘The Whore of Babylon’. This is perhaps the liveliest of his many satirical sorties, clubbing right and left with his blunt-ended couplets. The formal subject is an attack on the Bishop of Bristol, on Lord Bute, and a good selection of King George III’s more obnoxious ministers; it is packed with names and slanders and scurrilities, and lasts unflaggingly for 500 lines. Towards the end Chatterton makes a decisive attack on the attitudes he abhorred – (Rowley nodding appreciatively in the background):
The Muses have no Credit here, and Fame
Confines itself to the Mercantile Name; Then clip Imagination’s wings, be wise, And great in Wealth, to real Greatness rise. Or if you must persist to sing and dream, Let only Panegyric be your theme: Make North a Chatham, cannonize his Grace, And get a Pension or procure a Place.
Damn’d narrow Notions! tending to disgrace
The boasted Reason of the Human Race. Bristol may keep her prudent Maxims still, But know, my saving Friends, I never will. The Composition of my Soul is made Too great for servile avaricious Trade – When raving in the Lunacy of Ink I catch the pen and publish what I think.
The final couplet gives a memorable picture, although the scholar E. H. Meyerstein discovered in 1930 how extremely closely Chatterton sometimes imitated Churchill, and that the couplet in question is a rather neat summary of three lines from Churchill’s poem ‘Gotham’. Just such a scholarly point brings us back to Dr Johnson’s ‘uneducated stripling’. It demonstrates that Chatterton had always been enlarging his stock of ideas on his own. Colston Hall or Lambert’s attorney office did not really touch him. Instead, Chatterton performed his own intellectual odyssey in the circulating libraries of the town, and in the imaginative life of Thomas Rowley. ‘The dead live there and move like winds of light on dark and stormy air.’ His education was an intense and personal drama in which he entered as the major actor. Chatterton faced the idea of all passively received knowledge with gestures of derision that, from a sixteen-year-old, sting with a wholly modern arrogance:
O Education, ever in the wrong,
To thee the curses of mankind belong; Thou first great author of our future state, Chief source of our religion, passions, fate … Priestcraft, thou universal blind of all, Thou idol, at whose feet all nations fall, Father of misery, origin of sin, Whose first existence did with Fear begin …
That particular attack on priestcraft was probably picked up from the seventeenth-century radical political poet, Fulke Greville; another proof of Chatterton’s range, for he must have read Greville’s play Mustapha.
James Thistlethwaite, who has already had much to say on his school-friend’s ‘inordinate vanity’, had even more to say on the fantastic range of Chatterton’s obscure researches. (This was also to be an outstanding trait in Rimbaud, who turned to alchemy.)
In the course of the year 1768 and 1769 – Chatterton being between 15 and 16 years old – wherein I frequently saw and conversed with C., the eccentricity of his mind, and the versatility of his disposition, seem to have been singularly displayed. One day he might be found busily employed in the study of Heraldry and English Antiquities, both of which are numbered amongst the most favourite of his pursuits; the next, discovered him deeply engaged, confounded, and perplexed, amidst the subtleties of metaphysical disquisition, or lost bewildered in the abstruse labyrinth of mathematical researches; and these in an instant again neglected and thrown aside to make room for astronomy and music, of both which sciences his knowledge was entirely confined to theory. Even physics was not without a charm to allure his imagination, and he would talk of Galen, Hippocrates, and Paracelsus, with all the confidence and familiarity of a modern empirick.
Thistlethwaite, it should be pointed out, considered himself to be something of a bard at this time, and was renowned for striding around Bristol with a pair of pistol-butts sticking out of his pockets. But allowing for his love of flourish – perfectly displayed in the peacock struttings of these sentences – the picture of Chatterton in his jackdaw enthusiasm, his frantic and undaunted explorations into whatever caught his fancy and then perhaps his imagination, is tremendously compelling. It is also recognizably provincial and oddly unbalanced. It is not what Matthew Arnold, a hundred years later, would confidently describe as ‘of the centre’. It is peculiar. It contains the essential dissenting element, the waywardness, the impatience, the somehow attractive pigheadedness, of the radical innovator. It also contains the delinquent, the social outcast.
There would be something about the eyes; they would be over-bright, incalculable.
4 ‘This group of dirty-faced wits’
Chatterton was solitary in Bristol and in London, but he was never alone. In fact all his life he had the gift of striking up acquaintances; people were fascinated by him, although in the long run one gains the strong impression that most people were uneasy with him and disliked him. His letters from London to Bristol often include a positive confetti of greetings to old school-friends and ladies of the green. But they contain as well this telling aside: ‘My youthful acquaintances will not take it in dudgeon that I do not write oftener to them, than I believe I shall: but as I had the happy art of pleasing in conversation, my company was often liked, where I did not like: and to continue a correspondence under such circumstances would be ridiculous.’ What is telling is of course the way he says it.
Chatterton did not feel diffident about seeking help and interest from men of experience and influence either. When, in an ironic and somewhat posturing exchange of letters, Horace Walpole rebuffed him and his ‘antiquities’ in the spring of 1769, it seems clear that Walpole was considerably pinched by a sixteen-year-old addressing him as an equal, a presumption which he found ‘singularly impertinent’. Chatterton later recounted the affair to an adult relation – Mr Stephens of Salisbury – in the very coolest and most casual of manners: ‘Having some curious Anecdotes of Painting and Painters, I sent them to Mr Walpole, Author of “Anecdotes of Painting”, “Historic Doubts” and other pieces, well known in the learned world. His answer I make bold to send you. Hence I began a Literary correspondence, which ended as most such do. I differed with him in the age of a MS. He insists on his superior talents, which is no proof of that superiority. We possibly may engage in one of the periodical publications; though I know not who will give the onset …’ This was written when Chatterton was about sixteen and a half. What is quite breathtaking is the discipline and absolute outward control in retelling what had actually been his first major rejection by the London cognoscenti, a bitter blow. Most aspiring adolescents would have fallen into passionate recriminations. But Chatterton: ‘which ended as most such do.’
This control, this inner hardness, is certainly paramount in his relations with his two redoubtable patrons, Catcott and Barrett; and he seems to have exercised it generally in his choice of friends and his maintenance of a deliberate distance between them and himself. A list of these friends, published in Robert Southey’s edition of 1803, is particularly fascinating in that it shows their jobs and professions, giving a striking proof of Chatterton’s intellectual isolation. Part of the list reads as follows: ‘T. Skone, a surgeon; Thomas Cary, pipe maker; H. Kator, sugar baker; W. Smith, a player; M. Mease, vintner; Mr Clayfield, distiller; Mr William Barrett, surgeon; Mr George Catcott & Mr Burgum, pewterers and partners; The Rev. Alexander Catcott, antiquarian; John Rudhall, apothecary; Carty, woollen-draper; Hanmer, grocer; Capel, jeweller; James Thistlethwaite, stationer.’ Altogether there are twenty-seven names. Further, it will be remembered that in their letters of reminiscences collected by Herbert Croft and Robert Southey, none of them – Thistlethwaite, Thomas Cary, Smith, John Rudhall – felt there was the least chance that Rowley and Chatterton could possibly have been the same.
Neither did Catcott and Barrett. But their position is a good deal more ambiguous.
To Barrett next, he has my thanks sincere
For all the little knowledge I had here.
But what was knowledge? Could it here succeed?
When scarcely twenty in the town can read.
With one exception (the Eclogue published in The Town and Country in May 1769), all the Rowley poems were first obtained direct from Chatterton by either Catcott or Barrett. (About the forgery aspect: only two of the forty-two ‘original parchments’ had by the British Museum after Barrett’s death turned out to contain poetry; the rest were prose pieces, catalogues, heraldic designs and drawings. All the other poetry exists only in Chatterton’s undisguised ‘copies’.) The character and motives of these two men are intriguing. Barrett is faintly sinister. A retired surgeon living in a comfortable house on the banks of the Avon, he was immersed in local antiquarian studies for his proposed ‘History of Bristol’. He thus had considerable personal interest in Chatterton’s MSS, and published them in his ‘History’ several years after the poet’s death as bona fide documents, although by then their validity was clearly very doubtful. It is ironic that Chatterton, and not he, should be called dishonest. There is something cold about the man, and one does not like to think of them together. ‘Mr Barrett adds, that he often used to send for him from the Charity-School (which is close to his house) and differ from him on purpose to make him earnest, and to see how wonderfully his eye would strike fire, kindle, and blaze up …’ There is also that curious reference in Chatterton’s Will: ‘Being sound in body, or it is the fault of my last Surgeon’. There is no proof whatsoever that this was a disguised reference to Barrett; but once it has been noticed, one cannot help wondering if it might have been. The significance is both comic and unpleasant.
Barrett’s friend, George Catcott the pewterer – the only person in Bristol who ever paid Chatterton for his work – was altogether different. Chatterton called him ‘Catgut’. He stammered and liked loud poetical recitation; he was impetuous and eccentric, partially humpbacked, totally unabashed. In his shop he once spat in the eye of a customer, ‘because he had a propensity’. He had a mania for ‘pre-eminence’ and getting in the news that must have delighted Chatterton. He once transported himself across the skeleton of the new Bristol Bridge on a donkey because he desired to be recorded as the first man ever to cross over it. He also dragged himself up by a rope to the top of the new spire of St Nicholas, in order to have the honour of placing one of his pewter plates (commemorating the deed) in the unfinished stonework at the 200-foot summit. The story goes that when this had been achieved, the workmen removed the rope – ‘the bargain being for going up only’. All these and many other glorious deeds, Chatterton recorded in a lively satiric poem entitled ‘Happiness’. Catgut wore fistfuls of ostentatious rings, the largest being a carnelian representing the profile of Charles I. What grotesquely distorted reflections were he and Barrett of Rowley’s fatherly, distinguished and beloved patron William Canynges:
Catcott is very fond of talk and fame;
His wish a perpetuity of name … Incomparable Catcott, still pursue The seeming Happiness thou hast in view; Unfinish’d chimnies, gaping spires complete, External fame on oval dishes beat; Ride four-inch bridges, clouded turrets climb, And bravely die – to live in after-time. Horrid idea! if on rolls of fame The twentieth century only find thy name … On matrimonial pewter set thy hand, Hammer with evr’y power thou canst command, Stamp thy whole self, original as ‘tis To propagate thy whimsies, name and phyz – Then, when the tottering spires or chimnies fall A Catcott shall remain admir’d by all.
This sort of comic and occasional verse gives a clue to the sump of literary sub-life in which posturing poetasters like the stationer Thistlethwaite wallowed, and which Chatterton seems both to have arrogantly disdained and to have frequently utilized for his own purposes. In the June 1771 edition of The Town and Country, an anonymous correspondent – possibly Cary – gives a lively description of this local Bristol scene which was already coming into some national prominence as a result of Chatterton’s death. (This was one of E. H. Meyerstein’s most notable discoveries.) It is from this that Chatterton had made his bid to escape:
Nor are we altogether without literary improvements, a fondness for which seems to be infused even in the lower classes of society; amongst other refinements, there is started up a set of geniuses, who call themselves a Spouting Club … These disciples of Melpomene choose to keep their scheme as private as the nature of the undertaking will admit, as many of the principal performers are still in their non-age, and servants by covenant for a certain term; but like lads of spirit, detest control, scorn the drudgery of dirty mechanics, and pant for fame in the more glorious fields of literature … In this group of dirty-faced wits, are three or four Authors and Poets, who have already composed, or at least transposed, more verses than Dryden or Pope ever wrote, and with much more elegance and fire, as these prodigies of erudition, their fellow members, very confidently assert. The effusions of their brains are eclogues, elegies, epigrams, epitaphs, odes and satires, with the last of which they keep their neighbours in awe; for if a man by any transaction has rendered himself ridiculous, these wits immediately published his folly in a lampoon, by setting his name at the top of a halfpenny publication called A New Copy of Verses, to the great diversion of themselves and the public …
This is in many ways a locus classicus: a phenomenon like Chatterton is never isolated; however exceptional, he is the product of a definite social ambience. In the Spouting Club of 1771 one recognizes many of his characteristics continuing to exist in less extraordinary form. Moreover, it is fascinating to see that in another twenty years’ time the situation in Bristol had been almost revolutionized from a literary point of view. For this became the city where Coleridge and Robert Southey planned the Panti-socratic society on the banks of the Susquehanna; and from where Southey wrote back to his London publishers – ‘Bristol deserves panegyric instead of satire. I know of no mercantile place so literary.’ It is bitterly ironic that Chatterton should be so largely responsible for Bristol’s salvation in the eyes of the metropolis. He himself had written from London in May 1770: ‘Bristol’s mercenary walls were never destined to hold me – there, I was out of my element. Now I am in it – London! Good God! How superior is London to that despicable place Bristol – here is none of your little meannesses, none of your mercenary securities, which disgrace that miserable hamlet.’
