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The romantic death of Thomas Chatterton, forger and poet

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles on Thursday, 29 September 2011

This edited article about English literature originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 828 published on 26 November 1977.

Chatterton, picture, image, illustration

The Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis

Thomas Chatterton was born at Bristol on 20th November, 1752, and attended Colston’s Bluecoat School.

His family were heriditary sextons at the church of St. Mary Radcliffe, and young Thomas spent many hours in the church. What particularly fascinated him was a chest of old parchments he found. He practically taught himself to read from these and was soon as familiar with the old English style of writing as he was with the modern.

By the time he was ten years old he was writing poetry and at 12 he was inscribing his own fifteenth century-style poems on vellum, in imitation of the old parchments in the church.

He was so clever at this “forgery” that he showed some of these “ancient” manuscripts to experts, claiming he had found them in St. Mary Redcliffe.

These poems – known as the “Rowley poems” because Chatterton claimed they were the work of a monk of that name – received great acclaim.

Meanwhile, Chatterton had become a clerk in an attorney’s office, but it was not work he liked, especially as his master tore up any poems he found in his desk.

In 1770, Chatterton went to London, determined to earn his living by his pen. Though he worked hard at writing, he earned very little money and was soon reduced to living in a wretched garret.

Not wishing to worry his family, he used the little money he had to send presents to his mother and sister, so that they would think he was doing well.

On 24th August, completely penniless and in despair over what he felt was his failure as a writer. Chatterton retired to his room. He tore up all his poems which came to hand and then swallowed a fatal does of arsenic. He was not quite 18 years old.

The most tragic aspect of his story is that, after his death, his true genius began at last to be properly appreciated.

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