Poem of the Day: ‘Mynstrelles Songe’

Wordsworth describes the poet Thomas Chatterton, a suicide at 17, as a ‘marvelous Boy,’ a ‘sleepless Soul that perished in his pride.’

Via Wikimedia Commons
Henry Wallis, 'Chatterton,' detail, 1856. Via Wikimedia Commons

Today, November 20, marks the birthday of Thomas Chatterton (1752–1770). And what are we to make of him, that young would-be poet who killed himself with arsenic at the age of 17? Chatterton’s story was once well known, for it appealed to the subsequent generations of English poets who would become the Romantics. (Wordsworth was born the year Chatterton died.) He was a precocious and lonely boy so inward looking that he was at first thought mentally backward.

What Chatterton needed were books and sympathetic teachers, but the death of his father, a few months after his birth, left him to be raised in poverty and thinly educated at a charity school. He managed to begin publishing in a local Bristol journal at age 11, however, which encouraged him to think he would be able to support himself as an adult. And in the spring of 1770, pouring out a torrent of social satires, hack verse, and political commentary, he moved to London.

Unfortunately, much of that writing paid little, and magazines grew reluctant to publish satires and political letters in the wake of new public prosecutions. Chatterton’s best work was his invented medievalism, a set of verses supposedly by a 15th-century Bristol poet named “Thomas Rowely.”

Chatterton hoped to find a patron on the basis of those poems, but he was stymied in good part by his refusal to admit that the poems were invented. A few antiquarians were taken in by the fraud, but Horace Walpole ended up writing a letter rejecting him. That August, broke and refusing charity, Chatterton killed himself in a garret at the London district of Holborn.

The Rowley work was not believably medieval by any scholarly standard. Chatterton had stumbled on a copy of Elizabeth Price’s 1737 anthology, “The Muses’ Library,” where he discovered Chaucer, but he lacked the Latin and French, even access to other middle English texts, that might have helped him become more acquainted with the era. He lacked, in essence, the learning that boys from luckier circumstances were given. And to that lack, Chatterton added a dreamy disposition, a raging ambition, and a relentless work ethic. It was a deadly combination.

The Romantics would be fascinated by him. Wordsworth called him, “the marvelous Boy / The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride.” Keats wrote a sonnet for him. Coleridge identified with him so much that by the end of his “Monody on the Death of Chatterton,” it is difficult to tell whether Coleridge is talking about himself or the decades-dead boy. 

Today’s Poem of the Day is a minstrel’s song from his Rowley “tragical interlude” called “Aella.” The pseudo-Chaucerian language is easily parsed, since it contains little of middle English except deliberately bad spelling. And yet, respelled, we have “My love is dead, / Gone to his death-bed, / All under the willow tree.”

The best way to understand the Rowley poems may be not to take them as either a deliberate fraud or a strange poetic experiment. It was fantasy: a bright boy’s daydream indulged as wish-fulfillment of a life of poetic creation and fame. Chatterton told his sister he wanted his name spread across the sky like the sound of an angel’s trumpet. He was so very young.

Mynstrelles Songe 
by Thomas Chatterton (as “Thomas Rowley”)

O! synge untoe mie roundelaie, 
O! droppe the brynie teare whythe mee, 
Daunce ne moe atte hallie daie, 
Lycke a reynynge ryver bee; 
    Mie love ys dedde, 
    Gone to hys death-bedde, 
    All under the wyllowe tree. 

Blacke hys cryne as the wyntere nyghte, 
Whyte hys rode as the sommer snowe, 
Rodde hys face as the mornynge lyghte, 
Cale he lyes ynne the grave belowe; 
    Mie love ys dedde, 
    Gone to hys death-bedde, 
    Al under the wyllowe tree. 

Swote hys tyngue as the throstles note, 
Quycke ynn daunce as thoughte canne bee, 
Defte hys taboure, codgelle stote, 
O! hee lyes bie the wyllowe tree: 
    Mie love ys dedde, 
    Gonne to his deathe-bedde, 
    Alle underre the wyllowe tree. 

Harke! the revenne flapes hys wynge, 
In the briered delle below; 
Harke! the dethe-owle loude dothe synge, 
To the nyghte-mares as heie goe; 
    Mie love ys dedde, 
    Gonne to hys deathe-bedde, 
    Al under the wyllowe tree. 

See! the whyte moone sheenes onne hie; 
Whyterre ys mie true loves shroude; 
Whyterre yanne the mornynge skie, 
Whyterre yanne the evenynge cloude; 
    Mie love ys dedde, 
    Gon to hys deathe-bedde, 
    Al under the wyllowe tree. 

Heere, uponne mie true loves grave, 
Schalle the baren fluers be layde, 
Nee one hallie Seyncte to save 
Al the celness of a mayde. 
    Mie love ys dedde, 
    Gonne to hys death-bedde, 
    Alle under the wyllowe tree. 

Wythe mie hondes I’lle dente the brieres 
Rounde his hallie corse to gre, 
Ouphante fairie, lyghte youre fyres, 
Heere mie boddie stylle schalle bee. 
    Mie love ys dedde, 
    Gon to hys death-bedde, 
    Al under the wyllowe tree. 

Comme, wythe acorne-coppe & thorne,
Drayne mie hartys blodde awaie;
Lyfe & all yttes goode I scorne,
Daunce bie nete, or feaste by daie.
        Mie love ys dedde,
        Gon to hys death-bedde,
        Al under the wyllowe tree. 

Waterre wytches, crownede wythe reytes, 
Bere mee to yer leathalle tyde. 
I die, I comme; mie true love waytes. 
Thos the damselle spake, and dyed.

With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by Joseph Bottum with the help of the North Carolina poet Sally Thomas, the Sun’s associate poetry editor. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems are drawn from the deep traditions of English verse: the great work of the past and the living poets who keep those traditions alive. The goal is always to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul.

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