Thomas Chatterton
Thomas Chatterton; drawing by David Levine

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 his disadvantaged circumstances and untimely end that moved the Romantics, answering as it did to so many of their own preoccupations: with the isolation and alienation of the artist in modern society, with poetic imagination as an innate rather than an acquired attribute, with easeful death as a solution to the unbearable paradoxes of existence.

The aesthetic canonization of Chatterton was completed a few decades later by the famous painting by the Pre-Raphaelite Henry Wallis, “The Death of Chatterton” (1856), which depicts the dead poet lying on his bed under an open attic window, not soiled and contorted by the death agonies he would certainly have suffered from arsenic poisoning but serene and relaxed, his head lolling over the edge of the bed, and his lifeless arm hanging to the floor—a pose faintly suggestive of postcoital languor and also reminiscent of old paintings of the Deposition of Christ. This picture is familiar to countless numbers of people who have never read a word of Chatterton’s poetry. The handsome young poet lying dead in his garret under an indifferent London dawn has become the iconic epitome of neglected genius, the tragic aspect of la vie bohème. There is also an intriguing subtext to the painting: the model for Chatterton was the young George Meredith, whose wife left him shortly afterward for the artist, Henry Wallis.

It is not surprising that Thomas Chatterton should have attracted the attention of the versatile and prolific young British writer Peter Ackroyd as a subject for fiction. His first novel, The Great Fire of London (1982), was a Dickensian novel about Charles Dickens; his second, The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983), was an astonishingly convincing attempt to imagine the journal Wilde might have written in the last months of his life. Hawksmoor (1985) was based on another tour de force of literary pastiche, cross-cutting between the first-person narrative of a seventeenth-century architect, whose churches in the City of London were the products of Satanism as well as geometry, and the story of a twentieth-century detective investigating a series of macabre murders in those same churches. In short, Mr. Ackroyd’s fiction has always been characterized by the writer’s effort to think himself back into the past by a dazzling feat of stylistic imitation—which would be a charitable way of describing the forgeries perpetrated by the young Chatterton. “The truest Plagiarism is the truest Poetry,” declares Ackroyd’s Chatterton, and on one level the novel can be read as an exploration of that paradox and an implicit defense of Ackroyd’s own self-consciously intertextual methods.


As Louise J. Kaplan observes, in a psychoanalytical biography of Chatterton which by a happy coincidence appears at almost the same time as Ackroyd’s novel, Chatterton was not a plagiarist in the normal sense of the word—one who seeks to purloin the credit due to other men’s words; but rather the inverse—one who passed off his own brilliant inventions as the work of someone else (the fictitious Rowley). To be sure, Chatterton’s pseudomedieval verse is full of echoes of his precocious reading in Chaucer and in Percy’s Reliques, but such borrowing occurs in all poetry, indeed all art. “Every creative act is a plagiarism of a sort,” says Kaplan. “Modern poets especially have found their own voices by impersonating sounds, rhythms, and phrases from the past.” The most obvious example is Eliot’s The Waste Land, a poem stuffed with echoes of and allusions to precursor texts, especially in the original draft, from which Ezra Pound persuaded Eliot to prune many lines of pastiche and parody. A critic quoted by Kaplan has said of these omitted passages that “they are not simply imitations but rather creative borrowings of another style and syntax which releases [sic] a plethora of voices and perceptions.” That critic was Peter Ackroyd, in his prizewinning biography, T.S. Eliot (1984).

The example of Eliot has contributed to the structure as well as the texture of Ackroyd’s Chatterton: just as Eliot switches between several “narratives” (the Grail legend, the New Testament, the sordid and neurotic lives of various twentieth-century social types, etc.), setting up resonances and resemblances between them, so Ackroyd cuts abruptly backward and forward between the story of Chatterton, the story of Wallis and the Merediths, and the story of fictitious characters in modern London in whose lives the two historical narratives suggestively echo and intertwine. But since it is a novel and not a poem, there is more narrative logic in Chatterton than in The Waste Land. As in Hawksmoor, a causality of occult coincidence knits the three stories together.

The greater part of the text is devoted to the modern story, which is not altogether good news for Ackroyd’s readers, since his touch is surer in recreating the past than in representing the present. The modern characters in Chatterton fall into two sharply differentiated groups: good guys and bad guys. The good guys are mostly rather poor and unworldly, and somewhat colorless; the bad guys are outrageous grotesques who might have been invented by a collaboration between Dickens and Firbank. Their behavior is extravagantly eccentric and their speech is highly mannered, peppered with bad puns and facetious quips. They are occasionally amusing but their chatter quickly becomes tiresome, grating on the nerves like squeaky chalk on a blackboard. Fortunately, Ackroyd never lingers with any single set of characters for very long.

