The Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis (1856). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas Chatterton
Born 20 November 1752
Bristol, England
Died August 24 1770(1770-Template:MONTHNUMBER-24) (aged 17)
Holborn, England
Pen name Thomas Rowley
Occupation poet, forger

Thomas Chatterton (20 November 1752 - 24 August 1770) was an English poet and a forger of medieval poetry. He died of poisoning from self-administered arsenic.[1] He has been called the first Romantic poet in English.[2]



Chatterton was born at Bristol, posthumous son of a schoolmaster, after whose death his mother maintained herself and her boy and girl by teaching and needlework. A black-letter Bible and an illuminated music-book belonging to her were the 1st things to give the son's mind the impulse which led to such mingled glory and disaster. Living under the shadow of the great church of St. Mary Redcliffe, his mind was impressed from infancy with the beauty of antiquity, he obtained access to the charters deposited there, and he read every scrap of ancient literature that came in his way. At 14 he was apprenticed to a solicitor named Lambert, with whom he lived in sordid circumstances, eating in the kitchen and sleeping with the foot-boy, but continuing his favorite studies in every spare moment. In 1768 a new bridge was opened, and Chatterton contributed to a local newspaper what purported to be a contemporary account of the old one which it superseded. This attracted a good deal of attention. Previously to this he had been writing verses and imitating ancient poems under the name of Thomas Rowley, whom he feigned to be a monk of the 15th century. Hearing of Walpole's collections for his Anecdotes of Painting in England, he sent him an "ancient manuscript" containing biographies of certain painters, not hitherto known, who had flourished in England centuries before. Walpole fell into the trap, and wrote asking for all the MS. he could furnish, and Chatterton in response forwarded accounts of more painters, adding some particulars as to himself on which Walpole, becoming suspicious, submitted the whole to T. Gray and Mason, who pronounced the MS. to be forgeries. Some correspondence, angry on Chatterton's part, ensued, and the whole budget of papers was returned. Chatterton thereafter, having been dismissed by Lambert, went to London, and for a short time his prospects seemed to be bright. He worked with feverish energy, threw off poems, satires, and political papers, and meditated a history of England; but funds and spirits failed, he was starving, and the failure to obtain an appointment as ship's surgeon, for which he had applied, drove him to desperation, and on the morning of August 25, 1770, he was found dead from a dose of arsenic, surrounded by his writings torn into small pieces. From childhood Chatterton had shown a morbid familiarity with the idea of suicide, and had written a last will and testament, "executed in the presence of Omniscience," and full of wild and profane wit. The magnitude of his tragedy is only realised when it is considered not only that the poetry he left was of a high order of originality and imaginative power, but that it was produced at an age at which our greatest poets, had they died, would have remained unknown. Precocious not only in genius but in dissipation, proud and morose as he was, an unsympathetic age confined itself mainly to awarding blame to his literary and moral delinquencies. Posterity has weighed him in a juster balance, and laments the early quenching of so brilliant a light.[3]


Chatterton was born at Bristol on the 20th of November 1752. His pedigree has a curious significance. The office of sexton of St Mary Redcliffe, at Bristol, one of the most beautiful parish churches in England, had been transmitted for nearly 2 centuries in the Chatterton family; and throughout the brief life of the poet it was held by his uncle, Richard Phillips. The poet’s father, also Thomas Chatterton, was a musical genius, somewhat of a poet, a numismatist, and a dabbler in occult arts. He was one of the sub-chanters of Bristol cathedral, and master of the Pyle Street free school, near Redcliffe church.[4]

But whatever hereditary tendencies may have been transmitted from the father, the sole training of the boy necessarily devolved on his mother, who was in the fourth month of her widowhood at the time of his birth. She established a girls’ school, took in sewing and ornamental needlework, and so brought up her 2 children, a girl and a boy, till the latter attained his 8th year, when he was admitted to Colston’s Charity. But the Bristol blue-coat school, in which the curriculum was limited to reading, writing, arithmetic and the Church Catechism, had little share in the education of its marvellous pupil.[4]

The hereditary family of sextons had come to regard the church of St. Mary Redcliffe as their own peculiar domain; and, under the guidance of his uncle, the child found there his favourite haunt. The knights, ecclesiastics and civic dignitaries, recumbent on its altar tombs, became his familiar associates; and by and by, when he was able to spell his way through the inscriptions graven on their monuments, he found a fresh interest in certain quaint oaken chests in the muniment room over the porch on the north side of the nave, where parchment deeds, old as the Wars of the Roses, long lay unheeded and forgotten. They formed the child’s playthings almost from his cradle. He learned his first letters from the illuminated capitals of an old musical folio, and learned to read out of a black-letter Bible.[4]

He did not like, his sister said, reading out of small books. Wayward, as it seems, almost from his earliest years, and manifesting no sympathy with the ordinary pastimes of children, he was regarded for a time as deficient in intellect. But he was even then ambitious of distinction. His sister relates that on being asked what device he would like painted on a bowl that was to be his, he replied, “Paint me an angel, with wings, and a trumpet, to trumpet my name over the world.”[4]

From his earliest years he was liable to fits of abstraction, sitting for hours in seeming stupor, or yielding after a time to tears, for which he would assign no reason. He had no one near him to sympathize in the strange world of fancy which his imagination had already called into being; and circumstances helped to foster his natural reserve, and to beget that love of mystery which exercised so great an influence on the development of his genius.[4]

