World Literature

Thomas Chatterton

 

BORN: 1752, Bristol, England

DIED: 1770, London, England

NATIONALITY: British

GENRE: Fiction, poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

‘‘A Hunter of Oddities’’ (1770)

‘‘Memoirs of a Sad Dog’’ (1770)

Alla: A Tragycal Enterlude (1777)

‘‘Excelente Balade of Charitie’’ (1777)

Goddwyn: A Tragedie (1777)

 

 

Thomas Chatterton. Chatterton, Thomas, painting. The Library of Congress.

 

Overview

Of all English poets, Thomas Chatterton seemed to his great Romantic successors to most typify a commitment to the life of the imagination. For a variety of reasons, which to a large extent relate to the state of letters in his time, he achieved the status of a myth. The victim of starvation and despair, his suspected suicide in a London garret at the age of eighteen enhanced his social and literary significance to an archetypal level.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Growing Up in a Household of Women. Thomas Chatterton was born on November 10, 1752, in Bristol, England. He was the son of a schoolmaster, also named Thomas, a man of an eccentric disposition but with strong musical and poetic abilities and antiquarian interests. His mother, who was widowed four months before Chatterton’s birth, kept the home running with her work as a needlewoman. Chatterton grew up in a household of women—his mother, sister, and paternal grandmother. At an early age, Chatterton was judged to be ‘‘stupid’’ due to his early inability to learn to read. However, at the age of six, he became deeply interested in an illuminated manuscript at Saint Mary Redcliffe Church, after which he did little but read and demonstrate his precocity.

Saint Mary Redcliffe Church. Chatterton’s ancestors had been sextons of the Church of Saint Mary in the parish of Redcliff for generations. It was the Church of Saint Mary Redcliffe that became the young Chatterton’s favorite place to spend time. Elsewhere, he was prone to outbursts of rage alternating with tearful episodes. The constant proximity of the old and beautiful church, however, with whose fabric his ancestors had been so closely connected, nurtured his extraordinary sensibility.

Solitary Brooding Yields First Publication at Age Eleven. At the age of eight Chatterton was sent to Colston’s charitable foundation, a Hospital School, where his education was geared to the vocational requirements of his community—commerce and law—rather than to encouraging the development of his imagination through classical training. Chatterton began to read voraciously. He frequently haunted local bookshops, and he was equally eager about writing. Chatterton collected all the remnants of parchment he could find and took them to a lumber room that he appropriated for his own use. There, his solitary brooding, combined with the discontents of his daily life, encouraged the young prodigy to express himself in writing. At the age of eleven, he had his first poetry published in the January 8, 1763, edition of Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal.

Suffered Beatings for Poetry. At the end of his schooling he was indentured to a local lawyer, John Lambert, as a scrivener, or copy clerk. Upon finding out that he wrote poetry in his spare time, his employer beat him and, tearing up what he had written, forbade him to continue. However, there were other like-minded young men with whom Chatterton gossiped and for whom he produced verse exercises of various kinds. Thomas Phillips, the usher at Colston’s, had been regarded as a remarkable versifier, but Phillips died in 1769; Chatterton’s three elegies to Phillips show he had been to some extent a fellow spirit.

Rowley Is Born. Chatterton returned to the Church of Saint Mary Redcliff in Bristol for his greatest (and most talked-about) writing efforts. Using documentation he found there, he created fictions based upon the lives of people from the church’s history. The church had been founded in the fifteenth century by William Canning, mayor of Bristol and a romantic figure of enormous wealth and property. Among Canning’s contemporaries had been Thomas Rowley, at one time sheriff of Bristol. In his solitude, Chatterton wrote works that he attributed, upon submission for publication, to Rowley.

