Chatterton by Ernest Lacy



Ernest Lacy


  • Thomas Chatterton, “the marvelous boy”
  • Henry Burgum, a rich Bristol pewterer
  • Bertha Burgum, his daughter
  • Mrs. Angell, keeper of the lodging house
  • Two Ribalds, man and woman



—A Garret in Brooke Street, London. Casement at back C. opening on the street; door, L. 3. E.; rough bedstead R. of window; rude chairs and table, with candle, manuscripts, and writing materials on it, L. C.; old washstand, on which are a glass, a basin, and a broken jug of water, R. 2. E. The Garret is in the house of Mrs. Angell, and is the lodging of the Poet Chatterton. It is the night of August 24th, 1770. Music on rise of curtain. A distant bell is heard tolling the hour.

Mrs. Angell. [Knocking from without.] Mr. Chatterton! [Knocking.] Mr. Chatterton! [Knocking.] Mr. Chatterton!

Enter Mrs. Angell with lamp. Lights up.

Mr. Chatterton, a gentleman—[Looking around.] Alack! the boy is out. [Places lamp on table, and goes back to door.] Come in, sir.

Enter Burgum and Bertha.

Mr. Chatterton is not in. Will you wait, Mr.—, Mr.—

Burgum. [Pompously.] Mr. de Burgum, Madam. I trust that I shall have a more honorable title soon;—eh, daughter?

Bertha. There is no more honorable title, father.

Burgum. Bah! romantic.

Mrs. Angell. He surely will return soon: he is seldom out in the evening.

Burgum. I’ll await his coming. I must see him on a matter connected with the de Burgum Pedigree, which he was fortunate enough to discover. I say “fortunate enough,” since otherwise some one else would have discovered it—birth, like murder, will out.

Mrs. Angell. Pray be seated, sir. [Burgum sits R. of tableBertha, L.]

Burgum. [Looking around the room.] The rewards of poetry, my dear.

Bertha. The rewards of poetry, father, only poets know.

Burgum. Another romantic speech! If you must worship a poet, worship my collateral ancestor, Master John de Bergham, a Cistercian monk, one of the greatest ornaments of his age—so the Pedigree reads—and a translator of the Iliad. This boy never can be a poet: he knows no Latin and Greek.

Bertha. He is not writing Latin and Greek.

Burgum. I regret that I permitted you to come. You are a sentimental girl likely to fall in love with such a vagabond as Chatterton.

Bertha. Do not call him a vagabond, father: you owe so much to him.

Burgum. For what?

Bertha. Your Pedigree.

Burgum. He has been paid.

Bertha. Yes—a crown.

Burgum. Hem! He shall have more after the College of Heralds has passed upon my claims—not before.

Bertha. In the meantime he may starve.

Mrs. Angell. Indeed, lady, he is starving now.

Burgum. Nonsense! One-half the troubles in life are due to gorging. Besides, I heard before we left Bristol that he had sent his mother some china and dress patterns—even British herb-tobacco and a pipe for his grandmother. Starving?—nonsense!

Mrs. Angell. That was over a month ago, sir. Then he always was telling of what he was going to do for his mother; but now he seems so hopeless, and still he writes so hopefully to her. I do not believe he has had a morsel of food these two days. He is too proud to take anything from me. He says he is not hungry, and yet he looks almost famished.

Bertha. Poor Chatterton!

Burgum. Why does he not work?

Mrs. Angell. He does work, sir—all night sometimes—writing, writing, writing.

Burgum. I mean at something profitable—looking up pedigrees, for instance,—the boy has a genius for pedigrees.

Mrs. Angell. I believe he is trying to get an appointment as a surgeon’s mate. My husband, good man, offered to secure him a place as a compter; but Mr. Chatterton stormed about the house.

Burgum. A poet’s gratitude.

Bertha. A poet’s indignation ‘gainst a clown.

Mrs. Angell. My husband is no clown, lady.

Bertha. I beg your pardon, Madam.

Burgum. [To Mrs. Angell.] Pay no attention to her: she is as crazy as Chatterton.

Bertha. I would I were.