When the strange child had attained his 6th year his mother began to recognize his capacity; at 8 he was so eager for books that he would read and write all day long if undisturbed; and in his 11th year he had become a contributor to Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal. The occasion of his confirmation inspired some religious poems published in this paper. In 1763 a beautiful cross of curious workmanship, which had adorned the churchyard of St Mary Redcliffe for upwards of 3 centuries, was destroyed by a churchwarden. The spirit of veneration was strong in the boy, and he sent to the local journal on the 7th of January 1764 a clever satire on the parish vandal.[4]

But his delight was to lock himself in a little attic which he had appropriated as his study; and there, with books, cherished parchments, saved from the loot of the muniment room of St Mary Redcliffe, and drawing materials, the child lived in thought with his 15th-century heroes and heroines. The first of his literary mystifications, the duologue of “Elinoure and Juga,” was written before he was 12 years old, and he showed his poem to the usher at Colston’s hospital, Thomas Phillips, as the work of a 15th-century poet.[4]

Chatterton remained an inmate of Colston’s hospital for upwards of 6 years, and the slight advantages gained from this scanty education are traceable to the friendly sympathy of Phillips, himself a writer of verse, who encouraged his pupils to write. 3 of Chatterton’s companions are named as youths whom Phillips’s taste for poetry stimulated to rivalry; but Chatterton held aloof from these contests. His little pocket-money was spent in borrowing books from a circulating library; and he early ingratiated himself with book collectors, by whose aid he found access to Weever, Dugdale and Collins, as well as to Speght’s edition of Chaucer, Spenser and other books.[4]

The romance of RowleyEdit

His “Rowleian” jargon appears to have been chiefly the result of the study of John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum, and Prof. W.W. Skeat seems to think his knowledge of even Chaucer was very slight. His holidays were mostly spent at his mother’s house; and much of them in the favourite retreat of his attic study there.[4]

He had already conceived the romance of Thomas Rowley, an imaginary monk of the 15th century, and lived for the most part in an ideal world of his own, in that elder time when Edward IV. was England’s king, and Master William Canynge — familiar to him among the recumbent effigies in Redcliffe church — still ruled in Bristol’s civic chair. Canynge is represented as an enlightened patron of literature, and Rowley’s dramatic interludes were written for performance at his house.[4]

In order to escape a marriage urged by the king, Canynge retired to the college of Westbury in Gloucestershire, where he enjoyed the society of Rowley, and eventually became dean of the institution. In “The Storie of William Canynge,” one of the shorter pieces of his ingenious romance, his early history is recorded.

“Straight was I carried back to times of yore,
Whilst Canynge swathed yet in fleshly bed,
And saw all actions which had been before,
 And all the scroll of Fate unravelled;
And when the fate-marked babe acome to sight,
I saw him eager gasping after light.
In all his sheepen gambols and child’s play,
 In every merrymaking, fair, or wake,
I kenn'd a perpled light of wisdom’s ray;
 He ate down learning with the wastel-cake;
As wise as any of the aldermen,
He’d wit enow to make a mayor at ten.”[5]

This beautiful picture of the childhood of the ideal patron of Rowley is in reality that of the poet himself — “the fate-marked babe,” with his wondrous child-genius, and all his romantic dreams realized. The literary masquerade which thus constituted the life-dream of the boy was wrought out by him in fragments of prose and verse into a coherent romance, until the credulous scholars and antiquaries of his day were persuaded into the belief that there had lain in the parish chest of Redcliffe church for upwards of 3 centuries, a collection of MSS. of rare merit, the work of Thomas Rowley, an unknown priest of Bristol in the days of Henry VI. and his poet laureate, John Lydgate.[5]

Among the Bristol patrons of Chatterton were 2 pewterers, George Catcott and his partner Henry Burgum. Catcott was one of the most zealous believers in Rowley, and continued to collect his reputed writings long after the death of their real author. On Burgum, who had risen in life by his own exertions, the blue-coat boy palmed off the de Bergham pedigree, and other equally apocryphal evidences of the pewterer’s descent from an ancestry old as the Norman Conquest. The pedigree was professedly collected by Chatterton from original records, including “The Rowley MSS.” The pedigree still exists in Chatterton’s own handwriting, copied into a book in which he had previously transcribed portions of antique verse, under the title of “Poems by Thomas Rowley, priest of St. John’s, in the city of Bristol”; and in one of these, “The Tournament,” Syrr Johan de Berghamme plays a conspicuous part. The ennobled pewterer rewarded Chatterton with 5 shillings, and was satirized for this valuation of a noble pedigree in some of Chatterton’s latest verse[5].


