Thomas Chatterton


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Chatterton died at the age of seventeen due to arsenic poisoning; while his death has historically been considered a suicide, this has been strongly contested by recent scholarship (see ODNB below).

On the night of 24 August 1770, the seventeen-year-old Thomas Chatterton died from an accidental overdose of arsenic and opium (laudanum). He was declared non compos mentis and buried in Shoe Lane burying-ground: the ghastly public spectacle made of suicidal remains could be avoided by declaring the deceased insane. Ironically, he was buried under the wrong name, ‘William Chatterton Brook's Street 28’, on 28 August (Meyerstein, 443). He was given a pauper's burial; the bodies were subsequently disinterred from Shoe Lane, the ground levelled and developed, and his final resting place is unknown. Everyone assumed his death was suicide, but from Chatterton's ongoing successes (he had by the time he died published fifty-three pieces and secured a book contract), his finances (Hamilton, for instance, was adamant that ‘he did not die for want’; ibid., 439), and his irrepressibly lusty spirits (in the last letters to Cary and Catcott), the devastating conclusion is that he died simply from unwisely mixing his venereal medicine with his recreational drugs. His end was senseless and tragic, but despite the juggernaut of myth that began almost immediately to roll, obliterating history, this was no proto-Romantic suicide of a starving poet in a friendless garret, his genius cruelly unrecognized.

The archetypal nature of the myth of Chatterton's suicide is almost impossible to deny, and certainly impossible after over two centuries to disentangle from the circumstances of his life, but accidental poisoning remains the most plausible analysis of the scene. Stories abound: that Chatterton fell into a grave shortly before he died, that he ate oysters voraciously with Cross but proudly refused dinner with Mrs Angell, that he was refused a loaf on credit, and the coroner simply reported that he had ‘swallowed arsenick in water, on the 24th of August, 1770; and died, in consequence thereof, the next day’ (Meyerstein, 435). He had bought it from Cross to treat ‘the Foul Disease’, and it has since been forensically established (from a stain on his copybook; see Taylor, ‘Chatterton's suicide’) that he had access to laudanum—and Barrett said that the opium was picked out from between his teeth (Meyerstein, 441). The historical record has, however, been adulterated (for example by John Dix, who fabricated Chatterton's suicidal ‘Last Verses’ and a false inquest report; Meyerstein, 446–8), and profoundly embroidered by elegists, eulogists, poets, artists, and sculptors for more than two centuries. (ODNB)

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Dante Gabriel Rosetti read, influenced by, addressed writing to Thomas Chatterton

"Chatterton's genius and his death are commemorated by ... Dante Gabriel Rosetti in 'Five English Poets' " (Wikipedia)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge read, influenced by, addressed writing to Thomas Chatterton

Chatterton's genius and his death are commemorated by ... Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 'Monody on the Death of Chatterton' " (Wikipedia)

William Wordsworth read, influenced by, wrote about Thomas Chatterton

"Chatterton's genius and his death are commemorated by William Wordsworth in 'Resolution and Independence' " (Wikipedia)

Percy Shelley influenced by, wrote about Thomas Chatterton

"Chatterton's genius and his death are commemorated by Percy Bysshe Shelley in Adonais (though its main emphasis is the commemoration of Keats)" (Wikipedia)

Edward Rushton wrote about Thomas Chatterton

Rushton published a volume decrying the neglect of Thomas Chatterton