Alone among Chatterton’s Bristolians, perhaps one man perceived any of the poet’s true qualities. We know little enough about him except that Chatterton thought him an irredeemable bigot. He was Catgut’s elder brother, the Rev. Alexander Catcott. When the scholar-investigator, Michael Lort, first began to comb Bristol for evidence in the 1770s, the Rev. Catcott alone suspected the true authorship of Rowley. His penetrating comment is recorded by Lort: ‘A. Catcott told me that, his suspicions being awakened, Chatterton was aware of this, and much on his guard; he had a large full grey eye, the most penetrating Mr (sic) Catcott had ever seen, and the eye of his understanding seemed no less penetrating. He would catch hints and intelligence from short conversations, which he would afterwards work up, and improve, and cover up in such a manner that an attentive and suspicious person only could trace them back to the source from whence he derived them.’
Later, Keats would call a process, very similar to this one, Negative Capability. The anvil and smithy of his brain.
5 ‘The pale children of the feeble sun’
In the only fragment of his last letter from London in August 1770 that has survived, Chatterton said: ‘I am about to quit my ungrateful country. I shall exchange it for the deserts of Africa, where tigers are a thousand times more merciful than man’ (quoted by Winslow, The Anatomy of Suicide, 1840). One thinks of Rimbaud.
Yet in these last four months, it becomes increasingly difficult to take any of Chatterton’s own words literally. His letters home are full of successes that never materialized. The sweltering heat of the narrow streets in summer along which he plodded, from editor to editor, seems to have filled his head with strange delusions and tropical visions. Africa, its heat and violence and beauty, is a continual theme with him, and produces the two magnificent ‘African Eclogues’:
On Tiber’s banks where scarlet jasmines bloom
And purple aloes shed a rich perfume; Where, when the sun is melting in his heat The reeking tygers find a cool retreat, Bask in the sedges, lose the sultry beam And wanton with their shadows in the stream. On Tiber’s banks, by sacred priests rever’d Where in the days of old a god appear’d – ‘Twas in the dead of night, at Chalma’s feast The tribe of Alta slept around the priest …
(‘The Death of Nicou’, June 1770)
Here, with phrases like ‘reeking tygers’ he reaches a new, exotic precision; one is tempted to call it a hallucinogenic power. It is probable that Chatterton began taking opium at this time, at first as an antidote to his ‘Cold’, and later perhaps as an antidote to reality. One of his last friends was Mr Cross, the chemist on the corner of Brooke Street; he once shared a barrel of oysters with him. Cross supplied him with a number of medicaments, and almost certainly opium. This is not in itself surprising. In the eighteenth century, and indeed well on into the nineteenth century, opium was used as a regular adult pain-killer and stimulant, usually taken in solution as laudanum. Toothaches, head-colds, stomach diseases, gout, rheumatism all yielded to the poppy; it was the exact equivalent of the modern barbiturate. Nevertheless, it seems as if Chatterton was in the end taking opium doses in direct powder or stick form – and that is hardly medicinal. A deep stain running through nineteen leaves of Chatterton’s London notebook was finally analysed in 1947. Dr Walls of South-Western Forensic Laboratory reported conclusive evidence: ‘I cut a piece out of the stain on the back page and tested this. It gives a positive reaction for opium alkaloid (i.e. morphine etc.).’
The relationship between drugs and artistic creativity is still obscure and has always been in dispute; the argument ranges from ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘The English Stage Coach’ (De Quincey) to The Naked Lunch and Kerouac’s peyote poems. In the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, a classic Romantic text in this respect, Keats classes drugs – ‘the dull opiates’ – with alcohol – ‘Bacchus and his pards’ – and Poesy as one of the three primary mediums of fantasy. While Rimbaud, making a fierce literal reading of Baudelaire, classes drugs with alcohol and sexual experience (preferably perverse, or at least exotic) as one of the primary means of the poet’s systematic and prolonged derangement of the senses. This is, however, literary and theoretical. In practice, drugs with their expense, their destruction of social relationships, their attendant physical diseases, and their inherent tendency to expand, distort and dissipate the senses into passivity of outlook (whereas all artistic effort requires concentration, sensual intensity and tremendous activity) – drugs make at best only a short-term partnership with creativity. Moreover they occupy the passive, or female, side of that partnership, providing relief rather than direct stimulus, providing the unconscious pool of images rather than the conscious netting and binding of images into actual artistic forms. (Some of these issues are discussed in Alethea Hayter’s book, Opium and the Romantic Imagination, 1968.)
All the same, in poetry the drug-supported and drug-fed imagination does produce quite characteristic and brilliant effects. Most notably, there is a combination of very bright, very minute, highdefinition images with a completely contrasting sense of entirely vague sweeping movements, undefined expanses and landscapes, and massive blurred shiftings of light and shade. In Chatterton’s earliest ‘African Eclogue’, which is dated Shoreditch May 2nd 1770, about a week or ten days after he had arrived in London, these characteristics are already recognizable. The poem is called ‘Narva and Mored’, the names of two young African lovers. The central passage begins:
Three times the virgin, swimming on the breeze,
Danc’d in the shadow of the mystic trees: When, like a dark cloud spreading to the view The first-born sons of War and Blood pursue. Swift as the elk they pour along the plain Swift as the flying clouds distilling rain Swift as the boundings of the youthful roe They course around and lengthen as they go. Like the long chain of rocks, whose summits rise Far in the sacred regions of the skies Upon whose top the black’ning tempest lours, Whilst down its side the gushing torrent pours, Like the long cliffy mountains which extend From Lorbar’s cave, to where the nations end, Which sink in darkness, thick’ning and obscure Impenetrable, mystic, and impure, The flying terrors of the war advance And round the sacred oak, repeat the dance.
The most extraordinary thing is the almost total dissolution of the formal eighteenth-century couplets into a rushing, shapeless, undirected torrent of images which gives free expression to the wildness and passion of the African tribal dance, as Chatterton understood and imagined it. The dance is both a dance of war by the tribesmen, and a dance of ecstatic sexual expectancy by the young virgin Mored (‘Black was her face, as Togla’s hidden cell, / Soft as the moss where hissing adders dwell’). It is so typical of Chatterton that Lorbar’s cave is impenetrable, mystic and impure. The love of Narva and Mored ends in simultaneous union and destruction: ‘Lock’d in each other’s arms, from Hyga’s cave, / They plunged relentless to a wat’ry grave’. If the passage reminds one of something else, it will turn out to be the opening section of Coleridge’s opium dream-poem ‘Kubla Khan’, written some thirty years later.
In these ‘African Eclogues’, as in the journalistic prose tales and articles Chatterton dashed off for money, and indeed in everything else he wrote during these last four months, one is continually coming across lines or whole passages which recall the reader – with a sudden frisson of horror and pity – to the situation Chatterton himself was in. The most terrible moment in ‘Narva and Mored’ is a single image which bubbles up in the seething flow of description for four lines, and then vanishes again without trace or explanation:
… Where the pale children of the feeble sun
In search of gold through every climate run,
From burning heat to freezing torments go
And live in all vicissitudes of woe …
But it is only in the last of the Rowley poems, ‘The Excelente Balade of Charitie’, that Chatterton seems to have produced a total equivalent of his condition, a complete symbolic enactment of his hopes and terrors. There is a superb equity in the fact that it was only Thomas Rowley, his double, his other self across three centuries, who could provide him with the material, the stance, and the final distancing to accomplish this most measured and beautiful and poignant of his works. The measuredness is particularly important. None of Chatterton’s subsequent critics or biographers seems to have realized just how unbalanced, how thoroughly peculiar Chatterton became in those first few weeks alone. The first two letters home are amusingly carried off, and reveal exactly the pride and rather disarming boastfulness one might have expected from him. The note is aptly struck in: ‘I get four guineas a month by one Magazine: shall engage to write a History of England, and other pieces, which will more than double that sum … I am quite familiar at the Chapter Coffee-House, and know all the geniuses there. A character is now unnecessary; an author carries his character in his pen.’ (That last remark is an interesting side-light on his use of personae at Bristol.)
But by the letter of May 14th, a kind of glittering wildness is coming over him: ‘Miss Rumsey, if she comes to London, would do well as an old acquaintance, to send me her address. – London is not Bristol. – We may patrole the town for a day, without raising one whisper, or nod of scandal. – If she refuses, the curse of all antiquated virgins light on her: may she be refused when she shall request! Miss Rumsey will tell Miss Baker, and Miss Baker will tell Miss Porter, that Miss Porter’s favoured humble, though but a young man, is a very old lover; and in the eight-and-fiftieth year of his age: but that, as Lappet says, is the flower of a man’s days; and when a lady can’t get a young husband, she must put up with an old bedfellow. I left Miss Singer, I am sorry to say it, in a very bad way; that is, in a way to be married. – But mum – Ask Miss Suky Webb the rest; if she knows, she’ll tell ye. – I beg her pardon for revealing the secret; but when the knot is fastened, she shall know how I came by it – Miss Thatcher may depend upon it, that, if I am not in love with her, I am in love with nobody else …’ And so on for another page or so, with Miss Love, Miss Cotton, Miss Broughton and Miss Watkins. It is still amusing stuff, but his imagination seems over-stimulated, the jokes and innuendoes and declarations spin out with a sort of exalted panic. It is also clear that he is very lonely, and he desperately hopes that Miss Rumsey will be coming to the city. A paragraph in the next letter, to his sister dated May 30th, ends with: ‘Humbly thanking Miss Rumsey for her complimentary expression, I cannot think it satisfactory. Does she, or does she not, intend coming to London? Mrs O’Coffin has not yet got a place; but there is not the least doubt but she will in a little time.’ The letter finished with a scrawled PS: ‘I am at this moment pierced through the heart by the black eye of a young lady, driving along in a hackney-coach – I am quite in love: If my love lasts ‘till that time, you shall hear of it in my next.’ It is throw-away, but rather revealing.
In these letters there is only one reference to Rowley (though several to St Mary Redcliff). It is an odd one. It shows that Rowley was on his mind, but it appears to be bidding him farewell as a companion. ‘As to Mr Barrett, Mr Catcott, Mr Burgum, &c., they rate literary lumber so low, that I believe an author, in their estimation, must be poor indeed! But here matters are otherwise; had Rowley been a Londoner, instead of Bristowyan, I could have lived by copying his works.’ In his characteristically ambiguous manner, Chatterton appears to be wondering if Rowley could in fact be turned into a Londoner: whether Rowley could survive outside the environment of medieval Bristol which created him, and could perhaps expand into more universal themes that would move far beyond the old localized settings. This is exactly what ‘The Balade of Charitie’ did do: there is no other Rowley poem with a more timeless setting and theme, and no other Rowley poem which has so finely absorbed the humane and observant style of Chaucer. The idea was to mature until July; a powerful island of calm amid Chatterton’s turmoil and uncertainty and distress.
Some time in June Chatterton left Shoreditch, and moved to the cheaper and seedier area of Holborn. He took an attic room in the second house along Brooke Street from the High Holborn end. It was an area of disrepute. Labourers from Ireland, criminals and prostitutes lived there. It was the home of the Cato Street conspiracy. Clergymen when they visited their flock in these streets were accompanied by bodyguards. Chatterton’s landlady was a Mrs Angel, a dressmaker. Dressmaking in that area was often synonymous with brothel keeping. Round the corner in Fox Court was where Richard Savage was born. Mr Cross kept his chemist shop on the corner. Even nowadays, with the pink neo-gothic edifice of the Prudential Insurance Building looming respectably along the right-hand side of the road, it is not a comforting street to be in. You cannot see enough sky.
In June the letters quickly began to get shorter. The one to his sister, dated June 19th, begins with a sudden sharpness. ‘Dear Sister, I have a horrid cold. – The relation of the manner of my catching it may give you more pleasure than the circumstance itself.’ His story tells of hanging out of his window in the middle of the night to listen to a drunken woman singing bawdy songs in the street below. It ends with a conclusion that seems, in the context, to have a fairly obvious double meaning. ‘However, my entertainment, though sweet enough in itself, has a dish of sour sauce served up in it; for I have a most horrible wheezing in the throat; but I don’t repent that I have this cold; for there are so many nostrums here, that ‘tis worth a man’s while to get a distemper, he can be cured so cheap.’ The man’s distemper referred to here is almost certainly some form of venereal disease.
Nineteenth-century scholarship has been prudishly silent on this point. As it was silent on Keats dosing himself with mercury for the same complaint. Not until Meyerstein’s book of 1930 was there any consideration of the likelihood that Chatterton might have caught venereal disease; although it was a very common and rather unremarkable fact of a young man’s life in the London of the time. Indeed, in the London of any young man’s time since Shakespeare. The matter would be quite insignificant if it were not for the entirely different light that it throws on the development of Chatterton’s drug-taking, and most important of all, in the actual circumstances of his death. There is only one authentic reference in this matter. It comes from Michael Lort, that shrewd scholar-investigator who had extracted a particularly interesting statement from the Reverend Catcott (see supra, p. 38), and whose manners were, according to Fanny Burney, ‘somewhat blunt and odd’. Michael Lort’s evidence is simply this: that he had cross-questioned the chemist Mr Cross, and ‘Mr Cross says he (Chatterton) had the Foul Disease which he would cure himself and had calomel and vitriol of Cross for that purpose. Who cautioned him against the too free use of these.’ It is tremendously significant. Chatterton ‘would cure himself’ – of course, that is in character. We know that Chatterton was fascinated by medical matters and had in the past borrowed many books on surgery from Barrett. He would look after himself; his pride, his hardness would demand it. Yet suppose things did not go quite according to plan? Suppose the disease, whatever its form, at first seemed merely to get worse; or suppose it disappeared and then recurred – which is often the case? Vitriol could be a long and very painful treatment, especially for someone of Chatterton’s age and in his difficult circumstances.
