Thomas Chatterton (1752‐70)
Poet and forger. Chatterton was born in Bristol, where he entered a charity school at age eight and soon began to exhibit precocious learning. By age twelve, he launched his elaborate forgery scheme of composing works he attributed to a fifteenth‐century priest, Thomas Rowley, and producing material evidence using scraps of old parchment. Ambitious to make a literary career, at age seventeen he threatened suicide in order to dissolve his apprenticeship as a legal scrivener to a Bristol attorney. Less successfully, he attempted to use his Rowley forgeries to capture the patronage of the antiquarian, Horace Walpole (1717‐97), but Walpole recognized the imposture. Chatterton set out for London, where he began to rise rapidly in reputation as a free‐lance writer, but his career was abruptly cut off by a poisoning, which Nick Groom attributes to misjudged mixing of recreational opium with arsenic treatment for venereal disease (Groom, “Chatterton, Thomas (1752‐70)”).
As a Romantic mythology developed around the figure of Chatterton, competing ideas of what he represented were available in the decades following his death, as David Fairer describes. In one idea, he was not a boy but a “manly” youth, and a fearless defender of political liberty. Alternatively, some emphasized his role as victim, spurned by the haughty Walpole and abandoned by society to die in a garret, a rare and neglected poetic spirit. In the idea of Chattertonʼs victimization, the satiric mode shades into the “lyric‐descriptive”, as Fairer puts it, with fragile flower imagery predominating, and with a tendency to present Chattertonʼs poetic voice as disembodied. Finally, a dramatic mode imagined the horrors and suffering of what was commonly believed to have been the youthʼs suicidal death (Fairer, “Chattertonʼs Poetic Afterlife, 1770–1794”, 232‐40).
Of these modes, it was the lyric‐descriptive, and the idea of Chatterton as victim, which John James Ruskin suggests when invoking the myth of the spurned poet in an 1834 letter to James Hogg (ca.1770–1835). While not naming Chatterton, John James draws on the mythology surrounding the boy poet when broaching the question of whether John Ruskin was truly a youthful genius and poet in the making; and if so, what he and Margaret Ruskin should do to protect and nurture the boyʼs talent: “we dread the sacrifice of our offspring by making him a victim to the pangs of despised verse, a sacrifice to a thankless world, who read, admire, and trample on the greatest and the best” (Garden, ed., Memorials of James Hogg, 275).
The extent to which Chatterton was present in the Ruskinsʼ imagination is difficult to judge. While the “marvellous boy,” in Wordsworthʼs phrase, had become inextricably bound to the Romanticsʼ idea of literary precocity, suicide was a particularly unwelcome topic in the Ruskin family, owing to the death of John Jamesʼs father, John Thomas Ruskin (1761‐1817), by his own hand, a suicide that occurred when Margaret was on the premises. It is possible that Ruskin originally composed his elegiac poem, “ʼTwas night. I stood by Tweedʼs fair stream”, in 1831 in reference to Chatterton, but altered details to refer instead to Walter Scott (1771–1832), when the Scottish poet died a short time later. In the draft of the poem, Ruskin named the Avon River, which flows through Bristol, but then he changed the riverʼs name to the Tweed.
Years later, in his Academy Notes for 1856, Ruskin admired the painting of the poetʼs suicide by Henry Wallis (1830ʼ1916), but wrote about it in very general terms, exhorting viewers to “examine it well inch by inch,” for the sake of its “entire placing before your eyes of an actual fact—and that a solemn one” (Ruskin, Works, 14: 60). Just as this picture would soon become associated with the scandal that developed between its painter and the wife of its model, George Meredith (1828‐1909), another aspect of the Chatterton myth perhaps became disturbingly pertinent to Ruskin—the poetʼs androgynous and permanent boyishness, asexual and unwed (contrary to the historical Chattertonʼs promiscuity). As Julie Crane concludes, “for the Victorians, whose plots used marriage as a device, [yet] for whom in their lives . . . [marriage] was often a disaster, . . . the pre‐Romantic Chatterton became a Romantic figure of disturbing possibilities: both endlessly fecund and self‐dividing into different ways and suggestivenss; and a silenced being, unwed, austere” (Crane, “‘Wandering between Two Worlds’ The Victorian Afterlife of Thomas Chatterton”, 37).