Thomas Chatterton’s poetry is usually divided into his own poems, published in his lifetime, and those of his alter ego, the imaginary monk “Thomas Rowley” whom Chatterton asserted wrote many of the “fifteenth century” poems allegedly transcribed from vellum manuscripts found in the muniment room of St. Mary Redcliffe in Bristol and carried off by his father, the sexton, as curiosities useful for covering schoolbooks. Chatterton is remembered for his incredible facility in meters, for his suicide at seventeen, and for his imposture. The worst aspect of his last claim to fame was his attempt to impose on Horace Walpole, who had written a history of the development of styles, a fabricated transcription of a description of English painting in the fifteenth century; this hoax was a continuation of that by which Chatterton first got into print, his equally false transcription of ceremonies marking the opening of the old bridge across the Severn at Bristol, which Chatterton sent to the Bristol Journal in September, 1768, on the occasion of the opening of the new bridge. When he attempted to pass the Rowley poems as equally genuine, Chatterton became the victim not only of his provincial environment but of his age.
London and mid-eighteenth century England were booming with the mercantile revolution which was carrying British manufactures all over the world; the industrial and agricultural revolutions were shifting the bases of English society; the...
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