The crucial fact is, then, this: arsenic, in small regulated doses, could also be used as a more drastic cure for venereal disease; and opium could – rashly but understandably – be used as a pain-killer. Arsenic and opium simultaneously. The Coroner reported arsenic poisoning; Barrett the surgeon recorded evidence of opium, he assumed an overdose. If all these facts are true, then an entirely different picture begins to emerge. One is led to ask, is the tradition of 200 years quite wrong? Is this a case of suicide at all? Why, come to think of it, should Chatterton have left no suicide note, no Villonesque Last Will and Testament? (The only extant ‘Will’, as we have seen, was made four months previously, a device for escaping from Lambert’s.) Is it not possible, is it not really rather likely, that what happened on the night of the 24th of August was a tragic mistake, a terrible miscalculation? In fact did Chatterton ever surrender to his circumstances, to himself, to the soft Romantic gesture of Wallis’s painting? Did his angry courage ever break at all? These are difficult questions to answer. We may never have the evidence to answer them satisfactorily. The ambivalence may have gone with him into oblivion. But I think his death was a mistake.
If the inner life is doubtful to the end, Herbert Croft, the author of Love and Madness, discovered some vivid external impressions from his interviews with Chatterton’s last neighbours. The house where Chatterton lodged in Shoreditch was run by a plasterer and his wife, Mr and Mrs Walmsley. With them were two young relatives, a niece and a nephew. Also Mrs Ballance, whose acquaintance we have already made. After Mrs Ballance’s faux pas over ‘Tommy’, little seems to have passed between them. But Mrs Ballance had something to say about that silence too. ‘He would often look steadfastly in a person’s face, without speaking, or seeming to see the person, for a quarter of an hour or more, till it was quite frightful; during all this time (she supposes, from what she has since heard), his thoughts were gone about something else.’
The master of the household, Mr Walmsley, was less forthcoming. Yet a perfectly ordinary artisan’s opinion of a young poet who was to become the darling of the Romantics is not without what one might call sociological interest. ‘Mr Walmsley saw nothing of him, but that there was something manly and pleasing about him, and that he did not dislike the wenches.’ Chatterton would probably have been rather pleased with that description.
Mrs Walmsley, like all London landladies that ever were and ever will be, looked out for the more domestic virtues in her lodger; but was not without a streak of romance sweetly disguised in the depth of a doubtless ample bosom. She liked her young literary gentleman to have a bit of style. ‘Mrs Walmsley’s account is, that she never saw any harm of him – that he never mislisted her [“misled” her perhaps; or perhaps “mistressed” her?]; but was always very civil, whenever they met in the house by accident – that he would never suffer the room, in which he used to read and write, to be swept, because, he said, poets hated brooms.’ That seems rather to have tickled Mrs Walmsley, but she was certainly not going to admit it: ‘she told him she did not know any thing that poet folks were good for, but to sit in a dirty cap and gown in a garret, and at last to be starved.’ Secretly she may have even approved. ‘During the nine weeks he was at her house, he never stayed out after the family hours, except once, when he didn’t come home all night and had been, she heard, poeting a song about the streets.’ At which point Mrs Ballance rushes back into the breach to cover up for poor Tommy. ‘This night, Mrs Ballance says, she knows he lodged at a relation’s, because Mr W’s house was shut up when he came home.’
But that is only what the adults saw. Mrs Walmsley’s niece kept her eyes much wider open, and took something of a fancy to him; but she was puzzled by him, even slightly alarmed: ‘For her part, she always took him more for a mad boy than anything else, he would have such flights and vagaries – that, but for his face and her knowledge of his age, she should never have thought him a boy, he was so manly, and so much himself – that no women came after him, nor did she know of any connexion; but still, that he was a sad rake, and terribly fond of women, and would sometimes be saucy to her.’ His eating arrangements were peculiar too: ‘he ate what he chose to have with his relation (Mrs B) who lodged in the same house, but he never touched meat, and drank only water, and seemed to live on air.’ To that the nephew added: ‘he lived chiefly on a bit of bread, or a tart, and some water.’
The nephew, whose name Herbert Croft does not record, was probably the youngest in the house, younger even than Chatterton. For the first six weeks of Chatterton’s stay he shared a bedroom with him. ‘He used to sit up almost all the night, reading and writing … he (the nephew) was afraid to lie with him; for to be sure, he was a spirit, and never slept … he never came to bed till very late, sometimes three or four o’clock, and was always awake when he (the nephew) waked; and got up at the same time, about five or six – that almost every morning the floor was covered with pieces of paper not so big as sixpences, into which he had torn what he had been writing before he came to bed.’
The detail of the torn paper is interesting. It harks back to the Pyle Street schoolhouse where papers and parchments were scattered on tables and floors; it carries forward to the final scene in Brooke Street where the shredded papers were wrongly taken as evidence of a fit of despair. And it suggests so strongly and simply the immense inwardness and privacy which the act of composition, divided between himself and Rowley, had always contained for Chatterton: something so secretive it made him cover his tracks instinctively.
He gave no reason for quitting Shoreditch. ‘They found the floor of his rooms covered with little pieces of paper, the remains of his poetings, as they term it.’
In Brooke Street the track does run out. Croft never managed to trace Mrs Angel, his dress-making landlady. A certain Mrs Wolfe, a barber’s wife, who lived a few doors down, remembered one detail. ‘Mrs Angel told her, after his death, that, as she knew he had not eaten anything for two or three days, she begged he would take some dinner with her on the 24th of August; but he was offended at her expressions, which seemed to hint he was in want, and assured her he was not hungry.’ Somehow it rings true – one imagines how he would take offence. The other stories sound a bit like ingenious apocrypha. He was seen in a tavern drinking Shakespeare’s health in bad wine; he was seen in St Pancras churchyard reading the epitaphs; he was seen at the Brooke Street’s bakers being refused bread on tick.
Yet there is a grim and miraculous concordance between these final marginalia of his outward life, and the last and loveliest of Rowley’s visitations, ‘The Excelente Balade of Charitie’. In thirteen vivid and melodic stanzas, it tells of a poor ‘hapless pilgrim’ who has fallen on bad times and is now sick, poverty-stricken and destitute, his clothes threadbare and his body ravaged. He stands alone in a wide unlocated landscape, with a dark ponderous storm moving over the horizon towards him. ‘He had no housen theere, ne any convent nie.’ He shelters under a holm-oak. The storm breaks.
Liste! now the thunder’s rattling clymmynge sound
Cheves slowlie on, and then embollen clangs
Shakes the hie spyre, and losst, dispended, drown’d,
Still on the gallard eare of terrour hanges;
The windes are up; the lofty elmen swanges,
Agayn the levynne and the thunder poures,
And the full clouds are braste attenes in stonen showers.
By using the Rowley dialect and spelling with a wild freedom he had never before achieved, Chatterton here brings off one of the finest pieces of onomatopoeic poetry in the whole of English verse. It is quite unnecessary to know semantically what ‘clymmynge’ or ‘swangen’ mean; the sound, even the very look of the words tell you exactly what is happening, the power and terror of the storm.
The portrait of the pilgrim as he huddles under the oak is superb. It glows with a kind of transcendental pity for all men who are outcast or broken. It is almost as if Rowley were describing Chatterton in a vision of his own; as if the roles had been reversed:
Look in his glommed face: his sprighte there scanne;
Howe woe-be-gone, howe withered, forwynd, deade!
Haste to thy church-glebe-house, ashrewd manne!
Haste to thy kiste, thy only dortoure bedde.
Cold, as the clay which will gre on thy hedde,
Is Charitie and Love among high elves:
Knightis and Barons live for pleasure and themselves.
[A few words are difficult here, but not very: ‘forwynd’ means sapless; ‘ashrewd’ means cursed by fortune; ‘kiste’ is a coffin; and ‘dortoure’ is obviously a dormitory or bedroom.]
A figure now appears through the blasting storm, ‘spurreynge his palfry oer the watery plain’. It is an Abbott, and he is described with Chaucerian accuracy and judgement: ‘His cope was all of Lincoln clothe so fine, with a gold button fastened neere his chynne’, and his horse’s head has been plaited with roses. The pilgrim begs for aid, the Abbott – with the solemn inevitability of the medieval ballad – rudely refuses him. (‘Varlet, replied the Abbatte, cease your dinne; This is no season almes and prayers to give; My porter never lets a faitour [tramp] in.’) And he spurs away.
The storm breaks out with renewed ferocity. But through the downpour ‘faste reyneynge oer the plain a priest was seen’. This man is a poor friar, ‘Ne dighte full proude, ne buttoned up in golde; His cope and jape [gown] were gray, and eke were clene’. The pilgrim begs for alms; the friar immediately produces a silver groat from his pouch. ‘The mister pilgrim did for halline [joy] shake.’ Then with a marvellous unexpected gesture of generosity, the friar gives his cloak to the pilgrim. ‘Here take my semicope, thou arte bare I see; Tis thyne, the Seynctes will give me my reward.’ He disappears into the rain.
It is difficult to get out of one’s head the impression that Chatterton is in some primary symbolic sense that ‘unhailie pilgrim’; and the friar in grey who appears out of the storm and so freely gives aid is Thomas Rowley. Perhaps it makes no sense. But in this last known work, maybe precisely because it is the last known work, the figures move through the simple heraldic ritual of charity with a power much greater than their own individual humanity. The storm against them is all storms; it is the storm of circumstance, the storm of the mind, the storm of the body; it is the storm of passion, of creativity, of ambition, of loneliness. But there is no final despair; help comes, life is made out. There is no despair at Pyle Street, or at Colston Hall, or at Lambert’s drudging office; there is no despair at Shoreditch, or at Brooke Street in the attic.
Above all, the poet did not despair in the attic.
SO CHATTERTON gallantly passed me on to Shelley. For four years I was immersed in the travelling, dreaming and writing of his biography (as I have recounted in Footsteps). But once I had finished, or at least survived the book, every instinct told me to get away from London. I took the ferry to Calais in the winter of 1974. I remained in France on and off for two years, writing articles and reviews in a little attic room in the ninth arrondissement of Paris, at 9 rue Condorcet (not far from the boulevard Montmartre and the Marché Cadet) which is glimpsed in various disguises in the pieces of this section. I would walk down at night, in those pre-fax days, to mail my articles express (the magic dark blue sticker) back to London from the all-night Bureau de Poste near the Bourse. I was still lonely here, but I got to know Paris, the Île de France, and Normandy, and had my own romantic adventures which I now think left their shadow, or perfume, on these pieces.
But what I was looking for was the next subject, something which would take me directly into the heart of French Romanticism, among a later and very different group of artists and writers. Within a few months, I thought I had found it. What I had discovered was the great portrait collection of the nineteenth-century French photographer, Felix Nadar, in the Bibliothèque Nationale, which was then in the rue Richelieu, with its old pen-umbrous reading-room lit by green glass reading lamps at each desk. As I imply in this first piece, it seemed that Nadar would provide a wonderful opportunity for a biographic ensemble, the study of a whole Romantic generation, something extraverted and flashlit, full of melodrama and gaiety and humour.
But quite unexpectedly, my researches drew me in another direction. I came across a series of striking studio portraits of two literary colleagues, the journalist Théophile Gautier and the poet Gérard de Nerval. These men had been friends since childhood, attending the Lycée Charlemagne together in the boulevard Saint-Antoine in the 1820s, growing up as youthful disciples of Victor Hugo, and both making brilliant but very different careers in the Paris of Louis-Philippe, the 1848 insurrection, and the Second Empire. Outwardly, Gautier’s career was a triumph, ending as one of the great established Parisian men of letters: a poet, a highly paid columnist in the newspaper La Presse, an intimate of Flaubert, and patron to Baudelaire who dedicated Les Fleurs du Mal to him.
But Nerval’s life appeared to be a disaster, increasingly rootless and poverty-stricken, ending in a series of internments in an asylum in Passy and eventual suicide in an alley leading down to the river Seine. The stark contrast in their destinies seemed to me to tell an essential story about Romanticism. So I felt my way along the interwoven paths of their biographies, beginning with a first journalistic sketch of Gautier, like a mirror image, visiting London. I then assembled and translated a collection of his autobiographical fantasy tales, My Fantoms, and out of this collection arose the story of ‘Poor Pierrot’. Here was a haunting mythical figure from the Commedia dell’ Arte, who came literally to life in the career of the mime artist Deburau. This Pierrot’s biography had a sadness and sudden violence which foreshadowed Nerval’s.
