A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature/Chatterton, Thomas

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Chatterton, Thomas (1752-1770). -- Poet, b. at Bristol, posthumous s. of a schoolmaster, who had been a man of some reading and antiquarian tastes, after whose death his mother maintained herself and her boy and girl by teaching and needlework. A black-letter Bible and an illuminated music-book belonging to her were the first things to give his mind the impulse which led to such mingled glory and disaster. Living under the shadow of the great church of St. Mary Redcliffe, his mind was impressed from infancy with the beauty of antiquity, he obtained access to the charters deposited there, and he read every scrap of ancient literature that came in his way. At 14 he was apprenticed to a solicitor named Lambert, with whom he lived in sordid circumstances, eating in the kitchen and sleeping with the foot-boy, but continuing his favourite studies in every spare moment. In 1768 a new bridge was opened, and C. contributed to a local newspaper what purported to be a contemporary account of the old one which it superseded. This attracted a good deal of attention. Previously to this he had been writing verses and imitating ancient poems under the name of Thomas Rowley, whom he feigned to be a monk of the 15th century. Hearing of H. Walpole's collections for his Anecdotes of Painting in England, he sent him an "ancient manuscript" containing biographies of certain painters, not hitherto known, who had flourished in England centuries before. W. fell into the trap, and wrote asking for all the MS. he could furnish, and C. in response forwarded accounts of more painters, adding some particulars as to himself on which W., becoming suspicious, submitted the whole to T. Gray and Mason (q.v.), who pronounced the MS. to be forgeries. Some correspondence, angry on C.'s part, ensued, and the whole budget of papers was returned. C. thereafter, having been dismissed by Lambert, went to London, and for a short time his prospects seemed to be bright. He worked with feverish energy, threw off poems, satires, and political papers, and meditated a history of England; but funds and spirits failed, he was starving, and the failure to obtain an appointment as ship's surgeon, for which he had applied, drove him to desperation, and on the morning of August 25, 1770, he was found dead from a dose of arsenic, surrounded by his writings torn into small pieces. From childhood C. had shown a morbid familiarity with the idea of suicide, and had written a last will and testament, "executed in the presence of Omniscience," and full of wild and profane wit. The magnitude of his tragedy is only realised when it is considered not only that the poetry he left was of a high order of originality and imaginative power, but that it was produced at an page 81age at which our greatest poets, had they died, would have remained unknown. Precocious not only in genius but in dissipation, proud and morose as he was, an unsympathetic age confined itself mainly to awarding blame to his literary and moral delinquencies. Posterity has weighed him in a juster balance, and laments the early quenching of so brilliant a light. His coll. works appeared in 1803, and another ed. by Prof. Street in 1875. Among these are Elinoure and Juga, Balade of Charitie, Bristowe Tragedie, Ælla, and Tragedy of Godwin.

The best account of his life is the Essay by Prof. Masson.