The chief good guy is a youngish unpublished and unemployed poet, Charles Wychwood, with a wife, Vivien (the name of Eliot’s neurotic first wife, though there the resemblance ends—Vivien Wychwood is a simple soul, with an uncomplicated devotion to her husband), and a young son, Edward. Charles’s sometimes odd behavior (he is, for instance, fond of tearing strips out of his favorite books and eating them) turns out to be a symptom of the brain tumor that eventually kills him. The story starts with his attempt to raise some money by selling an eighteenth-century book on flute-playing to a couple of Dickensian grotesques called Mr. and Mrs. Leno. In their antique shop, Charles is much struck by an early nineteenth-century portrait of a middle-aged literary man, and accepts the painting in exchange for his book. Various clues suggest that it is a portrait of Thomas Chatterton, and when Charles, accompanied by his faithful librarian friend, Philip, goes down to Bristol to investigate the provenance of the painting, he discovers some old manuscripts apparently written by Chatterton which suggest that, faced with the imminent exposure of his Rowley forgeries, he conspired with a bookseller to fake his suicide so that he could go on with his career as a literary forger. The excited Charles speculates that “half the poetry of the eighteenth century is probably written by him” and hopes to make his own fortune by publishing the discovery.


Charles refuses to admit that he is ill, but as his symptoms grow worse he more and more identifies himself with the spirit of Chatterton. When he suffers a fatal collapse in the course of a party at an Indian restaurant he sees the ghostly figure of the eighteenth-century poet hovering behind his chair. The apparition is seen at the same moment by an elderly novelist called Harriet Scrope, a foul-mouthed, witchlike figure given to sipping gin from a teaspoon and poking her tongue out at children, who refers to herself as “Mother,” and to her cat as “Mr. Gaskell.” She has got wind of Charles’s discovery and schemes to relieve Charles’s widow of the Chatterton papers and portrait.

Harriet Scrope herself has been guilty of plagiarism in her early work, as Philip discovers when he stumbles upon an obscure Victorian novelist called Harrison Bentley, whose plots Harriet Scrope evidently borrowed and adapted for her own purposes. One of these plots concerns a poet whose most famous verses turned out to have been written by his wife during his last illness; another concerns an actor who believed himself to be possessed by the spirits of great actors of the past. When Harriet Scrope takes the putative portrait of Chatterton to be verified by the art dealers Cumberland and Maitland (for whom Vivien works as a secretary) she is told that it is “a fake…. That is, if it’s meant to be what you think it is,” because some of the details are incorrect for the alleged date of the painting. Scrope, being privy to an artistic forgery at which the art dealers have connived (they are selling paintings by a recently deceased artist called Seymour knowing that they were executed by his assistant Stewart Merk during the painter’s last illness), blackmails them into employing Merk to make the necessary adjustments to the Chatterton portrait; but when Merk starts cleaning the painting the picture of a younger man (a genuine portrait of the young Chatterton?) becomes visible before both layers of pigment dissolve and melt in a fashion heavily reminiscent of the climax of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Thus does Peter Ackroyd duplicate and deconstruct the oppositions of truth/falsehood, authenticity/forgery, originality/plagiarism. It is a brilliantly ingenious, consciously artificial, and mercifully unpedantic performance. The reader feels as if he is groping his way through a mirrored labyrinth; whatever threads are furnished to guide him lead not to an exit into “reality” but only to more texts—and more often than not, texts by Peter Ackroyd. The title of one of Harrison Bentley’s novels is The Last Testament, the same as Ackroyd’s imitation of and homage to Oscar Wilde. The title of the other is Stage Fire. This recalls a cryptic remark of Harriet Scrope’s to a blind man, earlier in the novel: “All you need, old man…is a circle of stage fire.” Ruskin said famously of Charles Dickens, “Let us not lose the use of Dickens’s wit and insight, because he chooses to speak in a circle of stage fire.” Dickens, the inspiration of Ackroyd’s first novel, The Great Fire of London, and the subject of his current biography in progress, first came to fame through writing copy to accompany the sporting prints of an artist called Seymour, who, jealous of his collaborator’s success with The Pickwick Papers, committed suicide. The chain of allusions recedes into infinity.

