An Irishman's Diary

 

TODAY is the 256th birthday of Thomas Chatterton, the celebrated poet and forger, posthumously regarded as the father of English romantic literature, writes Frank McNally.

He didn't live to celebrate many of those birthdays, sadly, before his death by self-inflicted arsenic poisoning. But the genius that was not apparent to anyone while he lived earned him great fame afterwards. And the manner of his last days ensured that he is still the archetype for that most admired figure: the starving artist in the garret.

Unlike other hoaxers before or since, Chatterton did not merely imitate the work of someone famous and pass it off as the real thing. His best-known forgeries were presented as the transcribed writings of an unknown 15th-century priest, Thomas Rowley, whom he had invented. They were therefore entirely original, and bordered on greatness.

The problem was that, had he presented the work as his own, it would have been dismissed. He was too young, poor and ill-educated to be taken seriously. That said, as was noted after his death, he probably also lacked a fully functioning moral compass. His prodigious talent had developed much faster than any sense of ethics.

In common with many prodigies, Chatterton was at first considered an idiot. He was given to staring at nothing for long periods and bursting into tears for no reason. For a boy with a sensitive nature, he then had the misfortune to be sent to Colston's Hospital, a charity school in his native Bristol, which took a severe and functional view of education.

Chatterton's father, a musician, had died before the boy was born, on November 20th, 1752. The poet was raised by his mother, who took in sewing to help make ends meet. But the great formative influence on his life was St Mary Redcliffe, a beautiful old church in which his ancestors had been sextons for 200 years, a role now devolved to his uncle.

The young boy was entranced by the building, which was his retreat from real life. He was fascinated by the centuries-old tombs of knights, priests and dignitaries. And he lost himself in the parchment deeds, dating back to the 1400s and stored, forgotten, in the archive room.

The medieval world invaded the boy's imagination and inspired his first writings, when he was about 10. At 11, he was contributing to a local journal. By 12 he was showing poetry to a literary-leaning usher at Colston's and presenting it as something from the 15th century. His archival talents found another outlet in the vanity of a local pewterer called Burgam, to whom he furnished evidence of the Burgam family's ancient pedigree, going back to the Norman conquest. The pewterer paid him five shillings for the "research". And having developed another talent - for satirical verse - Chatterton later made him one of his targets.

When he finally escaped the clutches of Colston's, the now teenage poet was apprenticed to a local attorney, a life no less oppressive. The attorney disapproved of his literary activities and would search his desk for evidence of writing on the job, destroying anything he found. Despite this, Chatterton contributed to a number of journals.

Hoping to find a more congenial job, he sent some of Rowley's supposed work to Horace Walpole, the aristocratic politician and writer. Initially enthusiastic, Walpole became suspicious about the material and cut off their correspondence. In a verdict tinged with guilt, he would later acknowledge the young man's unparalleled talent.

Chatterton's misery in the law firm eventually inspired him to write a mock will, bequeathing aspects of his personality to different people (he left his "modesty" to Burgam) and implying he would shortly take his own life. His employer found the document - which was probably intended — and promptly released him from his debentures.

Free at last, Chatterton headed for London. There he spent his first earnings buying clothes for his mother and sister at home. And despite a reputation for drinking and womanising, he worked hard, often writing all night.

His mastery of many styles achieved high praise from editors. The praise was not, however, matched by money. He was soon going without food for days on end. And, concerned at his emaciation, his landlady - among others - offered free dinners. But pride would not let him accept.

Decades after his death, Chatterton's life inspired writings by Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Wordsworth and others. And in an elegiac prose tribute, the 19th-century Chambers' Book of Daysreflected on it thus: "Every man lives two lives - a relative life, to suit his friends, his circumstances, his baser nature; and an essential life, which is his real life. The inner soul and essential life of Chatterton brooded purely and intensely over visions of noble truth and exquisite beauty, which he felt that he could share with none; and these, to keep them pure, he clothed in antique form; his outer and relative life led him to scatter round him, carelessly and recklessly, the lighter products of his pen, such as expressed the baser and evanescent passion or weakness of the moment, and which seemed to him good enough for those for whom they were intended."

Despairing of literature, Chatterton finally turned to medicine, pursuing a position as assistant surgeon on an African trading ship. It came to nothing. And one August night, he retired to his garret in Holburn where, in a scene later immortalised by a Henry Wallis painting, his body was found sprawled among the shredded remains of his writings. He was still only 17.