With his first successful submission to the local newspaper, Chatterton attracted the attention of William Barrett, a surgeon and local antiquary. Barrett’s encyclopedia- style History of Bristol (1789) was to include much of Chatterton’s “Rowley’’ material as genuine. Modern readers should keep in mind that the clear distinction between fact and fiction in written works only found its codification with the rise of the novel itself. Histories written prior to the emergence of the novel as a genre often included fanciful material. In this case, Chatterton cunningly offered material that would attract an antiquary and reinforced the forgery with sophisticated critique, also forged, to enhance its supposed authenticity. Not only was none of the Rowley poetry published as Chatterton's during Chatterton's lifetime, but his ‘‘friends’’ were among the most adamant after his death in asserting that the boy they had known could not possibly have written the Rowley poems.

Fooling Horace Walpole. Chatterton became even more creative to convince his next patrons. The ‘‘Account of the De Berghams from the Norman Conquest to This Time’’ earned him a small sum of money, but his work was soon exposed as a hoax. Chatterton then targeted famous author Horace Walpole. What better ploy than to have Canning send Rowley to catalogue the paintings of the fifteenth century in a journey around Britain in order to whet Walpole's appetite for unknown artists? Walpole welcomed Chatterton’s opening gambit, a piece titled ‘‘The Rise of Peyncteynge yn Englande, wroten bie T. Rowleie, 1469 for Mastre Canynge.’’ Walpole gave courteous encouragement, offering to print them if they had not been printed before.

Chatterton not only sent poems but disclosed the truth of his own situation—that he was the son of a poor widow and wished to be released from his drudgery as an attorney’s apprentice. The obviously modern tone of the specimens Walpole received (particularly of the pastoral poems) and his embarrassment at being tricked and consequently ridiculed made Walpole at first neglect to respond to Chatterton. He then made brusque dismissal of any hopes Chatterton might have had from this particular great man. After Chatterton's suspected suicide, Walpole was cast in the role of persecutor of the indigent and youthful genius.

One Final Hoax. So ripe must the time have seemed for his new life to begin that Chatterton found a way to extricate himself from his apprenticeship. On April 14, 1769, he devised a last will and testament and specified memorials to be placed on the tombs of his ancestors and on his own. His scheme succeeded: the largely fictitious emotions were assumed to be authentic, and Lambert released him from his apprenticeship. Chatterton was free to go to London to make his fortune. He left Bristol on April 17 for the first and last time. He had already written to booksellers and publishers in London, and he visited them promptly on the evening of his arrival.

Writing Opportunities Change. From then on, the pace of his life and the hectic qualities of his letter writing increased. He took lodgings with a relative in Shoreditch and there wrote glowing accounts of his fashionable acquaintance and of his influence with London publishers. He had established connections with the editors of the Town and Country Magazine, the Middlesex Journal, and the Freeholder’s Magazine. It is reported, however, that when the government clamped down on their activities and imprisoned the editor of the Freeholder’s Magazine, Chatterton's market became constricted. Chatterton earned a little money from periodical stories such as ‘‘Letter of Maria Friendless’’ and ‘‘Memoirs of a Sad Dog,'' both published in Town and Country. About the time Chatterton moved from Shoreditch to the house of Mrs. Angel, a dress maker on Brooke Street, he must have written, or more likely improved, his ‘‘Excelente Balade of Charitie,’’ the only poem of this period written in the Rowleian style. It was not accepted for publication by the Town and Country, which merely printed an acknowledgment of its receipt, having already accepted as much material as it could publish.

Mrs. Angel. The sentiments of the rejected poem have long been supposed those of Chatterton himself as his fortunes sank even lower. He wrote to his old Bristol acquaintance William Barrett for support in gaining a position as a ship's surgeon, but, since Chatterton had no medical training, Barrett could only refuse. The last presents for home were sent with confident and affectionate letters to his mother and sister, the two women who remained the center of his emotional concern. He promised more gifts and future good fortune, but in fact he was being beset by the ironically named Mrs. Angel.

