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Thomas Chatterton
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Thomas Chatterton

Thomas Chatterton (November 20, 1752 - August 24, 1770) was an English poet, remembered chiefly for his success as a forger of pseudo-medieval poetry, and for his suicide at the age of only seventeen.

Table of contents
1 Childhood
2 First "medieval" works
3 Posthumous recognition

Childhood

Chatterton was born at Bristol where the office of sexton of St. Mary Redcliffe, one of the most beautiful parish churches in England, had been held for nearly two centuries by the Chatterton family; throughout the brief life of the poet it was held by his uncle, Richard Phillips. The poet's father, Thomas Chatterton, was a musical genius, a poet, a numismatist, and a dabbler in the occult. He was a sub-chanter at Bristol Cathedral and master of the Pyle Street free school, near Redcliffe church.

The boy's education, however, was arranged by mother, who was widowed four months before his birth. She established a girls' school, took in sewing and ornamental needlework, and so brought up her two children, a girl and a boy, till Thomas attained his eighth year, when he was admitted to Colston's Charity. The Bristol blue-coat school, in which the curriculum was limited to reading, writing, arithmetic and the catechism, contributed little. The hereditary race of sextons had come to regard the church of St Mary Redcliffe as their own peculiar domain; and, under the guidance of his uncle, it was the child's favourite haunt. The knights, ecclesiastics and civic dignitaries on its altar tombs, became familiar to him; and he learned to spell his way through the inscriptions graven on their monuments.

Then he found a fresh interest in quaint oaken chests in the muniment room over the porch on the north side of the nave, where parchment deeds, old as the Wars of the Roses, lay forgotten. Thomas learned his first letters from the illuminated capitals of an old musical folio, and learned to read out of a black-letter Bible. He did not like, his sister said, reading out of small books. Wayward from his earliest years, and uninterested in the games of other children, he was thought to be educationally backward. His sister relates that on being asked what device he would like painted on a bowl that was to be his, he replied, "Paint me an angel, with wings, and a trumpet, to trumpet my name over the world."

From his earliest years he was liable to fits of abstraction, sitting for hours in what seemed like a trance, or crying for no reason. His lonely circumstances helped foster his natural reserve, and to create the love of mystery which exercised such an influence on the development of his genius. When the strange child was six, his mother began to recognize his capacity; at eight he was so eager for books that he would read and write all day long if undisturbed; by the age of eleven, he had become a contributor to Felix Parley's Bristol Journal.

His confirmation inspired him to write some religious poems published in this paper. In 1763 a beautiful cross of curious workmanship, which had adorned the churchyard of St Mary Redcliffe for upwards of three centuries, was destroyed by a churchwarden. The spirit of veneration was strong in Chatterton, and he sent to the local journal on January 7 1764 a clever satire on the parish Vandal. He also liked to lock himself in a little attic which he had appropriated as his study; and there, with books, cherished parchments, saved from the loot of the muniment room of St Mary Redcliffe, and drawing materials, the child lived in thought with his 15th century heroes and heroines.

First "medieval" works

The first of his literary mysteries, the duologue of "Elinoure and Juga," was written before he was twelve, and he showed it to the usher at Colston's hospital, Thomas Phillips, as the work of a 15th century poet. Chatterton remained an inmate of Colston's hospital for more than six years, and it was only his uncle who encouraged the pupils to write. Three of Chatterton's companions are named as youths whom Phillips's taste for poetry stimulated to rivalry; but Chatterton told no one about his own more daring literary adventures. His little pocket-money was spent on borrowing books from a circulating library; and he ingratiated himself with book collectors, in order to obtain access to Weever, Dugdale and Collins, as well as to Speght's edition of Chaucer, Spenser and other books.