On 1 July 1767, Chatterton was transferred to the office of John Lambert, attorney, to whom he was bound apprentice as a clerk. There he was left much alone; and found leisure for his own favourite pursuits. An ancient stone bridge on the Avon, built in the reign of Henry II, had been replaced. Shortly afterwards the editor of Felix Farley’s Journal received from a correspondent, signing himself Dunelmus Bristoliensis, a “description of the mayor’s first passing over the old bridge,” professedly derived from an ancient MS. William Barrett, surgeon and antiquary, who was then accumulating materials for a history of Bristol, secured the original manuscript which is now preserved in the British Museum (along with other Chatterton MSS., most of which were ultimately incorporated by the credulous antiquary into a learned quarto volume, entitled the History and Antiquities of the City of Bristol, published nearly 20 years after the poet’s death).[5]

It was at this time that the definite story made its appearance of numerous ancient poems and other MSS. taken by the elder Chatterton from a coffer in the muniment room of Redcliffe church, and transcribed, and so rescued from oblivion, by his son. The pieces include the “Bristowe Tragedie, or the Dethe of Syr Charles Bawdin,” a ballad celebrating the death of the Lancastrian knight, Charles Baldwin; “Ælla,” a “Tragycal Enterlude,” as Chatterton styles it, but in reality a dramatic poem of sustained power and curious originality of structure; “Goddwyn,” a dramatic fragment; “Tournament,” “Battle of Hastings,” “The Parliament of Sprites,” “Balade of Charitie,” with numerous shorter pieces, forming altogether a volume of poetry, the rare merit of which is indisputable, wholly apart from the fact that it was the production of a mere boy. Unfortunately for him, his ingenious romance had either to be acknowledged as his own creation, and so in all probability be treated with contempt, or it had to be sustained by the manufacture of spurious antiques. To this accordingly Chatterton resorted, and found no difficulty in gulling the most learned of his credulous dupes with his parchments.[5]

The literary labours of the boy, were not allowed to interfere with the duties of Mr Lambert’s office. Nevertheless the Bristol attorney used to search his apprentice’s drawer, and tear up any poems or other manuscripts that he could lay his hands upon; so that it was only during the absences of Mr Lambert from Bristol that he was able to expend his unemployed time in his favorite pursuits. But repeated allusions, both by Chatterton and others, seem to indicate that such intervals of freedom were of frequent occurrence. Some of his modern poems, such as the piece entitled “Resignation,” are of great beauty; and these, with the satires, in which he took his revenge on all the local celebrities whose vanity or meanness had excited his ire, are alone sufficient to fill a volume. The Catcotts, Burgum, Barrett and others of his patrons, figure in these satires, in imprudent yet discriminating caricature, along with mayor, aldermen, bishop, dean and other notabilities of Bristol. Towards Lambert his feelings were of too keen a nature to find relief in such sarcasm.[5]

Dodsley and Walp0leEdit

In December 1768, in his 17th year, Chatterton wrote to Robert Dodsley, the London publisher, offering to procure for him “copies of several ancient poems, and an interlude, perhaps the oldest dramatic piece extant, wrote by one Rowley, a priest in Bristol, who lived in the reigns of Henry VI. and Edward IV.” To this letter he appended the initials of his favourite pseudonym, Dunelmus Bristoliensis, but directed the answer to be sent to the care of Thomas Chatterton, Redcliffe Hill, Bristol. To this, as well as to another letter enclosing an extract from the tragedy of “Ælla,” no answer appears to have been returned.[5]

Chatterton, conceiving the idea of finding sympathy and aid at the hand of some modern Canynge, bethought him of Horace Walpole, who not only indulged in a medieval renaissance of his own, but was the reputed author of a spurious antique in the Castle of Otranto. He wrote to him offering him a document entitled “The Ryse of Peyncteyne yn Englande, wroten by T. Rowleie, 1469, for Mastre Canynge,” accompanied by notes which included specimens of Rowley’s poetry.[5]

To this Walpole replied with courteous acknowledgments. He characterized the verses as “wonderful for their harmony and spirit,” and added, “Give me leave to ask you where Rowley’s poems are to be had? I should not be sorry to print them; or at least a specimen of them, if they have never been printed.” Chatterton replied, enclosing additional specimens of antique verse, and telling Walpole that he was the son of a poor widow, and clerk to an attorney, but had a taste for more refined studies; and he hinted a wish that he might help him to some more congenial occupation.[5]

Walpole’s manner underwent an abrupt change. The specimens of verse had been submitted to his friends, poets Gray and Mason, the poets, and pronounced modern. They did not thereby forfeit the wonderful harmony and spirit which Walpole had already professed to recognize in them. But he now coldly advised the boy to stick to the attorney’s office;[5] and “when he should have made a fortune,” he might betake himself to more favorite studies. Chatterton had to write 3 times before he recovered his MSS.[6]

Walpole has been loaded with more than his just share of responsibility for the fate of the unhappy poet, of whom he admitted when too late, “I do not believe there ever existed so masterly a genius.”[6]

Last willEdit

Chatterton now turned his attention to periodical literature and politics, and exchanged Farley’s Bristol Journal for the Town and County Magazine and other London periodicals. Assuming the vein of Junius — then in the full blaze of his triumph — he turned his pen against the duke of Grafton, the earl of Bute, and the princess of Wales. He had just despatched a political diatribe to the Middlesex Journal, when he sat down on Easter Eve, 17 April 1770, and penned his “Last Will and Testament,” a strange satirical compound of jest and earnest, in which he intimated his intention of putting an end to his life the following evening. The will was probably purposely prepared in order to frighten his master into letting him go. If so, it had the desired effect. Lambert cancelled his indentures; his friends and acquaintance made him up a purse; and on the 25th or 26th of the month he arrived in London.[6]