Burgum. Bah! You are half in love with the beggar already.

Mrs. Angell. If he had a chance, sir, I think he would make something great.

Bertha. I am sure of it!

Burgum. You never met him.

Bertha. But I have seen him, and have read his poems.

Burgum. That doggerel in the “Town and County”? [Taking a paper from table.] Here is more of it. [Glances at paper.] What’s this? [Reads.]

“Gods! what would Burgum give to get a name
And snatch his blundering dialect from shame?”

The ingrate!

“What would he give to hand his memory down
To time’s remotest boundary—a crown.
Would you ask more, his swelling face looks blue;
Futurity he rates at two pounds two.”

Zounds! this of a de Burgum—a descendant of Simon de Seyncte Lyze, a companion of William the Conqueror!

Mrs. Angell. Be not angry with him, sir; he is not like one of us.

Enter Chattertonwho pauses near doorway.

Burgum. Thank heaven for that! I will not longer brook
The impudence of this ungrateful boy,
Who mutters, rants, and doth himself opine
One of the brooding darlings of the world.
By what right is he moody and revengeful?

Bertha. He is as nature made him: full of pride
And fierce resentment ‘gainst a callous race.
Give him but patience to endure neglect—
Quell his rebellious spirit, and you take
From his tossed soul God’s gift of poesy.

Chatterton. [Coming forward.]
Lady, were I the poet of my dreams,
Instead of Chatterton, I could not word
My gratitude to you.

Bertha ‘Tis Chatterton!

Chatterton. Well, Burgum, what’s the news?

Burgum. [Aside.]  Impertinence!

Mrs. Angell. [To Chatterton.]
Be seated, sir; you must be very tired;
You have not been at home since ten o’clock.
The day—

Chatterton. [Sinking upon a chair.]
 Clouds, sunshine, rain—I’ll sleep to-night.

Mrs. Angell. Is there not something I can get you, sir?

Chatterton. Ah, yes: go purchase me another heart;
The world has worn this out—’tis like my shoes.

Mrs. Angell. When through with business you must dine with us:
I have some sheep tongues I would have you try.

Chatterton. What use are sheep tongues when I needs must roar?
I’d eat a lion’s litter.

Bertha. [Aside.]  O, how strange!

Mrs. Angell. [Aside.] The boy talks very wildly.

Chatterton. [Impatiently.]  Madam, go!
You’d make a helpless invalid of me. [Exit Mrs. Angell.]
She is a noble woman and a bore.
Now, Norman blood, what’s wrong in Bristol that
Brings you to town?

Burgum Let us be serious, sir.

Chatterton. First let me borrow Lord North’s goggle eyes,
And have the modish stare: my fiery orb
Disquiets men of birth. Go on, go on.

Burgum. My pedigree—

Chatterton Should antedate the flood:
I’ll read your partner’s brother’s silly book
On the Noachian Deluge, and report
What I can glean.

Burgum. [Aside.]  Did I not need his help,
I’d cane the rogue. [To him.] I’ve brought my quarterings
And pedigree that you did kindly trace
To be examined and attested by
The Herald’s College.

Chatterton. [Aside.]  George!
He’ll find ’tis all a hoax!

Burgum They have them now.
I must solicit you to go with me,
And answer certain questions. I’ll pay you well.

Chatterton. Not for the wealth of Soho Square, my lord.
I am the Duke de Garret: they must come
To interview me here.

Burgum Impossible!

Chatterton. Then let them nose among their dusty tomes
To solve the riddles.

Burgum. [Indignantly.] ‘Tis an outrage, sir!
I am a lineal descendant from—

Chatterton. [Laughing.] I copied that, and know it all by rote.
Your ancestor, in reign of Henry Sixth,
Obtained a royal patent to transmute
All the inferior metals into gold;
And now, while George the Fat squats on the throne,
You, by that charter, deal in pewter, sir.
From gold to pewter—’tis a fearful fall;
And yet you glory in it. O for shame!

Burgum. Remember that my daughter’s here.

