[Essay] The ‘everlastinge Posterytie’ of Thomas Chatterton: George Rawlins’s ‘Cheapside Afterlife’ — Josh Mcloughlin

In 1762, at the age of ten, a Bristol schoolboy named Thomas Chatterton (1752–1770) told his elder sister Mary: ‘my name will live three hundred years’.[1] Living in poverty and supported only by his mother Sarah’s meagre earnings as a seamstress—his father having died two months before his birth—the scope of young Thomas’s ambition was only matched by the enormity of his imagination.

In the end, Chatterton was vindicated. His name has indeed lived on – though his reputation has undergone many transformations since his untimely death in 1770 at the age of 17. In forging one of English literature’s shortest, most controversial and most outrageous careers Chatterton, as Peter Ackroyd says, ‘has survived a variety of literary incarnations ranging from Augustan fraudster to Romantic icon and post-modern avatar’.[2] Nick Groom notes that ‘Chatterton returned as a colossal and avenging genius who hung over the Romantics, Pre-Raphaelites, and later poets like a nightmare, and who inspired them like a divinity’.[3]

Chatterton’s greatest influence was upon the generation of Romantic poets that flourished in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s first published poem was ‘On the Death of Thomas Chatterton’ (1790) whilst Chatterton’s death was commemorated in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonais (1821). William Wordsworth bestowed the immortal moniker of ‘the marvellous Boy’ on a poet whose ‘extraordinary life and works were part of the very genesis of Romanticism’, going on to inspire William Blake, John Keats, and Lord Byron.[4]

George Rawlins’s Cheapside Afterlife: Poems (Longleaf Press, 2021) is a collection of 52 sonnets reimagining Chatterton’s life: the latest poetic tribute to Chatterton. Part epitaph, part elegy, part panegyric, Rawlins’s powerful and well-crafted sonnet sequence retells Chatterton’s story with the wit, lyricism and invention appropriate for an homage to English poetry’s most tragic figure. It begins by setting out its wares: ‘Cabinet of Wonders’ invokes an Enlightenment-themed ‘cover band’ and peddles its ‘objects of curiosity’ by asking impishly: ‘Why/not jitterbug the Age of Reason?’

In ‘A Jot of Blood’, we see images of ‘Redcliffe’s belfry’ (near Chatterton’s birthplace) as well as the father Chatterton never met, who ‘Clash[es] with heaven’ whilst his mother sews, huddled next to a fire. Rawlins’s Chatterton looms into view for the first time with ‘expectations to make my mark’, vowing ‘I am who cannot be’ and urging the reader to ‘disbelieve this/world, invent what’s not, to spice our humdrum tongue’. Rawlins’s collection takes up, as Chatterton did, a fascination with the relationship between reality and fiction—what Donald S. Taylor called Chatterton’s ‘experiments in imagined history’.[5]

After a difficult start to his education, Chatterton developed a precocious intellect and prodigious reading habit, frequently lending books from circulating libraries. His teacher at Colston’s School said he was ‘very fond of reading black letter print particularly old Poetry’ but Chatterton did not, according to William Henry Ireland (another famous forger) ‘confine himself to any particular head, but perused promiscuously works on religion, history, biography, poetry, heraldry—and, in short, the most abstruse treatises on every subject’.[6] James Thistlethwaite, in an account printed in J. Milles’s 1782 edition of Chatterton’s poems, remembered his friend’s eclectic reading:

One day he might be found busily employed in the study of Heraldry and English Antiquities […]. [T]he next, discovered him deeply engaged, confounded, and perplexed, amidst the subtleties of metaphysical disquisition, or lost and bewildered in the abstruse labyrinth of mathematical researches.[7]

Chatterton divulged to Thistlethwaite of his desire to become a poet, promising that if he failed he would instead pretend to a career as a ‘Methodist preacher’ since ‘Credulity is as potent a deity as ever, and a new sect may easily be devised’.[8] A local apothecary would later recall that ‘he loved talking about religion and to argue against Christianity’.[9] Accordingly, Rawlins imagines Chatterton pondering the great scientific works of his age.

