Chatterton, Thomas

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Chatterton, Thomas (1752-1770): English Poet.

A suicide at seventeen, this precocious poet became a romantic icon at the beginning of the Romantic movement. His unhappy and short life exemplified to Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley the tragic genius whose neglect by his contemporaries drove him to despair. In his own time, he was regarded with suspicion as an imposter and plagiary who fabricated the origins of his poems and borrowed heavily from a battalion of English poets.

Born and raised in Bristol, he exploited the family connection to St. Mary Redcliffe Church and gained access to medieval manuscripts and parchments and heraldic designs, which fascinated him. An avid reader, he began to copy and then created poems, which gave the appearance of originating in the fifteenth century; his output was prolific for one so young. To give these verses an authentic air of the late Middle Ages, though based on poetic styles of Chaucer, Spenser and contemporary Augustans, he invented a poet/priest named Thomas Rowley and consciously mined an antique vocabulary and created new spellings. These pseudo-medieval experiments became the corpus of poems forever associated with Chatterton’s so-called counterfeiting and forgeries. In actuality, he joined a fraternity of other hoaxers and forgers like Macpherson, James and Horace Walpole, who claimed to “discover” manuscripts in churches, castles, libraries or ruins. As a poet he resorted to the popular poetic diction and lyric mannerisms of mid-century, as in his often anthologized “Excelente Balade of Charitie.” Despite the surface Chaucerian and Spenserian language and the medieval settings, the poems echo the sentiments of social protest and suffering one finds in Gray, Thomas, Collins, Anthony and Goldsmith, Oliver.

Dismissed from his apprenticeship with a Bristol attorney, he sought his fortunes in London in August 1770, where he met with more rejection. A few months later at seventeen, he was dead from arsenic, thus commencing the legend of the poète maudit, who showed early genius but was overlooked because of his unconventional mode of historical reconstruction and strange spellings. For the romantics eagerly distancing themselves from classical culture, Chatterton was a mythic godsend, a youthful talent resurrecting the new fashion for the Middle Ages, who paved the way for the new aesthetic.

Further reading:

Linda Kelly, The Marvellous Boy: The Life and Myth of Thomas Chatterton,1971

Nick Groom ed., Thomas Chatterton and Romantic Culture,1999.

Arthur J. Weitzman