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3:AM Cult Hero: Thomas Chatterton

“I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous Boy,
The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride.”

Before J.T. Leroy there was 18th century plagiarist poet Thomas Chatterton, subject of Peter Ackroyd‘s excellent 1987 novel and posterboy for Tate Britain’s current Romantics exhibition (pictured above). Quite fittingly, that isn’t him in Henry Wallis’ painting, instead it is George Meredith posing as the seventeen-year-old on his deathbed (arsenic poisoning).

Chatterton pulled off the literary swindle of his day: the Rowley Poems. Written in the faux medieval style of Chaucer and cribbing heavily from John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum, Chatterton passed them off as work by a fictitious 15th century monk, even going so far as to use contemporaneous paper. The forgeries were so convincing that Horace Walpole was (albeit briefly) taken in.

Penniless and eluded by success, Chatterton, according to Linda Kelly’s biography, took his own life. And so a Romantic legend was born. Though no collection of his poetry was published during his lifetime, his suicide inspired a play, an opera, was apostrophised by Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats, and was the subject of Oscar Wilde‘s last lecture. From Keats:

O Chatterton! how very sad thy fate!
Dear child of sorrow – son of misery!
How soon the film of death obscur’d that eye,
Whence Genius mildly flash’d, and high debate.
How soon that voice, majestic and elate,
Melted in dying numbers! Oh! how nigh
Was night to thy fair morning. Thou didst die
A half-blown flow’ret which cold blasts amate.
But this is past: thou art among the stars
Of highest Heaven: to the rolling spheres
Thou sweetly singest: naught thy hymning mars,
Above the ingrate world and human fears.
On earth the good man base detraction bars
From thy fair name, and waters it with tears.

Further: The Rowley Poems by Chatterton / ‘Forging a Collection,’ Thomas Chatterton & the Rowley forgeries / ‘One Life Was Not Enough,’ Denis Donoghue on Peter Ackroyd’s Chatterton: A Novel

First posted: Friday, January 7th, 2011.

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