In ‘Essay on knowledge’ we are urged to consider, ‘What lesson of reason could/be mastered without tasting arsenic of the apple/seed?’ and ‘With what calculus did Leibniz measure the variable/slope of suffering?’ Chatterton’s depression was well known. His boss, John Lambert, according to an early biographer, remarked on his ‘gloomy temper’.[10] According to his sister, Chatterton suffered frequent ‘melancholy fits’.[11] The grinding poverty of the family’s early days in Bristol is vividly evoked by Rawlins in images of ‘Hunger, that ingratiating parasite’ and ‘leper’s bread malformed on long/spare tables’. ‘At Colston Hospital School’ revisits Chatterton’s education: ‘Matins of the bum brushers teach/us to sleep, bind our scalps as if tonsured by/the firmament to unrelenting ignorance’, he says, before asking: ‘won’t we/schoolboys one day drift above bluebell/automatons[?]’

This is a formative moment in Chatterton’s career and Rawlins is right to emphasise it. For Nick Groom, Chatterton was ‘bewitched by the medieval’ at Colston School, where the boys ‘had worn Tudor bluecoats lined with orange and adorned with the brass badge of a dolphin, and had their heads tonsured in monastic fashion’. Yet his father’s legacy was also key. Thomas Chatterton senior was the former writing master of St Mary Redcliffe Pile Street School and an amateur antiquarian who collected medieval charters, muniments, and coins, and possessed a sizable library of over 150 books. After school, Chatterton secured an apprenticeship as a legal scrivener but, with little to do during his 12-hour shift, spent his time instead researching medieval England and exploring his father’s collections.[12]

 It was at this time, when Chatterton was still just 13 or 14, that he invented ‘Thomas Rowley’ a fifteenth-century Bristol monk, described by Chatterton later as ‘a Secular Priest of St. John’s, in this City. [H]is Merit as a Biographer, Historiographer is great, as a Poet still greater: some of his Pieces would do honour to [Alexander] Pope’.[13] Already, Chatterton was aiming high: no lower, in fact, than the ‘greatest literary author of his generation’ and ‘most important poet of the eighteenth century’.[14] Adopting the persona, Chatterton composed poems, plays, letters, and antiquarian treatises in Rowley’s name.

In ‘Southwark Broadside’, Rawlins muses that ‘Truth’s serrated—slick and fickle bedfellow of/fibs—companion to ash’. This masterful image recalls Chatterton’s murky imaginative ‘experiments’ in creating his Rowley fakes. John Rudhall, an apprentice apothecary in Bristol, helped (or witnessed) Chatterton ‘ageing’ forged manuscripts by staining them with yellow ochre, soot and ash and holding them over a candle or fire to char the vellum.[15] In Rawlins’s vision, we are made complicit in Chatterton’s forgeries: the reader is his ‘closest conspirator’, pulled along for the ride as we ‘follow the wandering screed’. As Groom says: ‘It was literary forgery, but forgery in the fullest sense of the word: these were crafted textual artefacts—original antique verse often transcribed in a crabbed and ancient calligraphy in aged ink on old vellum, frequently illuminated with naïve heraldic sketches and architectural cartoons’. It begs the question, Groom points out: ‘Were they really forgeries?’ or ‘Were they a new form of fiction?’[16]

Rawlins picks up this enigmatic thread as he wonderfully imagines the genesis of Chatterton’s Rowley in ‘For the Green Man’: ‘From this valley’s heartless plenty, invent a life that/should have been. Free him from his imaginary/Grave. Call him Rowley’. He then beautifully concocts an image of Chatterton inventing Rowley as if he were God creating Adam, with ingredients inspired by the Weird Sisters’ ‘hell-broth’ in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (c.1603)(4.1.19): ‘For his loblolly, a celestial-spiced clod; a sprig/of fur clipped from a back alley puss to warm his pointer.’[17]

