Academic journal article Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity

Journeying into the Blackest Night Unto the Land of Bliss

Academic journal article Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity

Journeying into the Blackest Night Unto the Land of Bliss

Article excerpt

Forging a magical world by discovering medieval antiquity

Recognized in the 20th century as a major poet of the so-called "gothic" or medieval revival in the British literature of the 18th century and a pioneer of romanticism, Thomas Chatterton (20 November 1752; Bristol, Gloucestershire--24 August 1770; London) is now famous for being the youngest poet in English letters to leave an artistic legacy comparable with that left by the greatest poets. He was born in a poor family, and lived in a little house located on Redcliffe Hill, Bristol, in a back court next to the churchyard of St. Mary Redcliffe. Also named Thomas, his father died young, at the age of thirty-nine, three months before Chatterton came into the world; he seems to have been an absent-minded and solitary eccentric, who believed in magic and was an ancient coins collector (Ingram 1916: 14). At thirty-five he married Sarah Young, a farmer's daughter, who was then only sixteen; to support her family, she did needlework (she was to die in poverty and neglect in 1791). (Wilson 1869: 321; Russell 1908: 15; Cary 1846: 389; Dix 1837: 2; Brackett 2008: 65)

Chatterton was baptized at St. Mary Redcliffe on January 1, 1753. He spent his childhood under his mother's care, and when he was five years old a teacher named Love refused his enrollment in the school where his father had been master. It seems the reason for the rejection was his extreme dullness, although at home he was more of a "taciturn," strange, lonely and melancholy "grave little man" (Russell 1908: 16-17). An old musical French manuscript appears to have changed this state of affairs: his mother recounted how Chatterton grew deeply fond of this manuscript, especially the illuminated capital letters--thus came he to learn the alphabet and read from a black-lettered Bible; possibly, this is one of the major sources for his love of antiquities (Wilson 1869: 10; Gregory 1789: 4; Cary 1846: 389-390; Dix 1837: 5). His sister, Mary, reported that one of the signs anticipating his desire to become famous was the episode when, being asked what he should want to have painted on a china presented to him as a gift, he answered: "Paint me an angel with wings, and a trumpet to trumpet my name about the world." (apud Cary 1846: 390)

He was accepted, at the age of almost eight (in August 1760), into Colston's Hospital, a charity-school for the poor in Bristol. In the period between his eleventh and his twelfth year of life he composed a comprehensive catalogue of seventy books (now lost) that he had read (mainly on history and divinity, as his sister reported, but also Spenser's Faerie Queene, Gray's and Pope's poems, scientific treatises and some magazines; Russell 1908: 18; Gregory 1789: 11; Cary 1846: 390). He studied there for seven years, until 1 July 1767, when he began his apprenticeship in the scrivener's art with John Lambert, an attorney of Bristol. His main task here was to copy precedents. Besides British antiquities, he also became involved in the study of heraldry, mathematics, astronomy, music, and metaphysics, talking with zest about Paracelsus or Galen or Hippocrates (Wilson 1869: 291), and he started to write for professional magazines (Cary 1846: 392, 394; Gregory 1789: 43). There is reason to believe that only from this age did Chatterton begin to be involved with antiquities proper (Gregory 1789: 207), being steeped especially in heraldry; by now "the dearest quest of his life was books, books, always books" (Russell 1908: 42). Shortly before his Lambert period, however, he had also learned to reconstitute pedigrees of aristocrats and their blazons from the old parchments gathered by his father from the Muniment Room in St. Mary Redcliffe. One could even go so far as to speak of his "revelation in the muniment room of St. Mary Redcliffe in Bristol" as "one of the most important scenes in English literary history." By this experience he definitively acquired his "antiquarian passion" which was so closely associated with his genius as to be inseparable from it, and which was reflected in his belief that the language of the past and the past itself can be brought back to life. …

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