But when I came directly to Nerval himself, I found the path of traditional biography blocked, for the reasons I have explained in Footsteps. I wrote a 400-page biography of the two friends, ‘Poets in Paris’, but it never cohered and I felt gradually that I was lost in a maze of shifting journeys and identities. I was lost in France. When I came back to England in 1976, all that seemed to remain was a kind of echo-chamber of voices in my head, a kind of fragmented sound-track of their friendship.
As a last effort to record those voices, and at least mark the fading contours of my research before they disappeared entirely, I wrote a radio-play in that odd hybrid but fascinating form of ‘drama-documentary’ which was eventually produced for Radio Three by Hallam Tennyson. (It was a strange production, almost surreal in its unsettling effect on the actors, with Timothy West – a big, solid, confident figure like Gautier – superbly transforming his voice into the slight, unstable, tortured Nerval.) This is the last piece in this section, although the story itself–and my wanderings in France – were far from over. The discovery of radio, as a vehicle for biographical story-telling, moving effortlessly inside and outside its characters’ minds, shifting with magical ease between different times and locations, was a revelation and an inspiration to me.
OPPOSITE THE GOLD AND DORIO of the modern Hôtel Scribe, about three minutes’ walk under the plane trees from the Place de l’Opéra, stands a crazed and yellowing façade of taciturn stucco, surmounted by a triplet of broken urns. This is 35 boulevard des Capucines, Paris 75008. It carries no plaque, no prefectural plate, no memorial. Yet there was a time when Victor Hugo, exiled in the Channel Islands, could have a letter delivered to this address with nothing more than the proprietor’s name on the envelope.
A hundred years ago, the building was red: a bright, republican red. Its top two floors consisted of studio rooms into which the morning sun poured unhindered, by a daring system of plate-glass windows set in a trellis of wrought-iron that curved gracefully across the entire façade. Its corniches were capped by alabaster busts of three generously proportioned Muses, and its roof cluttered by a series of glass sheds, not unlike greenhouses, interspersed somewhat eccentrically by pots of ferns and small Christmas trees in tubs. At pavement level, a constant coming and going of hired cabs and smart landaus, a dashing of commissionaires with giant parasols (also red), of strollers and gapers – les flâneurs de Paris – indicated some unusually attractive centre of business, art or scandal.
As night fell, and the street-lamps swaying from their iron gibbets filled the thoroughfare with a garish, orange gaslight, and the cab-lamps jerked down the uncertain asphalting of the boulevard, a great arc of clear white light, the output from fifty Bunsen Static Batteries linked in series, flooded down from the windows of number 35. This unearthly glow was occasionally punctuated by the livid flash from a pan of magnesium, which gave rise – not altogether unreasonably – to rumours of spirit-raising and necromancy.
Across the whole frontage, at the level of the third-storey balcony, in bold cursive lettering 10 feet high and 50 feet long, in a system of gas-tubes designed exclusively by Antoine Lumière, ran the proprietorial name: nadar. That too was in red.
In the 1860s Felix Nadar was certainly the most celebrated photographer in France. In retrospect, his reputation still stands with David Octavius Hill and Julia Margaret Cameron, as one of the three indisputably great portrait photographers of the nineteenth century. His famous atelier at number 35 boulevard des Capucines had long been linked with the pioneering days of French photography, since the time when it had been rented as an undecorated shell of a building, in a then unfashionable quarter, by the early landscape daguerreotypers, the frères Bisson, and the painter turned seascape photographer Gustave Le Gray, in the 1850s. The building was to conclude its controversial associations on a high note, when after the fall of the Second Empire, and the crushing tragedy of the Commune, Nadar moved to smaller premises, and hired the studio out to the ‘Société Anonyme des Artistes Peintres’ for a public exposition which became known to posterity as the First Impressionist Exhibition of 1874.
The aesthetic revolution brought about by the early photographers, and especially Nadar, was no less far-reaching than that achieved by the Impressionists. But the impact of photography on European society was too rapid, and too widespread, to be grasped at the time. The Impressionists asserted new standards of private, idiosyncratic vision, which penetrated only slowly, and among the elite of the art world. But photographers established, in little more than a decade, entirely new and universal ideas about visual reality, and about what everyone could commonly accept and recognize as ‘lifelikeness’. Photography was, from the start, irretrievably popular in its appeal and suspiciously democratic in its tendencies. Not surprisingly it took Paris by storm: in 1850 there were less than a dozen professional studios in the city; by the 1860s something over 200, with more than 33,000 people directly or indirectly employed. Of these, Nadar was the doyen.
Especially in these early days, photography gave rise to a host of questions and suspicions. Was the photographer an artist, or a scientist? Would he destroy painting? Would his portraits somehow dehumanize nature, and banish the soul? And how was it that photography, with all its mechanistic and chemical crudeness, had suddenly created a golden age of the human image? As Nadar himself put it with typical trenchancy: ‘Photography is a fantastic discovery: a science which engages the most advanced intellects, and an art which provokes the most profound minds: and yet its use lies within the capacity of the shallowest idiot.’
The story of Nadar’s early career is a reflection and to some extent an explanation of many of these issues. It is also a kind of comic-epic, continuously larger and more colourful than life, like his own person. For the Nadar who eventually occupied the boulevard des Capucines was 6 feet 4 inches tall, with blazing red hair once described by the poet de Banville as ‘comet’s fire’, and having for his motto the untranslatable Parisian shrug in the face of an intractable universe: mais, quand même!
In fact Felix Nadar created himself. As he was born in 1820, he was merely Felix Tournachon, the eldest son of a provincial printer and publisher from Lyons. After a long but unsuccessful attempt to establish a business in Paris, selling translations of radical texts by Diderot, d’Holbach and Lamennais, his father Victor Tournachon went bankrupt and returned to die at the Lyons asylum in 1837. Felix, forced at seventeen to assume responsibility for his mother and his younger brother Adrien, worked in the local Lyons journals and studied medicine at night. One story persisted in the memory about his father: he was once said to have swum the Rhône for a dare, carrying an open book in one hand, and a hunting horn – which he blew occasionally – in the other. A Byronic gesture perhaps; but also something more à la mode, a brilliant act of self-publicity.
Within a year Felix Tournachon had taken his mother and his brother back to Paris, his heart set on the grand conquest his father had attempted, but failed. He had no métier, but many schemes. Between 1838 and 1844, the years of the bourgeois monarch with the furled umbrella, Tournachon plunged into the life of the Left Bank. His story became that of Henri Murger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème (1849), the sloping attics of the sixth arrondissement, the cheap cafés round Notre Dame de Lorette, and the laundry girls and golden-hearted grisette of the quartier Breda.
A bewildering assortment of bad jobs and good contacts followed: stenographer, bookshop assistant, coalseller, pipeseller, cub reporter, private secretary, editorial hack. While writing theatre reviews for an ephemeral journal, he met Jean Duval – later Baudelaire’s mulatto mistress – stealing the show in a bit part at the Porte-Saint-Antoine, and they became friends. His newspaper work brought him into touch with Gautier, Nerval, de Banville, Murger himself (who frequently shared his attic and his purse), Baudelaire, Dumas père, Champfleury, and even Balzac, hiding out from creditors in a chamber hung with gentian wallpaper in the rue de Richelieu.
A somewhat weary police dossier was opened on him. ‘Yet another of those dangerous people sowing highly subversive doctrines in the Quartier Latin – he makes speeches about the Lamennaian socialist theory.’ He was also notorious for his wild, unbourgeois-like generosity.
Tournachon cut a remarkable figure in the narrow, cobbled streets – huge, gangling, red-headed, with long twitching fingers and staring impudent eyes. But it was some time before he settled upon his public image, a concept of singular importance to him. The journalist Charles Bataille first met him climbing down, with ostentatious stealth, from a fifth-floor attic in the rue Neuve des Martyres by the outside ‘like a huge scrawny cat’, presumably to avoid the concierge. Having reached the relative safety of terra firma, he arranged an eye-catching ‘bull’s blood’ jacket round his shoulders, pulled on an elegant pair of gloves and, carefully neglecting to button cuff or cravat, loped off with a boyish grin to impress his new editor. This mixture of craft and sartorial naïveté always remained: at the height of his fame he attended a Fancy Dress Ball with Gustave Doré, dressed as a baby with orange beads and a cotton bib.
By 1842, Tournachon had landed his first regular job, as Letters Editor on Le Commerce (he wrote them himself), and he began publishing short stories of Bohemian life, and finally a novel, La Robe de Déjanire (1846). These showed his lifelong understanding of poverty, and a characteristic combination of fulsome sentiment and black humour. He had also found his name: from Tournachon to Tournadard, an obscure, epistemological gallic joke, referring either to his satirical sting, or else to the tongue of flame (also dard) above his brow; and thence to the more economical and generally more marketable, Nadar. This signature now began to appear below little matchstick drawings, and at the age of twenty-seven, Nadar published a first caricature on the inside page of Charivari, the celebrated illustrated journal edited by Charles Philipon. Pictures, not words, suddenly began to flow from his pen.
The revolutionary events of 1848 precipitated Nadar into perhaps the most quixotic adventure of his entire career. It was nothing less than the liberation of Poland from the Prussians, by a volunteer column of 500 ultra-red republican Parisians, inspired by the rhetoric of the ageing Lamartine and the exiled Mickiewicz. Nadar proudly showed his falsified Polish passport round the cafés: ‘Age 27 years, height 1.98 metres, hair rust red, eyes protuberant, complexion bilious.’ The expedition ended in a prison near Magdeburg, but Nadar, irrepressible, was soon back in Paris looking for work with a Polish astrakhan cap perched proudly on his wild locks. Gérard de Nerval introduced him to a friendly editor: ‘This is Tournachon; he’s got lots of spirit, but he’s very crazy.’ The poet and the ex-Pole worked night shifts together, discussing ballooning – a shared enthusiasm – and politics, and sleeping on top of the warm printing presses. All the time, Nadar’s long fingers were drawing.
In the following spring, the editor Charles Philipon began to use Nadar’s caricatures regularly for his new illustrated magazine, Le Journal Pour Rire. Nadar’s professional friendship with the forty-three-year-old editor was to be the most influential of his life. A collection of eighty manuscript letters, which lies in the archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale, still unpublished, vividly traces the growth of a fraught but chaotically fruitful partnership. Philipon appears always thoughtful, severe, appreciative, fatherly; while Nadar is rumbustious, multifarious, and ceaselessly late with copy. Like Emile de Girardin of La Presse, Philipon belonged to the first great generation of mass-circulation editors in Paris, and Nadar rapidly became his star. By 1851 Nadar was being asked to produce as many as 100 separate caricatures a month.
It was thus that sheer pressure of demand created the first atelier Nadar, a vital cooperative formation which was to extend subsequently to his photographic work. Up to a dozen fellow craftsmen were soon employed on Nadar’s inimitable sketches and ideas, and transferring them to the wooden blocks sent for printing all over Paris. The atelier became a kind of syndicate, and his ubiquitous spidery N changed from an artist’s signature to ‘marque de fabrication’. In a press now forbidden, by Imperial decree, all direct political commentary, Nadar spawned an entire world of grotesque little homunculi, a myriad croquetons, in which all the famous writers, actors and painters of the day danced and gibbered in manic processions across the tabloids of Paris. ‘So then, we are lost’, sighed the frères Goncourt, ‘Nadar has now learnt to draw.’
But for Nadar himself, drawing remained the means only, not the long-sought object. The image, the outward physical projection of the inner, private, spiritual man, still obsessed him. How to capture it? And especially, how to capture it in that most elusive of creatures, his fellow writer? ‘How to draw out, for example,’ he asked himself, ‘in the wonderfully sympathetic face of Dumas père, the hints of exotic blood, how to press the simian analogy in a profile which seems a living proof of Darwin, and yet to emphasize above all the predominant note in his character, his extreme and inexhaustible generosity … without ever forgetting, as a final detail, the increased reduction of the conch of his already microscopic ear.’ Of Gautier, he wondered, ‘how not to travesty that oriental beauty, that Olympian serenity’; and of Baudelaire, how one might trace the fantastic combination of ‘strangeness and perfect sincerity’ in that ‘native from the land of the Griffin and the Chimera’. Always it was this good-humoured, but relentless search for the ressemblance morale of his subject.
Nadar’s files in the atelier now contained over 800 studies, including even interview notes and daguerreotypes. From this massive repository of images, Nadar created – with Philipon’s aid and advice – his first distinctive masterpiece, in 1854. This was his celebrated ‘Pantheon Nadar’, a vast single-sheet lithograph cartoon, showing a spiral cortege of over 240 contemporary writers and journalists, each minutely transformed into a jostling gargoyle of the creative spirit. With a printing investment of 200,000 francs, Nadar sold out; the sensation of the season.