Rawlins also vividly evokes the spaces of the young Chatterton’s world in South West England: ‘Like limestone priests the Bristol/cliffs shed their burdens beneath a deadpan heaven’. Cheapside Afterlife charts Rawlins’s own journey through Chatterton: he speaks to the departed poet sometimes as an encouraging friend, sometimes as an admonishing tutor. He occasionally betrays his exasperation with his mysterious charge: ‘I took back my college reading list’, he says, ‘hid/from Tom behind a crispy Tristram Shandy’. Yet he finishes with a loving tribute, ‘At Chatterton’s Café, Redcliffe Way’, where ‘your teenage/quill leans from a green glass inkwell on your/writing desk behind a velvet rope’.

Throughout, Rawlins staunchly defends Chatterton’s literary fakes: ‘Whose life is not most invention?’, he demands, asking pointedly: ‘Is this life bearable sans beauteous fakery?’ and scorning the ‘exactly-who-/they-are’ as ‘stumbling/dreamers of their own disinvention’. In Rawlins’s evocative poetry, self-fabrication and self-fashioning—by way of outrageous fictions and forgeries—become the keys to authenticity. He takes aim at Horace Walpole in a grotesque, Spitting Image-esque vision: ‘Is not Walpole, simmering his/chunky giblets in a viscous/prose, more blanched spirit than flesh?’ This recalls a key turning point in Chatterton’s career. He wrote to Walpole on 25 March 1769 with ‘The Ryse of Peyncteynge, yn Englande’, apparently written by Rowley in 1469. Walpole, a keen antiquarian, was initially taken in. But when Chatterton revealed his poverty and Walpole consulted friends who suspected forgery, the plan was rumbled. Yet Chatterton was not cowed: he went on to publish more than fifty works across literary, political and historical journals under an array of pseudonyms. Indeed, Rawlins’s collection is itself a hymn to Chatterton’s defiant response to Walpole’s rejection. ‘I think myself injured, sir’, he wrote in July 1769, ‘and, did not you know my circumstances, you would not dare to treat me thus’.[18]

Chatterton is alleged to have written a poem attacking Walpole (later persuaded from sending it by his sister Mary). ‘Walpole!’, it begins, ‘I thought not I should ever see/So mean a Heart as thine has proved to be.’ ‘Say, didst thou ne’er indulge in such Deceit?/Who wrote Otranto?’ These ‘Lines to Walpole’ were probably a forgery by Chatterton’s biographer John Dix but they certainly shed light on the poet’s clash with Walpole.[19]

The first edition of The Castle of Otranto (1764) was marketed as ‘A Story. Translated by William Marshal, Gent. From the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto’, supposedly a manuscript dating from 1529.[20] After its runaway success, Walpole claimed authorship, and the second edition duly bore his name along with the subtitle: A Gothic Story.[21]  The revelation led to Walpole being condemned as ‘false’ and ‘preposterous’ by the poet and clergyman John Langhorne on account of the deceit. The whole affair is curious when Walpole’s extensive antiquarian credentials are taken into account.[22] Perhaps, as Crystal L. Blake says, Walpole’s repudiation of Chatterton expressed his own disgust at ‘other antiquaries’ abuse of these textual artifacts on behalf of George III and his ministry’ and ‘the ways medieval manuscripts had come to function as the playthings of politicians—documents easily misinterpreted, forgotten, or forged’.[23] Perhaps Walpole was ashamed that Chatterton held a mirror up to his own literary forgeries.

Rawlins’s collection is itself a lyrical witness to Chatterton’s bombastic project. ‘Essay on Composition’ sees Rawlins prepare another recipe, this time roll-call of the ingredients of Chatterton’s fictions, from Geoffrey Chaucer to Philip Sidney. ‘Sniff the Wife of Bath’, he says, and:

Shake off some Samuel
Daniel melodrama with a ménage of feminine
endings, splash a double dactyl and brush
the embers off the faery into your Earl Grey with a chastened Astrophel
or Stella.