At this date, he was still hoping that Barrett might help him to the post of ship’s surgeon. The near fifty percent increase in his rent is deduced to have been the final blow to his finances. ‘‘A Hunter of Oddities,’’ published in September in Town and Country, includes an exchange in which a lodger asks his landlady what he may be given for dinner, and it concludes ‘‘Your score is now seven and thirty shillings; and I think it is time it should be cleared.’’ Mrs. Angel told a neighbor that, knowing Chatterton had not eaten for two or three days, she begged him to take a meal with her on August 24, but that he refused. The same day he was reputed to have tried to beg a loaf from a baker he knew.

Suspected Suicide at Age Eighteen. In the course of the night of August 24, 1770, Chatterton swallowed both opium and arsenic in water. The general conclusion was that the eighteen-year-old had committed suicide. A neighboring chemist, Mr. Cross, noted after Chatterton's death that he was using vitriol to cure himself of venereal disease. Scholars of late, however, are also considering the possibility that the arsenic (or the combination of opium and arsenic) accidentally killed him. At the time he died, Oxford scholar Dr. Thomas Fry had just started to inquire about the Rowley poems.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Chatterton's famous contemporaries include:

Francis Fanny Burney (1752-1840): British diarist, novelist, and playwright, she was not only a prolific writer but is also considered to be a precursor to such writers as Jane Austen and William Makepeace Thackeray.

Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784): She was the first African American woman poet to publish and is said to be one of the first to influence the genre of African American literature.

John Wilkes (1725-1795): English writer and radical, he fought for the rights of citizens, rather than the House of Commons, to decide their representatives.

Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798): Venetian adventurer and author most famous for his womanizing.

Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1774): Anglo-Irish writer, poet, and physician known for works including The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) and The Good-Natur'd Man (1768).

 

Works in Literary Context

In his reading, Chatterton encountered the Ossian fragments and epics of Scottish poet James Macpherson—works which had become the rage of the polite world in the 1760s. He also read Thomas Percy’s works, where differences between ancient and modern ballads were discussed. Equally important, as scholar Bertrand Bronson has shown, was Elizabeth Cooper’s The Muses Library (1737), a four-hundred-page account of such older English poets as Edward the Confessor, Samuel Daniel, William Langland, John Gower, Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas Occleve, Alexander Barclay, and the Earl of Surrey. If one adds to these Old Plays (1744) by Robert Dodsley; the works of the antiquarians of the previous century; eighteenth-century dictionaries and encyclopedias; and the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, William Collins, and Thomas Gray, one can see that Chatterton’s imaginative resources were rich indeed.

Forging Medieval Poetry. William Canning’s name had been featured in leases, heraldry, buildings, grants of property, and bequests in documents housed in chests in a room of Saint Mary’s Redcliff. Chatterton was so enthralled by the romantic figures that he made Thomas Rowley a sort of alter ego: Rowley was to be cast as priest, poet, and chronicler, and Canning was to become enshrined in the role of patron to Rowley. Chatterton began his writing efforts by ‘‘forging’’ medieval poetry— using the passionate voice of his heroes and heroines to develop surrealistic, dreamlike narratives and vigorous, dramatic, and evocative poems. Chatterton also found a way to use the mythical qualities of his homeland, Bristol. The strategic role of Bristol as the gateway for the men who ventured from Bristol to fight in patriotic struggles against the invaders who threatened English independence was to be one of ‘‘Rowley’s’’ primary themes.

As the martyred poet, Chatterton left an enormous impact with his untimely death. Alfred de Vigny, Robert Browning, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Francis Thompson wrote about him. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a monody—a poem of lament—about him. Robert Southey edited his poems (1803). John Keats dedicated Endymion (1817) to him. George Meredith posed for Henry Wallis’s painting of Chatterton’ death, Adonais. William Wordsworth, listing in ‘‘Resolution and Independence’’ (1807) those poets to whom he owed most, described Chatterton as ‘‘the marvellous Boy, The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride’’ (1821). Chatterton also had a formidable influence on English, French, and German literature through his ‘‘Rowley’’ poems.

