Saturday, 26 May 2018

Thomas Chatterton selected poems


Thomas Chatterton – suicide visionary. Bristol boy poet. Petulant anti-hero. Dark angel. The marvellous boy, according to Wordsworth. The poet's poet.
“Hey, Chatterton! What are you rebelling against?”
“What've you got?”
Thomas Chatterton, the poet whose death as immortalised in Henry Wallis's painting is better known than any of his actual poems. The poet whose statue stands (or rather, sits) at Bristol Harbourside, though his works remain unread and unknown by most who pass by it. Thomas Chatterton, one of Bristol's most famous sons though few know very little about apart from him being a suicide.

'What is war and all its joys? Useless mischief, empty noise.
What are arms and trophies won? Spangles glittering in the sun.
Rosy Bacchus, give me wine. Happiness is only thine.'
From Chatterton's poem A Bacchanalian, written in 1769 when he was just 16 years of age. Make of these lines what you will but if nothing else they tell us a little something about Chatterton that pulls him away from the grip of academia.
And so too the following lines from his poem The Defence:
'If in myself I think my notion just, The Church and all her arguments are dust.
Religion's but Opinion's bastard son, a perfect mystery, more than three in one.
Happy the man whose reason bids him see, Mankind are by the state of nature free.
Who, thinking for himself despises those, that would upon his better sense impose.'

Chatterton was a nonconformist. A dissenter, a freethinker, a free spirit, a misfit, and an outsider. Chatterton was a rebel. Born into poverty in 1752, at the age of 8 he was put into one of Edward Colston's charity schools where by all accounts the pupils were treated no better than criminals in a prison. At the age of 10 he began to write poetry. At age 15 he left the school and was apprenticed to a local attorney where he was tasked to copying legal documents.
Chatterton had hated the oppression of the school and the teachers there and likewise he hated the oppression of his workplace. No wonder then that according to his biographers he felt something of a grudge towards society and in particular towards figures of authority.

His only solace was in reading and writing though being so young of age and from an ill-educated background, nothing he ever wrote was going to be taken seriously though it was plain to see he was in fact in possession of a rare intelligence. Even perhaps, a rare genius? No wonder then that he took to forgery, passing his writing off as being written by a fictitious priest of the fifteenth century called Sir Thomas Rowley.
And this, subsequently, is what Chatterton became known for: as being the master faker. The forger supreme of poems.

At age 17, Chatterton set off for London to earn his living as a writer. Six months later he was dead by his own hand, poisoned by arsenic. His body found sprawled out on his bed in his attic room in Holborn, torn up fragments of manuscripts strewn across the floor.

Nowadays there are two schools of thought regarding Chatterton's death, both of which actually have very little foundation. Indeed, because the records of the inquest have long been lost there is very little evidence of anything. Even his unmarked grave has been lost to time.
One of the schools of thought says that Chatterton took his life due to him not making any headway in London as a writer and him not wanting to return to Bristol as a failure. It was pride that did for him. The other school of thought says that Chatterton's death was in actual fact an accident, brought about by him self-subscribing arsenic to himself to help cure a dose of gonorrhoea.
To these, however, I would add a third thought: Chatterton's suicide was intentional but committed as a final and ultimate act of defiance against all that he'd been born into.

Chatterton would have known full well that suicide was viewed by the Church, by his teachers at his school and by his employers, elders and betters of Bristol as an act of wickedness. As blasphemy. As a sin. An ultimate sin, even. All his life he had been mistreated by authority, offering him nothing but drudgery, hypocrisy and disrespect. Through his forgeries he had shown them all to be fools and no better than him in any way; the difference being that they were wealthy and he was penniless. Through his poems he had lambasted the morals and beliefs of the day, as well as individuals such as Horace Walpole whom Chatterton had once approached for patronage but who had refused him in no uncertain terms.
What better way to cock a snook at the world than by removing himself from it? What better way to express how little he cared for the values of the world by refusing to take part in them? Self-destruction – suicide – was the ultimate, big fuck off to the world, to everyone in it and to everything held dear by everyone in it.
“Hey, Chatterton! What are you rebelling against?”
“What've you got?”
Thomas Chatterton – suicide visionary. The marvellous boy...

John Serpico

No comments:

Post a Comment