Thomas Chatterton

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Chatterton, Thomas,

1752–70, English poet. The posthumous son of a poor Bristol schoolmaster, he was already composing the "Rowley Poems" at the age of 12, claiming they were copies of 15th-century manuscripts at the Church of St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol. In 1769 he sent several of these poems to Horace Walpole, who was enthusiastic about them. When Walpole was advised that the poems were not genuine, he returned them and ended the correspondence. After this crushing defeat, Chatterton went to London in 1770, trying, with small success, to sell his poems to various magazines. On the point of starvation, too proud to borrow or beg, he poisoned himself and died at the age of 17. An original genius as well as an adept imitator, Chatterton used 15th-century vocabulary, but his rhythms and his approach to poetry were quite modern. The "Rowley Poems" were soon recognized as modern adaptations written in a 15th-century style, but the vigor and medieval beauty of such poems as "Mynstrelles Songe" and "Bristowe Tragedie" revealed Chatterton's poetic genius. This gifted, rebellious youth later became a hero to the romantic and Pre-Raphaelite poets, several of whom, notably Keats and Coleridge, wrote poems about him.


See his complete works, ed. by D. S. Taylor with B. B. Hoover (2 vol., 1971); biographies by E. H. W. Meyerstein (1930, repr. 1972), J. C. Nevill (1948, repr. 1973), and P. Ackroyd (1989); I. Haywood, The Making of History: A Study of the Literary Forgeries of James Macpherson and Thomas Chatterton in Relation to 18th Century Ideas of History and Fiction (1987).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Chatterton, Thomas


Born Nov. 20,1752, in Bristol; died Aug. 24,1770, in London. English poet.

Chatterton was the author of literary forgeries that expressed a reaction against the rationalism of Enlightenment literature and an interest in the age of chivalry characteristic of preromanticism. Writing in pseudomedieval English under the name Thomas Rowley (an imaginary 15th-century monk), Chatterton composed ballads (“An Excelente Balade of Charitie”), epic poems (“The Tournament,” “The Parliament of Sprites,” and “Battle of Hastings”), eclogues, satires, apocryphal biographies, and treatises (“The Ryse of Peyncteynge in Englande”). The poetic works are marked by a longing for tradition, mystery, and solemnity. Chatterton was also the author of dramas (the tragic interlude Ælla and the burlesque The Revenge, staged in 1770), poems, and other works in the comtemporary style, as well as political essays.

In April 1770, Chatterton moved to London, where extreme poverty and the discovery by Walpole of his forgeries drove the young poet to suicide. Almost all of Chatterton’s work was published posthumously. His tragic fate attracted the interest of many writers, including Wordsworth, Keats, Rossetti, and de Vigny.


The Complete Works, vols. 1–2. [London] 1971.
In Russian translation:
In N. V. Gerbel’, Angliiskie poety v biografiiakh i obraztsakh. St. Petersburg, 1875.
In Khrestomatiia po zapadnoevropeiskoi literature: Literatura XVIII v. Moscow, 1938.


Istoriia angliiskoi literatury, vol. 1, fasc. 2. Moscow-Leningrad, 1945.
Meyerstein, E. H. W. A Life of Thomas Chatterton. London, 1930.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.