Thomas Chatterton Biography


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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 exhausting regime, and after seven difficult years, young Chatterton’s nature took logical form as a result: the dreamy, romantic escapist coexisting with the cynical, expedient realist. In the eighteenth century, Bristol physically resembled a medieval city with its walls, gates, winding narrow streets, and primitive facilities. The spirit of the city, however, was far from that of the Middle Ages, for it bustled with industry and the overpowering necessities of mercantilism. The getting and spending of money were the bases of both civic and personal status, and in such a competitive environment, young Chatterton soon realized that he must find a way to secure both fame and wealth as a means of escaping unimaginative, prosaic contemporary Bristol.

At age fourteen, he was indentured for a term of seven years to a local attorney, John Lambert, as a scrivener apprentice. Although the work was not arduous, the youth chafed in his position, his excessive pride suffering as he saw himself a slave. With little to do in the office, Chatterton had plenty of time to pore over what volumes of ancient lore he could find, as well as to write voluminously. It was from Lambert’s office that he sent forth his fabricated history of the old Bristol Bridge as well as the myriad other “antique” manuscripts and other documents that filled both his time and imagination. It was also in Lambert’s office that the mythical fifteenth century...

(The entire section is 1188 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111207622-Chatterton.jpg Thomas Chatterton Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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 poems” and other supposed ancient writings to local periodicals, where they were published as authentic....

(The entire section is 448 words.)