Chatterton Forgive me.
If I could aid you, I do vow I would,
But ’tis beyond my power. [Aside.] I do regret,
For her sweet sake, I played the prank.

Burgum Well, well;
I fear your going would not further me.

Chatterton. [Aside.] You’ll learn that soon enough.

Burgum. [Taking coin from purse.]  Here is a shilling;
Your landlady asserts you are in need.

Chatterton. [In anger.] ‘Tis false!—a lie.

Burgum Well, Bertha, was I right?
And, Chatterton, I’ll give you this advice.
You eat too much or too irregular.
A much disordered stomach is a rot
From which young imps, bred like to maggots, rise,
And pester sore the brain. Could I destroy
The miseries by bad digestion blown,
I’d be the benefactor of the age—
Yea! of all time. The world is gone astray:
Your melancholy bard o’erloads his paunch,
And thinks it is poetic pregnancy.

Chatterton. Few poets have a chance to overfeed.

Enter Mrs. Angell.

Bertha. O father, you are cruel.

Mrs. Angell. [To Burgum.]  Pardon, sir.
There is a gentleman below, who says
He must see you at once. Shall he come up?

Burgum. No, no: I’ll go to him.

Mrs. Angell I’ll tell him so.
[Exit Mrs. Angell.]

Burgum. He may bring news about the Pedigree.
[To Bertha.] Wait here; I shall return. [Exit Burgum.]

Chatterton. [Going to table.]  Fair advocate,
For your defence my thanks must be the fee.
You come from Bristol—is my mother well?

Bertha. I really do not know.

Chatterton No, no, of course:
My head is heavy.

Bertha O, you do need aid!

Chatterton. Perhaps; yet more I need another mind
That turns not giddy on this whirling sphere.
But that is naught to any one save me—
Who cares for Chatterton?

Bertha There’s one at least:
One who beheld him roam the Bristol streets
Beset by dangers of a forward youth—
Misunderstood, unhappy; one who knows
All that he must have suffered here from want,
From loneliness, and hopes unrealized;
One who for him will offer up her prayers.

Chatterton. Have mercy, lady, do not make me weep.
You do not know me: I am harsh indeed.
I have a most unlucky way of raillery,
And when the fit of satire is upon me,
I spare not friend nor foe. Your father’s duped.

Bertha. Why then we shall be happier; so ’tis well.

Chatterton. Part of this wretchedness that seethes within
Is due to damned, unconquerable pride,
And part from hot imagination flows.—
My brain’s afire.

Bertha I pity you the more:
Imaginary woes are real to him
Whom they oppress, and hardest to dispel;
And if you truly do deserve your fate,
Then have you more to bear.

Chatterton You came in time;
To-morrow—to-morrow might have been too late.

Bertha. My father soon will come, and I would ask—

Chatterton. My life, and it is yours.

Bertha No, not your life;
But that you nobly live.

Chatterton I’ll try, I’ll try.

Bertha. Give me some token; let it be a verse
In your own hand.

Chatterton I have none worthy you.

Bertha. Have you not one among your papers there?
I know ’tis much to ask.

Chatterton No: it is yours.
[Taking up a sheet of paper.]
On melancholy—that will scarcely do.

Bertha. Read it to me, and I shall be the judge.

Chatterton. [Reads.]

When silent are the chambers of the mind
To rippling laughter and to whispering love,
When Hope hath whirred away, a mourning dove,
And bats dart in and out, and moans the wind,
Then Melancholy comes, to night consigned,
And haunts the moonlit windows. Perhaps above,
Not on this earth, can shadowy thoughts that rove
Like troubled ghosts a sweet oblivion find.

O like some cindered orb that shineth not,
Yet holdeth still its planets as a sun,
Is one burnt out by sorrow and o’erfraught
With that mute anguish of a life undone—
That sinking of the heart, that deadly thought
That all is lost and would be worthless won.

[Handing paper to her.] I would that it were better.

Bertha ‘Tis so sad.

Chatterton. I wrote it on the midnight of the day
I fell into a new-made grave.

Bertha O, sir,
Yield not to gloom; for you are rich in mind.
Of all the boons the Fates propitious grant
I’d choose the golden branch of poesy.

