Thomas Chatterton

On this date in 1752, poet Thomas Chatterton was born in Bristol, England. His father died 15 weeks after he was born. He was educated at a Dickensian charity school that taught only reading, writing, arithmetic and the cathechism. A precocious student, he was writing mature verse by age 11. Chatterton soon conceived the character of Thomas Rowley, an imaginary monk of the 15th century, and adopted the pseudonym. He sent these “Rowley poems” to Sir Horace Walpole, looking for a mentor. Walpole was initially impressed, then cut off Chatterton when he realized they were bogus.

He became unhappily indentured to an attorney, escaped the indenture and moved to London at age 17 to write. While he sold some of his works, he became a literal “starving artist.” Malnourished and despondent, he committed suicide at 17 years, 9 months by drinking arsenic in a glass of water.

He became somewhat of a literary hero after his death and was deemed the first Romantic poet in the English language by Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite poets. Keats and Coleridge each wrote a poem about him. (D. 1770)

PHOTO: “Chatterton’s Holiday Afternoon,” 1872 engraving by William Ridgway.

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