THE Poems, which make the principal part of this Collection, have for some time excited much curiosity, as the supposed productions of THOMAS ROWLEY, a priest of Bristol, in the reigns of Henry VI. and Edward IV. They are here faithfully printed from the most authentic MSS that could be procured; of which a particular description is given in the Introductory account of the several pieces contained in this volume, subjoined to this Preface. Nothing more therefore seems necessary at present, than to inform the Reader shortly of the manner in which these Poems were first brought to light, and of the authority upon which they are ascribed to the persons whose names they bear.
This cannot be done so satisfactorily as in the words of Mr. George Catcott of Bristol, to whose very laudable zeal the Publick is indebted for the most considerable part of the following collection. His account of the matter is this: "The first discovery of certain MSS having been deposited in Redclift church, above three centuries ago, was made in the year 1768, at the time of opening the new bridge at Bristol, and was owing to a publication in Farley's Weekly Journal, 1 October 1768, containing an Account of the ceremonies observed at the opening of the old bridge, taken, as it was said, from a very antient MS. This excited the curiosity of some persons to enquire after the original. The printer, Mr. Farley, could give no account of it, or of the person who brought the copy; but after much enquiry it was discovered, that the person who brought the copy was a youth, between 15 and 16 years of age, whose name was Thomas Chatterton, and whose family had been sextons of Redclift church for near 150 years. His father, who was now dead, had also been master of the free-school in Pile-street. The young man was at first very unwilling to discover from whence he had the original; but, after many promises made to him, he was at last prevailed on to acknowledge, that he had received this, together with many other MSS, from his father, who had found them in a large chest, in an upper room over the chapel on the north side of Redclift church."
Soon after this Mr. Catcott commenced his acquaintance with young Chatterton <1>, and, partly as presents partly as purchases, procured from him copies of many of his MSS. in prose and verse. Other copies were disposed of, in the same way, to Mr. William Barrett, an eminent surgeon at Bristol, who has long been engaged in writing the history of that city. Mr. Barrett also procured from him several fragments, some of a considerable length, written upon vellum <2>, which he asserted to be part of his original MSS. In short, in the space of about eighteen months, from October 1768 to April 1770, besides the Poems now published, he produced as many compositions, in prose and verse, under the names of Rowley, Canynge, &c. as would nearly fill such another volume.
In April 1770 Chatterton went to London, and died there in the August following; so that the whole history of this very extraordinary transaction cannot now probably be known with any certainty. Whatever may have been his part in it; whether he was the author, or only the copier (as he constantly asserted) of all these productions; he appears to have kept the secret entirely to himself and not to have put it in the power of any other person, to bear certain testimony either to his fraud or to his veracity.
The question therefore concerning the authenticity of these Poems must now be decided by an examination of the fragments upon vellum, which Mr. Barrett received from Chatterton as part of his original MSS., and by the internal evidence which the several pieces afford. If the Fragments shall be judged to be genuine, it will still remain to be determined, how far their genuineness should serve to authenticate the rest of the collection, of which no copies, older than those made by Chatterton, have ever been produced. On the other hand, if the writing of the Fragments shall be judged to be counterfeit and forged by Chatterton, it will not of necessity follow, that the matter of them was also forged by him, and still less, that all the other compositions, which he professed to have copied from antient MSS., were merely inventions of his own. In either cafe, the decision must finally depend upon the internal evidence.
It may be expected perhaps, that the Editor should give an opinion upon this important question; but he rather chooses, for many reasons, to leave it to the determination of the unprejudiced and intelligent Reader. He had long been desirous that these Poems should be printed; and therefore readily undertook the charge of superintending the edition. This he has executed in the manner, which seemed to him best suited to such a publication; and here he means that his talk should end. Whether, the Poems be really antient, or modern; the compositions of Rowley, or the forgeries of Chatterton; they must always be considered as a most singular literary curiosity.