Nadar was now thirty-four. He bought a house at 113 rue Saint-Lazare, married, and gave dinner parties for his Bohemian friends, many like him now distinguished. Meanwhile the decisive discovery of his ideal medium occurred almost unnoticed. A painter friend left a second-hand photographic apparatus in the corner of the atelier. Mais, quand même … With predestined ease, Nadar learnt to prepare the wet-collodion glass plates; and his friends, long accustomed to his vagaries, learned to sit unselfconsciously under the hard, searching exposures – between 30 and 120 seconds – in blazing sunlight. From the garden he moved to the attic, which was soon fitted with glass tiles. Nadar’s strange combination of artistic and commercial gifts, and his flair for the new craft of publicity, found its instant culmination. At last the image could be trapped. In the spring of 1855, with the ‘Pantheon’ still fresh from the lithographic stone, Nadar set up as a photographer.
By 1856, with dazzling speed, he had temporarily transformed himself into ‘Nadar et Cie’ to capitalize the business, and he won the grande medaille d’or for photography at the Brussels Exhibition that summer. A legal battle with his younger brother, Adrien, finally won him, in 1857, exclusive right to the ‘marque de fabrication’ of Nadar. Significantly, it was the first time in France that an artistic pseudonym had been disputed as a commercial property. Felix Tournachon’s transformation was now complete: he was ‘Nadar Photographe’.
Within the next fifteen years, the atelier Nadar produced one of the greatest sets of contemporary portraits ever made. From 500,000 or so remaining glass and emulsion negatives, perhaps some 300 prints compose the chef d’oeuvre of the collection. For the most part these are of writers. They cover the whole panorama of mid-nineteenth-century French literature: Baudelaire, Gautier, Nerval, de Banville, Lamartine, Hugo, Dumas père et fils, George Sand, Du Camp, Daudet, Verne, Scribe, Murger, Champfleury, the freères Goncourt, Sainte-Beuve, Michelet, Charles Philipon and Emile de Girardin, and literally scores and scores of others. But there are many musicians as well – Berlioz, Rossini, Offenbach; and painters – Delacroix, Corbet, Corot, Monet. There is also a set of Sarah Bernhardt, and a charming nude study of Henri Murger’s mistress, the original Musette of the Bohemian stories. It is, in effect, a second ‘Pantheon Nadar’, except of infinitely greater human penetration. The best photographic portraits should be, wrote Nadar, ‘ample like a Van Dyck, and elaborate like a Holbein’.
Nadar’s portraits, in fact, owed much to painting, especially Ingres (who in turn used Nadar’s photographs for his own studio work). The monumental simplicity of their presentation, the subtle use of their advancing and retreating shadow, and the bold play with the texture of a jacket, blouse or cape, to offset the flesh of face or hands, all are constant marks of Nadar’s work. His best period, up to 1874, coincided with the use of the wet-plate collodion process: this rarely required poses of less than twenty seconds, and emphasized the sense of an intense, prolonged, revelatory gaze deep into the subject’s psyche. After 1872–73, gelatine emulsion brought exposure times down to less than a second, and the subject could be ‘snapped’ without his cooperative effort in the process of capturing and holding the fugitive image.
Nadar defended the autonomy of his art, with force and pride.
The theory of photography can be learnt in an hour, and the first practical steps in a day … But what can be learnt far less readily is the moral nature of your subject; it is the rapid reflex which puts you in touch with your model, makes you grasp and judge his habitual style and ideas, and allows you to produce – not some superficial or lucky shot, some indifferent and tasteful reproduction within the range of the meanest laboratory assistant – but the most familiar and the most favourable likeness: la resemblance intime.
It was an assertion that expressed the effort and experience behind an entire career.
In 1860 Nadar moved to the address which he consecrated for French photography, on the boulevard des Capucines. He charged 50 francs for a half-plate portrait, and joyfully spread the old ‘bull’s blood’ insignia across his whole decor, even down to the wrapping paper. He always continued to scorn Emperor and Court, leaving royal clientele to the Mediterranean beach-photographer Disderi, in the suitable vulgarity of the boulevard des Italiens. At the grand piano under the open studio windows, Jacques Offenbach was encouraged to play variations on the revolutionary Marseillaise, while the Imperial Guard – martial but tone-deaf–trotted in glittering ranks towards the Place de l’Opéra.
In 1862 Charles Philipon died, and thereafter Nadar’s energies were increasingly expended in madcap projects. He pioneered flash and aerial photography, and founded a Society for the Promulgation of Heavier Than Air Machines. It was now Daumier’s turn to caricature him, suspended in a balloon with his camera over the Arc de Triomphe, ‘at the height of his art’. He squandered his resources almost to bankruptcy in his own immense scarlet publicity balloon, Le Géant, which the Scientific American stonily reported as capable of carrying eighty persons, a printing press, beds and lavabos, and of course a photographic laboratory. But in a night crash-landing near Hanover, Le Géant nearly killed both him and his faithful, long-suffering wife, and Victor Hugo was moved to propose a relief fund. The Secretary of the Heavier Than Air Society, the young Jules Verne, canonized Nadar as the hero of De la Terre à la Lune – the astronaut Michel Ardan, a final anagrammatic transformation of the fiery nomenclature. ‘He was a dare-devil, a Phaeton driving the Sun’s chariot at break-neck speed, an Icarus with replaceable wings.’
To the end of his life, Nadar always remained fascinated by the rapport between writers and the photographic image. In calm old age, in 1900, he recalled how Balzac refused to be photographed because he held a Lucretian theory of spectres (like the Sioux Indians), believing that each exposure dissolved some vital layer of life through the malign alchemy of the Dark Room. Nerval and Gautier had proposed a more gothic hypothesis, that each photograph somehow released a fiendish doppelgänger, who might pursue them across the ether until death. Nerval in fact was only ever photographed once, by Nadar in January 1855; it was about a fortnight before the poet committed suicide in the rue de la Vieille-Lanterne.
But it was Baudelaire who had led the most sustained attack on early photography, in his scathing, salon review of 1859. Pressing home a diatribe against the vapid popular taste for ‘realism’ in art, he thundered prophetically: ‘A revengeful God has answered the supplications of the multitude. His Messiah was Monsieur Daguerre. And the multitude said: “… Art means Photography”. From this moment forth, our vile society, like some Narcissus, rushed to contemplate its own trivial image in the metal plate. A madness, an extraordinary zealotry seized these new worshippers of sunlight. And strange abominations were brought forth.’ It must have seemed ironic in retrospect. For Nadar’s photographic series of Baudelaire between 1854 and 1862 is one of the most expressive documents available about the self-destructive force of the poet’s own life. As it is also one of the triumphs of Nadar’s art.
Before he died, Baudelaire in turn enshrined Nadar, the photographic witness of the doomed Empire, in one of his own superb images from the late prose poems.
In a vast plain of glowing embers, he saw Nadar who was collecting salamanders.
Salamanders: those darting legendary ephemerae, who feed upon a flash of light, and flourish in the fiery heart of destruction.
AS HE WALKED DOWN the Strand one surprisingly sunny morning in March, examining the patriotic engravings of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert smiling domestically from the royal tilbury, Théophile Gautier came upon a barrow boy selling waterproof mackintoshes. It was a matter of generally received knowledge that the imperméable, like those other viscous phenomena, the English glass of stout, the English fog, and the English phlegm, contained something of the philosophical essence of Britain. So Théophile Gautier, poet, litterateur, and – more practically – regular columnist for Paris’s leading daily newspaper La Presse, drew aside to observe.
It was March 1842. Gautier’s first and most brilliant ballet Giselle had just opened to packed houses in Her Majesty’s Theatre. The manager, Mr Benjamin Lumley, had remarked that the piece was ‘admitted to be vastly pretty’, a judgement which Gautier, who spoke little or no English, received as a generous compliment.
In the peculiar absence of rain, the barrow boy was obviously anxious to demonstrate that his mackintoshes were genuinely waterproof. To Gautier’s perplexity, he proceeded to nail the circumference of one of the sacred garments to a horizontal wooden frame, suspended alongside the stall. Into the shallow canvas depression thus formed, he emptied a large enamel jug of water. Into the water he tipped a bowl-full of engaging goldfish. He then produced a handful of small fishing lines and, flourishing them, inquired whether any of his customers would care to go fishing.
Gautier walked on towards Trafalgar Square, where Lord Nelson’s column was gradually arising from a primal chaos of scaffolding and publicity hoardings. He passed the Duke of Northumberland’s house, where a sculpted lion guarded the portal with its tail raised vertically in the air. ‘It is the lion of Percy’, Gautier noted with unaccountable irritation, ‘and never has heraldic lion so grossly abused its right to affect fabulous shapes and forms.’ The English were not only an unreliable and eccentric nation, they were positively bizarre.
It was Gautier’s first visit to London. He was thirty-one, the esteemed author of an erotic novel Mademoiselle de Maupin, and an arbiter of French literary fashion. In the next twenty years he was to make some five more trips to the British capital, reporting for his newspaper, or simply for his friends, on a variety of national peculiarities, including the Ascot Races, methods of surviving ‘incendiary’ turtle soup, the paintings of Hogarth, the depressions of Sunday afternoon, the camels of Regent’s Park Zoo, Covent Garden, and the Great Apotheosis at the Crystal Palace. Gautier came both as a private citizen of Paris, and as a public representative of civilization, roles that were not easily to be distinguished. Though he could not therefore, on principle, admire – he found himself by rapid turns amused, charmed, distressed, perplexed, outraged. But he never lost that original sense of strangeness, of the obstinate shadows clinging to that metropolis of the northern isles, like the ubiquitous soot which, he recorded with gallic frankness, made one blow black into one’s handkerchief.
It had struck him, in the larger perspective, even as his steamboat the Harlequin first swung west into the yellow waters of the Thames Estuary at sunset, and a forest of dark chimneys gathered along the low banks, sculpted like colossal towers and obelisks, ‘giving to the horizon an Egyptian air, a vague profile of Thebes or Babylon, of an antediluvian city, a capital of enormities and rebellious pride, something altogether extraordinary’. It was an impression that anticipated another European’s, Joseph Conrad’s in the opening pages of Heart of Darkness, by some fifty years.
Gautier saw the evidence of Empire in the jostling host of merchant craft, running between the lightships with their great lamps and scarlet paintwork: ships from India, reeking of oriental perfumes and with Lascar crews crowding the rigging, ships from the Baltic and the North Sea with crusts of ice still frozen to their bulwarks, ships from China and America freighted down with tea and sugar cane. But among all that vast fleet, ‘you always recognise the English ships: their sails are black like those of Theseus’s galleon departing for the Isle of Crete, a sombre livery of funeral mourning, rigged by the sad climate of London’. Gautier caught at the dominant motif, hanging there, mute, unexplained. ‘London! –’ he exclaimed almost with enthusiasm, ‘– la ville natale du spleen’.
Yet returning from that first brief encounter, he was nonchalant, even rather knowing. He recorded the following dialogue at a family dinner table in the rue la Boétie. ‘Did you see the Tunnel? – No, I didn’t see the Tunnel. – And Westminster? – No, indeed. – And St Paul’s? – Oh, no. – Then what on earth did you do in London? – I wandered about town observing Englishmen and, more particularly, observing English women. One cannot find their description in any guidebook, and they seemed to me quite as interesting as stones arranged one upon the other after a certain fashion.’ Gautier added with some pain: ‘since this occasion the good bourgeois have regarded me as somewhat mad, suspecting me vaguely of harbouring cannibalistic tendencies, and send their children up to bed when I come to call. I am seriously afraid that this will prejudice my marriage prospects.’
The Tunnel in question was Monsieur Brunel’s tiled passageway between Wapping and Rotherhithe, and could not strictly be classed as a British marvel. Gautier later reported in La Presse that a friend, presumably English, was working on plans for a Tunnel beneath the entire Manche, connecting Folkestone with Calais, and containing railway carriages fired along by compressed air. He remarked that he had, as a conscientious journalist, already reserved his seat for the first crossing, scheduled to take place four years hence, in 1847.
But Gautier was in no sense, as he frequently pretended, and as Henry James later brashly assumed (‘the broad-eyed gaze of a rustic at a fair’), an innocent abroad. As drama critic for La Presse, whose feuilletons ran on the front page beneath the political and business leaders of his exacting editor, the publishing magnate Émile de Girardin, he was normally tied to his regular evening descents upon the Paris boulevards. But in the formula of his lifelong friend and collaborator on La Presse, Gérard de Nerval, he was ‘a traveller by instinct, a critic by circumstance’.
Almost every spring or summer for thirty years, Gautier made good his escape from Paris, usually in a retrospective flurry of apologies, forwarding addresses, and promises of exotic copy. These flights of the swallow, as they became in one of his most famous poems, ‘Ce que disent les Hirondelles’, were made to Germany, Italy, Spain, North Africa, Egypt, Turkey, even eventually to Russia, and he subsequently published brilliantly coloured imagist accounts of all of them.
Even his apartment, in an italianate hotel particulier at 14 rue Navarin, off the place Pigalle on Montmartre’s lower side, expressed his search for spiritual displacement. Indeed, it was almost a caricature of French Romantic aspirations, furnished as it was with Turkish carpets, Siamese cats, and Italian theatrical ladies, and perfumed with Spanish cooking, Cuban cigars and Algerian hashish. There was, finally, to be an English element, but that was to prove part of the more intimate moeurs.
