Thomas Chatterton Analysis

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Thomas Chatterton, obsessed with the creation of antique literature, did not limit his artistic output to the poetry he pretended was written by the fictional fifteenth century cleric Thomas Rowley, even though any claim for his literary recognition is based on the Rowley collection. Although Chatterton’s prose writings are generally imitative and unoriginal, at a time of rampant literary forgeries, he created a pastiche of spurious historical manuscripts, maps, drawings, genealogies, and pedigrees for credulous, if historically ignorant, dilettantes seeking to restore the lost treasures of Great Britain. Such exotic esoterica served two purposes: substantiation of his insistent claim of authenticity for his fraudulent poetry, and a means to ingratiate himself with the circle of those who passed as the literate antiquarians in Bristol. In 1768, at the dedication of the new Bristol Bridge across the Severn River, he fabricated and had published a minutely detailed account of the three-hundred-year-old ceremonies on the occasion of the opening of the old bridge; the manuscript, he attested, was found in St. Mary Redcliffe Church and appeared to be written in authentic Old English.

In exploring various modes for presenting the life and character of his medieval hero William Canynges (Chatterton dropped the final “s”), a famous mayor of Bristol under Henry VI in the fifteenth century, Chatterton created illuminating letters from both him and his wholly...

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Thomas Chatterton Achievements

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Riding the crest of popular Gothic taste, Thomas Chatterton freed himself of the excessive mannerisms of that eighteenth century genre—those narratives stressing only terror—and instead created tales portraying a benevolent and simple medieval world of minstrelsy where courtesy, beauty, and honor were the hallmarks. There can be little question, however, that far more significant than the value of any of his literary works is his sensational, intriguing, and complex life viewed from the standpoint of his influence as a precursor of those poets and other artists who venerated him as a heroic martyr in the cause of aesthetic creativity. Born in the age of neoclassicism, Chatterton, because of his incredible dedication to the medieval world, tapped that vein of primitive wonder, escape, and sensibility to both nature and humanity that would become Romanticism.

From Chatterton, the major Romantic writers took the inspiration to defy not only what many increasingly saw as rampant philistinism but also many of their themes, modes, and structural forms. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” John Keats’s “To Autumn,” and William Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence” are only several of the major Romantic works in which Chatterton’s influence echoes. It was not from his poetry, however, that the Romantics took greatest inspiration. The notion of isolated genius, neglected and scorned by unfeeling worldly hypocrites, coalesced around...

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Thomas Chatterton Bibliography

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Bronson, Bertrand H. “Thomas Chatterton.” In The Age of Johnson: Essays Presented to Chauncey Brewster Tinker, edited by Wilmarth S. Lewis. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1949. This relatively short study is filled with useful information about the larger context in which Chatterton’s work appeared. Examines not only biographical curiosities but also critical issues brought up by the poems themselves.

Fairchild, Hoxie Neale. “Aesthetic Sentimentalists.” In Religious Trends in English Poetry: Religious Sentimentalism in the Age of Johnson, 1740-1780. Vol. 2. New York: Columbia University Press, 1939. Takes a special approach to Chatterton by concentrating on the religious elements in his poetry. The popular religious influences of the age, combined with the interest in medieval and gothic cultures, provide color and arresting images which make Chatterton’s poems richly textured, even if they are not theologically deep.

Folkenflik, Robert. “Macpherson, Chatterton, Blake, and the Great Age of Literary Forgery.” Centennial Review 18 (1974): 378-391. This brief survey of the pre-Romantic period places Chatterton’s work in context with that of another minor poet, James Macpherson, and with the great poet William Blake. All three of these poets worked with assumed identities and created personas with whom they...

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