Chatterton. Each man doth pay a price for what he has.
The very qualities of mind and heart
That make a poet make a sufferer.
The keenness of perception, which unfolds
A realm of beauty hid to other eyes,
Unmasks the world: shows him indifference
Behind the flimsy guise of courtesy,
The shallowness of friendship, the alloy
Of self, debasing charity to trade.
The vividness of his imagination,
Which, in a garret, gives him trees and flowers,
The cool salt sea and heaven’s blue expanse,
Enlarges troubles, and creates such fears
He trembles at the possible in life.
The sensibility, which treasures up
Each word or look of kindness as a gem,
Makes bitterer the haughtiness of birth,
The vulgar swelling of a pompous purse,
The slur, the slight, the mockery of fools.
Beyond he sees a spiritual sphere,
Where, by unselfishness, the terrible
Becomes a valued teacher—where the power
To wound through self is lost; yet cannot reach it.
He is a medium through which all things speak:
The human passions wrack his nervous frame;
Each thing in nature makes his heart its pulse.
Who would aspire to wear the laurel crown?—
It is a crown of thorns! [Sinks back upon chair.]

Bertha. O you are faint from hunger!

Chatterton ‘Tis not so:
A giddiness—be not afraid—’t will pass— [Faints.]

Bertha. [Going to him and raising his head.]
O Chatterton, look up! He’s dead! He’s dead!
O world, behold your deed! His eyelids move!

Chatterton. [Recovering.]
‘Tis gone. O I would die to wake like this.

Bertha. I’ll get a glass of water.
[Goes to washstand and brings water back.]
 Here, drink this.

Chatterton. [After drinking.]
I have these spells—they are not serious.

Bertha. You are not well, you are not well.
[An increasing noise outside is heard.]

Enter Mrs. Angell in great excitement.

Mrs. Angell. Fly, Chatterton, fly! fly!

Chatterton Have you gone mad?

Mrs. Angell. Fly! Mr. Burgum swears he’ll murder you—
He is enraged.

Chatterton I would fly only one
Who had the power to extend my lease of life:
I am aweary of the premises.

Mrs. Angell. He’s foaming at the mouth.

Chatterton Then let him foam.
Each petty wave upon the mighty sea
Foams at its pleasure—why not he? I say
Then let him foam.

Enter Burgum in a fury.

Burgum. [Waving his cane.] I’ll murder him!

Bertha. [Interposing.] You shall not harm him, father.

Mrs. Angell. [To Chatterton.]  Come away!

Chatterton. Nay; he is harmless as a bottled bee:
He can but buzz.

Bertha. [To Burgum.] What is the matter, sir?

Burgum. That knave! that knave!—the pedigree is false!
What can you say, you villain?

Bertha He is ill.

Burgum. I care not for his illness, let him speak!—
You swindler, speak!

Bertha You gave him but a crown.

Burgum. Peace, peace; or I shall drive you from the room.
[To Chatterton.] Now answer me!

Chatterton. [Rising.]  Were it not for your age
And for your daughter whom I do respect,
I’d answer not in words.

Bertha O Chatterton!

Mrs. Angell. O gentlemen, I beg you both forbear.

Chatterton. [To Bertha.]
Have no fear, lady; did he bear a knife
To stab me here, I would not parry it,
If by such action I should frighten you.
Stand not between.

Burgum In King’s Bench you shall lodge!

Chatterton. Then I shall fatten at the town’s expense.
Now, look you, Burgum, I’ll no more of this,
Unless the lady bid me, so take heed.
This room doth show my poverty and needs,
Yet ’tis my castle, sir!

Burgum I am undone;
And Bristol will clap hands upon her sides
And roar with mirth. Why did you dupe me so?—
‘Twas not for money, for ’twas but a crown.

