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Chatterton was a boy-genius whose suicide became a Romantic myth

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History on Thursday, 27 June 2013

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This edited article about Thomas Chatterton originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 306 published on 25 November 1967.

Thomas Catterton, picture, image, illustration

The Death of Chatterton

One of the most tragic figures in the history of English poetry is Thomas Chatterton. A boy genius who wrote some remarkable poetry. He committed suicide out of despair at the age of 18.

Chatterton was born at Bristol on 20th November, 1752, and attended Colston’s Bluecoat School. His family were hereditary sextons at the church of St. Mary Redcliffe, 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 15th 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 forgotten monk called Rowley – received great acclaim and it was only later that they were recognised as brilliant imitations.

Meanwhile, Chatterton had become a clerk in a solicitor’s office. It was not work he greatly enjoyed, especially as his master would search the drawers of his desk and tear up any poems he found there.

In 1770, Chatterton came 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 miserable garret. Not wishing to worry his mother and sister, he used precious money to send them presents, so that they would think he was doing well.

On 24th August, completely penniless and in a state of depression over what he felt was his failure as a writer Chatterton retired to his room. Here he tore up all his poems he could lay his hands on, then swallowed a fatal dose of arsenic.

It was only after his death that the true genius of the boy was appreciated. The poets Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats all paid tribute to him.

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