An English poet, he was born at Bristol on the 20th of November 1752. His pedigree has a curious significance. The office of sexton of St Mary Redcliffe, at Bristol, one of the most beautiful parish churches in England, had been transmitted for nearly two centuries in the Chatterton family; and throughout the brief life of the poet it was held by his uncle, Richard Phillips. The poet’s father, Thomas Chatterton, was a musical genius, somewhat of a poet, a numismatist, and a dabbler in occult arts. He was one of the sub-chanters of Bristol cathedral, and master of the Pyle Street free school, near Redcliffe church. But whatever hereditary tendencies may have been transmitted from the father, the sole training of the boy necessarily devolved on his mother, who was in the fourth month of her widowhood at the time of his birth. She established a girls’ school, took in sewing and ornamental needlework, and so brought up her two children, a girl and a boy, till the latter attained his eighth year, when he was admitted to Colston’s Charity. But the Bristol blue-coat school, in which the curriculum was limited to reading, writing, arithmetic and the Church Catechism, had little share in the education of its marvelous pupil.
The hereditary race of sextons had come to regard the church of St Mary Redcliffe as their own peculiar domain; and, under the guidance of his uncle, the child found there his favourite haunt. The knights, ecclesiastics and civic dignitaries, recumbent on its altar tombs, became his familiar associates; and by and by, when he was able to spell his way through the inscriptions graven on their monuments, he found a fresh interest in certain quaint 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, long lay unheeded and forgotten. They formed the child’s playthings almost from his cradle. He 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, as it seems, almost from his earliest years, and manifesting no sympathy with the ordinary pastimes of children, he was regarded for a time as deficient in intellect. But he was even then ambitious of distinction. 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 seeming stupor, or yielding after a time to tears, for which he would assign no reason. He had no one near him to sympathize in the strange world of fancy which his imagination had already called into being; and circumstances helped to foster his natural reserve, and to beget that love of mystery which exercised so great an influence on the development of his genius. When the strange child had attained his sixth year 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; and in his eleventh year he had become a contributor to Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal. The occasion of his confirmation inspired some religious poems published in this paper. In 1763 a beautiful cross of curious workmanship, 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 the boy, and he sent to the local journal on the 7th of January 1764 a clever satire on the parish Vandal. But his delight was 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. The first of his literary mystifications, the duologue of Elinoure and Juga, was written before he was twelve years old, and he showed his poem to the usher at Colston’s hospital, Thomas Phillips, as the work of a 15th-century poet.
Chatterton remained an inmate of Colston’s hospital for upwards of six years, and the slight advantages gained from this scanty education are traceable to the friendly sympathy of Phillips, himself a writer of verse, who encouraged his pupils to write. Three of Chatterton’s companions are named as youths whom Phillips’s taste for poetry stimulated to rivalry; but Chatterton held aloof from these contests, and made at that time no confidant of his own more daring literary adventures. His little pocket-money was spent in borrowing books from a circulating library; and he early ingratiated himself with book collectors, by whose aid he found access to Weever, Dugdale and Collins, as well as to Speght’s edition of Chaucer, Spenser and other books.
His “Rowleian” jargon appears to have been chiefly the result of the study of John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum, and Prof. W. W. Skeat seems to think his knowledge of even 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 that elder time when Edward IV. was England’s king, and 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 performance at his house. In order to escape a marriage urged by the king, Canynge retired to the college of Westbury in Gloucestershire, where he enjoyed the society of Rowley, and eventually became dean of the institution. In The Storie of William Canynge, one of the shorter pieces of his ingenious romance, his early history is recorded. This beautiful picture of the childhood of the ideal patron of Rowley is in reality that of the poet himself—“the fate-marked babe,” with his wondrous child-genius, and all his romantic dreams realized. The literary masquerade which thus constituted the life-dream of the boy was wrought out by him in fragments of prose and verse into a coherent romance, until the credulous scholars and antiquaries of his day were persuaded into the belief that there had lain in the parish chest of Redcliffe church for upwards of three centuries, a collection of MSS. of rare merit, the work of Thomas Rowley, an unknown priest of Bristol in the days of Henry VI. and his poet laureate, John Lydgate.
