Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770)



'Death of Chatterton' by Henry Wallis.
First exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1856 where it caused a sensation.

The clock strikes eight; the taper dully shines;
Farewell my Muse, nor think of further lines;
Nine leaves, and in two hours, or something odd,
Shut up the book; it is enough by God !
                                       [Conversations, 47-50]

Thomas Chatterton was born in Bristol on 20 November 1752. His father had died shortly before his birth, and his mother, who was 21 years old at the time, lived by keeping a 'dame-school' and by taking in sewing.

In his early years Chatterton was sullen and brooding. He would learn nothing, refused to play with other boys, and was  expelled from his first school as little more than an idiot. Then, during his seventh year, he underwent a considerable transformation. According to the story, his mother was tearing up for waste paper some old music folios, when Chatterton, to quote his mother, 'fell in love' with the illuminated capitals. Encouraged by his aroused interest, with the aid of the manuscript she taught him to read, and he soon progressed to the Bible, and thence to any books he could obtain. He would spend hours in the attic, reading and drawing, and became intensely proud, so much so that he would hide from his mother so as to avoid having to run errands. 

In August 1760 he was enrolled in Colston's Hospital, a charity-school founded in 1708 by Edward Colston, a bachelor businessman whose motto in life was 'Every helpless Widow is my wife, and distressed orphans my children'. He left his inheritors a school which was run like a prison with any suspicions of religious non-conformity among the children punished by expulsion. It was probably the worst possible environment for Chatterton, and he became more sullen and delinquent. His pride, too, increased. One day he came home from school and announced to his mother that henceforth he would no longer eat meat. A little later he announced he would eat nothing but bread and drink nothing but water. 

At the age of ten Chatterton began to write poetry. He began with the kind of religious verses that would have been acceptable to his school. Then he developed a satirical vein, evident in the poem Apostate Will, written when he was eleven. (See Appendices)

At about the same time Chatterton befriended a teacher at the school by the name of Thomas Phillips, and one day presented him with a 'medieval' poem, written on parchment in barely legible caligraphy, which he claimed to have 'found'. Philips apparently accepted the manuscript as genuine, though lost interest when his attempts to decipher it were unsuccessful. It was Chatterton's first step into literary forgery and his sole motive appears to have been the pleasure at fooling his dull friend.

In 1767, when he approaching fifteen, Chatterton left school and was apprenticed to John Lambert, an attorney. The drudge of copying legal documents made him sulky and sardonic, and he found escape in writing poetry and chasing girls with the other apprentices. He also enjoyed fooling the culturally obtuse clients of his employer, among them Henry Burgum, a partner in the firm of 'Burgum and Catcott, Pewterers and Worm-makers [Screw-makers]', who he tricked into believing that he had discovered a pedigree showing the noble descent of the Burgum family. He produced artificially 'aged' documents, and Burgum was duly duped, until he sent the pedigree for authentication to the Royal College of Heralds, when the hoax was uncovered.

Chatterton was now proving to be a wholly unsatisfactory apprentice. He whiled away his time in drawing and writing, and on one occasion Lambert returned home late to find him attempting to raise spirits with a book of magical incantations. At the same time another apprentice, with whom Chatterton shared a room, was disconcerted with his habit of sleeping only four hours a night. Unconcerned, Chatterton continued his forging. In 1768 his target was a local magistrate, to whom he presented another 'medieval' document, this one relating to local history. Then he began selling 'medieval' poems to George Catcott, his employer's partner, that he claimed to have 'found' amongst old papers in the Church of St. Mary Redcliff. And to a local surgeon and amateur historian, William Barrett, who was writing a History of Bristol, he supplied 'documents' with exciting 'evidence' about the history of the city. Barrett accepted the documents, though he may also have recognized them as a hoax, but chose to turn a blind eye for the sake of his book.

Desperate to get free of his apprentiship, Chatterton decided he needed a patron for his literary ambitions, and in his naivety chose Horace Walpole as the one. Walpole had recently published a volume of art history, Anecdotes of Painting, so Chatterton sent him a 'transcript' of work on The Ryse of Peyncteynge yn Englande [The Rise of Painting in England], which he attributed to a fictitious fifteenth century Bristol priest by the name of Sir Thomas Rowley. Walpole also was duped and wrote enthusiastically to Chatterton, who sent more poems, and expressed his desire to devote his life to literature, but that he lacked the means to do so. But Walpole became suspicious, some bad-tempered correspondence was exchanged, until finally Walpole returned the manuscripts to Chatterton. Chatterton's response was to write one of his most ill-tempered and bitter poems, To Horace Walpole. 
(See Appendices)

In the meantime, poems which Chatterton acknowledged as his own were having success, with some being published in Town and Country Magazine in London. So in 1769 he decided it was time to ditch the attorney's office and head for the capital to pursue the life of a professional writer. But there was the problem of his indentures which tied him to his employer. He became desperate and openly talked of suicide. After one such suicide threat he was given a lecture on the sin of self-destruction. But Chatterton was unperturbed, and on 14 April 1770, 'between 11 and 2 o'clock Saturday, in the utmost distress of mind', wrote his Last Will and Testament. (See Appendices) The threat in the Will that he would be dead 'tomorrow night before eight o'clock', was too serious to ignore, and his indentures were cancelled. Free at last, Chatterton set out for London at the end of April.

