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Thomas Chatterton

Thomas Chatterton

The major works of the English poet Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) are a group of poems that he claimed had been written by Thomas Rowley, a 15th-century priest.

Thomas Chatterton, born in Bristol on Nov. 20, 1752, was the posthumous son of a schoolmaster. In 1727 his father had acquired many 15th-century parchments, and in these documents Chatterton later pretended to find the poems and records of Thomas Rowley and his circle.

In 1760 Chatterton was enrolled in Colston's Hospital School, a charity school restricted to teaching reading, writing, arithmetic, and the principles of the Church of England. The narrowness of this education was somewhat relieved by the influence of the junior master, Thomas Phillips, who encouraged the older boys to read history and poetry and to write. According to Chatterton's sister, "he was more cheerful after he began to write poetry," when he was about 10 years old. His first published verses appeared in Felix Farley's Journal on Jan. 8, 1763.

On July 1, 1767, Chatterton was apprenticed to a scrivener. Although the boy did his work dutifully, much of the time there was nothing for him to do except write his own compositions and read chronicles, charters, Chaucer, and dictionaries, the sources of his antiquarian knowledge. While an apprentice, he discovered the store of 15th-century parchments in his mother's house. Exclaiming that he had found a great treasure, he carried them off for use in producing and authenticating his Rowley myth. Most of the Rowley poems appear to have been written in 1768-1769, though they were not published until after the poet's death.

Anxious to try his luck in the literary world, in 1770 Chatterton set off for London. He wrote cheerful letters home about the people he had met and the welcome accorded his works, and it appears that he produced, in addition to poems, every kind of Grub Street writing. He also wrote the last-and one of the best-of the Rowley poems, "An Excelente Balade of Charitie." Unlike his hackwork, it was rejected. While Chatterton's acknowledged poems are often imitations of Pope's satires, the Rowley poems have such romantic qualities as a taste for the medieval, a rejection of social injustice, and a preference for loose or stanzaic forms rather than heroic couplets.

Chatterton's voluminous writings brought less fame than he claimed, and far less money than fame. On Aug. 24, 1770, alone in London, not having eaten for several days, Chatterton tore up his papers, drank arsenic, and died.

Further Reading

Joseph Cottle and Robert Southey, eds., The Works of Thomas Chatterton (3 vols., 1803), includes the earliest biography, the "Life of Chatterton" by George Gregory. The Poetical Works of Thomas Chatterton (2 vols., 1871) was edited by Walter W. Skeat; it includes an essay on the Rowley poems by Skeat and a memoir by Edward Bell. New biographical material is in John H. Ingram, The True Chatterton (1910), and Sir Ernest Clarke, New Lights on Chatterton (1916). A more recent full-length study is John C. Nevill, Thomas Chatterton (1948).

Additional Sources

Dix, John Ross, The life of Thomas Chatterton including his unpublished poems and correspondence, London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1993.

Ellinger, Esther Parker., Thomas Chatterton, the marvelous boy: to which is added The exhibition, a personal satire, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1976. □

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Chatterton, Thomas

Thomas Chatterton, 1752–70, English poet. The posthumous son of a poor Bristol schoolmaster, he was already composing the "Rowley Poems" at the age of 12, claiming they were copies of 15th-century manuscripts at the Church of St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol. In 1769 he sent several of these poems to Horace Walpole, who was enthusiastic about them. When Walpole was advised that the poems were not genuine, he returned them and ended the correspondence. After this crushing defeat, Chatterton went to London in 1770, trying, with small success, to sell his poems to various magazines. On the point of starvation, too proud to borrow or beg, he poisoned himself and died at the age of 17. An original genius as well as an adept imitator, Chatterton used 15th-century vocabulary, but his rhythms and his approach to poetry were quite modern. The "Rowley Poems" were soon recognized as modern adaptations written in a 15th-century style, but the vigor and medieval beauty of such poems as "Mynstrelles Songe" and "Bristowe Tragedie" revealed Chatterton's poetic genius. This gifted, rebellious youth later became a hero to the romantic and Pre-Raphaelite poets, several of whom, notably Keats and Coleridge, wrote poems about him.

See his complete works, ed. by D. S. Taylor with B. B. Hoover (2 vol., 1971); biographies by E. H. W. Meyerstein (1930, repr. 1972), J. C. Nevill (1948, repr. 1973), and P. Ackroyd (1989); I. Haywood, The Making of History: A Study of the Literary Forgeries of James Macpherson and Thomas Chatterton in Relation to 18th Century Ideas of History and Fiction (1987).

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"Chatterton, Thomas." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Chatterton, Thomas." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved April 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chatterton-thomas

Chatterton, Thomas

Chatterton, Thomas (1752–70) English poet and forger of antiquities. He achieved posthumous fame for poems such as “Bristowe Tragedie” and “Mynstrelles Songe”, supposedly composed by Thomas Rowley, an imaginary 15th-century monk. An erratic talent, his early suicide established him as a hero of the Romantic movement. William Wordsworth described him as “the marvellous boy”.

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