Chatterton. ‘Twas not for money, or you should have paid
A thousand crowns. You will remember, sir,
That when a pupil at the Bluecoat School,
Poor, lonely, friendless, with a thirst for lore,
I came to ask of you the loan of books,
You mocked my poverty, jeered at my verse,
And sneering bade me learn the cobbler’s trade.
I knew your passion was for gold and birth;
And gold you had. In bitter sport
I wrote your pedigree, scarce thinking it
Would be received with credence; yet it was.
I should have told you then, but you did swell
And treat me with disdain. I tell you now
That, since you are the father of this girl,
I’d give my life to undo what is done;
Yet, were you not her father, I do swear
I’d give my life to do it o’er again.
I made a fool of gold, for it had made
A fool of me so long.

Burgum The whole is false:
My ancestor was not of Norman blood,
And John de Bergham never lived at all.

Chatterton. He habited a world within a world—
This globe of fancy, where strange creatures live,
And all the business of existence moves
Unrecked of, as though on some distant orb.—
Thank heaven! that, being a poet, he dwelt not here.

Burgum. [Despairingly.] What shall I do?

Bertha. [To Chatterton.]  Can nothing be contrived
By which my father may derision ‘scape?

Chatterton. [To Burgumafter a thoughtful pause.]
You are not known in London; what is done
Will ne’er to Bristol come: you can give out,
Anent the pedigree, ’twas all your joke.
Play your cards slowly, and with that same tact
With which you bargain for your tin and lead;
And, sir, the game is yours.

Burgum. [Chuckling.]  To turn the laugh
Upon the laughers—good—that is the trick.
Come, daughter, come.

Mrs. Angell ‘Tis dark: I’ll go before.
[Exit Mrs. Angell followed by Burgum.]

Bertha. Good-by.

Chatterton O lady, when I said good-by
To my dear mother on the cloudy night
I took the coach for London, I did feel
As though that word were fully charged with grief;
But ’twas not so.

Bertha O, sir, do not despair;
And should we never meet again, believe
My thoughts will ever wander back to you.

Chatterton. We shall not meet again.

Burgum. [Calling from without.]  Come, Bertha.

Bertha. [To Burgum.]  Yes!
[To Chatterton.] Why so?

Chatterton If Barrett recommend me strong,
I sail for Africa as surgeon’s mate.

Bertha. Indeed!—but then you will return.

Chatterton Perhaps.

Bertha. I will not say good-by—good-night.

Chatterton. [Kissing her hand.]  Farewell.

[Chatterton sinks upon chair, his elbows resting on table, his face upon his handsBertha pauses at doorway, looks back pityingly, and then goes out.]

Chatterton. [Raising his head.]
Alone, again alone, yet more alone
Than e’er I was before. [After a pause.] The hope is vain.
O there is consolation in the thought
That though a puppet in the hands of fate
A man is born and lives—made now a king,
And now, the sport for mocking enemies,
He has the power when evils hedge him round,
And joy and love and hope have fled for aye,
To laugh! ring down the drop, and end the play.

Enter Mrs. Angell.

Mrs. Angell. Here is a letter, sir, that came to-day.
[Hands letter to Chatterton.]

Chatterton. [To himself.]
This is in Barrett’s hand: it seals my doom.
[Opens letter and reads to himself.]
I cannot recommend you for the place
Of surgeon’s mate—you know too little physic.
[Tears up letter and throws pieces on floor.]

Mrs. Angell. Bad news?

Chatterton Good news—a warrant for my death.

Mrs. Angell. How pale you look! but I have that will bring
The color to your cheek. The lady begs
That you accept this as a loan. [Gives a purse to Chatterton.]

Chatterton She’s kind.
Heaven grant her happiness. [Throwing up purse.]
 This yellow god
Distributes favors with a curious hand.
The kings of his creation are so low
Of forehead that their crowns sit on their eyebrows.
They have, for motley fools, wise men—so called
(Not wise enough to live within their age),
Who feed upon the bones their masters throw
Beneath the table. ‘Tis the voice of fate,
Exclusion’s cruel law, that he who carries
In the clouds his head shall stumble on the earth.
Here, take the trash—I am no pauper yet. [Gives purse to her.]

Mrs. Angell. [Aside.] The boy is surely crazed.

Chatterton There, go at once.
I cannot, with these artificial words,
Show the brain busy, and keep out the thoughts
That knock to be admitted. No more—go!