Rawlins lovingly traces and reimagines Chatterton’s youth: a picnic ‘out near Portishead’ and a trip to ‘Leigh/Woods where, like furrows of poppies, stigmata grew in the dank/hope above ambitious leaves’. These spaces are evoked with deft skill to render the topographical world of eighteenth-century Bristol and its bucolic surroundings, which recede from view as Chatterton’s ambition leads him to take ‘The Old Road to London’, not without a touch of melancholy, as Rawlins say: ‘as you leave Spike Island to its sublime/loneliness’. In ‘Indecision’, Rawlins fuses beautiful pastoral with a self-reflection on the wandering inherent in the process of writing poetry:

Along the turn where the Avon falters
back toward Brislington, and hand-smoothed

fieldstone agrees with its decisions,
I stalk a weakening current, a mirror

to wandering, tracing faint verse
into sediment just

below whitewater. In a cloudburst, a shepherd
braves a hailstorm with his flock

and collie, solid as a stand of oak. Lightning
probes a nearby hill, then searches

for a farmhouse as I turn
back from river’s edge, and take

refuge beneath a granite outcropping,
indistinguishable from my flock.

‘Quick Note to Mother’ registers Chatterton’s confidence that ‘poetry will buy exotic/spices and rare ointments equal to the beauty/of my lines.’ Indeed, the historical Chatterton enjoyed initial success with his creations. Chatterton’s first published fabrication appeared in 1768 in Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal: a ‘thirteenth-century’ narrative of a Bristol bridge opening attributed to ‘Dunhelmus Bristoliensis’. Chatterton ‘medievalized’ the writing by copying the orthographic conventions used in Thomas Ruddiman’s 1710 edition of Gavin Douglas’s Eneados (1513), a translation into Scots of Virgil’s Aeneid. Chatterton then deceived a local historian, William Barret, supplying him with forged manuscripts for his work-in-progress, The History and Antiquities of the City of Bristol (1789). At this time, Chatterton joined a ‘Spouting Club’, where young peers performed drama and poetry; it is here Chatterton grew into the eighteenth-century taste for satire and mock-epic.

Chatterton then began to invent more characters around Rowley, contacting national publishers and eminent writers in an attempt to pass off his creations to a wider audience. Encouraged by his success, Chatterton finally moved to London in April 1770, writing back to his mother from Shoreditch: ‘Here I am, safe, and in high spirits’.[24] He apparently began to earn serious money, enough to buy presents for his family. He wrote to his sister in May 1770: ‘I employ my money now in fitting myself fashionably […] and getting into good company’.[25] His nights were spent writing (he destroyed his early drafts in the morning) as he only drank water or tea and abstained from meat. He moved to Holborn, above a brothel (where his rent was raised because would not stop sleeping with the staff). In ‘Thomas Seeks a Patron, or Lunch’, Rawlins chides ‘Tom’, ‘To hell with Poesy […] ‘there’s no/money in’t —the famous/are famous for their cruelty’, warning ominously of ‘the smoke of ghosts rising above/your pen’. The whole collection, indeed any re-telling of Chatterton’s story, leads inexorably towards the night of 24 August 1770. Up in his cramped garret, Chatterton died from an overdose at 17 years of age.

It is popularly believed that Chatterton committed suicide due to his poverty and disappointment at being unable to sell his work. Indeed, this is the account Rawlins gives in the ‘Prologue’ to Cheapside Afterlife. Chatterton’s ‘gloomy’ disposition was well-known but he in fact published seven pieces in June 1770 and had secured a book contract. He was loving life in the capital and his literary prospects appeared encouraging. One London publisher, Archibald Hamilton, later said Chatterton ‘did not die for want’.[26]

The poem ‘Will’, which was written, according to Chatterton ‘bet[ween] 11 and 2 oClock Saturday in the utmost Distress of Mind’ on April 14 1770, is a red herring that has often been misunderstood as a suicide note (despite being composed four months before his death). In fact, the tone is highly satirical throughout: it sarcastically gives notice of ‘my Death which will happen tomorrow night before 8 oClock being the feast of the resurrection’ and ends claiming to have been ‘Executed in the presence of Omniscience’, a quip in keeping with Chatterton’s lifelong attention-seeking attacks on Christianity.

