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]



Thomas Chatterton was born in Bristol where the office of sexton of St. Mary Redcliffe had long been held by the Chatterton family. The poet's father, also named Thomas Chatterton, was a musician, a poet, a numismatist, and a dabbler in the occult. He had been a sub-chanter at Bristol Cathedral and master of the Pyle Street free school, near Redcliffe church.

File:Chatterton house Bristol.jpg

After Thomas's birth (four months after his father's death), his mother established a girls' school and took in sewing and ornamental needlework. Thomas was admitted to Edward Colston's Charity, a Bristol charity school, in which the curriculum was limited to reading, writing, arithmetic and the catechism.

Thomas, however, was always fascinated with his uncle the sexton and the church of St Mary Redcliffe. The knights, ecclesiastics and civic dignitaries on its altar tombs, became familiar to him. Then he found a fresh interest in 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, lay forgotten. Thomas learned his first letters from the illuminated capitals of an old musical folio, and learned to read out of a black-letter Bible. He did not like, his sister said, reading out of small books. Wayward from his earliest years, and uninterested in the games of other children, he was thought to be educationally backward. 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."

From his earliest years he was liable to fits of abstraction, sitting for hours in what seemed like a trance, or crying for no reason. His lonely circumstances helped foster his natural reserve, and to create the love of mystery which exercised such an influence on the development of his genius. When Chatterton was six, his mother began to recognize his capacity; at eight he was so eager for books that he would read and write all day long if undisturbed; by the age of eleven, he had become a contributor to Felix Farley's Bristol Journal.

His confirmation inspired him to write some religious poems published in this paper. In 1763 a beautiful cross which had adorned the churchyard of St. Mary Redcliffe for upwards of three centuries was destroyed by a churchwarden. The spirit of veneration was strong in Chatterton, and he sent to the local journal on 7 January 1764 a clever satire on the parish vandal. He also liked 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.

First "medieval" worksEdit

The first of his literary mysteries, the dialogue of "Elinoure and Juga," was written before he was 12, and he showed it to Thomas Phillips, the usher at the boarding school Colston's Hospital where he was a pupil, pretending it was the work of a 15th-century poet. Chatterton remained a boarder at Colston's Hospital for more than 6 years, and it was only his uncle who encouraged the pupils to write. Three of Chatterton's companions are named as youths whom Phillips's taste for poetry stimulated to rivalry; but Chatterton told no one about his own more daring literary adventures. His little pocket-money was spent on borrowing books from a circulating library; and he ingratiated himself with book collectors, in order to obtain access to John Weever, William Dugdale and Collins, as well as to Thomas Speght's edition of Chaucer, Spenser, and other books.

Chatterton used the pseudonym Thomas Rowley for poetry and history. Chatterton's "Rowleian" jargon appears to have been chiefly the result of the study of John Kersey's Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum, and it seems his knowledge even of 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. 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 the reign of Edward IV, when 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 studies.

In 1769 Chatterton sent Rowley's History of England, allegedly by Rowley, to Horace Walpole, who was briefly taken in. Chatterton now turned his attention to periodical literature and politics, and exchanged Felix Farley's Bristol Journal for the Town and Country 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 Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, the Princess of Wales.

He had just dispatched one of his political diatribes 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 ending his life the following evening. Among his satirical bequests, such as his "humility" to the Rev. Mr Camplin, his "religion" to Dean Barton, and his "modesty" along with his "prosody and grammar" to Mr Burgum, he leaves "to Bristol all his spirit and disinterestedness, parcels of goods unknown on its quay since the days of Canynge and Rowley." In more genuine earnestness he recalls the name of Michael Clayfield, a friend to whom he owed intelligent sympathy. The will was probably purposely prepared in order to frighten his master into letting him go. It had the desired effect. Lambert cancelled his indentures, his friends and acquaintances donated money, and he went to London.


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 supportive of John Wilkes and liberty. His contributions were accepted, but the editors paid little or nothing for them.

