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Thomas Chatterton: The Precursor of the Romantic Movement

Sublime, subjective, and emotional, the Romantic Movement was an answer to the Age of Englightenment. And the earliest tremors of British Romanticism can be found in the work of a mischievous and inventive young poet who lived only to age 17: Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770). His brief but incredibly bright career has inspired the work of the biggest names in the Romantic Era, including Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge


Chatterton was born in Bristol to a humble family. He began reading sooner than many children his age after he learned to read from an old musical folio. However, his capricious behavior caused him to be labeled as a poor student. Despite being considered a slow learner in his early childhood, Chatterton showed promise as a strong reader and poet early on. He wrote his first poem at just 10 years old, a piece called “On the Last Epiphany.” By 11, he was contributing to the local journal regularly. 


At 12, he was producing work with a maturity far beyond his years. In fact, he successfully passed off a pastoral poem he wrote, titled “Elinoure and Juga,” as a work of the 15th century.  He began writing under the persona of a 15th-century monk named Thomas Rowley. The body of work he created under this name was distinctly separate from his acknowledged writing and was widely believed to be authentic 15th-century writing until after Chatterton’s death. The young writer even managed to rope a few historians into the dupe, although one, Horace Walpole, sent him away after finding that Chatterton was only 16, asserting that he believed the manuscripts to be forged. 


Shortly after Walpole’s snub, Chatterton wrote “The Last Will and Testament of me, Thomas Chatterton of Bristol.” The work, at once earnest and satirical, portrayed a false intention to end his life the following evening. The piece frightened John Lambert, an attorney to whom Chatterton was apprenticed, into canceling his indentures. Rather than end his life, the newly freed Chatterton collected donations from friends and acquaintances to move to London. 


London proved to be a difficult time for Chatterton, both financially and mentally. Along with his own political, satirical, and poetic work, Chatterton wrote under the pen name Decimus and had a penchant for parodying other well-known writers of the time, including the anonymous political writer Junius, Scottish poet Tobias Smollet, satirist Charles Churchill, and even the likes of Alexander Pope and Thomas Gray. However, none of this work paid well. Chatterton was known to go many days without eating, although he would refuse dinners his neighbors offered to share. 


In August 1770, a potential literary patron found Chatterton dead in his attic apartment among shreds of paper. The young man had drunk arsenic after tearing his remaining work into shreds. The potential patron pieced together those shreds to find a modified ending to Aella, a tragic poem previously published under the name Rowley. This sparked great controversy, as the poems of Thomas Rowley were still widely considered to be genuine medieval works. 


Romantic poets like Shelley and Wordsworth, as well as centuries of poets who came after, have been enthusiasts of Chatterton’s work. His romantic style and anti-establishment views were fairly subversive at the time. His unusual life as well as his tragic and untimely death added a level of intrigue to his work. He was young, full of promise, and full of pain. At the dawn of the industrial revolution, Chatterton represented the fragile and divine experience of being human.