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Monday, September 26, 2005

Thomas Chatterton- boy poet and forger

Systers in sorrowe, on thys daise-ey'd banke,
Where melancholych broods, we wyll lamente;
Be wette wythe mornynge dewe and evene danke;
Lyche levynde okes in eche the odher bente,
Or lyche forlettenn halles of merriemente,
Whose gastlie mitches holde the traine of fryghte,
Where lethale ravens bark, and owlets wake the nyghte.


Thomas Chatterton was the third child of a Bristol writing master and a seamstress. He never knew his father Thomas Chatterton senior because he died three months before his birth in November 1752. Despite their never meeting the father's actions would have a dramatic impact on the life of the son. Thomas Chatterton senior was a keen antiquarian who collected Roman coins, researched his family tree and wanted to write a history of Bristol. He rescued medieval documents from the church of St Mary Redcliffe as well as receiving a quantity of waste paper from the church to cover his pupils' copy-books (exercise books).

At first Thomas Chatterton junior was not an impressive student and he was dismissed from his father's school for being incapable of learning. Maurice Evan Hare writes:

Thomas, then, was a moody baby, a dull small boy who knew few of his letters at four; and was superannuated--such was his impenetrability to learning--at the age of five from the school of which his father had been master. He was moreover
till the age of six and a half so frequently subject to long fits of abstraction
and of apparently causeless crying that his mother and grandmother feared for
his reason and thought him 'an absolute fool.'

His mother and sister had to teach him to read from a black letter* bible and an old music book that had belonged to his father. He loved the illuminated capitals and became an avid reader. As he grew up he was increasingly fascinated by the medieval period. Maurice Evan Hare writes:

At the age of eight we hear of him reading 'all day or as long as they would let him,'
confident that he was going to be famous, and promising his mother and sister 'a great deal of finery' for their care of him when the day of his fame arrived.
Using the ancient paper saved by his father Thomas began composing the works of an invented fifteenth-century monk Thomas Rowley. His Rowley wrote poetry, plays, letters, architectural and antiquarian reports and the biography of a fifteenth-century counterpart. His forgeries extended beyond Rowley and the first to reach print was the thirteenth-century account of the opening of a new bridge in Bristol. This appeared in a newspaper called Felix Farley's Bristol Journal in 1768. Local antiquarians became interested in Thomas who was able to provide them with large quantities of 'original' literature about medieval Bristol. They were suspicious but for some reason the young forger was not exposed and even received assistance from a number of individuals.

In 1769 Thomas attempted to gain the patronage of Horace Walpole. Walpole was the youngest son of prime minister Robert Walpole and a famous writer and antiquarian. This was a mistake because Walpole and his friends denounced Thomas' work as forgeries. Chatterton was furious but went into poetic overdrive. Within a year of the Walpole incident he had published thirty-one different pieces of poetry and prose under a variety of pen names and was quickly acquiring a reputation for genius. In April 1770 he left for London to follow a career as a writer and journalist.

We must remember that he was still only a teenager when he arrived in London. He seems to have done very well. He impressed his contemporaries with his charisma and manliness and his literary output was still prodigious. He was known to associate frequently with prostitutes and in June or July he moved into the garret room of a brothel. (I thought you'd like that detail R.) Maurice Evan Hare writes:
He lodged at first with an aunt, Mrs. Ballance, in Shoreditch, where he refused to allow his room to be swept, as he said 'poets hated brooms.' He objected to being called Tommy, and asked his aunt 'If she had ever heard of a poet's being called Tommy' (you see he was still a boy). 'But she assured him that she knew nothing about poets and only wished he would not set up for being a gentleman.' '
Mrs Ballance's desire that Thomas should 'not set up for being a gentleman' reflects the greater rigidity of the eighteenth-century social structure. She perhaps feared that something terrible would happen to her nephew if he went above his station.

It is likely that at some point he caught a venereal disease. He died of an overdose of arsenic and opium on 24th August 1770 and was given a pauper's burial in Shoe Lane. The corpses were removed when the land was redeveloped so his final resting place is unknown. Everybody thought that he had killed himself but Nick Groom (the author of the DNB article I've based much of this post on) believes that it was the unwise mixing of recreational and medicinal drugs. Groom reasons that he was enjoying literary success and appeared to be in high spirits in his letters which suggests that suicide was unlikely. Maurice Evans Hare writes of the letters:
His letters to his mother and sister were always gay and contained glowing
accounts of his progress; but in reality he must have been miserably poor and
ill-fed.

This site also presents the other viewpoint:
He became severely depressed and experienced other health and financial
problems which he could not overcome. In August 1770, Chatterton committed
suicide by swallowing poison and was dead by the age of seventeen.

Horace Walpole was popularly blamed for Chatterton's death because he had not recognised his genius and offered him patronage. Chatterton's memory came to represent the stereotypical Romantic myth of the doomed and impoverished young poetic genius who dies impoverished in his garret. Many of the great writers of the nineteenth century studied him although at the same time he was largely dismissed as a forger.

The Rowley poems with an introduction by Maurice Evan Hare can be found here.

*We would describe black letter font as Gothic lettering. You can see examples of it here. It was the earliest form of printed type. I don't know when it fell out of use but it was still appearing in cheap publications aimed at less educated people in the later seventeenth century.

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