Born in Bristol, Thomas Chatterton was the posthumous son of a poor schoolmaster and at age 11 published his first poem, titled "A Hymn for Christmas Day," which later critics described as influenced by John Milton and containing some satire against the Pope. He gained his education at Colston's Hospital, a charity institution for the poor that trained pupils to serve merchants of the port town, while his mother sewed to help support her family. As popular mythology goes, he was expelled from school at age seven, not surprising his mother, who had often told him he was a fool. However, he made progress, visibly improving and surprising his mother; by age eight he had become "eager" for books, according to his biographer, John Dix. He also apparently became enthralled with the illuminated manuscripts that his mother was shredding for scrap.
By age 14 Chatterton apprenticed with an attorney named John Lambert and became interested in the historical documents of his church of St. Mary Redcliffe. He learned to recreate aristocratic pedigrees and coats of arms and transferred his interest in that hobby to his writing. He became so adept at such forgery that, according to Dix, he delighted a vain member of the community by telling him he had discovered his family pedigree traced from a remote period. When he presented a book to the man with his family's coat of arms painted on the cover, he received five times the payment he had expected, prompting the invention of a second volume, complete with a poem dated 1320.
Chatterton gained a reputation as a dabbler in the occult and became a familiar face at local taverns; some of his poems celebrate drunken carousing. Bored by his transcription duties, he found imaginative outlets by composing love poems for his inarticulate friends. Other of his poetry targeted the Bristol community, attacking what he perceived as some members' greed and hypocrisy.
Chatterton wrote a later set of poems under the pseudonym Thomas Rowley, identifying himself as "a Secular Priest of St. John's," using 15th-century Bristol as a setting. In those poems he transformed a historical figure, Bristol's merchant mayor William Canynges, into an imaginary patron for the fictional Rowley. He corresponded with the novelist Horace Walpole, who encouraged Chatterton to send more of the Rowley works. However, when Walpole showed the poems to his poet friend John Gray, Gray recognized them as forgeries and dismissed them. Walpole wrote to Chatterton, encouraging him to give up writing and focus on his apprenticeship. This enraged Chatterton, who threatened to destroy his work; instead he composed a vitriolic poem aimed at Walpole, which read, in part,
Had I the gifts of wealth and luxury shar'd,
Not poor and mean, Walpole! Thou hadst not dar'd
Thus to insult. But I shall live and stand
By Roywley's side, when thou art dead and damn'd.
In 1769 Chatterton began to publish periodicals in London and hoped to move there but was too encumbered by indentures. Lambert discovered a suicide note written by Chatterton, obviously intended to manipulate his employer, which proved effective, even though it contained such nonsense as bequeathing his humility and his modesty to various individuals. Lambert had the indentures dismissed, and in 1770 Chatterton moved to London.
At first Chatterton wrote political pieces in a progressive vein, usually in the form of letters addressed to political figures. For instance, in a letter to Middlesex Journal dated April 17, 1770, and signed "Decimus," he wrote to the duke G-n:
The people are indeed to be pitied. They have a king, (the best of kings, in the language of flattery) who never hears the truth. They petition, and are not regarded; and if they assume a becoming spirit of freedom, it is licentiousness. I shall conclude with observing, that your whole administration has been derogatory to the honour and dignity of the crown; for the honour of the crown is the liberty of the subject.
However revolutionary his words proved, Chatterton remained always the pragmatist in such matters, expressing in a letter to his sister his willingness to write in support of Tory opinions.
With exuberance Chatterton wrote on May 6, 1770, to his mother, "I get four guineas a month by one magazine: shall engage to write a History of England, and other pieces, which will more than double that sum. Occasional essays for the daily papers would more than support me. What a glorious prospect!" He did pay for his rented room in Holborn until the radical presses closed and many of their editors went to prison. Sending most of the pittance he received for a few additional pieces to his sister and mother, he lived for a short time penniless and hungry. All of his poetry was rejected except a single Rowley poem, "Elinoure and Juga," which appeared in The Town and Country Magazine (1769). Chatterton's sensitivity led him to take arsenic. His landlady reported that he refused her offer of a meal on August 24, 1770. He then went to his locked room and committed suicide by injesting arsenic, dying days before his 18th birthday.
The circumstances of Chatterton's death, in conjunction with his poetry, caught the imagination of the later romantic poets. William Wordsworth wrote of Chatterton in "Resolution and Independence" as "the marvelous boy" who "perished in his pride," while John Keats dedicated Endymion to him. When Keats also met an early death, Shelley referenced Chatterton in his elegy to Keats, Adonais. He became the dissenting artist ideal, inspiring writing also by Samuel Taylor
Was this article helpful?