Thomas Chatterton  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Thomas Chatterton (20 November 1752 – 24 August 1770) was an English poet and forger of pseudo-medieval poetry. Committing suicide by arsenic rather than die of starvation at the young age of 17, he served as an icon of unacknowledged genius for the Romantics.

On 24 August 1770, he retired for the last time to his attic in Brook Street, carrying with him the arsenic which he drank, after tearing into fragments whatever literary remains were at hand. He was only seventeen years and nine months old.

Chatterton's genius and his tragic death are commemorated by Shelley in Adonais (though its main emphasis is the commemoration of Keats), by Wordsworth in "Resolution and Independence," by Coleridge in "A Monody on the Death of Chatterton," by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in "Five English Poets," by Henry Wallis in his painting "The Death of Chatterton," and in John Keats' sonnet "To Chatterton". Keats also inscribed Endymion "to the memory of Thomas Chatterton". Alfred de Vigny's drama of Chatterton gives an altogether fictitious account of the poet. Herbert Croft, in his Love and Madness, interpolated a long and valuable account of Chatterton, giving many of the poet's letters, and much information obtained from his family and friends (pp. 125-244, letter Ii.).

Posthumous recognition

The death of Chatterton attracted little notice at the time; for the few who then entertained any appreciative estimate of the Rowley poems regarded him as their mere transcriber. He was interred in a burying-ground attached to the Shoe Lane Workhouse, in the parish of St Andrew, Holborn, later converted into a site for Farringdon Market. There is a discredited story that the body of the poet was recovered, and secretly buried by his uncle, Richard Phillips, in Redcliffe Churchyard. There a monument has since been erected to his memory, with the appropriate inscription, borrowed from his "Will," and so supplied by the poet's own pen. "To the memory of Thomas Chatterton. Reader! judge not. If thou art a Christian, believe that he shall be judged by a Superior Power. To that Power only is he now answerable."

It was after Chatterton's death that the controversy over his work began. Poems supposed to have been written at Bristol by Thomas Rowley and others, in the Fifteenth Century (1777) was edited by Thomas Tyrwhitt, a Chaucerian scholar who believed them genuine medieval works. However, the appendix to the following year's edition recognises that they were probably Chatterton's own work. Thomas Warton, in his History of English Poetry (1778) included Rowley among 15th century poets, but apparently did not believe in the antiquity of the poems. In 1782 a new edition of Rowley's poems appeared, with a "Commentary, in which the antiquity of them is considered and defended," by Jeremiah Milles, dean of Exeter.

The controversy which raged round the Rowley poems is discussed in Andrew Kippis, Biographia Britannica (vol. iv., 1789), where there is a detailed account by G Gregory of Chatterton's life (pp. 573-619). This was reprinted in the edition (1803) of Chatterton's Works by Robert Southey and J Cottle, published for the benefit of the poet's sister. The neglected condition of the study of earlier English in the 18th century alone accounts for the temporary success of Chatterton's mystification. It has long been agreed that Chatterton was solely responsible for the Rowley Poems, but the language and style were analysed in confirmation of this view by W. W. Skeat in an introductory essay prefaced to vol. ii. of The Poetical Works of Thomas Chatterton (1871) in the "Aldine Edition of the British Poets." The Chatterton manuscripts, originally in the possession of William Barrett of Bristol, were left by his heir to the British Museum in 1800. Others are preserved in the Bristol library.

Chatterton's genius and his death are commemorated by Shelley in Adonais (though its main emphasis is the commemoration of Keats), by Wordsworth in "Resolution and Independence", by Coleridge in "A Monody on the Death of Chatterton," by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in "Five English Poets," by Henry Wallis in his painting "The Death of Chatterton," and in John Keats' sonnet "To Chatterton". Keats also inscribed Endymion "to the memory of Thomas Chatterton". Alfred de Vigny's drama of Chatterton gives an altogether fictitious account of the poet. Herbert Croft, in his Love and Madness, interpolated a long and valuable account of Chatterton, giving many of the poet's letters, and much information obtained from his family and friends (pp. 125-244, letter Ii.).

Two of Chatterton's poems were set to music as glees by the English composer John Wall Callcott. These include separate settings of distinct verses within the Song to Aelle. His best known poem, O synge untoe mie roundelaie was set to a five part madrigal by Samuel Wesley. Chatterton has attracted operatic treatment a number of times throughout history, notably Ruggiero Leoncavallo's largely unsuccessful 2 Act "Chatterton"; The German composer Matthias Pinscher's modernistic "Thomas Chatterton"; and Australian composer Matthew Dewey's lyrical yet dramatically intricate one-man mythography entitled "The Death of Thomas Chatterton".

There is a collection of "Chattertoniana" in the British Museum, consisting of works by Chatterton, newspaper cuttings, articles dealing with the Rowley controversy and other subjects, with manuscript notes by Joseph Haslewood, and several autograph letters. E. H. W. Meyerstein, who worked for many years in the manuscript room of the British Museum wrote a definitive work - "A life of Thomas Chatterton" - in 1930. Peter Ackroyd's 1987 novel Chatterton was an acclaimed literary re-telling of the poet's story, giving emphasis to the philosophical and spiritual implications of forgery.




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