In LondonEdit

Chatterton was already known to the readers of the Middlesex Journal as a rival of Junius, under the nom de plume of "Decimus." He had also been a contributor to Hamilton’s Town and County Magazine, and speedily found access to the Freeholder’s Magazine, another political miscellany strong for Wilkes and liberty. His contributions were freely accepted; but the editors paid little or nothing for them.[6]

He wrote in the most hopeful terms to his mother and sister, and spent his earliest earnings in buying gifts for them. His pride and ambition were amply gratified by the promises and interested flattery of editors and political adventurers; Wilkes himself had noted his trenchant style, “and expressed a desire to know the author”; and Lord Mayor Beckford graciously acknowledged a political address of his, and greeted him “as politely as a citizen could.” But of actual money he received but little.[6]

He was extremely abstemious, his diligence was great, and his versatility wonderful. He could assume the style of Junius or Smollett, reproduce the satiric bitterness of Churchill, parody Macpherson’s Ossian, or write in the manner of Pope, or with the polished grace of Gray and Collins. He wrote political letters, eclogues, lyrics, operas and satires, both in prose and verse.[6]

In June 1770 — after Chatterton had been some 9 weeks in London — he moved from Shoreditch, where he had hitherto lodged with a relative, to an attic in Brook Street, Holborn. But for most of his productions the payment was delayed; and now state prosecutions of the press rendered letters in the Junius vein no longer admissible, and threw him back on the lighter resources of his pen. In Shoreditch, as in his lodging at the Bristol attorney’s, he had only shared a room; but now, for the 1st time, he enjoyed uninterrupted solitude. His bed-fellow at Mr Walmsley’s, Shoreditch, noted that much of the night was spent by him in writing; and now he could write all night. The romance of his earlier years revived, and he transcribed from an imaginary parchment of the old priest Rowley his “Excelente Balade of Charitie.” This fine poem, perversely disguised in archaic language, he sent to the editor of the Town and County Magazine, and had it rejected.[6]

The high hopes of the sanguine boy had begun to fade. He had not yet completed his 2nd month in London, and already failure and starvation stared him in the face. Mr Cross, a neighbouring apothecary, repeatedly invited him to join him at dinner or supper; but he refused. His landlady also, suspecting his necessity, pressed him to share her dinner, but in vain. “She knew,” as she afterwards said, “that he had not eaten anything for two or three days.” But he was offended at her urgency, and assured her that he was not hungry.[6]

The note of his actual receipts, found in his pocket-book after his death, shows that Hamilton, Fell and other editors who had been so liberal in flattery, had paid him at the rate of a shilling for an article, and somewhat less than 8-pence each for his songs; while much which had been accepted was held in reserve, and still unpaid for. The beginning of a new month revealed to him the indefinite postponement of the publication and payment of his work.[6]

He had wished, according to his foster-mother, to study medicine with Barrett; in his desperation he now reverted to this, and wrote to Barrett for a letter to help him to an opening as a surgeon’s assistant on board an African trader. He appealed also to Mr Catcott to forward his plan, but in vain.[6]

On the 24th of August 1770, he retired for the last time to his attic in Brook Street, carrying with him the arsenic which he there drank, after tearing into fragments whatever literary remains were at hand.[6]


At Chatterton's death he was only 17 years and 9 months old; but the best of his numerous productions, both in prose and verse, require no allowance to be made for the immature years of their author, when comparing him with the ablest of his contemporaries. He pictures Lydgate, the monk of Bury St Edmunds, challenging Rowley to a trial at versemaking, and under cover of this fiction, produces his “Songe of Ælla,” a piece of rare lyrical beauty, worthy of comparison with any antique or modern production of its class. Again, in his Tragedy of Goddwyn, of which only a fragment has been preserved, the “Ode to Liberty,” with which it abruptly closes, may claim a place among the finest martial lyrics in the language.[6]

The collection of poems in which such specimens occur furnishes by far the most remarkable example of intellectual precocity in the whole history of letters. Collins, Burns, Keats, Shelley and Byron all awaken sorrow over the premature arrestment of their genius; but the youngest of them survived to his 25th year, while Chatterton was not 18 when he perished.[6]

File:Chatterton house Bristol.jpg

Critical introductionEdit

by Theodore Watts-Dunton

Dominated as he commonly was by 18th-century movements, Chatterton yet showed at times an originality of ear that has never been appreciated. As far as I know, indeed, his metrical inventiveness has never been perceived — certainly it has never been touched upon — by any of his critics, from Tyrwhitt downwards. Yet it seems necessary to touch upon it here — technical as the enquiry may seem — or how can we gauge the undeniable influence Chatterton has had, both as to spirit and as to form, upon the revival in the present century of the romantic temper — that temper, without which English poetry can scarcely perhaps hold a place at all when challenged in a court of universal criticism?

