Rerouting the line from Pope to Shelley

Thomas Chatterton and Romantic Culture - The Making of Percy's 'Reliques'
May 26, 2000

Nick Groom's two books are impressive specimens of current scholarship. But what, one may ask, are they doing? The publishers will not, of course, look to sell many copies. Academic monographs and edited collections of this kind do well to sell 500 at full price (and what a price). Nonetheless, both books will count powerfully in the forthcoming research assessment exercise. Given the obscene bulge of academic publications being pumped through at the moment, Groom should also count himself lucky to have his work noticed.

Groom has an ambitious critical goal. He wants to reroute a section of literary history: that busy main line that runs from Pope to Shelley. Neither Thomas Chatterton nor Thomas Percy feature on any undergraduate syllabus I know of. Nor - as Groom is at pains to point out - has academic research before his own much troubled itself with the works of the marvellous boy (aka "Thomas Rowley") or the gaitered ballad collector. They do not figure in the Penguin, Oxford or Wordsworth classic reprint catalogues.

It is true that Chatterton enjoys iconic status: largely because of the suicide picture by Henry Wallis in the Tate and Peter Ackroyd's 1987 fantasia. The bishop of Dromore seems to have been altogether a less exciting subject matter for art or fiction. It might have been different if he had completed his magnum opus at the age of 16 (instead of 36) and topped himself a year later (he lived to a venerable 82). In these two books, Groom energetically shifts the literary scenery so as to make the 17-year-old forger and the ecclesiastical antiquarian as canonical as Wordsworth and Coleridge.

One feels rather like those alarmed wives on the television programme Changing Rooms who come back to find their familiar domestic world turned upside down and rather wish it were not.

Groom's newly opened royal road in British literary history starts at James Macpherson's Fragments of Ancient Poetry , in 1760. The "Ossian hoax" (as a few sagacious observers such as Dr Johnson perceived it) raged on for decades (Walter Scott was still being sagaciously sceptical, 50 years later). One of the products of the long quarrel was "literature" as we know, canonise and study it. Groom subscribes to Jacques Derrida's proposition (quoted approvingly) that literature does not exist in any material sense. It is " constructed like the ruin of a monument which basically never existed". Historically this non-existent construction happened in the late 18th century.

The foundation element in the synthetic edifice of Britain's literature(s) is the "bard". Macpherson brazenly invented Ossian, son of Fingal, a 3rd-century fin de ligne "Celtic Homer", chanting his Gaelic dirges to an audience of echt Scots (not, as later anthropology would claim, emigrant Irish).

Percy opposed the Ossianic Fragments with his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry in 1765. His "relics" were balladic, not epic. They were the product of minstrels. Minstrels were not vatic bards but recognisably "authors - instruments of the state: guardians of history and genealogy". Macpherson's racial programme was "Celtic", Percy's "gothic". Appropriate national histories were fantasised to support the contending myths about ancient poetry. Ossian's oeuvre was reconstructed from oral sources in remote Caledonian places. Percy used physical and English sources - the famous (and mysteriously elusive) "folio manuscript", rescued fortuitously by the bishop from the fire whence some unregarded menial was taking it as kindling. Macpherson foraged and "gathered", Percy collected and "edited". Both of them fabricated.

At a deep level, as Groom suggests, the tendency of Macpherson's Ossianism was (in the context of 1715 and 1745) revolutionary. Percy's balladism was counter-revolutionary. The bishop's "nationalist antiquarian approach helped to defuse the explosive revolutionary politics of ballads". He took the incendiary content of his trouvailles and methodically distilled it into sub-pastoral "rusticophilia".

Both Macpherson and Percy were genteel con-men. Whether they deceived themselves is a moot point. Groom suggests that Macpherson, at least, may have been a jokester ("Ossian" can be glossed, via Latin, as "mouthy" or "oral"). Percy never openly defended his "manipulations" against ferocious critics such as Joseph Ritson.

Authenticity is not the issue. Literature, or the idea of it, is composed of inauthentic materials. Macpherson and Percy found themselves at a historical juncture that made their lies necessary. "It is my contention," Groom declares, "that the literary canon was formulated in the 18th century by a handful of antiquarians in their evaluation of the literary status of manuscript sources in a mass-print culture." It is a big contention. And the next "crucial" step in this process of formulation was the arch-liar Chatterton with his mock-corpus of Rowleyiana. Chatterton's "revolutionary innovation was to reimagine the culture of the manuscript". And out of Chatterton's innovation, comes Blake. Thus a trio of second-rate literary frauds forge (in every sense) the missing link in the great chain between Augustan and Romantic.

Attention to Percy and Chatterton raises other issues central to our current literary-critical interests. In The Making of Percy's 'Reliques' , Groom has pertinent things to say about the battle of the bibliographers. Percy was faced with "a fantastically diverse range of texts". How to handle the problem? By eclecticism (the W. W.Greg, Fredson Bowers, Thomas Tanselle solution), or by something more diplomatic and genetic (the solution suggested by Jerome McGann's relativistic editorial theories)?

Exactly how Groom himself would edit the Reliques is not clear. His Percy book is a version of his DPhil dissertation and, true to its origins, gets very technical - particularly the "microbibliography" (his term) of the last three chapters and seven appendices. It represents a daunting expenditure of scholarly labour on what the author, in one of his ironic moods, calls "a parcel of old ballads". The book is offered as a prolegomenon to some subsequent edition of the Reliques (by another doctoral hand than Groom's).

The essays by various hands collected by Groom in Thomas Chatterton and Romantic Culture are wider ranging and enjoyable. The contents are laid out as neatly as a Versailles parterre. There is a non-academic border supplied by Peter Ackroyd's flamboyant prologue ("Chatterton can stand as the one great genius of historical restoration and renewal in this country") and a sly epilogue by Richard Holmes (who has more than usual frustration in pursuing this quarry).

The opening academic contribution is by the immensely learned Claude Rawson. In his introduction, Groom terms Rawson's essay, "The Augustan Chatterton" (an adapted review from The Times Literary Supplement ), "bracing". Indeed it is. For Rawson, Chatterton is no innovator, but a gauche schoolboy poetaster, an inept pasticheur of his 18th-century elders and betters. Authoritative as the piece is, one assumes that Rawson was chosen to open on grounds of his distinction rather than any congeniality with the project. The equally distinguished Michael Wood offers an afterword elegantly playing with the Nabokovian and Borgesian subtleties of literary plagiarism. In the compound created by these praetorian figures, junior scholars - unencumbered with the responsibilities of being distinguished - frisk entertainingly. Carolyn D. Williams offers a daring essay on "Chatterton and postcolonialism" (Rowley meets Toni Morrison). Timothy Morton examines the motif of the food-fight (Rowley meets John Belushi). I derived much illumination from Michael F. Suarez's essay on Chatterton and the London book trade (Rowley meets Grub Street).

John Sutherland is professor of modern English literature, University College London.

Thomas Chatterton and Romantic Culture

Editor - Nick Groom
ISBN - 0 333 72586 7
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £47.50
Pages - 300

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