Mrs. Angell. [With emotion.] I meant not to offend.

Chatterton I am too rude.
I needs must take a tenderer farewell.

Mrs. Angell. Farewell? Why how you talk! You will not leave?

Chatterton. I may, perhaps.

Mrs. Angell Where are you going, sir?

Chatterton. To sea; but vex me not at present, please;
And, should my mother come to you, tell her
How hard I worked; but ’twas of no use—no use.
Good-by, dear Mrs. Angell. [Kisses her.]

Mrs. Angell I’ll leave the lamp.

Chatterton. No: take it—’tis too brilliant.
[Lights candle and hands lamp to her.]

Mrs. Angell You will feel
Much better in the morning.

Chatterton Pray I may.

Mrs. Angell. [Aside.] I’ll ask my husband what is best to do.
[Exit Mrs. Angell with lamp. Lights lowered.]

Chatterton. And should I reach ambition’s goal at last—
My brain would not hold out. Why, even now
I feel rebellion ‘gainst the reason strong
And frenzy coming on. No, not that fate—
Confined within a mad-house! there to sit,
Perchance for years—long years—with vacant stare
And slabber dripping from the fallen lip;
Or with a maniac’s eye to see such things
As hell doth not contain; to hear loud shrieks
And clanking chains—O God, not that, not that!
[After a pause.] I’ll do it, and to-night.
[Goes to door and locks it. The click of the lock is heard.]
 There Hope, stay out:
Come not to me when life is past recall.
[Comes back to table.]
They shall not have the poems which they spurned,
But Rowley shall with Chatterton expire.
[Draws out box from under table, and takes out manuscripts.]
O how these papers plead with me for life!
All my young thoughts and all my early dreams—
I cannot do it! O I cannot do it!
[Weeping, he lets his head fall upon his arm.]
[After a pause.] Here fools may thrive; and I—why I lack bread.
[Firmly.] It must be thus.
[Tears up papers, and throws pieces fluttering into the air.]
O turn to white-winged gulls, and fly away:
This is no place for you. And now the end.
[Takes a vial from his pocket.]
I feel much calmer. [Looking at vial.] It is better thus:
A bullet tearing through my fevered brain
Seems so abhorrent to me. Yet ’tis sad
To send this ghostly messenger to bid
My troubled heart be still—and then these hands,
These faithful, willing hands that even now
Obey me to the death.
[Coarse laughter of a man and woman far off in the street is heard.]
 What noise is that?
[The ribalds come nearer and nearer, singing the following song, with occasional bursts of mirthChatterton goes to window, throws open casement. The moonlight streams in.]

Voices. [From street.]

Say’st thou it is a lawless love
That lusts within mine eye?
Know thou there is no lawless love
Beneath the love-lit sky.

Female Voice. I’m out of tune; give me another drink.

Both Voices. [Singing.]

Man maketh law, but Nature, love;
And in the court above
Love’s cast for only fickleness—
But then it is not love.

[Laughter and singing die away in the distanceChatterton comes from window, laughs wildly, and then suddenly checks his mirth.]

Chatterton. O, what an unction for the closing eye,
And what a chant to fill the parting ear!
[A distant clock again strikes the hour.]
A signal! be it so. [Drinks poison.] The deed is done.
O, my poor mother!—peace, my anguished soul.
Have mercy, heaven, when I cease to be,
And this last act of wretchedness forgive.
[A look of agony passes over his face; he staggers to the bed and sinks upon his knees; then he rises and speaks deliriously.]
The coach!—
The coach is coming! I can hear its wheels!
Good-by, my friends; and mother, have no fear:
I shall succeed. I’ll write you all from London!

[Falls in the moonlight upon the pieces of his manuscripts, and dies. Slow curtain. Curtain rises. Lights up. It is morningChatterton is discovered lying on the floor as before. A discussion among voices is heard without. Loud knocking.]

Mrs. Angell. [From without.] Mr. Chatterton! [Knocking.] Mr. Chatterton! [Knocking.] Mr. Chatterton!