This influence has worked primarily through Coleridge, who (partly, it may be, from Chatterton’s connection with Bristol) was profoundly impressed both by the tragic pathos of Chatterton’s life and by the excellence, actual as well as potential, of his work. And when we consider the influence Coleridge himself had upon the English romantic movement generally, and especially upon Shelley and Keats, and the enormous influence these latter have had upon subsequent poets, it seems impossible to refuse to Chatterton the place of the father of the New Romantic school. As to the romantic spirit, it would be difficult to name any one of his successors in whom the high temper of romance has shown so intense a life. And, as to the romantic form, it is matter of familiar knowledge, for instance, that the lyric octo-syllabic movement of which Scott made such excellent use in The Lay of the Last Minstrel, and which Byron borrowed from him, was originally borrowed (or rather stolen) by Scott from Coleridge, whose Christabel, while still in manuscript, was recited in the hearing of Scott by Coleridge’s friend Stoddart. Coleridge afterwards, when Christabel was published in 1816, speaks of the anapaestic dance with which he varies the iambic lines, as being "founded on a new principle"; and he has been much praised, and very justly, for such effects as this:—

  ‘And Christabel saw the lady’s eye,
And nothing else saw she thereby,
Save the boss of the shield of Sir Leoline tall,
Which hang in a murky old niche in the wall.’

That this ‘new principle’ was known to Chatterton is seen in the following extract, which has exactly the "Christabel" ring — the ring which Scott only half caught and which Byron failed to really catch at all.

  ‘But when he threwe downe his asenglave,
Next came in Syr Botelier bold and brave,
The dethe of manie a Saraceen,
Theie thought him a devil from Hell’s black den,
Ne thinking that anie of mortalle menne
Could send so manie to the grave.
For his life to John Rumsee he render’d his thanks
Descended from Godred the King of the Manks.’

With regard to octo-syllabics with anapaestic variations, it may be said no doubt that some of the miracle-plays (such as The Fall of Man) are composed in this movement, as is also one of the months in Spenser’s Shepherd’s Calendar; but the irregularity in these is, like that of the Border ballads, mostly the irregularity of makeshift, while Chatterton’s "Unknown Knight", like "Christabel", and like Goethe’s "Erl King", has several variations introduced (as Coleridge says of his own) "in correspondence with some transition in the nature of the imagery or passion." The "new principle," in short, was Chatterton’s.

Again, in the mysterious suggestiveness of remote geographical names — a suggestiveness quite other than the pomp and sonority which Marlowe and Milton so loved — the world-involving echoes of "Kubla Khan" seem to have been caught from such lines as these in Chatterton’s African eclogue "Narva and Mored":

  ‘From Lorbar’s cave to where the nations end….,
Explores the palaces on Lira’s coast,
Where howls the war-song of the chieftain’s ghost….,
Like the loud echoes on Toddida’s sea,
The warrior’s circle, the mysterious tree.’

And turning to the question of Chatterton’s influence upon Keats, it is not only indirectly through Coleridge that the rich mind of Keats shows signs of having drunk at Chatterton’s fountain of romance: there is a side of Chatterton which Keats knew and which Coleridge did not.

It is difficult to express in words wherein lies the entirely spiritual kinship between Chatterton’s "Ballad of Charity" and Keats’s "Eve of St. Agnes", yet I should be sceptical as to the insight of any critic who should fail to recognise that kinship. Not only are the beggar and the thunderstorm depicted with the sensuous sympathy and melodious insistance which is the great charm of The Eve of St. Agnes, but the movement of the lines is often the same. Take for instance the description of Keats’s bedesman, ‘meagre, barefoot, wan,’ which is, in point of metrical movement, identical with Chatterton’s description of the alms-craver, ‘withered, forwynd, dead.’

More obvious perhaps, yet not more essentially true, is the likeness between the famous passage in Keats’s Isabella, beginning —

  ‘For them the Ceylon diver held his breath,
And went all naked to the hungry shark,’ &c.,
and these four lines in Chatterton’s Narva and Mored—
  ‘Where the pale children of the feeble sun
In search of gold through every climate run,
From burning heat to freezing torments go,
And live in all vicissitudes of woe.’

It was perfectly fit therefore that Keats should dedicate his Endymion to the memory of Thomas Chatterton. Not that Keats or Coleridge stole from Chatterton: no two poets had less need to steal from any one. But the whole history of poetry shows that poetic methods are a growth as well as an inspiration.

So steeped indeed was Chatterton in romance, that, except in the case of the African Eclogues, his imagination seems to be never really alive save when in the dramatic masquerade of the monk of Bristol. And here we touch the very core and centre of Chatterton’s genius — his artistic identification. This is what I mean: Pope "lisped in numbers, for the numbers came"; and the "Ode to Solitude" written at twelve, shows how early may begin to stir the lyrical impulse — the impulse to give voice to the emotions of the soul that is born to express. The young Chatterton on a summer’s day would lie down on the grass and gaze for hours at the church of St. Mary Redcliffe, not in order to gather and focus for expression the personal emotions caused by the spectacle, as the child Cowley or the child Pope might have done, but in order to reproduce the picturesque antique life he imagined to have once moved there; and, as metrical language is but the ideal and quintessential form in which a writer embodies that which in the world around him is ideal and quintessential, Chatterton "lisped in numbers" too. Not that his egotism was less intense than theirs: far from it. Such energy as his can only exist as the outcome of that enormous egotism which is at the heart of all lyric production. Yet his dramatic instinct was stronger still.