He wrote hopefully to his mother and sister, and spent his first earnings in buying gifts for them. His pride and ambition were 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 William Beckford graciously acknowledged a political address of his, and greeted him "as politely as a citizen could." He was abstemious and diligence was great. He could assume the style of Junius or Tobias Smollett, reproduce the satiric bitterness of Charles Churchill, parody Macpherson's Ossian, or write in the manner of Pope, or with the polished grace of Thomas Gray and William Collins.

He wrote political letters, eclogues, lyrics, operas and satires, both in prose and verse. In June 1770 - after nine weeks in London - he moved from Shoreditch, where he had lodged with a relative, to an attic in Brook Street, Holborn. He was still short of money; 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, he had shared a room; but now, for the first 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.

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 assured her that he was not hungry. 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 less than eightpence each for his songs; much which had been accepted was held in reserve and still unpaid for.

According to his foster-mother, he had wished to study medicine with Barrett, and in his desperation he wrote to Barrett for a letter to help him to an opening as a surgeon's assistant on board an African trader. On 24 August 1770, he retired for the last time to his attic in Brook Street, carrying with him the arsenic which he drank, after tearing into fragments whatever literary remains were at hand.


At his death Chatterton was only 17 years and nine months old; but the best of his numerous productions, in prose and verse, seem very mature.

He pictures John Lydgate, the monk of Bury St Edmunds, challenging Rowley to a trial at versemaking, and under cover of this fiction, produces his Songe of Alla, a piece of rare lyrical beauty. 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 English language. The collection of poems in which such specimens occur furnishes by far the most remarkable example of intellectual precocity in the whole history of English literature.

Critical introductionEdit

by Theodore Watts-Dunton

Dominated as he commonly was by eighteenth-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 connexion 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 at first 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 first outburst of a unique energy that would have gone on developing and gathering strength with years.

At the age of five the attempt to teach him even his letters had failed, and at six and a half his mother and sister still "thought he was an absolute fool." When close upon his eighth 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 first form, as far as is known, taken by this passion was a strange one, 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 one of the pewterer’s ancestors, "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 defence 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.[3]


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. He was interred in a burying-ground attached to the Shoe Lane Workhouse, in the parish of St Andrew, Holborn, later converted into a site for Farringdon Market. There is a discredited 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."

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 recognises 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.

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." 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.

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' sonnet "To Chatterton". Keats also inscribed Endymion "to the memory of Thomas Chatterton". Alfred de Vigny's drama of Chatterton gives an altogether fictitious account of the poet. 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.).

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

His poem "Song from AElla" was included in the Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900.[4]

There is 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. 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. 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.

In 1928 a plaque was mounted to 39, Brooke Street, Holborn, in memory of Chatterton, bearing the inscription below.[5] It is unknown if the plaque still exists.

In a House on this Site Thomas Chatterton, died August 24, 1770.

French singer Serge Gainsbourg entitled one of his songs Chatterton, stating:

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 of Thomas Chatterton. 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

  • The Works of Thomas Chatterton (edited by Robert Southey & Joseph Cottle). (3 volumes), London: T.N. Longman & O. Rees, 1803. Volume I, Volume II, Volume III
  • The Poetical Works of Thomas Chatterton: 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
  • The Complete Works of Thomas Chatterton: 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.[8]

See alsoEdit


  • "Chatterton - A Novel" by Peter Ackroyd, Hamish Hamilton, London 1987


  1. "Thomas Chatterton". Poets' Graves. Retrieved 16 November 2009. 
  2. "Biography of Thomas Chatterton,", Web, Nov. 17, 2011.
  3. 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.
  4. "Song from AElla". Arthur Quiller-Couch, editor, Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 4, 2012.
  5. Wright, GW. The London memorial to Thomas Chatterton, Notes and Queries, December 15th 1928, Oxford University Press.
  6. Poems (1865), Internet Archive, Web, June 22, 2014.
  7. Poetical works. With a prefatory notice, biographical and critical (1888?), Internet Archive. Web, June 15, 2014.
  8. Thomas Chatterton 1752-1770, Poetry Foundation, Web, Aug. 19, 2012.

External linksEdit


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