by Peter Ackroyd
Grove Press, 234 pp., $17.95
The Family Romance of the Imposter-Poet Thomas Chatterton
by Louise J. Kaplan
Atheneum, 301 pp., $24.95
Thomas Chatterton (1752–1770) is one of the great enigmas of English literary history. Born posthumously the son of a humble Bristol schoolmaster and brought up in straitened circumstances by his widowed mother, educated at a charity grammar school and apprenticed to a lawyer as a scrivener, Chatterton fabricated between the ages of fourteen and sixteen a large quantity of verse purporting to be the work of a fifteenth-century monk called Thomas Rowley, carried out under the patronage of Sir William Canynge, a celebrated mayor of Bristol. Chatterton claimed to have transcribed this poetry, which was written in a plausible pastiche of late Middle English, from old parchments found in the muniment room of the parish church of St. Mary Redcliffe, where his father had been a lay clerk. The Bristol bourgeoisie, delighted by these relics of local history, accepted them with eager credulity, and it was not until more sophisticated literary judges such as Horace Walpole inspected the Rowley poems that serious doubts about their authenticity were aroused.
At this point Chatterton obtained a release from his apprenticeship, and early in 1770 he went to London to try to make his fortune as a poet and journalist in more contemporary idioms. After eking out a precarious living for some months by this means, on August 25 he was found dead in the garret where he lodged, lying on a bed surrounded by shreds of torn-up paper. He was aged seventeen-and-a-half. Evidence of arsenic poisoning led to a coroner’s verdict of suicide, but almost at once controversy commenced among those who had known him over the cause and circumstances of his death. Had he taken his own life because of poverty, or despair of achieving his literary ambitions, or shame at the imminent exposure of his forgeries, or a combination of all three motives? Or was it, indeed, not suicide at all but accidental death, caused by an overdose of medication for venereal disease, or simply by food poisoning (Chatterton was fond of oysters and August had been a bad month for them)?
The more dignifying theories prevailed. Within a few decades, as Louise Kaplan reminds us, Chatterton had become a kind of patron saint or martyr to the Romantic poets. One of Coleridge’s earliest poems was a “Monody on the Death of Chatterton,” first drafted in 1790, with the subtitle, “A Monody on Chatterton, who poisoned himself at the age of eighteen—written by the author at the age of sixteen.” Keats dedicated Endymion (1818) “to the memory of the Most English of Poets except Shakespeare, THOMAS CHATTERTON.” Wordsworth, in one of his most famous poems, “Resolution and Independence,”
…thought of Chatterton, the mar- vellous Boy,
The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride.
Though Chatterton’s Rowley poems were certainly astonishing achievements for a teen-age boy, and promised much greater ones had he reached maturity, the Romantic cult of Chatterton was not based on any realistic assessment of his poetic talent. It was the pathos of …