Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
No consideration of Thomas Chatterton can proceed without first relating the poet to Bristol, the city of all but the final four months of his brief life, particularly the environs of the St. Mary Redcliffe Church. Born in its shadow, Chatterton was the posthumous son of another Thomas, a sometime schoolmaster, choir singer, and sexton of the imposing edifice. His mother, a colorless woman of whom little is known, struggled after her husband’s death to maintain the household, which also included her mother and a daughter. Poverty haunted the family, and young Thomas was forced to be educated in charity schools.
Judged dull and unteachable at the age of five at the schoolhouse in which he had been born, the child retreated into a private world of his own, haunting the church and yard of St. Mary Redcliffe, to whose legends and corners he was introduced by his uncle, a sexton. He taught himself to read from a huge black-letter Bible and soon became an omnivorous reader. The solitary child early discovered Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596) and scraps of history books, and they, along with the church building and his family, were his life.
When he was eight, Chatterton was admitted to a charity school at Colston Hospital, a seemingly benevolent yet oppressive situation, especially to one of Chatterton’s sensitivity. At the school, little more than a training prison, success in the mercantile world was the only goal of...
(The entire section is 1188 words.)
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
The boy-poet Thomas Chatterton was one of the marvels of the literary world of the eighteenth century. His father died before he was born, and his young mother supported her children by operating a dame-school and taking in sewing. As early as his eleventh year, young Chatterton was writing poetry and immersing himself in a make-believe world of medieval language and lore. As a very small child he had begun playing in the muniment room of the church of St. Mary Redcliffe, in Bristol, where his family members had been hereditary sextons for two hundred years. Later he gathered together pieces of parchment lying about the family home, pieces that had been removed from the church, many dating back to the fifteenth century. When he was about twelve years old Chatterton invented the character Thomas Rowley, whom he made a monk and later, secular priest, friend, and confessor to William Caynge, a mayor of Bristol in the fifteenth century. While still a child, too, Chatterton made lists of old words and adopted an obsolete system of spelling. He began writing poems in several different styles, imitating fifteenth century language.
When he was about fifteen years old he was apprenticed to Bristol attorney John Lambert, who required him to work as a drudging copyist for twelve hours a day. During this time Chatterton began sending some of his “Rowley...
(The entire section is 450 words.)