“The Marvellous Boy”
Born at Pile Street School, Bristol, on 20 November 1752, poet and forger Thomas Chatterton’s life was all too brief. Despite his later literary precocity, Chatterton was not a quick learner at school but he was not short of self-confidence, telling one friend, “My name will live 300 years.” He began to write poetry, Apostate Will, Sly Dick and A Hymn for Christmas Day being among his earliest efforts.
One day he found a box of manuscripts that had belonged to his father and spent a great deal of time poring over the ancient screeds. He began telling people that among the treasures were the works of a monk, Thomas Rowley (c.1400-1470), a priest, poet, antiquarian, connoisseur, and the literary agent, biographer, and confidant of William Canynge, five-times mayor of Bristol. In 1764 Chatterton began to produce examples of ‘Rowleyana’ earning himself the sobriquet “the Marvellous Boy”. According to Chatterton, “T. Rowleie was a Secular Priest of St John’s, in this City. His Merit as a Biographer, Historiographer is great, as a Poet still greater: some of his Pieces would do honour to Pope.” Chatterton, encouraged by the response, wrote to Horace Walpole on 25 March 1769 enclosing some of his poetry and Walpole was impressed but when Chatterton sent more denounced it as a forgery. Chatterton was furious but continued to write more ‘Rowleyana’ plus political letters, heroic satires and prose narratives.
By 1770 he had earned enough money to move to London to work as a writer. Chatterton left for the capital on 24 April 1770 but he had left his Rowleyan notebook in Bristol and couldn’t write any more until it arrived in July. In June, the month he had seven pieces published, he moved into the garret of a Mrs Angell at 39 Brooke Street, Holborn. She ran a brothel and Chatterton slept with her and her prostitutes and caught a social disease.
On the night of 24 August 1770 Chatterton died from an accidental overdose of arsenic and laudanum. Although for many years it is thought that the 17-year-old committed suicide, recent research shows that is more likely that his death was an accident caused by mixing the drugs he took socially and those to get rid of his venereal disease. The Rowley poems were published in 1777 with a new edition the following year admitting the poems were Chatterton’s. Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite poets added to the myth of Chatterton, a boy genius who died before he was a man.