There is some ambivalence in the novel, and perhaps in the author’s mind, whether the artist’s vocation as represented by Chatterton is a blessing or a curse. Charles’s obsession with the painting he discovers in the antique shop is associated with his fatal illness, and is instinctively disliked by his wife and son. It starts a trail that leads back to a repellent old homosexual in Bristol whose ancestor, it turns out, faked the portrait and forged the manuscripts in order to blacken the character of Thomas Chatterton, in revenge for being denied the opportunity to publish Chatterton’s poems in his lifetime. This painting seems to represent the evil that is generated by, or parasitic upon, the artistic life. The Wallis painting, on the other hand, just as much a fake in its own way, and associated with much human anguish in the person of George Meredith, is seen as benign. Charles experiences his own death as a version of the painting in which he occupies the identical pose of Wallis’s model, but with his wife and child bending over him, tenderly taking their farewells; and the boy Edward likewise dreams the Wallis painting, which he has seen in the Tate Gallery, as a way of accepting his bereavement. Philip comes across a story to the effect that George Meredith, in despair at his wife’s desertion, was saved from committing suicide by the apparition of the young Thomas Chatterton. I do not know whether this story is true, apocryphal, or invented by Ackroyd for the occasion. In a sense it doesn’t matter. The impossibility of establishing the plain truth of any human history is the underlying theme of Chatterton.

Perhaps, therefore, it was unwise of Ackroyd to use his authority as a story-teller to decide the historically undecidable mystery of Chatterton’s death. He shows us Chatterton waking on the fateful day in good spirits, slightly dashed by the discovery that he has symptoms of gonorrhea, presumably contracted from his amorous landlady. He recalls a remedy recommended by a friend, a mixture of opium and arsenic, and purchases these ingredients from an apothecary who warns him of the deadly properties of arsenic. At the end of the day, returning to bed in his cups, he drinks the potion with agonizing and fatal consequences.

Louise Kaplan carefully considers this theory of how Chatterton died, and presents the evidence to support it: some of his last writings were scurrilous poems suggesting sexual promiscuity, venereal disease was a common consequence of such behavior in eighteenth-century London, and dangerous chemicals such as vitriol and even arsenic (presumably in minute quantities) were sometimes used as drastic forms of treatment (though more often for syphilis than for gonorrhea—indeed, another theory has it that Chatterton committed suicide on discovering that he had contracted syphilis). The theory is plausible—but no more so than several others, and less so than some, all of which are scrupulously investigated and weighed by Dr. Kaplan. She herself inclines to the traditional view that Chatterton committed suicide, but acknowledges that it will never be possible to establish this with any certainty.

What we do know for certain about Chatterton is that he was a youthful imposter, and it is on this aspect of his life and character that Dr. Kaplan, a recognized authority on the psychology of adolescence, focuses her psychoanalytical expertise. Apparently most imposters are male, and have an absent or inadequate father in their family histories. Kaplan plausibly argues that because of his posthumous birth, Thomas Chatterton, Jr. (he was named for his deceased father), was forced prematurely into the role of male protector and provider for his mother and sister. Through his forgeries he acquired status and the prospect of fortune. By the same means he conjured up a benign father figure in William Canynge, the patron of his fictitious alter ego, the medieval poet-monk Thomas Rowley. The threatened exposure of his forgeries compelled him to give up this reassuring fantasy: “When Chatterton lost Sir William Canynge, he lost the internal god that had protected and nourished him.” The various older men to whom he turned in 1769–1770 for patronage and friendship (they included Horace Walpole and John Wilkes) also failed him in one way or another Kaplan sees this as a sufficient motive for suicide: “By the end of August [1770], Chatterton had lost all hope of rescue by a protecting father…. Chatterton had been abandoned, and he let himself die.”

Ackroyd’s explanation is less poignant, more ironic. If Chatterton died of a quack remedy for the clap, the Romantic cult of the marvelous boy who perished in his pride seems rather foolish, as unfounded as Charles Wychwood’s belief that Chatterton lived on to middle age. But, as if reluctant to accept the cynical implications of his own narrative, Ackroyd adds a coda in which Charles’s friend Philip vows to keep the fantasy (and thus in a sense Charles himself) alive, by writing it up in his own way. The novel ends with Chatterton smiling in death, united beyond time and space with the spirits of the other two poets who lived and died after him.

If Mr. Ackroyd ingeniously teases us with a multiplicity of meanings, Dr. Kaplan (whose elegantly designed book is not without its elements of literary pastiche in the form of mock-eighteenth-century chapter headings) pursues a single line of argument, observing but not being distracted by the plethora of myths, rumors, and downright lies that accumulated around Chatterton after his death. Both books are excellent of their kind, and they complement each other beautifully. They are, as it happens, identical in size, and unsurprisingly both bear on their dustjackets full color reproductions of Wallis’s famous painting. To hold them, one in each hand, looking from one to another, is like glancing between two mirrors in which the same image is endlessly replicated—an apt emblem for the insoluble enigma of Chatterton’s death. The admirers who raised a monument to him in the churchyard of St. Mary’s Church in Bristol had less art and learning than these authors, but hit the right note for an epitaph:

He lived a mystery—died. Here, reader, pause:
Let God be judge, and mercy plead the cause.

This Issue

April 14, 1988