Chatterton may actually have been inspired by another mock will published by Samuel Derrick in Town and Country Magazine, itself a parody of the will of ‘Isaac Bickerstaff’ published in Tatler in April 1709.[27] The impulse behind the ‘Will’ could even be traced back to his satirical compositions for the Spouting Club, but are in any case in concert with Chatterton’s relentless urge to forge, invent and mythologise his literary personae. Moreover, several key poems pointing towards suicide, including ‘Suicide Note’ and ‘Chatterton’s Last Verses’, which contains the archetypal Romantic trope of ‘my anguish’d soul’, are now suspected to be forgeries (of which Chatterton would no doubt have approved).[28]

And so, for the vast majority of Chatterton scholars, ‘the assumption that he committed suicide’ was compellingly called into question’ in the early 1970s.[29] Nick Groom noted that ‘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’. Rather, ‘the devastating conclusion is that he died simply from unwisely mixing his venereal medicine with his recreational drugs’.[30] Several scientific studies analysing the liquid stains on Chatterton’s memorandum book have confirmed that the death was most likely the result of an opiate overdose. One such study, from 2020, concluded that ‘scientific evidence is overwhelming that the stain is the result of opiates, anything else is purely speculation, but the assertion that he committed suicide by arsenic poisoning should be in, the authors view, called into serious doubt’.[31]

Rawlins, like Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley and the other Romantics, indulges and trades in the ‘juggernaut of myth’ surrounding Chatterton’s death: that he died of a broken heart, unfulfilled poetic ambition, and a deep depression. But this is no fatal detriment to Cheapside Afterlife. If anything, it elevates Rawlins’s tribute to an exercise in ‘imagined history’: the most fitting testimonial to Chatterton’s fictions. Rawlins writes movingly of the ‘monstrous/will to disappear’ and beautifully renders the ‘twilit/garret overlooking roofs that/just form the birthplace of sadness’. The image of the rakish, whoremongering literary crook-turned-addict accidentally overdosing might lack the romance of the poet choosing death over obscurity. But Rawlins’s collection, steeped in Chatterton’s works and drawing on his tenacious powers of invention, is a highly rewarding ‘jitterbug’ through the poet’s incredible career.

In ‘Songe toe Ella’, a feigned Pindaric attributed to Rowley and composed in 1768, Chatterton says:

O Thou or what remaines of thee
Ella the Darlynge of Futuritie
Let this my Songe bolde as thy Courage bee
As everlastinge to Posterytie.[32]

Cheapside Afterlife is a testament to Chatterton’s outrageous ambition, a poetic memorial to Chatterton’s ‘everlastinge […] Posterytie’. This collection deserves to be read by anyone with an interest in Chatterton – or simply anyone who loves reading poetry crafted with true skill, humour, empathy, and learning.

*

Josh Mcloughlin is a writer from Merseyside. He is the editor-in-chief of New Critique, a Wolfson Scholar in the Humanities at University College London, and he was shortlisted for the Jane Martin Poetry Prize (2019) and the International Awards for Art Criticism (2020). He writes for The Times, The London Magazine, The Spectator, Engelbergs Ideas, The Fence, and others.

Notes


[1] E. H. W. Meyerstein, A Life of Thomas Chatterton (London, Ingpen and Grant, 1930), 62.

[2] Peter Ackroyd, ‘Preface’, Thomas Chatterton and Romantic Culture, ed. Nick Groom (London: Palgrave, 1999), 1–2, 1.