Here indeed is the keynote of Chatterton’s work, and, if we will consider it, of his life too. As a youthful poet showing that power of artistic self-effacement which is generally found to be incompatible with the eager energies of poetic youth,—as a producer, that is to say, of work purely artistic and in its highest reaches unadulterated by lyric egotism,—the author of the Rowley Poems (if we leave out of consideration his acknowledged pieces), however inferior to Keats in point of sheer beauty, stands alongside him in our literature, and stands with him alone.

In his childhood, so occupied was Chatterton’s mind by the impression upon it of the external world through the senses, that for a long time it refused to be distracted by the common processes of education. Up to about his seventh or eighth year he could not be taught his letters, and even then this was effected through his delight in colour. To use his mother’s words, "he fell in love" with the illuminated letters upon an old piece of French music; and afterwards "took to" the picturesque characters of a black letter Bible, and so learned to read. And this passion for art was universal in its scope: poetry, music, painting, sculpture, and even heraldry,— from each and all of these he drew such delights as are undreamed of save by the truly artistic mind.

Now with Keats it was not till he came at the very last to write "The Eve of St. Agnes" and "La Belle Dame sans Merci", that he produced anything so purely objective as Chatterton’s "Ballad of Charity", one of these selections. Yet, here is the difficulty in criticising Chatterton’s work: the circumstances attending the production of such purely objective and impersonal poetry as the Rowley Poems were so exceptional that, unlike the poetry of Keats — unlike any other purely artistic poetry — it must be read entirely in connexion with the poet’s life. This indeed is as necessary, in order to fully appreciate it, as though the impulse had been that of pure personal emotion such as we get in Shelley’s lyrics and in the more passionate outpourings of Burns.

For, with Chatterton, far more than with any other poet of the representative kind, the question, What was the nature of his artistic impulse? is mixed up with the question, What was the nature of the man? Do these Rowley poems show the vitalising power which only genius can give? and if they do, was Chatterton’s impulse to exercise that power the impulse of the dramatic poet having ‘the yearning of the Great Vish’nu to create a world’? or, was it that of the other class of artists, whose skill lies in ‘those more facile imitations of prose, promissory notes,’ among whom Horace Walpole would place him? For neither the assailants nor the defenders of Chatterton’s character seem to see that between these two conclusions there is no middle one. Either Chatterton was a born forger, having, as useful additional endowments, poetry and dramatic imagination almost unmatched among his contemporaries, or he was a born artist, who, before mature vision had come to show him the power and the sacredness of moral conscience in art, was so dominated by the artistic conscience—by the artist’s yearning to represent, that, if perfect representation seemed to him to demand forgery, he needs must forge.

If the latter supposition is the true one, it does not, to be sure, excuse the delinquencies that shocked the ingenuous author of The Castle of Otranto —that work of "Neapolitan origin" and mediaeval translation,— but it explains an apparent anomaly in Nature: it gives a kind of harmony to a character which has hitherto been considered so inharmonious; it clears Nature of the impeachment of having endowed a man possessing the instincts of a common forger, with human characteristics so noble and so precious as poetic genius, lofty intelligence, ‘courage to do or die,’ the pride that gives in to death but not to men, joined to a depth of filial affection, a loyalty to kindred, such as stirs within us the deepest emotion whenever we recall the name of Chatterton — Chatterton, the premature man who was also to the last the loving child, who, a few days before his death, went out from his forlorn garret in Brooke Street to spend in presents for his mother and sister those precious pence that would have saved him from famine, and England from the loss of a son so noble and so gifted as he.

The barest outline of his story will show what I mean:— The posthumous child of a poor subchanter of Bristol Cathedral, whose family had been sextons for a century and a half, Chatterton may be said to have succeeded to poverty by inheritance, and to have been reared, from his cradle, beneath the shadow of that wing which is apt to cow genius if it does not silence it—apt to stifle that haughty independence and pride which mostly accompanies genius, and of which Chatterton had more than any poet in our literature, or perhaps in any other. Yet, if the cards of life were so far against him, he was on the other hand dowered by Nature with her very choicest gifts. To a physique healthy and, according to all accounts, beautiful,—possessing indeed that quality of ‘strangeness’ which Bacon says is essential to the highest beauty,—were added a precocity only less wonderful than the energy which accompanied it,—an intelligence which all the world, including those who reject his claims to the highest poetical gifts, have agreed to call prodigious. It was this precocity indeed which initially attracted attention to him, and which has now caused the reaction against him.

Art has nothing to do with prodigies. But Chatterton’s precocity has, like everything else in connexion with him, been misunderstood. It did not develop itself in earliest childhood; and when it did show, there was in it nothing one-sided, nothing diseased, as in the painful precocity which in some children repels rather than attracts. It is important to bear this in mind in estimating Chatterton; for assuredly it may be said of the human race, more emphatically than of any other, that any departure from the laws of growth of a species is not to be taken as a sign that the individual will exhibit, at maturity, any unusual amount or intensity of the qualities by which the species is denoted. If an oak sapling should show a rapidity of growth equal to that of a poplar, we should not be driven to infer therefrom that the mature tree would show a firmer texture of wood than an ordinary oak, or a greater power of producing acorns: how, then, can we expect to see other laws at work in man? But that incisive and masculine force of intellect which astonishes us in Chatterton did not show itself till puberty, and might therefore have been, for anything that experience teaches us to the contrary, the earliest outburst of a unique energy that would have gone on developing and gathering strength with years.