Among the Bristol patrons of Chatterton were two pewterers, George Catcott and his partner Henry Burgum. Catcott was one of the most zealous believers in Rowley, and continued to collect his reputed writings long after the death of their real author. On Burgum, who had risen in life by his own exertions, the blue-coat boy palmed off the de Bergham pedigree, and other equally apocryphal evidences of the pewterer’s descent from an ancestry old as the Norman Conquest. The de Bergham quartering, blazoned on a piece of parchment doubtless recovered from the Redcliffe muniment chest, was itself supposed to have lain for centuries in that ancient depository. The pedigree was professedly collected by Chatterton from original records, including The Rowley MSS. The pedigree still exists in Chatterton’s own handwriting, copied into a book in which he had previously transcribed portions of antique verse, under the title of Poems by Thomas Rowley, priest of St. John’s, in the city of Bristol; and in one of these, The Tournament, Syrr Johan de Berghamme plays a conspicuous part. The ennobled pewterer rewarded Chatterton with five shillings, and was satirized for this valuation of a noble pedigree in some of Chatterton’s latest verse.
On the 1st of July 1767, Chatterton was transferred to the office of John Lambert, attorney, to whom he was bound apprentice as a clerk. There he was left much alone; and after fulfilling the routine duties devolving on him, he found leisure for his own favourite pursuits. An ancient stone bridge on the Avon, built in the reign of Henry II., and altered by many later additions into a singularly picturesque but inconvenient thoroughfare, had been displaced by a structure better adapted to modern requirements. In September 1768, when Chatterton was in the second year of his apprenticeship, the new bridge was partially opened for traffic. Shortly afterwards the editor of Felix Farley’s Journal received from a correspondent, signing himself Dunelmus Bristoliensis, a “description of the mayor’s first passing over the old bridge,” professedly derived from an ancient MS. William Barrett, F.S.A., surgeon and antiquary, who was then accumulating materials for a history of Bristol, secured the original manuscript, which is now preserved in the British Museum, along with other Chatterton MSS., most of which were ultimately incorporated by the credulous antiquary into a learned quarto volume, entitled the History and Antiquities of the City of Bristol, published nearly twenty years after the poet’s death. It was at this time that the definite story made its appearance—over which critics and antiquaries wrangled for nearly a century—of numerous ancient poems and other MSS. taken by the elder Chatterton from a coffer in the muniment room of Redcliffe church, and transcribed, and so rescued from oblivion, by his son. The pieces include the Bristowe Tragedie, or the Dethe of Syr Charles Bawdin, a ballad celebrating the death of the Lancastrian knight, Charles Baldwin; Ælla, a Tragycal Enterlude, as Chatterton styles it, but in reality a dramatic poem of sustained power and curious originality of structure; Goddwyn, a dramatic fragment; Tournament, Battle of Hastings, The Parliament of Sprites, Balade of Charitie, with numerous shorter pieces, forming altogether a volume of poetry, the rare merit of which is indisputable, wholly apart from the fact that it was the production of a mere boy. Unfortunately for him, his ingenious romance had either to be acknowledged as his own creation, and so in all probability be treated with contempt, or it had to be sustained by the manufacture of spurious antiques. To this accordingly Chatterton resorted, and found no difficulty in gulling the most learned of his credulous dupes with his parchments.
The literary labours of the boy, though diligently pursued at his desk, were not allowed to interfere with the duties of Mr Lambert’s office. Nevertheless the Bristol attorney used to search his apprentice’s drawer, and tear up any poems or other manuscripts that he could lay his hands upon; so that it was only during the absences of Mr Lambert from Bristol that he was able to expend his unemployed time in his favourite pursuits. But repeated allusions, both by Chatterton and others, seem to indicate that such intervals of freedom were of frequent occurrence. Some of his modern poems, such as the piece entitled Resignation, are of great beauty; and these, with the satires, in which he took his revenge on all the local celebrities whose vanity or meanness had excited his ire, are alone sufficient to fill a volume. The Catcotts, Burgum, Barrett and others of his patrons, figure in these satires, in imprudent yet discriminating caricature, along with mayor, aldermen, bishop, dean and other notabilities of Bristol. Towards Lambert his feelings were of too keen a nature to find relief in such sarcasm.