[3] Nick Groom, ‘Chatterton, Thomas (1752–1770)’, ODNB <https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/5189> [accessed 9 March 2022].

[4] William Wordsworth, ‘Resolution and Independence’ in, Poems in Two Volumes (London: 1807) quoted in Nick Groom, ed.  ‘Introduction’, Thomas Chatterton and Romantic Culture (London: Palgrave, 1999), 3–14, 4.

[5] Donald S. Taylor, Thomas Chatterton’s Art: Experiments in Imagined History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978); See also: Greg Clingham, ‘Chatterton, Ackroyd, and the Fiction of Eighteenth-Century Historiography, The Bucknell Review, 42:1 (1988), 35–58.

[6] William-Henry Ireland, The confessions of William-Henry Ireland (London: T. Goddard, 1805), 17–18.

[7] J. Milles, ed. Poems, supposed to have been written at Bristol in the fifteenth century, by Thomas Rowley, priest, &c. (London: 1782), 456.

[8] Milles, Poems, 459.

[9] Meyerstein, A Life of Thomas Chatterton, 441.

[10] G. Gregory, The life of Thomas Chatterton (London: 1789), 25.

[11] Meyerstein, A Life of Thomas Chatterton, 78.

[12] Nick Groom, ‘Chatterton, Thomas’, ODNB.

[13] Taylor, ed. Works, 1.259

[14] Joseph Hone, Alexander Pope in the Making (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 189, 1.

[15] Groom, ‘Introduction’, Chatterton and Romantic Culture, 4; Pat Rogers, ‘Chatterton and the Club’, Chatterton and Romantic Culture, 121–150, 131.

[16] Groom, ‘Introduction’, 19.

[17] Sandra Clark and Pamela Mason, eds. Macbeth (London: Arden, 2015).

[18] Thomas Chatterton, ‘To Horace Walpole, 24 July [1769]’, Works, 340.

[19] Chatterton [doubtful authorship], ‘Walpole! I thought not I should ever see’, Works, 1.341; See Nick Groom, ‘The Case Against Chatterton’s ‘Lines to Walpole’ and ‘Last Verses’, Notes & Queries, 50:3 (2003), 278–80.

[20] Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (London: 1764), frontispiece.

[21] Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto, A Gothic Story, (London, 1765), vi.

[22] W.S. Lewis, ‘Horace Walpole, Antiquary,’ in Essays Presented to Sir Lewis Namier, eds. Richard Pares and A. J. P. Taylor (London: Macmillan, 1956), 178–203.

[23] Crystal B. Lake, ‘Bloody Records: Manuscripts and Politics in The Castle of Otranto’, Modern Philology, 110:4 (2013), 489–512, 491.

[24] Taylor, ed. Works, 1.510.

[25] Taylor, ed. Works, 1.587.

[26] Meyerstein, A Life of Thomas Chatterton, 439.

[27] Chatterton, ‘Will’, Works, 501–50

[28] Groom, ‘The Case Against Chatterton’s ‘Lines to Walpole’ and ‘Last Verses’, 278–80

[29] Taylor, Thomas Chatterton’s Art, 4; Richard Holmes, ‘Thomas Chatterton: The Case Re-opened’, Cornhill Magazine,178 (1970), 244.

[30] Groom, ‘Chatterton, Thomas’, ODNB.

[31] Paul J. Gates and Michael L. Doble, ‘An LC-MS/MS analysis of opiate residues on Thomas Chatterton’s (1752–1770) memorandum book – Did he die from a laudanum overdose?’, Analyst, 145 (2020), 8104–8110, 8109. See also H. J. Walls, South-Western Forensics Science Service Report (1947), Bristol Central Library classification mark: B20965.

[32] Taylor, ed. Works, 1.61. See Margaret Russell and Joseph A. Dane, ‘“Everlastinge to Posterytie”: Chatterton’s Spirited Youth’, Modern Language Quarterly, 63:2 (2002), 141–165, 153.