Thomas Chatterton

(1752 - 1770 / Bristol / England)

Biography of Thomas Chatterton

Thomas Chatterton poet

Thomas Chatterton was born in Bristol on November 20, 1752 and is generally regarded as the first Romantic poet in English.

Throughout his early childhood Chatterton showed no signs of talent. He was regarded as little better than an idiot until he was about six and a half years old, because he would learn nothing, refused to play with other children, and spent most of his time brooding in silence. He was expelled from his first school as a dullard.

It appears that he underwent a considerable transformation in his seventh year. The story goes that one day he found his mother tearing up for waste paper some old music folios which had been brought home from the church some years previously by his father for use as sewing-patterns, bookbindings and the like. According to his mother, Thomas 'fell in love' with the illuminated capitals and, his interest once aroused, his mother soon taught him to read with the aid of the manuscript. If the story can be trusted, it illustrates vividly both Chatterton's instinctive delight in medieval art and the philistinism of his surroundings. His reading progressed from the old folios to a black-letter Bible and then to any books he could obtain.

In August 1760 he began attending Golston's Hospital, a Bristol charity-school which formed probably the worst intellectual environment he could have had. This Dickensian personage had left behind him a school run like a prison, where the pupils were tonsured like monks and suspected leanings towards religious non-conformity were punishable by expulsion. Chatterton's behaviour there seems to have alternated between delinquency and sullenness and the school proved to be the first of a series of disastrously stultifying milieux which certainly contributed to Chatterton's tragedy.

When he was ten, he began to write poetry. At first he produced religious verses, but he soon developed a satirical vein. The first glimpses of Chatterton as a literary forger began to appear soon after.

In 1767, when he was nearly fifteen, Chatterton left school and was apprenticed to John Lambert, an attorney. It was his first step into the business world, an environment which he found almost as oppressive as Golston's Hospital. Bristol at this time was an overcrowded, bustling industrial city crammed into a set of streets and buildings which had changed little since the middle ages. It was, in fact, one of the places where the modern world was coming into existence.

Chatterton was not proving a satisfactory apprentice. Set to the drudgery of copying legal precedents, he whiled away the time in drawing and writing poetry. He still read enormously. He was sulky and sardonic, and began to associate in his spare time with a group of young apprentices who, like him, were bored by their work and did their best to enliven the evenings with drinking and chasing girls.

His literary work went ahead quickly. In 1768 a local magazine accepted from him 'medieval' documents relating to a matter of local history - these were of course forgeries. Soon he was selling a series of 'medieval' poems and documents, which he claimed to have found amongst old papers in the Church of St. Mary Redcliff. Among the poems sold was the manuscript of his masterpiece, AElla.

Chatterton was not entirely content being a poet and turned to being a forger for several reasons. He felt alienated in society and held resentment towards society, and especially towards figures of authority. Naturally sensitive and suspicious, he was also extraordinarily intelligent, perhaps even a genius, and yet he was placed in a series of environments which offered little understanding or encouragement. On a few well-documented occasions Chatterton admitted that he had written the poems, however no-one would believe him. He was not regarded as sufficiently intelligent. This above all must have confirmed him in his resolution to play merely the discoverer and editor of a medieval poet, and not to claim the authorship for himself.

Furthermore Chatterton believed a poem which would be accepted and sincerely acclaimed as a specimen of medieval verse would be cruely ridiculed as the work of a living poet; or so he probably assumed. And with some of the disinterest of the true artist, Chatterton sacrificed his own fame and attributed most of the poems he wrote in 1768 and 1769, many of which touch on greatness, to a fictitious Bristolian priest of the 15th century, Sir Thomas Rowley.

Unfortunately Chatterton, herald of the new poetic era, clung to some of the habits of the old. He seems to have wanted a patron; and in his innocence, it occurred to him that Walpole, author of Otranto, was the very man. Walpole was sent samples of Rowley's poetry but this aroused suspicion and the documents were returned.

In 1769 Chatterton decided that he must leave the attorney's office and turn professional. But he was still bound by his indentures to Lambert, and there was no easy way to obtain release. He became increasingly depressed and frequently talked of suicide. His religious beliefs had partly fallen away and after one suicide-threat he managed to coerce Lambert to cancel his indentures.

Free at last, Chatterton, now seventeen, set out for London at the end of April 1770. He visited the editors of several magazines and seems to have written and published a great deal of satirical verse and prose in the first few months. But payments were small and irregular and the work exhausting. In June he moved to cheaper lodgings where he need not be seen in his exhaustion and poverty by anyone who knew him. He was entirely alone, and could not bring himself to return to Bristol a failure. He was half-starved, and there is evidence to suggest that his sufferings were aggravated by a dose of gonorrhoea. On August 24, 1770, proud to the end, he poisoned himself by drinking arsenic in water.

The room was broken open the next day. Chatterton's body lay on the bed, severely convulsed. The floor was littered with fragments of manuscript. The inquest, the records of which have been lost, presumably returned the plain verdict of suicide, so that Chatterton's body was buried in an unmarked grave.

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February

Begin, my muse, the imitative lay,
Aonian doxies sound the thrumming string;
Attempt no number of the plaintive Gay,
Let me like midnight cats, or Collins sing.
If in the trammels of the doleful line
The bounding hail, or drilling rain descend;
Come, brooding Melancholy, pow'r divine,
And ev'ry unform'd mass of words amend.

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