Thomas Chatterton

On this date in 1752, poet Thomas Chatterton was born in Bristol, England. He had a difficult childhood exacerbated by initial assumptions that he was retarded, and by harsh experiences at a dickensian school. He began penning verses, mostly religious, at age 10, which soon turned satiric. Chatterton became a literary forger, pretending that a series of verses, employing a 15th century vocabulary but using modern rhythm, had been written by a fictitious Bristol priest named Sir Thomas Rowley. He sent these "Rowley Poems" to Sir Horace Walpole, looking for a mentor. Walpole was initially impressed with them, then cut off Chatterton when he realized they were bogus. It is speculated that Chatterton became a literary forger in part because the few times he admitted authorship, it was doubted. Perhaps the anti-social tendencies of an unrecognized genius were also at play. He became unhappily indentured to an attorney, got out of his indentures, and moved to London at age 17. While he sold some verses, he became a literal "starving artist." Malnourished and despondent, he committed suicide at 17 by drinking arsenic with a glass of water. After his death, he became a hero to other poets. Chatterton was pronounced the first Romantic poet in the English language, and was eulogized by Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite poets. Keats and Coleridge each wrote a poem about Chatterton. D. 1770.

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“I am no Christian.”

—Thomas Chatterton, published letter to his family. Cited in A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Rationalists by Joseph McCabe (1920).

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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