Moreover, Gautier was acutely conscious of the curiously modern desperation, almost the death-wish, implicit in this passionate longing for other shores, other climes, the other itself. Many of his springtime feuilletons each year played upon this theme with deliberate irony, heralding the age of mass tourism in a distinctly minor key:
‘Nowadays the dream of the masses is – Speed. By iron or steam they seek to conquer that “ancient weight upon all things suspended”. It would seem that their sole concern is to devour Space. Do they do 12 or 15 leagues an hour simply to flee from ennui? If so, the enemy awaits them at the farther platform. Yet how strange is this wild urge for rapid locomotion, seizing people of all nations at the same instant. “The dead go swiftly”, says the ballad. Are we dead then? Or could this be some presentiment of the approaching doom of our planet, possessing us to multiply the means of communication so we may travel over its entire surface in the little time left to us?’ It feels odd to read this paragraph on the faint, blue microfilms for La Presse of 1843.
Yet Gautier’s journeys to London, while part of this lifelong centrifugal urge, seem to have been of a different order. His notes have remained scattered through a score of essays, letters, articles, poems and reviews. London was less a place to visit, than a state of mind to ponder upon. It was a dark mirror, a smoky crystal ball. You could turn it in your hand. Gautier remained profoundly uninterested in its institutions, its monuments, even its literary associations. Rather, it was its atmosphere, its tone, its iridescent qualities, its curious undercurrent of black comedy, which continually drew him back.
On his second visit he summoned an English barber to his rooms at the Hotel Sablonniere, in Leicester Square. His ballet La Péri, with his untouchable amour Carlotta Grisi dancing the title role, was playing at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. He was due at the Lord Mayor’s procession and banquet. He needed a shave. The barber knocked, entered, bowed: a thin man with the English whiteness of jowl, dressed entirely in black. In complete silence, with the flowing rapidity of a phantom, he shook out a crisp, white apron, adjusted a chair, and stropped a long razor. Gautier grew increasingly uneasy at each stroke, a victim of those unspeakable suspicions that separate native from foreigner, living from dead.
‘Seeing him so chill, so pale, so mournful, I asked myself if he were not some ill-provisioned resurrectionist who wished to acquire a new subject. At the same time, I instinctively cast my eyes upon that part of the floorboards where my chair rested, anxious to ascertain whether or no there was a hidden trap door through which I should plunge into the cellar bearing a large slit in my throat.’ On the point of calling off the whole operation, Gautier was saved by the inherited logic of Pascal and Voltaire. ‘I made the calming reflexion that, since I was lodged upon the second floor of the hotel, there could hardly be a cellarage beneath my parquet, and that a trap door in opening would make me fall to the first floor, depositing me exactly on top of the pianoforte of an extremely pretty young opera-singer.’ The jolie cantatrice was Ernesta, who subsequently bore Gautier twin daughters. So the English barber was possibly a better Figaro than Gautier concluded at the time.
At Drury Lane, Gautier made extensive notations on the flesh tones of the English girls in the audience. No native painter had ever done justice to their exquisiteness, Gautier felt, except possibly Sir Thomas Lawrence, who could be held ultimately responsible for the creation of the English Rose type, the bloom of a thousand keepsakes, whose torn and treasured leaves were pinned across the dressing-rooms of Europe. A connoisseur of textures, Gautier distinguished sharply between the opulent blonde and the tea-rose blonde, and gazed appreciatively at the complexion of cheek, neck and gorge, which made ‘rice-paper, or the pulpy petal of the magnolia, or the inner pellicle of the egg, or the vellum on which the gothic miniaturists traced their delicate illuminations’ look like coarse cloth by comparison. Yet the genial English passion for decorative gardens, when carried in all its stunning completeness of fruit trees, herbaceous borders and cockle shells, to the top of the English lady’s hat, left him merely stoical.
In the middle of the ballet, Carlotta was required to perform a daring leap in the pas de songe, representing the descent of the péri from the heavenly sphere. It called for the greatest agility and nerve on her part, and perfect timing from her partner Petipa, whose task was to receive her bodily presence on the earth beneath. Occasionally, in Paris, this saute de gazelle had been muffed, and the French audiences, recalled Gautier, had hissed without mercy. At the third performance in London, Carlotta once more misjudged the dangerous jump. As she prepared for another attempt, a ripple ran through the English audience, and murmurs from the stalls were heard begging her not to risk such a frightful plunge a second time. Then a sympathetic voice, from the gods, loudly suggested that it would be better to give Petipa ‘a stiff drink’ first, as he could scarcely ‘stand up on his pins’. Amidst a profound stillness, Carlotta leapt into space, Petipa fielded sinuously, and the house sprang to its feet and gave them three cheers.
But then the English were different in sporting matters. Boats and horses alone really brought out their enthusiasm. There were even moments suggesting lyrical depths, as on the day’s outing at Royal Ascot. Clutching his Oxley’s Authentic Racing Card – which with Robinson Crusoe and the Mansion House menu, was one of the few British texts Gautier ever claimed to have read in the original – he stared round him with calm satisfaction at the scene. There were lawns of ‘vegetable velvet’, ladies with shot-silk dresses and fringed parasols, champagne and Scotch Ale corks flying into the cerulean blue, gypsies dancing round the carriage wheels telling endlessly optimistic fortunes. In the distance, over the undulations of emerald turf, the ‘cherry-red horses ran’. At the far turn, the brightly coloured silks of the jockeys’ caps were ‘like poppies, cornflowers and anemones carried away on the wind’. At the close of each race, the winner stood steaming peacefully in the Royal Enclosure, and a cluster of white pigeons were released into the sky like a shout of purest joy.
It was only later that Gautier learnt that the pigeons simply carried the listings of the betting odds and results to a hundred murky gambling parlours across the nation, which sufficed to transform the occasion into a rather more utilitarian event, ‘a roulette or a Stock Exchange’.
After the mixed triumphs of La Péri, six years elapsed before Gautier next slipped across the Channel. Though his friend’s Tunnel was still inexplicably incomplete, the years of middle age had brought increased travelling comforts. The Chemin de Fer du Nord already ran as far as Rouen, and together with the regular steam packet services, and the celebrated express from Dover, this combined to bring the two capitals within a single day of each other. By the spring of 1849, after nine months of almost continuous political upheavals in Paris, Gautier was already restive for London’s paradoxes and gloomy, introspective charm. His feuilleton of 21 May complained of not being able to take advantage of a newly created package tour, which for 175 francs transported you, housed you, took you on guided tours round the Court, the museums, Richmond, Hampton Court Palace, Greenwich, and even brought you back ‘with all intelligence and care’.
A month later, his column began mysteriously. ‘In this unhappy week of cholera and insurrection which has just gone by, the theatres of Paris have played nothing. The announcement of some major performance would have brought us back in the twinkling of an eye, despite pestilence and politics: for it is on such evil days that Art has need of all its supporters. But the thunder in the street makes the Muses fall silent, and we would have had nothing to do at our post. So we have profited from this sad congé by accomplishing a voyage to China, no less than the intrepid MacCarthy or Monsieur de Langrenée. This voyage cost us two hours and two shillings.’
This unexpectedly exotic expedition turned out to have been a visit by the ferry from Hungerford Bridge to a Chinese junk moored at St Katharine’s Dock. It brought Gautier a new sense of the equivocations of Progress and Empire, almost, very distantly, a sense of menace. Below decks on the junk, he listened distractedly to a Chinese orchestra, with four young men in dark blue silken smocks and pigtails, playing a melancholy composition on drums, gongs, violins and tambourines. Around them the cabin was cluttered with ornate, open-work ivory boxes, porcelain pots and huge grotesque mandrake roots, twisted into fantastical shapes. Gautier meditated on a pile of Chinese coffins in a dark corner, each hewn out of a single log, and painted a glistening vermilion, ‘stacked there, no doubt, for the benefit of the crew in case of cholera or nostalgia’. He was thoughtful. ‘When a concert is finished, one replaces the instrument in its case: when a life is finished, one slips the man into his coffin: and the rest is silence … But why do violins have cases that resemble the bier? Is it because they have souls and voices, and groan like us?’
Returning on deck, under the leaden sky of London, Gautier gazed curiously at a large lacquer cabinet fitted under the poop of the junk which was carved like some gigantic dream-bird. The cabinet formed an open shrine for Buddhist worship, and in it three golden figurines representing the Chinese trinity. In front of them, coloured spills, jossticks and aromatic tapers sent their sweet oriental perfumes drifting heavily over the dark waters of the Thames.
Perhaps, thought Gautier, the traditional piety of the Chinese crew had not been dissolved ‘by contact with the sceptical barbarians …’ He bent down and peered closely at the little, squat buddhas, miniature replicas of the mighty idols he had earlier seen on display at an antiquarian collection in Hyde Park. He studied their impenetrable good humour … ‘but as for the gods themselves, those circumflex eyebrows, those equivocal smiles, and those gross little bellies, all express an attitude towards the worshipper that is ironic, and even irreverent. The devotee does not lack faith; but it seems that the idol itself lacks conviction. Perhaps all religions will come to an end through the agnosticism of their gods.’
It was a foretaste of a sensation he was to have on one of his last visits, in 1851, as he wandered through the imperial splendours of the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace. Dazzled by the endless displays of jewelled armaments, exotic plants, stuffed elephants, priceless fabrics, and amorous potions of liquid pearl, he yet remained inexplicably unexalted, doubtful. What he finally remembered was a barred compartment containing several imprisoned Thuggees, the religious stranglers of Durga, the ‘monsterous wife of Shiva, god of destruction’. These men were sullenly engaged in weaving an immense carpet, ‘of evidently European design … with a greyish background spotted with black and red ornaments resembling burns and badly cleaned bloodstains. Its appearance was infinitely sinister and funereal. (Indeed it was as ugly as a home-made English carpet.) What torture it must have been for those poor Thugs, instinctive lovers of beautiful patterns and harmonious colours, to sit weaving this abominable tapestry of expiation!’ This was the picture that stayed in his mind, from all that palace of wonders. This, and the massive pistons and flywheels of the engineering displays.
Yet in the midst of these later trips, with their thickening associations and suggestions, fell a bright shaft. For London unexpectedly and generously provided Gautier with the last great romance of his life, in the elegant shape of a very pretty Italian widow whom he encountered in Bond Street. Marie Mattei had adopted a smart, fast, modern English style, wore charming white waistcoats, rolled her own cigarettes in ‘papelitos’, sucked peppermints and sipped tea, as Gautier fondly recorded in his sonnets. He rapidly made her his mistress, and back in Montmartre she transformed his ‘small red bed with its spiral bedposts’ into a paradise of sexual blue. And there, with a touch of the renowned English coolness in the heat of battle
… quand le plaisir a brisé nos forces,
Nonchalant entr’acte à la volupté,
Nous fumons tous deux en prenant le thé.
But passion, like all things – except perhaps the art that recorded it – was transitory, no permanent gift. As Gautier grew old, and Paris closed round them like a familiar shawl, there came back the memory of the English Sunday, that Feast of Limbo, when shops and pubs and theatres closed, streets were deserted, and everyone seemed to flee the city by boat or coach or charabanc, until it was like a place of the dead, ‘one of those cities peopled by inhabitants who have turned to stone, as Eastern Tales relate’. It haunted him, that vision of melancholy exuding from the very walls, and he wrote wryly: ‘At such times one longed to have a little portable chemist’s outfit, consisting of opium, prussic acid, and acetate of morphine. The thought of suicide is born in the most resolute heart; it is not prudent to fiddle with your pistols or to lean over the balustrades of the bridges … There is but one recourse, to make oneself abominably drunk, to fill one’s stomach with a blazing sunset of rum-punch … but you have to be English for that.’
On those days the only serious British activity seemed to be attending funerals. But the London cemetery, so icy, stark, flowerless and abandoned, with its low graves retaining ‘like mummies, sarcophagi with a vague appearance of the human corpse’ filled him with nothing but lugubrious imaginings, and gave him only an intense desire to remain alive. He turned the dark shape in his hand. But then, finally, was one not a Parisian? He pulled upon a fresh cigar, and stroked the receptive fur of an attendant cat. He thought of the baroque magnificence of the cemetery of Père Lachaise, the swept alleys, the carved chapels, the bright wreaths of blossom. ‘How can the English, a nation so absolutely wedded to “home and comfort”, how can the English resign themselves to being so dreadfully ill at ease in the next world?’
IF YOU ENCOUNTERED PIERROT in Paris today, he would seem innocent enough, quite innocent. Besides, it would probably be in a children’s toyshop. In the Passage Jouffroy, for example, one of those high melancholy ironwork arcades off the boulevard Montmartre, much frequented by Gérard de Nerval in the long autumn days before his suicide, there is a spacious old-fashioned boutique stuffed with cardboard theatres, packs of Petits Metamorphoses, Second Empire dolls’ house furniture, musical boxes that play Chopin – and Pierrots, dozens of them.
