The life and work of the poet Thomas Chatterton, told through five bits of trivia
1. Chatterton was, in effect, the first English Romantic poet. Before William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), Thomas Chatterton (1752-177o) was laying the groundwork for a revolution in English verse. Chatterton was perhaps the most precocious English poet who has ever lived. In his early teens, he fell in love with all things medieval, and invented the figure of the fifteenth-century monk Thomas Rowley, who would become the teenage boy’s alter ego. Thereafter, Chatterton would write the majority of his poems as Rowley, and even succeeded in passing them off as genuine medieval poems … for a while, at least.
2. Chatterton’s forged ‘medieval’ poems fooled some literary greats of the day – but not his fellow literary forger, Horace Walpole. The teenage Chatterton struggled to find a wealthy literary patron to support him, so he sent some of his Thomas Rowley poems to Horace Walpole, author of the first Gothic novel, but Walpole turned them away because he suspected they might be forgeries. This is especially apt given that Walpole’s novel, The Castle of Otranto, was offered to the public on its original publication in 1764 as a genuine medieval manuscript. (Takes one to know one, and all that.)
3. He took his own life, aged just seventeen. Travelling to London in the hope of finding financial recognition there, Chatterton failed to make a living as a writer, and at the age of seventeen, in August 1770, he committed suicide by poison – a phial of arsenic – in his Holborn flat. At the time, Wordsworth was just a babe in arms, at four months old, and English Romantic poetry would have to wait nearly a quarter of a century before Chatterton’s legacy truly grew. His death would be immortalised in an 1856 painting (see above right); the sitter for the portrait was none other than Victorian poet and novelist, George Meredith.
4. In many ways, Chatterton was a poet of his time – forgeries were all the rage. Along with Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, the 1760s also saw the publication of James MacPherson’s ‘Ossian’ poems. MacPherson, a Scottish writer and politician, published in 1765 The Works of Ossian, a collection of Scots Gaelic poems he claimed to have found and translated. (Ossian is supposed to be Oisin, also known as Finn McCool, the legendary Irish figure.) In fact, it appears MacPherson had made up much of the content of the poems. Like Chatterton, the Ossian poems went on to have a considerable influence on the Romantic movement later in the eighteenth century. One of the more lasting legacies of the poems was the name Fiona, which MacPherson appears to have ‘invented’ in the cycle of poems.
5. Chatterton was immortalised by later poets as the patron saint of the Romantic movement – though his legacy also extends, ultimately, to Harry Potter. He would influence later Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Keats, who both wrote poems about him. Victorian poet Robert Browning borrowed the word ‘slug-horn’ from Chatterton’s pseudo-medieval poetry for his famous 1855 pseudo-medieval poem ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’ (which in turn influenced Stephen King’s Dark Tower series of books). But a more surprising fact is that, more recently, J. K. Rowling has put the slug-horn to new use, in the name of Horace Slughorn, a character from the Harry Potter series.
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Image: Chatterton by Henry Wallis, 1856; Wikimedia Commons.