At the age of 5 the attempt to teach him even his letters had failed, and at 6-1/2 his mother and sister still "thought he was an absolute fool." When close upon his 8th year he was admitted to Colston’s Blue-coat School, Bristol. While absorbing, as a sponge absorbs water, all the knowledge to be got there, he ran through three circulating libraries; and it was then that he began to show that passion for poetry and antiquities which soon began to dominate his life. The earliest form, as far as is known, taken by this passion was strange, that of a hoax played upon a pompous pewterer of Bristol, named Burgum, for whom Chatterton fabricated a false pedigree of great antiquity, with a poem written by an ancestor of the pewterer’s, "The Romaunte of the Cnyghte". This proving a complete success, though rewarded only with a crown-piece, Chatterton was induced to try his hand at the same kind of work again, and produced an imaginary account of the opening of Bristol Bridge in the time of Henry II, which deceived all the local antiquaries. This was followed by "The Ryse of Peynctyne in Englande wroten by T. Rowlie 1469 for Master Canynge", which deceived Horace Walpole, to whom he sent it; and finally a mass of pseudo-antique poetry, consisting of dramas, epic fragments and dramatic lyrics, which, under the name of the ‘Rowley Poems’ gave rise after his death to almost as much angry discussion as the Ossian poetry itself.

Some of this work was achieved at school, but most of it after he had been removed from school to the office of a Bristol attorney. A boyish freak resulted in his quitting Bristol for London, on the 24th of April, 1770, and beginning life there as a literary adventurer on a capital of something under five pounds, at a time when the struggle of London literary life was only less dire than it had been thirty years previously, when even the burly figure of Dr. Johnson was nearly succumbing.

He turned to every kind of literary work,— poems, essays, stories, political articles and squibs, burlettas, and even songs for the music gardens of the time at a few pence each. In May and June 1770, he had articles in The Freeholder’s Magazine, The Town and Country Magazine, The London Museum, The Political Register, The Court and City Magazine, and even The Gospel Magazine. Among all the literary adventurers of his time there was none perhaps so indomitable as he. Yet, all the while, he cherished as fondly as ever those visions of the past that came to him from St. Mary Redcliffe as he lay dreaming on the grass at Bristol. He was half starving when he wrote "The Ballad of Charity", which for reserved power and artistic completeness, no youthful poet has ever approached.

Nor did he attack London, as other literary adventurers have done, from the bookseller’s shop alone. His sagacity as a man of the world was as wonderful as his literary genius. The penniless country boy, living on a crust in Shoreditch, knew that to conquer London he must conquer the one or two magnates at whose feet the great city was content to lie. Thousands of ambitious Londoners of that day would have given much for an introduction to the potent Lord Mayor Beckford: before Chatterton had been in London two months he had achieved this, and had so impressed the great man, that Chatterton’s future seemed assured. But before Beckford had time to hold out a hand to the young adventurer he suddenly died. This blow seemed fatal to a poor boy with starvation even then staring him in the face. But he fought bravely on, and would have ended victorious but for his pride. That which had been his strength was his weakness now. He would not stoop to conquer, and the time was come when it was necessary to stoop. To live by literature then was almost an impossibility, and he had determined to live by literature or die.

With a masterful pride, for which no parallel can be found, he had already quitted his friends in Shoreditch, lest they should become too familiar with his straits, and taken a garret at 39 Brooke Street, Holborn, where he produced a quantity of literary matter which under any circumstances would have been astonishing, but which is almost incredible if his landlady’s story is true, that he was living sometimes on one loaf a week, "bought stale to make it last longer." At last, when starvation seemed inevitable, he did make one frantic attempt to obtain the post of ship surgeon, but this failing, he refused to try the commercial world, and steadily rejecting the gift of a penny or a meal from neighbours who tried in vain to help him, he struggled with famine as long as it was possible, and then, on the evening of the 24th of August, 1770, he retired to his garret, locked himself in, tore up all his manuscripts, and poisoned himself with arsenic.

It is not to make capital out of the painful interest attaching to Chatterton’s life that I glance at it here on his behalf. Assuredly the personal interest in a poet having such a story as his, is what the critic has specially to guard against in trying to find his proper place in the firmament of our poetic literature. To divest "the marvellous boy" of that sensational kind of interest which has been associated with his name for more than a century, and at the same time to do justice to an intelligence which Malone compared with Shakspeare’s, and a genius which inspired Wordsworth and Coleridge with awe, would require an exhaustive study of that most puzzling chapter of literary history — the chapter that deals with literary forgery.

And my defense of him is simply this; that, if such a study were prosecuted, we should find that in matters of literary forgery, besides the impulse of the mere mercenary impostor — as Chatterton appears to empirical critics like Warton — besides the impulse of the masquerading instinct, so strong in men of the Ireland and Horace Walpole type, there is another impulse altogether, the impulse of certain artistic natures to represent, such as we see in Sir Walter Scott (when tampering with the historical ballads), and such as we see in Chatterton when, struggling in his dark garret with famine and despair, he turns from the hack-work that at least might win him bread, to write "The Ballad of Charity", the most purely artistic work perhaps of his time.[7]

Critical reputationEdit

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.