There are Pierrot dolls, Pierrot marionettes, Pierrot paperweights, Pierrot glove-puppets, Pierrot mannikins, Pierrot pipe-cleaners, and Pierrot pantins with flat cardboard limbs linked up with string and brass eyelets, and strangely blank on their reverse sides as if their souls had somehow been misplaced. All of them conform religiously to the same uniform: loose white smock and cap, and austerely blanched face that stares back at you with weird intensity. At a distance, perched there in the arcade window, they look like a flock of fantail pigeons in mourning; close to, they are somewhere between clowns and purgatorial spirits.
The childlike symbolism of all this reminds one of those endearingly familiar nursery-rhymes that once announced the terrors and tragedies of popular history, the ‘tishoos of plague, the cherrystones of murder. Pierrot’s origins are mysterious; yet everyone can lament his plight, the gentle distracted ami of the seventeenth-century air, ‘Au clair de la lune’, the creature of laughter and sadness that we vaguely associate with Paris and unrequited love and the bittersweet light of the moon.
But who, in fact, was Pierrot, and why was he so unhappy? That simple question is one of the profound riddles of folk mythology, and the account that follows is merely one episode in what is perhaps an eternally recurring cycle in the human tragi-comedy. It concerns Jean-Gaspard Deburau, one of the legendary giants of the French Romantic theatre, and a figure almost as mysterious as the White Clown whom he rescued from three centuries of despised obscurity in the travelling fairgrounds and anonymous harlequinades of western Europe.
To begin at the beginning is impossible: but one may start with a birth. Deburau was born in Neukolin in 1796 and can correctly be called a Bohemian. The youngest member of a troupe of touring acrobats, he spent a rootless childhood crossing and recrossing a continent convulsed by Napoleonic dreams. Deburau’s father seems to have been an army deserter, a shrewd businessman and a bully; his mother seems to have died young, exhausted by privations; neither had definite nationality. Deburau grew up into a tall, loose-limbed boy, with a long melancholy face, taciturn and withdrawn, a clumsy acrobat and consequently the comic butt of his nimbler brothers and sisters.
There was something dreamy and elusively ambitious about him. A persistent legend tells of a visit to the Sultan’s palace in Constantinople, where the family troupe were commanded to perform in an apparently deserted hall, partitioned off at one end by a diaphanous curtain. For their finale, young Deburau was required to scamper to the top of a human pyramid: as he faltered on to his brother’s shoulders, he was magically rewarded by a glimpse beyond the softly undulating veil. He was looking down on a secret audience, the entire Sultan’s harem, a giddy vision of silks and jewels and curving flesh, forbidden to all mortal eyes on pain of death. He gazed, overbalanced, and fell.
The Deburau family seemed to have settled in Paris towards 1814, but it is not until 1822 that the father’s name first appears on a cast list of the new pantomime theatre, the Funambules. Young Deburau was employed as a buffoon, and revealed a hidden talent for elegant and sometimes savage mimicry. His emotional life remains hidden: the city archives show that at twenty-three he married a flower girl called Adelaide, for whom he bought dresses on credit at the local couturière, so we may perhaps assume that she was beautiful, and that he loved her. But three months later Adelaide died, in a tiny upper lodgings at the Hôtel Bouffiers. A surviving inventory shows a bed with a straw mattress, a round dining table with two flaps, and a chest of drawers with a marble top.
After seven more years of penurious existence, Deburau père died, the family troupe began to disperse, and one has the sense of a tyranny dissolving. For Deburau, then aged thirty, it was a moment of late blossoming. At last he was able to sign his own contract with the Funambules management, and he concluded a solid three-year agreement with a weekly salary of 35 francs, which was about four times what the musicians earned. He was engaged to play one named role only: that of Pierrot, the White Faced Clown. The contract was dated 10 December 1826.
Until this critical moment in theatrical history, the stock part of Pierrot had been minor and ill-defined. Pierrot was loosely evolved from a number of auxiliary clown figures in the Italian Commedia dell’Arte troupes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He was a figure of fun, rather than of distinction. Experts are inclined to disagree, but Pierrot’s ancestors have been variously identified with Pedrolino, the honest valet of Flaminio Scala’s plays; the wise peasant Bertoldo whose struggles with the Prince of Bologna were first written down by Giulio Croce in the 1570s; the all-purpose buffoon of the fairground show, Il Pagliaccio (Le Paillasse, Old Strawbags); the Giglio or Gilles of the Neapolitan commedia; and the French Fool Gros-Guillaume (Fat Willy) who played in front of Cardinal Richelieu with a face plastered with baker’s flour and two belts to restrain the catholicity of his belly, one above and one below.
Indeed, the ‘poor Pierrot’ whom Deburau inherited was so rich in ancestry that he was in effect perfectly illegitimate, a restless wanderer who sought his name in every city, a mongrel of the booths, a changeling outcast from the dignified family hierarchies of the traditional Commedia. He was quite simply the White Faced Clown, the enfariné, the Fool whose face is blanched – not with paint or wax – but with the homely naïveté of flour and water. In this single recurrent detail lies the probable foundation of his dramatic character and his earliest symbolism. The Clown with the face of flour seems to represent both servile bumpkin stupidity, and its opposite, an eternal peasant wisdom; he also stands for something of the natural fertility of the earth, as persistent and universal as wheat, from which comes both his greed and his amorousness (consider the appetites of Chaucer’s Miller). These traits give Pierrot’s most primitive psychology. It is essentially innocent.
By the eighteenth century the White-Faced Clown had established himself in supporting roles in many of the harlequinades in France, though the Italian Commedia itself had been banished from Paris in 1697 to protect the drama of Molière. The White Clown was a buffoon, valet, trickster and the eternally unsuccessful rival of Arlequin for the love of Columbine; and it is as ‘Gilles’ that he appears in the famous portrait by Watteau of 1721, executed in eight days as a billboard for the Théâtre de la Foire in Paris.
In a curious way, this painting is a premonition of Deburau. The White Clown stands forth in the parade, his limp arms dangling down his white casaque, his feet turned outwards, a proverb of naïveté. Yet he has become suddenly mysterious. Perhaps this is simply because it is one of Watteau’s very last works, with a consumptive glow of loss and transfiguration about it. But perhaps also, it is because Pierrot is suddenly without his mask of flour. From the ageless anonymity of the White Clown, a completely individual face now looks out, enigmatically, with a faint smile of greeting or mockery, the rims of the eyes and the nostrils slightly swollen and red, as if he had been weeping for some reason yet to be revealed. All this is of course a hundred years before Deburau himself stood forward to be judged.
It began (or began again) with a summer newspaper article by Charles Nodier in the Pandora of 1828, heralding with a certain donnish humour the great new Gilles or Pierrot at the Funambules Theatre, a ‘Satan naïf et bouffon’, who needed nothing but a large bank account and a smart carriage to give him a Parisian vogue. Nodier rented a box for a year, and wrote a pantomime especially for Deburau, called appropriately enough Le Songe d’or, a dream of riches.
Nodier’s support was influential, for as the eccentric librarian of the Arsenal, and the intimate of Hugo and Sainte-Beuve, his flights of fancy were closely observed by Parisian intellectuals. Deburau and the pantomime soon gained a kind of cult following. The sharp young critic on the Journal des Débats, Jules Janin, headed it with a racy two-volume Histoire du Théâtre à Quatre Sous (1832), proclaiming the classical theatre dead and wildly panegyrizing the Funambules. It was complete with commissioned portraits of Deburau, and a fictionalized account of his early career, including a discussion supposed to have been held with Napoleon before Waterloo on the problems of French drama; and a lawsuit against the theatre management involving an impious toadstool said to have sprouted in the great clown’s dressing-room.
The long-haired poets Gautier and Nerval, then both in their twenties, attended the Funambules so regularly that whenever Pierrot carried out one of his ritual abductions of jam-tarts or pies, a salutation of pastries would fly up to greet them where they sat at their posts in the front-of-house box. Many other writers and feuilletonistes later came to watch the pantomime, and those who have left records include Baudelaire, Champfleury, Alphonse Karr and George Sand.
But Gautier’s summary is perhaps the best: ‘The pantomime is the real comédie humaine; and even though it does not employ two thousand characters like Balzac’s, it is none the less complete for that. It embraces everything in four or five type-parts. Cassandra represents the family; Columbine the ideal woman or the dream pursued, the flower of youth and beauty; Arlequin with his monkey’s snout and snake-like body, his patchwork and his shower of spangles, represents Love, Wit, Impulse, Audacity, and all that glitters in vice or virtue; while Pierrot, poor haggard, pallid Pierrot in his glimmering draperies, always hungry and always beaten, is the antique slave and the modern proletarian, the pariah, the helpless and disinherited being, who witnesses the orgies and follies of his masters with mournful and yet cunning eyes.’
At the Funambules, Deburau began to give a peculiar and startling authority to the Pierrot, that être passif et déshérité. Partly this came from the conditions under which he played. The theatre, an erstwhile circus of performing dogs, Les Chiens Savants, was situated on the ancient boulevard du Temple, at the heart of the popular revolutionary quarter of Paris, between the market of Les Halles and the faubourg Saint Antoine. The canaille which crowded along the iron balustrade of the paradis – the gods, with its famous 4-sous seats – were the roughest, rowdiest, most unpredictable audience in Paris. Nerval recalled that to use a lorgnette in their presence was to incite a riot.
But it was just this audience that Deburau dominated. He did it, said George Sand, simply by expressing their own feelings. Moreover he did it in total silence. For in Deburau’s masterly hands, Pierrot had become an entirely silent mime.
Originally, this silence had a political cause. Throughout its existence between 1816 and 1862, the Funambules never received a government licence to perform speaking plays, as these were regarded, in the circumstances, as subversive of morality, law and order. Instead it confined itself to a spectacular show of tightrope walking, tumbling, quick-change, flying traps, dancing, slapstick and popular music, based on the pantomime plots of the traditional harlequinade. In place of dialogue, it developed rather more visual and violent methods of exchanging ideas and emotions. There were three specialities: cascades, highly complex, balletic fights with clubs, punches and the celebrated leaping pied au cul – or kick up the arse – which the tall, muscular Deburau excelled in. Then the sauts, startling and often perilous leaps up and down counterweighted trapdoors. And finally trucs, bizarre instantaneous changes of scenery or stage-prop, so that a sheltering wardrobe might become a ravenous whale, or a cooling icecream – for Pierrot – a spluttering Roman candle.
Moving calmly, almost sardonically, through this stylized, rather brutal form of ‘English’ pantomime, the long pale figure of Deburau gradually became the dominating genius of the theatre. The White Clown came into his own kingdom. The extraordinary, hypnotic power of the blanched face, with mournful eyes and derisive lips thrown into vivid relief, gave Deburau a dramatic instrument infinitely more subtle than Arlequin’s mask and spangles, or Columbine’s skirts and prettiness. Moreover, the taciturn Bohemian revealed an astonishing inventiveness of gesture and grimace, an entire argot of winks, sneers, nods, gapes, twinkles and guffaws. The paradis hung upon his face.
George Sand wrote that along the seething balustrade an almost studious concentration would appear, in row upon row of cupped chins and gaping mouths: ‘you really feel he is speaking, you could write down all his bons mots, all his caustic repartee, all his eloquent apologies. When the machinists make a noise backstage, the public, frightened of losing a single word of their Pierrot, howl “Silence in the wings”, and he thanks them …’
Increasingly, Deburau instilled Pierrot with his own personality: mocking, subtly malicious, charming and yet bitter, perhaps even menacing. He removed the buffoon ruff of the Commedia clown, since it obscured his face in the lurid ramp-lights, and replaced Gilles’s floppy hat with the severe black skullcap which further offset the white of his flour, and which henceforth became an obligatory part of the Parisian Pierrot’s costume. More and more he played over the heads of the other characters, directly to his audience, assuming their complicity in his schemes, nonchalant, powerfully reserved. In some pantomimes it was now he, and not the wigged Arlequin, who clasped Columbine’s waist in the traditional finale of flaring orange Bengal Flames.
By 1835, Deburau was undisputed master of the Funambules stage. His salary stood at 200 francs a month, and he had remarried. His second wife was the pretty, twenty-year-old daughter of a prosperous artisan; Deburau was thirty-nine, and his illegitimate son, Charles, from a previous liaison, was seven. He was an established professional man. At the theatre he played dominoes in his dressing-room, or criticized the other actors’ improvisations from the wings. When Placide, the old comedian who had played Cassandra, came to retire, he was presented with a pair of silver candlesticks at the final curtain, and burst into tears. The cast gathered round and the audience shook with emotional applause: then suddenly Pierrot advanced with a huge bathsponge and mopped disapprovingly at an imaginary puddle round Cassandra’s feet, thus instantly drawing laughter and then applause back to himself.