In December 1768, in his seventeenth year, he wrote to Dodsley, the London publisher, offering to procure for him “copies of several ancient poems, and an interlude, perhaps the oldest dramatic piece extant, wrote by one Rowley, a priest in Bristol, who lived in the reigns of Henry VI. and Edward IV.” To this letter he appended the initials of his favourite pseudonym, Dunelmus Bristoliensis, but directed the answer to be sent to the care of Thomas Chatterton, Redcliffe Hill, Bristol. To this, as well as to another letter enclosing an extract from the tragedy of Ælla, no answer appears to have been returned. Chatterton, conceiving the idea of finding sympathy and aid at the hand of some modern Canynge, bethought him of Horace Walpole, who not only indulged in a medieval renaissance of his own, but was the reputed author of a spurious antique in the Castle of Otranto. He wrote to him offering him a document entitled The Ryse of Peyncteyne yn Englande, wroten by T. Rowleie, 1469, for Mastre Canynge, accompanied by notes which included specimens of Rowley’s poetry. To this Walpole replied with courteous acknowledgments. He characterized the verses as “wonderful for their harmony and spirit,” and added, “Give me leave to ask you where Rowley’s poems are to be had? I should not be sorry to print them; or at least a specimen of them, if they have never been printed.” Chatterton replied, enclosing additional specimens of antique verse, and telling Walpole that he was the son of a poor widow, and clerk to an attorney, but had a taste for more refined studies; and he hinted a wish that he might help him to some more congenial occupation. Walpole’s manner underwent an abrupt change. The specimens of verse had been submitted to his friends Gray and Mason, the poets, and pronounced modern. They did not thereby forfeit the wonderful harmony and spirit which Walpole had already professed to recognize in them. But he now coldly advised the boy to stick to the attorney’s office; and “when he should have made a fortune,” he might betake himself to more favourite studies, Chatterton had to write three times before he recovered his MSS. Walpole has been loaded with more than his just share of responsibility for the fate of the unhappy poet, of whom he admitted when too late, “I do not believe there ever existed so masterly a genius.”
Chatterton now turned his attention to periodical literature and politics, and exchanged Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal for the Town and County 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 the princess of Wales. He had just despatched one of his political diatribes to the Middlesex Journal, when he sat down on Easter Eve, 17th April 1770, and penned his “Last Will and Testament,” a strange satirical compound of jest and earnest, in which he intimated his intention of putting an end to 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. If so, it had the desired effect. Lambert cancelled his indentures; his friends and acquaintance made him up a purse; and on the 25th or 26th of the month he arrived in 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 strong for Wilkes and liberty. His contributions were freely accepted; but the editors paid little or nothing for them. He wrote in the most hopeful terms to his mother and sister, and spent his first earnings in buying gifts for them. His pride and ambition were amply 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 Beckford graciously acknowledged a political address of his, and greeted him “as politely as a citizen could.” But of actual money he received but little. He was extremely abstemious, his diligence was great, and his versatility wonderful. He could assume the style of Junius or Smollett, reproduce the satiric bitterness of Churchill, parody Macpherson’s Ossian, or write in the manner of Pope, or with the polished grace of Gray and Collins. He wrote political letters, eclogues, lyrics, operas and satires, both in prose and verse. In June 1770—after Chatterton had been some nine weeks in London—he removed from Shoreditch, where he had hitherto lodged with a relative, to an attic in Brook Street, Holborn. But for most of his productions the payment was delayed; 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, as in his lodging at the Bristol attorney’s, he had only 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.
The high hopes of the sanguine boy had begun to fade. He had not yet completed his second month in London, and already failure and starvation stared him in the face. 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 was offended at her urgency, and 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 somewhat less than eightpence each for his songs; while much which had been accepted was held in reserve, and still unpaid for. The beginning of a new month revealed to him the indefinite postponement of the publication and payment of his work. He had wished, according to his foster-mother, to study medicine with Barrett; in his desperation he now reverted to this, and wrote to Barrett for a letter to help him to an opening as a surgeon’s assistant on board an African trader. He appealed also to Mr Catcott to forward his plan, but in vain. On the 24th of August 1770, he retired for the last time to his attic in Brook Street, carrying with him the arsenic which he there drank, after tearing into fragments whatever literary remains were at hand.
He was only seventeen years and nine months old; but the best of his numerous productions, both in prose and verse, require no allowance to be made for the immature years of their author, when comparing him with the ablest of his contemporaries. He pictures Lydgate, the monk of Bury St Edmunds, challenging Rowley to a trial at versemaking, and under cover of this fiction, produces his Songe of Ælla, a piece of rare lyrical beauty, worthy of comparison with any antique or modern production of its class. 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 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 letters. Collins, Burns, Keats, Shelley and Byron all awaken sorrow over the premature arrestment of their genius; but the youngest of them survived to his twenty-fifth year, while Chatterton was not eighteen when he perished in his miserable garret. 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 Shoe Lane Workhouse, in the parish of St Andrew’s, Holborn, which has since been 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.”