Augustus Chatterton, Esq. World traveler, wit, and author of a late eighteenth-century book of poems, Buds of Beauty; or, Parnassian Sprig. The only problem is that no one knows who the man is.
After Chatterton authored the 1787 work, which contains such picks as “The Printer and Plagiarist,” “The Segar,” and “Epitaph on a Mean Wretch,” he and his work seemingly damped off. Buds of Beauty was published in (at least) Baltimore and New York, and several American newspapers advertised its publication It was illustrated with a handsome Abraham Godwin engraving, “Liberty Introducing the Arts to America,” which complemented Chatterton’s message that the “Muses…follow liberty.” It even included a dedication to Benjamin Franklin, a “Philosopher–a Man–and a Patriot” who “induced [Chatterton] to embellish [his] little effort with [Franklin’s] name.”
In his Early American Poetry, Oscar Wegelin, who partly rooted his bibliography in AAS collections, guessed that Chatterton was a pseudonym. Wegelin must have guessed correctly, as many Buds poems reappeared in an anonymous 1795 Belfast work, Poems on Different Subjects. The Belfast work contains a list of its Irish subscribers and an updated tribute to Franklin, “On the Death of Doctor Franklin.” The anonymous author also included a double acrostic, “News-Printer’s Letter-Box,” dedicated to an American printer (see below). But there’s still no hint of who “Chatterton” was and why he published a meager book of poems in the states in 1787.
Wegelin was unable to identity the pseudonymous author in the early twentieth century, and today digital aids refuse to yield the authorship of Buds. Copies of the book, its newspaper advertisements, and engraved frontispieces, only pieces with which we can reconstruct a historical period and the production of a book, remain. But the author must remain anonymous and, so to speak, dead.
( A Printer at Baltimore, having got a Lion’s-head painted on the window, with the mouth open for the reception of Essays, &c. wished for something poetical on the occasion, and the Author sent him the following double Acrostic, which he published in his paper: )
In order to favour the efforts of merit,
Let Genius and Wit to my station repair;
Of all their effusions, their fire and their spirit,
I’ll quickly relieve them, and take a due care.
Has Damon a wish to convey his lost passion?
Or Phyllis a mind to reveal her keen pain?
No more let them sigh, but compose in the fashion—
Nay bring it to me, and I’ll publish the strain.
Has Franklin a plan to convey to the nation—
Such plan as might answer the good of the whole?
As soon as he perfects his skillful relation,
He safely may drop it, when dark, in the hole.
Young authors who blush at their youthful beginnings,
Ev’n while they are conscious their talents are bright;
Each here with due ease may get rid of his findings,
And leave them secure under the shield of the night.
Soft, sweet, sentimental, or witty, or smart,
Deposit it here, and ‘twill steal the heart.
(Click here for the solution to the double acrostic.)
For More Information:
A new resource for the study of early American poetry, A Bibliographical Description of Books and Pamphlets of American Verse Printed from 1610 Through 1820, will be published this spring but is available for preorder now. Much of the research for it was done at AAS by Roger E. Stoddard (who worked for forty-two years in the Harvard Library, retiring in 2004 as Curator of Rare Books in the Harvard College Library, Senior Curator in the Houghton Library, and Senior Lecturer on English) and is edited by David R. Whitesell (curator of books at the American Antiquarian Society).