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Thomas Chatterton (Bristol, November 20, 1752 – London, August 24, 1770) was a poet of English pre-Romanticism.
Thomas Chatterton child.
Chatterton was born in Bristol, where his family had for almost two centuries the sacristy of Saint Mary Redcliffe, a parish church in England. His father, whose name he took, was Thomas Chatterton, a man with unusual cultural hobbies in his social class, lover of music, poet, numismatist and occultist, as well as a sochantre in Bristol Cathedral and a teacher in the Free school of Pyle Street, near the church of Redcliffe. But his son was born an orphan: the father had died three months ago, and the family was left in misery, so he was raised by his uncle the sacristan Richard Phillips. He was kicked out of school at the age of five, making him completely useless and learned to read after seven. He was soon fascinated by the illuminated manuscripts he found in the old church chests and acquired a curiosity and a boundless passion for the Middle Ages. He died ten years later, after having made a portentous literary forgery that deceived various scholars and transformed him into a legendary figure of Romanticism. Modern studies have concluded that he was a gifted child, whose IQ reached at least 170 points.
Proud and of strong character and determination, after learning to read he gave himself to reading feverishly and, according to his sister’s story, at eight o’clock he read all day, whether it was about heraldry, astronomy, medicine, music, etc. But his voracity was not aimed at knowledge, but fame, in order to get his family out of misery. He read old fifteenth-century scrolls that had been sold by a church to make sewing molds and assimilated their language. At the age of eleven he composed the eclogue Eleonure y Juga. He alleged – and they believed – that it was an old 15th century manuscript. Its author, Thomas said, was the medieval monk Thomas Rowley, who, naturally, did not exist. He was one of the first heteronyms of history and, according to a psychoanalytic interpretation, he created the father he never had and both missed, with the idea of getting his mother and sisters out of misery. He continued with his medieval fakes, and for example made for a count a family genealogy that went “from the Norman Conquest to the present day”, with all kinds of references and notes to authorities and non-existent books and the reproduction of the alleged coat of arms of the family; won for it 5 shillings. Days later he extended the genealogy and earned another five shillings.
By then Chatterton was already working as a lawyer’s clerk (according to some scholars, he would have inspired Herman Melville for his Bartleby.) Rowley was joined by other fantastic figures, but all with some handle on the official story. Chatterton – declared admirer and imitator of the falsician James Macpherson – made them compose poems, ballads, genealogies, biographies and autobiographies, journalistic and theatrical pieces, satires. He made them know each other, write letters, edit, annotate, translate. Like Walter Scott a few years later in his historical novels, he was not afraid to mix real events and characters in his fables. He created a parallel world. He aged his spelling and his paper by smearing it with ocher and rubbing it against the brick floor, and composed a Rowley-English / English-Rowley dictionary based on various dictionaries and ancient works.
Professor Skeat, first to definitively demonstrate the spurious nature of the writings, noted that almost all the Anglo-Saxon words used by Rowley begin with the letter A, from which he deduces that Chatterton would have used only the volume of that letter of a letter. medieval English dictionary. In 1769, when he thought he was ready, Chatterton wrote a letter to Horace Walpole, celebrated author of The Castle of Otranto, sending him a letter dated in 1469. Walpole celebrated the find and asked where he got it from. Walpole – already deceived by James Macpherson before – disregarded the matter. Chatterton wrote a sonnet accusing him of a forgery, later threatened to commit suicide (in his will he indicated that he wanted to be buried in a medieval tomb).
The death of Chatterton (1856) of Henry Wallis. Tate, London.