 

Works in Critical Context

Rowley Poems Elicit High Praise. Chatterton has elicited high praise from writers, scholars, and critics of all literary periods, particularly when his Rowley Poems are juxtaposed against his premature death. While some of his contemporaries, like Horace Walpole, were less appreciative of his works, which had fooled them, Romantic poets like Percy Bysshe Shelley ranked Chatterton with Sir Philip Sidney as “inheritors of unfulfilled renown.’’ For Rossetti, ‘‘Not to know Chatterton is to be ignorant of the true day-spring of modern romantic poetry.’’ Keats wrote that ‘‘Chatterton ...is the purest writer in the English Language ...’ tis genuine English idiom in English words.’’ Chatterton ultimately came to represent to the Romantics and their successors a kind of idealism in the face of the rationalizing materialism of the eighteenth century. Modern scholar Linda Kelly describes Chatter- ton in The Marvellous Boy (1971) as a mythical figure evoking something beyond his achievement, a haunting reminder of the fascination and power of the imagination.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Chatterton's later satiric verse relied more heavily on literary precedent, particularly the examples of Alexander Pope and Charles Churchill, for its study of society's inequity and evil. Here are a few works by authors who also wrote satires about their social sphere:

The Importance of Being Ernest (1895), a play by Oscar Wilde. In this comedy of errors, the etiquette of high society is mocked.

Main Street (1920), a novel by Sinclair Lewis. In this work the author makes a commentary on contemporary American values.

The Miser (1668), a play by Moliere. In this comical drama, grown children seek to get away from their miserly loanshark father.

A Modest Proposal (1729), a pamphlet by Jonathan Swift. In this satire the author offers a unique solution to the problem of poverty.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Consider Chatterton’s reputation as an intentional literary imposter and a clever jokester who forged documents. Read his last writings (which you can find at Project Gutenberg and elsewhere on the Net). Consider whether the young man’s last will and testament was a brilliant way to escape a dreary job, a hint at the poet’s mental instability, or an actual goodbye.

2. In the context of Chatterton’s life, discuss the advantages and disadvantages of publishing under someone else’s name. What political, social, or psychological factors need to be considered?

3. Evaluate the ‘‘authenticity’’ of the poems Chatterton attributed to Rowley, citing examples from the works. In other words, what about these poems made them compelling enough to fool authors like Horace Walpole?

4. If you were to choose a pen name for yourself, what would it be and why? Would it have a hidden message behind it? Would there be a symbolic meaning? Would the name speak to who you are, something you like, something you value?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Ackroyd, Peter. Chatterton. London: Penguin, 1987.

Dix, John. The Life of Thomas Chatterton. London: Hamilton, Adams, 1837.

Groom, Nick, ed.Thomas Chatterton and Romantic Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.

Kaplan, Louise J. The Family Romance of the Imposter-Poet Thomas Chatterton. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989.

Kelly, Linda. The Marvellous Boy: The Life and Myth of Thomas Chatterton. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971.

Periodicals

Bronson, Bertrand. ‘‘Chattertoniana.’’ Modern Language Quarterly 2 (1950): 417-24.

Byrnes, Sholto. ‘‘Pandora: Chatterton and the Sex Pistols.’’ Independent (London), December 5, 2002.

Demetriou, Danielle. ‘‘Reports of 18th Century Romantic Icon’s Suicide Were ‘Greatly Exaggerated.’’’ Independent (London) August 26, 2004.

Royle, Trevor. ‘‘Live Fast, Die Young, Be Forgotten.’’ Sunday Herald (Scotland), September 3, 2000.

Web Sites

Bartleby’s. The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., 2001-2007. “Chatterton, Thomas.’’ Retrieved March 14, 2008, from http://www.bartleby.com/65/ch/Chattert.html.

Project Gutenberg. “Chatterton, Thomas.’’ Retrieved March 14, 2008, from http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/c#a4793.

Representative Poetry Online. Selected Poetry of Thomas Chatterton. Retrieved March 14, 2008, from http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poet/60.html.