29 April 2016

Thomas Chatterton: Eighteenth-Century Forger

A comment by a dissertation committee member had me going through Charles Kingsley's Two Years Ago looking for bits where people talk about poetry. What I discovered was a conversation between the kindly old Doctor Thurnall, naturalist and physician, and the young John Briggs, would-be poet. Doctor Thurnall tells Briggs he's gotta love nature more to be a good poet:
"Throw away the safe station in which God has certainly put you, to seek, by some desperate venture, a new, and, as you fancy, a grander one for yourself? Look out of that window, lad; is there not poetry enough, beauty and glory enough, in that sky, those fields,—ay, in every fallen leaf,—to employ all your powers, considerable as I believe them to be? Why spurn the pure, quiet, country life, in which such men as Wordsworth have been content to live and grow old?"

The boy shook his head like an impatient horse. "Too slow—too slow for me, to wait and wait, as Wordsworth did, through long years of obscurity, misconception, ridicule. No. What I have, I must have at once; and, if it must be, die like Chatterton—if only, like Chatterton, I can have my little day of success, and make the world confess that another priest of the beautiful has arisen among men."
So this is useful to my purpose (as it suggests a good poet is a good scientist), but I was like-- who the heck is Chatterton? Because obviously I've heard of Wordsworth, but I've never heard of this fella, which maybe suggests Briggs is full of it. (He usually is. He later changes his name to Elsey Vavasour because he believes it's more a proper poet's name.) Thomas Chatterton turns out to be an eighteenth-century poet, born in 1752.

Chatterton's big thing was that he made up a fifteenth-century poet, and most of his poetry was ostensibly work by one Thomas Rowley that he had supposedly discovered in manuscript form. Amazingly, he was only sixteen years old at the time. Born into poverty, he tried to leverage his "discoveries" into acquiring a patron, to little success; he turned to political poetry, and didn't get very far there, either. He committed suicide in 1770 at the age of seventeen.

Henry Wallis, The Death of Chatterton (1856)

He did come to fame after that; in 1777, a book of the poetry of Thomas Rawley was published by a credulous editor. Word about the forgery spread, but it might not surprise you that the Romantic poets loved this guy. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley all mention him in their poetry or dedicate poems to him. I'm guessing from the tenor of the above passage, though, that Kingsley was not a fan.

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