Chatterton, Thomas

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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Chatterton, Thomas

Thomas Chatterton, 1752–70, English poet. The posthumous son of a poor Bristol schoolmaster, he was already composing the "Rowley Poems" at the age of 12, claiming they were copies of 15th-century manuscripts at the Church of St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol. In 1769 he sent several of these poems to Horace Walpole, who was enthusiastic about them. When Walpole was advised that the poems were not genuine, he returned them and ended the correspondence. After this crushing defeat, Chatterton went to London in 1770, trying, with small success, to sell his poems to various magazines. On the point of starvation, too proud to borrow or beg, he poisoned himself and died at the age of 17. An original genius as well as an adept imitator, Chatterton used 15th-century vocabulary, but his rhythms and his approach to poetry were quite modern. The "Rowley Poems" were soon recognized as modern adaptations written in a 15th-century style, but the vigor and medieval beauty of such poems as "Mynstrelles Songe" and "Bristowe Tragedie" revealed Chatterton's poetic genius. This gifted, rebellious youth later became a hero to the romantic and Pre-Raphaelite poets, several of whom, notably Keats and Coleridge, wrote poems about him.

See his complete works, ed. by D. S. Taylor with B. B. Hoover (2 vol., 1971); biographies by E. H. W. Meyerstein (1930, repr. 1972), J. C. Nevill (1948, repr. 1973), and P. Ackroyd (1989); I. Haywood, The Making of History: A Study of the Literary Forgeries of James Macpherson and Thomas Chatterton in Relation to 18th Century Ideas of History and Fiction (1987).

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