Chatterton's "Rowleian" jargon appears to have been chiefly the result of the study of John Kersey's Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum, and it seems that his knowledge of even Chaucer was very slight. His holidays were mostly spent at his mother's house; and much of them in the favourite retreat of his attic study there. He had already conceived the romance of Thomas Rowley, an imaginary monk of the 15th century, and lived for the most part in an ideal world of his own, in the reign of Edward IV, when Master William Canynge - familiar to him among the recumbent effigies in Redcliffe church - still ruled in Bristol's civic chair. Canynge is represented as an enlightened patron of literature, and Rowley's dramatic interludes were written for studies.

In 1769 Chatterton sent a history of England, allegedly by Rowley, to Horace Walpole, who was briefly taken in. Chatterton now turned his attention to periodical literature and politics, and exchanged Felix Farley's Bristol Journal for the Town and County Magazine and other London periodicals. Assuming the vein of Junius - then in the full blaze of his triumph - he turned, his pen against the Duke of Grafton, the Earl of Bute, and Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, the Princess of Wales.

He had just despatched one of his political diatribes to the Middlesex Journal, when he sat down on Easter Eve, April 17 1770, and penned his "Last Will and Testament," a strange satirical compound of jest and earnest, in which he intimated his intention of putting an end to his life the following evening. Among his satirical bequests, such as his "humility" to the Rev. Mr Camplin, his "religion" to Dean Barton, and his "modesty" along with his "prosody and grammar" to Mr Burgum, he leaves "to Bristol all his spirit and disinterestedness, parcels of goods unknown on its quay since the days of Canynge and Rowley." In more genuine earnestness he recalls the name of Michael Clayfield, a friend to whom he owed intelligent sympathy. The will was probably purposely prepared in order to frighten his master into letting him go. It had the desired effect. Lambert cancelled his indentures; his friends and acquaintances donated money; and he went to London.

Chatterton was already known to the readers of the Middlesex Journal as a rival of Junius, under the nom de plume of Decimus. He had also been a contributor to Hamilton's Town and County Magazine, and speedily found access to the Freeholder's Magazine, another political miscellany supportive of John Wilkes and liberty. His contributions were accepted; but the editors paid little or nothing for them.

He wrote hopefully to his mother and sister, and spent his first earnings in buying gifts for them. His pride and ambition were gratified by the promises and interested flattery of editors and political adventurers; Wilkes himself had noted his trenchant style "and expressed a desire to know the author"; and Lord Mayor William Beckford graciously acknowledged a political address of his, and greeted him "as politely as a citizen could." He was abstemious and diligence was great. He could assume the style of Junius or Tobias Smollett, reproduce the satiric bitterness of Churchill, parody Macpherson's Ossian, or write in the manner of Pope, or with the polished grace of Thomas Gray and William Collins.

He wrote political letters, eclogues, lyrics, operas and satires, both in prose and verse. In June 1770 - after nine weeks in London - he moved from Shoreditch, where he had lodged with a relative, to an attic in Brook Street, Holborn. He was still short of money; and now state prosecutions of the press rendered letters in the Junius vein no longer admissible, and threw him back on the lighter resources of his pen. In Shoreditch, he had only shared a room; but now, for the first time, he enjoyed uninterrupted solitude. His bed-fellow at Mr Walmsley's, Shoreditch, noted that much of the night was spent by him in writing; and now he could write all night. The romance of his earlier years revived, and he transcribed from an imaginary parchment of the old priest Rowley his "Excelente Balade of Charitie." This fine poem, perversely disguised in archaic language, he sent to the editor of the Town and County Magazine, and had it rejected.

Already failure and starvation stared Chatterton in the face. Mr Cross, a neighbouring apothecary, repeatedly invited him to join him at dinner or supper; but he refused. His landlady also, suspecting his necessity, pressed him to share her dinner, but in vain. "She knew," as she afterwards said, "that he had not eaten anything for two or three days." But he assured her that he was not hungry. The note of his actual receipts, found in his pocket-book after his death, shows that Hamilton, Fell and other editors who had been so liberal in flattery, had paid him at the rate of a shilling for an article, and less than eightpence each for his songs; much which had been accepted was held in reserve and still unpaid for.