In London Chatterton lodged with relatives in Shoreditch, and began visiting the offices of magazines and had several of his satirical verses and prose pieces accepted for publication. With the small amounts of money he made, he sent presents as his mother and sister back home in Bristol, as a display of his prosperity. He persuaded the Lord Mayor of London to be his patron for a libretto he would write, and when the mayor unhelpfully died before the work was commissioned, he wrote and sold a eulogy on the mayor, and contented himself with at least getting something out of the old man's demise. 

But things were not as well as they seemed. Payments from the magazines were small and slow in being made. He remained as proud as ever, and disliked being called 'Cousin Tommy' by his relatives in Shoreditch, considering that it was no fitting name for a poet. In June he moved to new lodgings in Brook Street. He was half-starved, and too proud to return to Bristol a failure. So on 24 August 1770, after refusing the offer of an evening meal from his compassionate landlady, he locked himself in his room, where he poisoned himself by drinking arsenic in water. The next morning he was found dead on his bed.

The records of the inquest have not survived, but as a suicide victim he would have been buried in an unmarked grave, the location of which is now impossible to ascertain. 


APPENDICES


Apostate Will

In days of old, when Wesley's power
Gather'd new strength by ev'ry hour;
Apostate Will, jusg sunk in trade,
Resolv'd his bargain should be made;
Then straight to Wesley he repairs,
And puts on grave and solemn airs,
Then thus the pious man addressed:
"Good sir, I think your doctrine best;
Your servant will a Wesley be,
Therefore the principles teach me."
The preacher then instructions gave,
How he in this world should behave:
He hears, assents, and gives a nod,
Says ev'ry word's the word of God,
Then lifting his dissembling eyes,
"How blessed is he sect!" he cries;
"Nor Bingham, Young, nor Stillingfleet (1)
Shall make me from this sect retreat."
He then his circumstance declar'd,
How hardly with him matters far'd,
Begg'd him next morning for to make
A small collection for his sake.
The preacher said "Do not repine,
The whole collection shall be thine."
With looks demure and cringing bows,
About his business straight he goes.
His outward acts her grave and prim,
The Methodist appear'd in him.
But, be his outward what it will,
His heart was an apostate's still.
He'd oft profess an hallow'd frame,
And everywhere preach'd Wesley's name;
He was a preacher, and what not,
As long as money could be got;
He'd oft profess, with holy fire,
"The labourer's worthy of his hire."
   It happened once upon a time,
When all his works were in their prime,
A noble place appear'd in view;
Then - to the Methodist's, adieu!
A Methodiest no more he'll be,
The Protestants serve best for he.
Then to the curate straight he ran,
And thus address'd the rev'rend man:
"I was a Methodist, 'tis true,
With penitence I turn to you.
O that it were your bounteous will
That I the vacant place might fill!
With just I'd myself acquit,
Do ev'ry thing that's right and fit."
The curate straightway gave consent -
To take the place he quickly went.
Accordingly he took the place,
And keeps it with dissembling grace.

(1) Ecclesiastical historians and partisans of the Church of England.



To Horace Walpole

Walpole, I thought not I should ever see
So mean a heart as thine has prov'd to be.
Thou who, in luxury nurst, beholdst with scorn
The boy, who friendless, penniless, forlorn,
Asks thy high favour - thou mayst call me cheat.
Say, didst thou never practice such deceit?
Who wrote Otranto?(1) but I will not chide:
Scorn I'll repay with scorn, and pride with pride.
Still, Walpole, still they prosy chapters write,
And twaddling letters to some fair indite.......

Had I the gifts of wealth and luxury shar'd,
Not poor and mean, Walpole! thou hadst not dar'd
Thus to insult. But I shall live and stand
By Rowley's side, when thou art dead and damn'd.

Intended to have sent the above to Mr. Walpole but my Sister perswaded me out of it. T.C.

(1) Gothic novel written by Walpole which he claimed to be a translation of an old Italian manuscript. 



Extracts of Chatterton's Will

This is the last Will and Testament of me, Thomas Chatterton, of the city of Bristol; being sound in body, or it is the fault of my last surgeon; the soundness of my mind, the coroner and jury are to be the judges of, desiring them to take notice,, that the most perfect masters of human nature in Bristol distinguish me by the title of Mad Genius; therefore, if I do a mad action, it is conformable to every action of my life, which all savoured of insanity.
............................
Item. I give all my vigour and fire of youth to Mr. George Catcott, being sensible he is most in want of it.
Item. From the same charitable motive, I give and bequeath unto the Reverend Mr. Camplin, senior, all my humility. To Mr. Burgum all my prosody and grammar, - likewise one moiety of my modesty; the other to any young lady who can prove without blushing that she wants that valuable commodity. To Bristol, all my spirit and disinterestedness; parcels of goods unknown on her quays since the days of Canning and Rowley! 'Tis true, a charitable gentleman, one Mr Colston, smuggled a considerable quantity of it, but it being proved that he was a papist, the Worshipful Society of Aldermen endeavoured to throttle him with the Oath of Allegiance. I leave also my religion to Dr. Cutts Barton, Dean of Bristol, hereby empowering the sub-sacrist to strike him on the head when he goes to sleep in church. 
...............................
I leave the Reverend Mr. Catcott some little of my free-thinking, that he may put on spectacles of Reason, and see how vilely he is duped in believing the Scriptures literally. 
................................
Item. I give and bequeath to Mr. Matthew Mease a mourning ring with the motto, 'Alas, poor Chatterton!' provided he pays for it himself. Item. I leave the young ladies all the items they have had from me, assuring them that they be under no apprehensions from the appearance of my ghost, for I die for none of them.
.................................
Item. I leave my mother and sister to the protection of my friends, if I have any.

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