Authors: Thomas Chatterton

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English poet

Author Works


Poems Supposed to Have Been Written at Bristol, by Thomas Rowley, and Others in the Fifteenth Century, 1777 (Thomas Tyrwhitt, editor)

Poetical Works, 1871 (Walter Sheat, editor)


The Revenge, pr. 1770 (opera)

The Woman of Spirit, pb. 1770 (burletta)


The Last Will and Testament of Me, Thomas Chatterton, of the City of Bristol, 1770


The Complete Works of Thomas Chatterton: A Bicentenary Edition, 1971 (2 volumes; Donald S. Taylor and Benjamin Hoover, editors)


The boy-poet Thomas Chatterton was one of the marvels of the literary world of the eighteenth century. His father died before he was born, and his young mother supported her children by operating a dame-school and taking in sewing. As early as his eleventh year, young Chatterton was writing poetry and immersing himself in a make-believe world of medieval language and lore. As a very small child he had begun playing in the muniment room of the church of St. Mary Redcliffe, in Bristol, where his family members had been hereditary sextons for two hundred years. Later he gathered together pieces of parchment lying about the family home, pieces that had been removed from the church, many dating back to the fifteenth century. When he was about twelve years old Chatterton invented the character Thomas Rowley, whom he made a monk and later, secular priest, friend, and confessor to William Caynge, a mayor of Bristol in the fifteenth century. While still a child, too, Chatterton made lists of old words and adopted an obsolete system of spelling. He began writing poems in several different styles, imitating fifteenth century language.{$I[AN]9810000636}{$I[A]Chatterton, Thomas}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Chatterton, Thomas}{$I[tim]1752;Chatterton, Thomas}

Thomas Chatterton

(Library of Congress)

When he was about fifteen years old he was apprenticed to Bristol attorney John Lambert, who required him to work as a drudging copyist for twelve hours a day. During this time Chatterton began sending some of his “Rowley poems” and other supposed ancient writings to local periodicals, where they were published as authentic. Encouraged by his success, the young poet, using the pen name of Dunelius Bristoliensis, also sent some of his material to national publications. Finding his apprenticeship intolerable, the young boy used a threat of suicide to force his release from Lambert’s law office. In April, 1770, Chatterton thereupon set off for London, where he continued to write. He found publishers for some of his material, but he received too little to be able to support himself. Within a short time he began to despair of success as a working writer, especially as his efforts to find a publisher for the Rowley poems were unsuccessful. Horace Walpole, who had at one time been ready to publish them as genuine medieval work, changed his mind after being convinced that the poems were later fabrications. Within weeks of that refusal, the boy who had come to London filled with hope closed himself in his garret and took arsenic. He was found dead the following morning, three months short of his eighteenth birthday. His memory has been clouded by his literary fabrications, but those same forgeries show the extent of the boy’s talent, and he became a kind of hero to the Romantic poets of the next generation.

BibliographyBronson, Bertrand H. “Thomas Chatterton.” In The Age of Johnson: Essays presented to Chauncey Brewster Tinker, edited by Wilmarth S. Lewis. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1949. This relatively short study is filled with useful information about the larger context in which Chatterton’s work appeared. Examines not only biographical curiosities but also critical issues brought up by the poems themselves.Fairchild, Hoxie Neale. “Aesthetic Sentimentalists.” In Religious Trends in English Poetry: Religious Sentimentalism in the Age of Johnson, 1740-1780. Vol. 2. New York: Columbia University Press, 1939. Takes a special approach to Chatterton by concentrating on the religious elements in his poetry. The popular religious influences of the age, combined with the interest in medieval and gothic cultures, provide color and arresting images which make Chatterton’s poems richly textured, even if they are not theologically deep.Folkenflik, Robert. “Macpherson, Chatterton, Blake, and the Great Age of Literary Forgery.” The Centennial Review 18 (1974): 378-391. This brief survey of the pre-Romantic period places Chatterton’s work in context with that of another minor poet, James Macpherson, and with the great poet William Blake. All three of these poets worked with assumed identities and created personas with whom they identified in varying degrees.Groom, Nick, ed. Thomas Chatterton and Romantic Culture. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. A collection of diverse essays by scholars, critics, and writers such as Peter Ackroyd and Richard Holmes. They show the mercurial Chatterton in exciting new contexts and restore him as a seminal figure in English literature. Includes bibliographical references and index.Kelly, Linda. The Marvellous Boy: The Life and Myth of Thomas Chatterton. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971. Building upon earlier studies, this comprehensive biography draws its title from a line in William Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence.” Kelly seeks to show that Chatterton was more than a literary oddity and to examine his place in the development of English Romantic poetry.Meyerstein, E. H. W. A Life of Thomas Chatterton. London: Igpen and Grant, 1930. Although this study is old, it is not out of date and is considered essential to the study of Chatterton. It is objective and comprehensive, as opposed to the sentimentalized biographies of former eras.
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