He had wished, according to his foster-mother, to study medicine with Barrett; in his desperation he now reverted to this, and wrote to Barrett for a letter to help him to an opening as a surgeon's assistant on board an African trader. On 24 August 1770, he retired for the last time to his attic in Brook Street, carrying with him the arsenic which he there drank, after tearing into fragments whatever literary remains were at hand. He was only seventeen years and nine months old; but the best of his numerous productions, in prose and verse, seem very mature.

He pictures Lydgate, the monk of Bury St Edmunds, challenging Rowley to a trial at versemaking, and under cover of this fiction, produces his Songe of Allla, a piece of rare lyrical beauty, worthy of comparison with any antique or modern production of its class. Again, in his Tragedy of Goddwyn, of which only a fragment has been preserved, the Ode to Liberty, with which it abruptly closes, may claim a place among the finest martial lyrics in the language. The collection of poems in which such specimens occur furnishes by far the most remarkable example of intellectual precocity in the whole history of English literature.

Posthumous recognition

The death of Chatterton attracted little notice at the time; for the few who then entertained any appreciative estimate of the Rowley poems regarded him as their mere transcriber. He was interred in a burying-ground attached to Shoe Lane Workhouse, in the parish of St Andrew's, Holborn, which has since been converted into a site for Farringdon Market. There is a discredited story that the body of the poet was recovered, and secretly buried by his uncle, Richard Phillips, in Redcliffe Churchyard. There a monument has since been erected to his memory, with the appropriate inscription, borrowed from his "Will," and so supplied by the poet's own pen. "To the memory of Thomas Chatterton. Reader! judge not. If thou art a Christian, believe that he shall be judged by a Superior Power. To that Power only is he now answerable."

It was after Chatterton's death that the controversy over his work began. Poems supposed to have been written at Bristol by Thomas Rowley and others, in the Fifteenth Century (1777) was edited by Thomas Tyrwhitt, a Chaucerian scholar who believed them genuine medieval works. However, the appendix to the following year's edition recognises that they were probably Chatterton's own work. Thomas Warton, in his History of English Poetry (1778) included Rowley among 15th century poets, but apparently did not believe in the antiquity of the poems. In 1782 a new edition of Rowley's poems appeared, with a "Commentary, in which the antiquity of them is considered and defended," by Jeremiah Milles, dean of Exeter.

The controversy which raged round the Rowley poems is discussed in A Kippis, Biographia Britannica (vol. iv., 1789), where there is a detailed account by G Gregory of Chatterton's life (pp. 573-619). This was reprinted in the edition (1803) of Chatterton's Works by Robert Southey and J Cottle, published for the benefit of the poet's sister. The neglected condition of the study of earlier English in the 18th century alone accounts for the temporary success of Chatterton's mystification. It has long been agreed that Chatterton was solely responsible for the Rowley Poems, but the language and style were analysed in confirmation of this view by Prof. WW Skeat in an introductory essay prefaced to vol. ii. of The Poetical Works of Thomas Chatterton (1871) in the "Aldine Edition of the British Poets." The Chatterton manuscripts, originally in the possession of William Barrett of Bristol, were left by his heir to the British Museum in 1800. Others are preserved in the Bristol library.

Chatterton's genius and his tragic death are commemorated by Shelley in Adonais, by Wordsworth in "Resolution and Independence," by Coleridge in "A Monody on the Death of Chatterton," by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in "Five English Poets," and John Keats inscribed Endymion "to the memory of Thomas Chatterton." Alfred de Vigny's drama of Chatterton gives an altogether fictitious account of the poet. Herbert Croft, in his Love and Madness, interpolated a long and valuable account of Chatterton, giving many of the poet's letters, and much information obtained from his family and friends (pp. 125-244, letter Ii.).

There is a valuable collection of "Chattertoniana" in the British Museum, consisting of separate works by Chatterton, newspaper cuttings, articles, dealing with the Rowley controversy and other subjects, with manuscript notes by Joseph Haslewood, and several autograph letters.

This article incorporates text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopędia Britannica.