Oscar Wilde’s Chatterton

Literary History, Romanticism, and the Art of Forgery. Joseph Bristow and Rebecca N. Mitchell. Published by Yale University Press, 2015. 10/10.

Fascinating literary history/biography of Chatterton, Wilde, and a century’s worth of Romantic poets and literary critics. I hadn’t known anything about Chatterton until picking up this book; I figured if he mattered to Wilde he must be interesting.

Well, that’s true. The “Marvellous Boy” poet Chatterton was said by Wilde, and many others both before and after Wilde’s time, to have been the pioneer in English Romantic poetry. Specifically, Chatterton left his mark on Keats, another ‘boy’ poet who died at a very young age, and, for me, the quintessential English Romantic.

But, to return to Wilde, the authors posit very convincingly that Wilde’s Chatterton ‘notebooks’, much criticized for apparent plagiarism, were mundanely what they purported to be–notes. The fact that Wilde did an 1880s version of cut-and-paste with snippets of book text inserted, set off by hand-written transitions, comments, observations, etc., shows just a completely normal, ordinary, and necessary research method. Would it have somehow been more ‘honest’ if he had hand-copied each page of printed text instead of attaching the cut-out page?

That method would not only have been a ridiculous waste of time, it would also actually lend some credence to charges of plagiarism: copying another’s work is he definition of plagiarism; merely referring to it, on the other hand, is to use it as research. Apparently, Wilde’s only direct use of the ‘Chatteron Notes’ was in lectures on that subject that he gave in 1886 and 1888. Well, if lecturers aren’t allowed to use notes, then that would be the end of the art of lecturing: either in the classroom or in public.

This is the sort of book which makes me think: not only does it pique an interest in Chatterton himself, the Romantic movement in general, but also in the nefarious, legalistic, and scholarly aspects of forgery. Here again, the authors are convincing regarding their examination of plagiarism itself. And so, something else I maybe dimly perceived but didn’t know; there’s plagiarism (borrowing of ideas, lines, quips) and there’s ‘piracy’ or literary larceny (the out-and-out appropriation of an entire work without attribution).

That makes sense. Think, for example, how many novels and movies are set in New York City. Is Saul Bellow going to sue whomever sets a crime drama in that city for ‘copying’ the setting? Absurd. Same thing for plots, moods, tones, stock characters, the whole range of fictional devices are by their very nature reused, re-imagined by authors, playwrights, movie directors ad infinitum. Even fantasy and sci-fi has its own repetoire of stock elements (ufos, aliens, time travel, wizards, witches…).

My point is that no one can make a decent case that Oscar Wilde copied anyone’s work and published it as his own. He may have literally borrowed and used ideas, after a fashion, to fit into his works. But it’s safe to say that it would impossible for he, or any creative person not to.

With the multi-layered treatment that we’re given here–looking at Wilde through his contemporaries, the Romantics, and Chatterton–it’s Chatteron that stays in focus throughout. And, the question of his forgeries: regarding the supposed 14th century monk, Thomas Rowley, who allegedly wrote a huge collection of verses that Chatterton claimed he had discovered in Bristol in the 1760s.

Apparently, the veracity of those manuscripts has been a fixation of scholars and literary critics since Chatterton first published the “Rowley poems” in over 250 years ago. The puzzle of these works was that no one had ever heard of a pre-Shakespearean bard known as Thomas Rowley; neither could they believe that a teenager (Chatterton died at 17 in 1770) could possibly have written such good verse, and such a trove of it. So, a sort of dual-falsity was presumed to have occurred. Chatterton, having invented Rowley, either copied another poet, with some revisions, or used that unknown author’s original manuscripts.

It’s impossible to know exactly what happened; what is clear, both to his contemporaries and subsequently, is that Chatterton was a heck of a prodigy, and was certainly a talented writer. The depth of his skill and artistry, and the existence of, or extent of Rowley forgeries remained as highly-disputed and obscure parlor controversies. Actually, as in Wilde’s career, the relationship of imitation to art is something at the heart of the creative process. Those conepts are not as easily unraveled as are so many clues in a crime mystery.

What seems less than mysterious is that why it should matter if an author (Chatterton, Wilde, anyone) invents a character such as Rowley as a persona. A double, simply a pen name, whom the actual author chooses not to acknowledge. In the 18th and early 19th centuries it was not at all uncommon for short stories or novels to have one, or even several fake ‘authors’ (Poe’s and Mary Shelley’s epistlelary works). Also, there were hoaxes and other devices to give the reader an air of verisimilitude or at least the veneer of uniqueness. So why does it matter so much if there’s a real Thomas Rowley moldering away under Bristol’s consecrated ground? The fact is, someone wrote these poems known as the Rowley poems/verses, and, whether quaint, archaic, brilliant, forged, or plagiarized, they do add to the long line of English poetry.


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