Gautier recalled sadly: ‘With Deburau the role of Pierrot grew and expanded until he finished by occupying the whole piece and distorting his own nature till its origins were almost lost. Beneath the flour and smock of the illustrious Bohemian, Pierrot took on masterful airs and inappropriate aplomb. He still delivered his kicks but he received none in return. Arlequin scarcely dared dust his shoulders with the bat, and Cassandra thought twice before landing a clout. He kissed Columbine and wrapped his arm round her waist like a seducer from the Comic Opera. He directed the action just as it suited him, and arrived at a height of insolence and daring that seemed to threaten even his own good genius …’
For one teenage spectator, Henri Rivière, there were openly sadistic moments in Deburau’s weird by-play with the paradis. Much later he formed his impressions into a brilliant first novella, entitled lightly Pierrot. ‘The audience would not have been entirely surprised if the bottle which he gave Cassandra marked “laudanum”, had really contained poison; or if, when he pretended to shave him on stage, instead of merely making Cassandra shudder with a touch of the cold razor, he had actually opened his throat from ear to ear …’
It happened, finally, in 1836, in the spring. Pierrot killed a man. Or rather, Deburau did.
The transcripts of the trial have survived, and for the first and last time Pierrot stands forth and speaks to his public. It is a moment of acute human insight, heralded in that curious way by Watteau’s unmasking of the White Clown a century before. On the surface the case was straightforward enough. Evidence was brought before the Assize to show that Deburau and his new wife had been out walking one sunny April afternoon in the suburb of Bagnolet. They were followed by a young apprentice called Nicholas Vielin, who unaccountably began to hurl taunts and insults at them: ‘Eh, Pierrot! Eh Paillasse, méchant paillasse, te voilà avec ta margot, ta putain!’ Vielin pursued them along the streets for some time, shouting obscenities at the tall clown. Deburau remained obstinately and ominously silent. Then at last, in a sudden access of rage, he turned, strode back up the road and struck a single blow with his cane. The apprentice collapsed instantly on the cobbles, with a deep wound over his left temple. He died later that evening. He was seventeen.
Deburau, with his narrow ironic face, and quick blue eyes, came pale and weeping to the witness box. He wore a black suit and waistcoat. He gave his evidence with soft, precise assurance, in a court packed with theatregoers and fashionable ladies.
President of the court: How were you holding your walking-stick?
Accused: By the middle.
President: With which end of it did you strike?
Accused: The small end.
President: What was your intention of making use of your cane?
Accused: I repeat, I had no intention of striking at all.
That crucial evidence regarding the holding of the stick was not pursued. Other damaging evidence was turned adroitly aside.
President: Once you realized the victim had died from the blow sustained, did you not instantly exclaim, ‘If he’s dead, too bad for him. When I’m in a rage, I don’t know myself?’
Accused: No Monsieur. That would not have been possible, since I did not know the young man was dead until the following day.
That non-sequitur was not picked up either.
But perhaps the most telling piece of character evidence came quite by chance, towards the end of the case, in the statement of a defence witness, a Monsieur Sartelet, obviously a man of some education. ‘I then advised Monsieur Deburau to take my address, since I might be of use to him in the affair. I added that it was happy for him I had witnessed the scene, since I could provide a true account of the facts. He replied, “Ah Monsieur! It is happy for me – but unhappy too. For had you not been there, I would have continued to support those insults in silence. But seeing you there, I could no longer bear the humiliation of being insulted before onlookers any more; and so the unhappy event took place.” (Gasps in court.)’
That surely was the evidence of the White Clown himself, the evidence of centuries.
The judge summed up the case favourably to Deburau. Young Vielin had been the aggressor, the provocation had been persistent and extreme; the death resulting from the blow was accidental. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty. Pierrot received an unconditional discharge and returned to the Funambules.
Yet Pierrot’s trial was full of macabre resonances that escaped neither the canaille, nor the literary world. Not least was the revelation that Vielin had been a regular follower of Deburau’s from the paradis, and discussed his performances passionately over the supper-table with his apprentice-master. As Alphonse Karr wrote in Nerval’s theatrical magazine, Le Monde Dramatique:
‘Before the fame brought by Janin’s book, Deburau would never have considered himself insulted. He would have pulled a grimace at his mockers and made them laugh … but instead of that, Deburau, who has never been seen white-faced except for his flour, went white-faced with anger; and with a stroke of his cane he killed a peasant boy that he had probably nearly killed on ten previous occasions with laughter … Deburau has become tragic, while murder has become a farce.’
Deburau himself could hardly avoid making the transfer between the real and the stage world. The theatrical historian Paul Hugounet later published what he claimed was a letter of Deburau at this time: ‘I can’t touch a stick any more without burning my fingers … whatever I do that death will always come between me and my public. Whenever I twirl a slapstick on stage against the make-believe assailants the spectators will think of Pierrot assassin and that will turn their laughter into ice.’
Something irrevocable had indeed occurred. Poor Pierrot had killed his fellow man, his brother, his child, his mocker. The White Clown had encountered Death. Deburau had brought a tragic presence to the role. The evolution of Pierrot’s dramatic character had made one more turn in the folk memory, and gathered one more layer of historic symbolism. The naïve flour-face, the mischievous moon-face, now also contained the deathly marble-face: white with anger, white with shock, black with knowledge. Through pride perhaps, very human pride, Pierrot had lost his innocence.
The full consequences of this are a matter of theatrical, literary and perhaps psychological history. The 1840s saw the sudden development of an entire pantomime of death, more conscious and more literary, heavy with political and moral prophecy. The Marchand d’habits (1842) in which Pierrot kills an old-clothes merchant in order to enter a society ball, gradually became Deburau’s signature piece, brilliantly analysed by Gautier and a century later superbly mimed by Jean-Louis Barrault in Marcel Carné’s celebration of the Funambules, Les Enfants du Paradis (1944). The Marchand d’habits was followed by Pierrot, Valet de la Mort (1846), Pierrot Posthume (1850), and many similar black pantomimes. Nerval wrote thoughtfully, and perhaps autobiographically, of Pierrot playing music in the halls of hell. Baudelaire produced his strange reflections on the comique féroce in a classic essay The Soul of Laughter (1855); and George Sand’s stage-struck son, Maurice, turned back to Pierrot’s pre-lapsarian days in the first authoritative history of the Commedia dell’Arte (1860).
But few of these high affairs concerned Deburau then, or need concern us now. For this is simply one story of the White Faced Clown as it happened in Paris. To imagine that Deburau’s trial seriously affected his popularity would be to misunderstand his relations with the paradis. On the contrary: six months after his acquittal, Deburau signed a new ten-year contract with the management for an unprecedented fee of 250 francs a month with a 6 per cent pension scheme. He continued to dominate the stage for another nine years at the Funambules, though increasingly racked by asthma, that most psychosomatic of diseases. Accounts tell of him leaning in the wings against the woodland scenery flaps, beating his left side with his fist and gasping for air.
In February 1845, his fiftieth year, Deburau struck the back of his head badly while plunging down one of the spring-traps to the troisième dessous, traditionally associated with Hell in the theatrical world. He replied to George Sand’s anxious inquiry on this occasion with his old flourish: ‘I do not know in what terms to express my appreciation. My pen is like my voice on stage, but my heart is like my face.’ The asthma gained relentlessly on him, and on 17 June 1846, Deburau died at three in the morning.
The young Jules Champfleury had witnessed his last night at the Funambules. They were playing the Noces de Pierrot. At the final curtain it was Deburau’s turn to let fall a single tear which traced its dark line down the white enfariné. He left the theatre at midnight by the little side door into the rue Fossés-du-Temple, the white carnation of Pierrot’s wedding feast pinned bravely to his dark lapel.
A radio-drama based on the life of the poet Gérard de Nerval. All Nerval’s speeches are drawn from his own essays, letters and journals.(fade in radiophonic music) HOLMES In 1855 Paris suffered a bitterly cold winter. During most of January the city lay under thick snow. At night temperatures dropped below minus ten degrees centigrade. The gas-lamps glowed in the streets with a dull, blue flame. The horse-drawn omnibuses jammed in the icy ruts of the boulevard, and the café windows were opaque with frost. Down by the Seine, the washerwomen’s sheets hung rigidly over the side of the laundry barges, and the river turned to ice under the Pont Neuf and the Pont Saint Michel. The wind blew cruelly through the cobbled back-streets. The beggars said the sun had died. (fade in over music the sound of wind; then muffled street noises, carriage wheels, coughing, footsteps crunching on snow, muffled swearing in French …) EYE WITNESS I suppose it was about six-thirty in the morning, Friday 26th January. I was on my way to work across the Place du Châtelet, when I spotted a man in black uniform and a couple of policemen hurrying down a side-street. The beginning of the rue de la Tuerie was nothing but empty, boarded-up houses, but after a few steps there was the blackened shop of a key-cutter on the left, with a sign, shaped like a huge key, standing out from the wall overhead against the frosty, snow-laden sky. Further on, on the other side, was the entrance to a narrow iron flight of steps, one of those street staircases which begins with four steep steps down onto a sort of iron landing running across the width of the alley. At the bottom level the steps lead into a sordid alley which disappeared at the far end into a labyrinth of filthy back-streets. It was into this foul alleyway, known officially as the rue de la Vieille-Lanterne, I saw a man in black with two policemen going purposefully. I followed them. The cobbles were covered in thick ice, and the iron banisters were loose in several places. At the bottom of the staircase I witnessed a grim scene. A man’s body was stretched out in the alley, his head resting on the last step, and his feet sticking into the gutter of a sewage pipe that came out of the alley-wall beneath the iron landing. They had just cut him down from the bars of a low window, in the cellar-wall above the bottom steps, from which he had hanged himself … The man in black turned out to be the commissioner of police. (water, echoing footsteps and voices, the slap of wet clothes on marble …) MORTUARY Slab number 14. Twenty-sixth January 1855. ASSISTANT Reception time: nine-thirty a.m. Sex: masculine. Age: forty-seven. Place of birth: Paris, Seine. Civil status: bachelor. Clothes and possessions: one black jacket; two calico shirts; two flannel waistcoats; one pair pale-grey trousers; one pair patent-leather shoes; one pair socks – red cotton (fade) … (fade in radiophonic music) POLICECOMMISSIONER Labrunie, Gérard. Also known as Gérard de Nerval, man of letters. Temporary address at the Hotel de Normandie, 13 rue des Bons-Enfants. A case of suicide by strangulation. This morning at approximately seven-thirty a.m. the deceased was found hanging from the bars of a locksmith’s shop in the rue de la Vieille-Lanterne. He had hanged himself with a length of sash-cord; the body was attached to the bars by means of the said cord. There were no signs of violence on the corpse. MAXIME DU CAMP Very early on Friday morning I received a message from Théophile Gautier informing me that Gérard de Nerval had been found hung … They’d sent for Gautier and Arsène Houssaye to confirm the identification. Gautier was apparently moved to tears; he had a long-standing affection for Gérard. It was easy for me to see the body in the mortuary. Poor Gérard was laid out flat on his back, his eyes shut, and his tongue just slightly protruding between parted lips. His fingers were clenched inwards on his palms, but his face was calm. His head was fractionally twisted on to his left shoulder-blade, and the tips of his feet were turned abnormally outwards. There was no trace of violence, no bruising, no contusions. Only, around the neck, there ran a thin line – more brown, as I remember, than red – which bore witness to the pressure of the cord, that piece of kitchen-cord which Gérard had shown me but six days previously – and which in his madness, he took for a seventeenth-century ladies’ dress-cord, no less than the actual dress-cord of Madame de Maintenon! (tolling bell effect: radiophonics) HOLMES Gérard’s funeral took place on the 30th January, and a mass was said for him in a side chapel of Notre Dame. In order to obtain permission for him to be buried in consecrated ground at Père Lachaise cemetery, a special application was made to the Archbishop of Paris. Suicide, when committed while ‘of unsound mind’, does not cut the victim off from the consolations of Mother Church. (monks’ choir singing the ‘Dies Irae’ in Gregorian chant. In the background the sound of digging, and wind blowing. Over this the scrape of a quill pen on paper and the voice of …) DR EMILE My Lord Bishop: M. Labrunie, Gérard de BLANCHE Nerval, was suffering from extreme fits of mental alienation, which seized him on repeated occasions during these last few years, and for which he received treatment from both my father and myself, Dr Emile Blanche, in this institution … Though M. de Nerval was not ill enough to be confined in a mental asylum against his will, yet in my considered opinion his state of mind had not been healthy or normal for a long time previously. He believed he had the same powers of imagination, and the same aptitude for work, as he had in the old days, and he expected to support himself as before on the income from his writing. Certainly he worked harder than ever, but one may feel that he was disappointed in his hopes, perhaps. His natural independence and pride of character prevented him from accepting anything in the way of aid, from even his best-tried friends. As a result of these mental – or moral – pressures, his reason was driven further and further astray; and above all this was because he now saw his madness face to face. I therefore have no hesitation in declaring, my Lord Bishop, that it was certainly in an extreme fit of madness that M. Gérard de Nerval put an end to his days. (gradually fade out sound of the plainchant, the digging, and finally the wind, during the next voice-over. Towards the end, radiophonics reappear)
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