Thomas Chatterton 1752-1770
(Also wrote under the pseudonym of Probus) English poet, satirist, dramatist, and journalist.
Thomas Chatterton is best known today for the controversy surrounding his fabrication or “forgery” of both the life and poetry of a medieval priest called Thomas Rowley, and for his short, intense life and lonely death as a suicide. Considering the brevity of his life, Chatterton's literary output was remarkable. But perhaps more significant than his own work was his effect on the creative minds that succeeded him. Writers of the Romantic period as well as writers and painters of the Pre-Raphaelite era were inspired by Chatterton, whom they revered as a tragic prodigy or, in the words of the poet William Wordsworth, a “marvellous boy.”
Chatterton was born in the commercial port of Bristol, England. His father, a schoolmaster and church clerk, died two months before Chatterton's birth, leaving his young wife almost penniless with two children to raise on a seamstress's small income. Solitary and moody as a child, Chatterton received most of his early education from his sister, who taught him to read. He subsequently developed an avid curiosity for subjects ranging from English heraldry to music, metaphysics, and astronomy. At the age of twelve Chatterton attended a local charity school. Although the unimaginative curriculum there soon extinguished his eagerness for formal education, it is likely that the archaic atmosphere and medieval regimen of the school, once a Carmelite priory, fed a fascination for the past that underlies much of Chatterton's work.
At fourteen Chatterton left school and was apprenticed to a Bristol attorney named John Lambert. Chatterton disliked his apprenticeship and—much to Lambert's annoyance—frequently neglected his legal copying to write poetry. During this period Chatterton had several satirical commentaries published pseudonymously in Bristol and London newspapers. His most enjoyable hours, however, were spent in Bristol's Church of Saint Mary Redcliffe. For several generations members of Chatterton's family had served as sextons in the church, and like his father Chatterton was drawn to the church's old records and parchments. The “Rowley poems” were a direct result of this interest. In 1768 Chatterton claimed to have discovered these apparently medieval literary poems—complete with archaic language, heraldic drawings and antiqued parchments—supposedly written by a fifteenth-century Bristol priest named Thomas Rowley. In fact, Rowley, his poems, and the accompanying documents proved to be inventions of Chatterton's; the only genuinely historical personage mentioned in the documents was William Canynge—a merchant and mayor of Bristol who helped build the Church of Saint Mary Redcliffe. According to Chatterton's fabrication, Canynge was also Rowley's patron and frequent correspondent. At first, the Rowley poems were acclaimed as a historic find. Chatterton even submitted some of the documents to the antiquarian and writer Horace Walpole who was himself initially fooled by their apparent authenticity. Walpole and others began to become suspicious, however, once they learned how young and poorly educated the “discoverer” of the documents was; Chatterton's Rowley poems were subsequently returned to him without further reply.
Embittered but determined, Chatterton left Bristol in 1770 to try to make a living as a writer in London. Although he published some satires and articles—and even one Rowley poem entitled “Elinoure and Juga” (1769)—Chatterton became increasingly impoverished. In what seems to have been a fit of despair, Chatterton poisoned himself with arsenic in his rented room in London just a few months before his eighteenth birthday.
Although Chatterton's Rowley series, set during the reign of Edward IV, is not in fact the account of an actual priest, as Chatterton claimed, it does have a historical personage—William Canynge—as part of its focus. In the Rowley poems Chatterton magnifies Canynge's importance, presenting him not only as benefactor to the Church of Saint Mary Redcliffe and to the fictional priest Rowley, but also as a patron of the arts surrounded by a circle of poets and painters whose names Chatterton invented or culled from Saint Mary's tombstones. Within his chronicles the fictitious Rowley praises Canynge's munificence and sketches the colorful activities of Church feast days, the vigor of peasant life, and the pageantry of the nobility—all against a background of Saxon history. Through Rowley's chronicles Chatterton also explores the actions of traditional heroes—warriors, rulers, and saints—and defines the merchant of character, such as Canynge, as one who uses his wealth for good, much as traditional heroes had employed social rank, physical prowess, or saintly vocation. Significantly, the merchant of character was a hero for whom there was no strong literary precedent. In “A Brief Account of William Cannings from the Life of Thomas Rowlie Preeste,” Chatterton develops the role of Canynge by establishing a relationship between the merchant and Rowley. Their friendship begins with Canynge's patronage of Rowley and grows as Canynge recognizes Rowley's taste and artistry, which are crucial to the designing and building of Saint Mary's. A defining element in the relationship between Rowley and Canynge is money, which measures mutual esteem rather than greed. The style of “A Brief Account” is the same as that of many of the Rowley works: a gossipy, relaxed narrative summary with subtle comic touches.
Chatterton's satiric verses, by contrast, are traditional in format and address society's iniquities—a subject foreign to the Rowley poems. In works such as “The Whore of Babylon” and “Kew Gardens” Chatterton targets influential members of ruling political and religious institutions, indicting the preferments and corruption which he believed had contributed to his own hardship. In poems ranging from playful satire to bitter invective, Chatterton assumes the conventional but far from dispassionate stance of outspoken freethinker—a pose which, while allowing him to vent his grievances, required less innovation than did the Rowley series.
After Chatterton's death the Rowley poems generated heated debate between those who did and those who did not believe in their authenticity. Ultimately the argument was decided in favor of scholars who judged the poems to be Chatterton's own creation, or “forgery”; as a result, most critics during the period immediately after the young writer's death saw Chatterton as morally reprehensible and untalented. This view changed in the nineteenth century, when Chatterton was mythologized first by the Romantics and later by the Pre-Raphaelites, who saw the young poet as a sensitive, tortured genius destroyed by poverty and critical opinion before he could prove himself as a writer. Indeed, Chatterton's non-Rowley poetry directly influenced the work of the Romantics, using as it does the imagery and rhythms which were to typify Romantic verse, and presenting a portrait of the poet as an intuitive, unfettered spirit in conflict with what was crass, conventional, and insensitive in society.
Today, critical assessments of Chatterton tend to moderate between the two extremes. Most modern scholars take the view that it is a fine line that separates works that have been condemned as forgeries, such as Chatterton's Rowley poems, and others that are labeled simply as fiction; Nick Groom, for one, sees the Rowley poems as calling into question the very notions of authenticiy, forgery, and the construction of history. Concerning Chatterton's poetic abilities, most scholars agree that the young writer's untimely death makes it difficult to evaluate his potential. Ivan Philips, for instance, characterizes Chatterton's verse as “uneven,” but goes on to declare: “A writer of paradox and playful irony, Chatterton—for all his immaturity—is a more sophisticated artist than his meagre and melodramatic reputation allows.” Regardless of the merits or shortcomings of Chatterton's poems, or of their “truth” or “falsity,” they remain significant for many critics because of their impact on subsequent writers. In her analysis of Chatterton's influence on John Keats, Lucy Morrison observes that “Chatterton clearly merits further examination, particularly since his texts have influenced later poets and since they actively participate within ongoing traditions.”