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 on Thomas Chatterton

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 Biography 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.