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 recognizes 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.[6]

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."[6]


He was interred in a burying-ground attached to Shoe Lane Workhouse, in the parish of St Andrew’s, Holborn, which has since been converted into a site for Farringdon Market.[6] There is a 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.[6]

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. The Chatterton MSS., originally in the possession of William Barrett of Bristol, were left by his heir to the British Museum in 1800. There is also 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.[8]

Chatterton holborn

Thomas Chatterton plaque, Holborn, London. Courtesy London Remembers.

His poem "Song from Ælla" was included in the Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900.[9]

Among biographies of Chatterton may be mentioned Chatterton: A biographical study (1869), by Daniel Wilson; Chatterton: A biography (1899; originally printed 1856 in a volume of essays), by D. Masson; 'Thomas Chatterton” (1900), by Helene Richter, in Wiener Beiträge zur engl. Philologie; Chatterton, by C. E. Russell (1909).[8] 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.

In 1928 a plaque was mounted to 39 Brooke Street, Holborn, in memory of Chatterton, bearing the inscription below:

In a House on this Site
August 24, 1770.[10]

In popular cultureEdit

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's sonnet "To Chatterton". Keats also inscribed Endymion "to the memory of Thomas Chatterton". 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.).[8]

2 of Chatterton's poems were set to music as glees by 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 5-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; German composer Matthias Pinscher's modernistic Thomas Chatterton; and Australian composer Matthew Dewey's lyrical yet dramatically intricate 1-man mythography entitled The Death of Thomas Chatterton.

Alfred de Vigny's drama of Chatterton gives an altogether fictitious account of the poet.[8]

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.

French singer Serge Gainsbourg wrote a songs, Chatterton:

Chatterton suicidé
Hannibal suicidé [...]
Quant à moi
Ça ne va plus très bien.

The song was covered (in Portuguese) by Seu Jorge live and recorded in the album Ana & Jorge: Ao Vivo.


Rowleypoemsrepri00chatuoft 0001



  • The Revenge: A burletta, acted at Marylbone Gardens, MDCCLXX. with additional songs. London: Printed by C. Roworth for T. King, H. Chapman, and J. Egerton, 1795.


  • Love and Madness: A story too true; in a series of letters between parties, whose names would perhaps be mentioned, were they less known, or less lamented (edited by Herbert Croft). London: Printed for G. Kearsly, 1780.


  • Miscellanies in Prose and Verse: By Thomas Chatterton, the supposed author of the poems published under the names of Rowley, Canning, &c. London: Printed for Fielding & Walker, 1778.
  • A Supplement to the Miscellanies. London: Printed for T. Becket, 1784.
  • The History and Antiquities of the City of Bristol; Compiled from original records and authentic manuscripts, in public offices or private hands; illustrated with copper-plate prints; by William Barrett, Surgeon, F.S.A. Bristol, UK: Printed by William Pine, 1789.

Collected editionsEdit

  • Works (edited by Robert Southey & Joseph Cottle). (3 volumes), London: T.N. Longman & O. Rees, 1803. Volume I, Volume II, Volume III
  • Poetical Works: With notices of his life, history of the Rowley Controversy, a selection of his letters, and notes critical and explanatory (edited by C.B. Willcox). (2 volumes), Cambridge, UK: W.P. Grant, 1842. Volume I, Volume II
A New Song (Thomas Chatterton Poem)-0

A New Song (Thomas Chatterton Poem)-0

  • Complete Works: A bicentenary edition (edited by Donald S. Taylor & Benjamin B. Hoover). (2 volumes), Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1971.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[13]

See alsoEdit

"Last Verses" by Thomas Chatterton--Romantic poet died at age 17 his last 12 lines of poetry

"Last Verses" by Thomas Chatterton--Romantic poet died at age 17 his last 12 lines of poetry


  • Peter Ackroyd, Chatterton: A novel. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987.
  • PD-icon.svg Chisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). "Chatterton, Thomas". Encyclopædia Britannica. 6 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 10-13.  Wikisource, Web, Dec. 24, 2017.


  1. "Thomas Chatterton". Poets' Graves. Retrieved 16 November 2009. 
  2. "Biography of Thomas Chatterton,", Web, Nov. 17, 2011.
  3. John William Cousin, "Chatterton, Thomas," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, 1910, 80-81. Web, Dec. 24, 2017.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 4.9 Britannica 6, 10.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 5.8 5.9 Britannica 6, 11.
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 6.13 6.14 6.15 6.16 Britannica 6, 12.
  7. from Theodore Watts-Dunton, "Critical Introduction: Thomas Chatterton (1752–1770)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by [Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Feb. 26, 2016.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Britannica 6, 13.
  9. "Song from AElla". Arthur Quiller-Couch, editor, Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 4, 2012.
  10. Wright, GW. The London memorial to Thomas Chatterton, Notes and Queries, December 15th 1928, Oxford University Press.
  11. Poems (1865), Internet Archive, Web, June 22, 2014.
  12. Poetical works. With a prefatory notice, biographical and critical (1888?), Internet Archive. Web, June 15, 2014.
  13. Thomas Chatterton 1752-1770, Poetry Foundation, Web, Aug. 19, 2012.

External linksEdit

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PD-icon.svg This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain, the 1911 Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Original article is at Chatterton, Thomas.

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