Special Collections Department
FORGING A COLLECTION
Thomas Chatterton and the Rowley Forgeries
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Last modified: 12/21/10
More than two centuries after his death, the poet and forger Thomas Chatterton remains one of the most fascinating figures in English literature. Born in Bristol, in 1752, Chatterton demonstrated his literary genius at an early age. As a youth, he was a voracious reader and developed an early interest in antiquity; he was also writing poetry by the age of eleven. By the time he was fourteen, Chatterton had left school and was apprenticed to an attorney. He retained his interests in history and poetry, though, and soon embarked upon the path which would bring him notoriety.
Chatterton's access to a chest in his parish church which contained historical documents enabled him to obtain scraps of ancient parchment. It was on such scraps that he began producing manuscript poems which he claimed were the work of a fifteenth-century Bristol monk and poet, Thomas Rowley. Initially, Chatterton's audience was limited to local antiquaries who were thrilled to learn of the existence of this early Bristol poet. Soon, however, Chatterton became more ambitious. He sent samples of his work, including some of the Rowley poems, to Town and Country Magazine. In an effort to gain patronage from Horace Walpole, whose gothic novel The Castle of Otranto (1765) had claimed to be a translation of a lost manuscript, Chatterton sent Walpole samples of his Rowley poems. But after initially encouraging the young prodigy, Walpole subsequently changed his position and pronounced the Rowley poems forgeries, denouncing Chatterton in the process.
Although one of the Rowley poems was published in Town and Country Magazine in May, 1769--making it the only Rowley poetry published during Chatterton's lifetime--after his rebuke by Walpole, Chatterton turned his pen to political satire and other writing he could sell to periodicals, usually writing under pseudonyms. Chatterton achieved moderate success through his writing, and developed a reputation of some note in literary circles. Despite his achievements, however, Chatterton led the life of a pauper. He became severely depressed and experienced other health and financial problems which he could not overcome. In August 1770, Chatterton committed suicide by swallowing poison and was dead by the age of seventeen.
The first published collection of the Rowley poems appeared in 1777, seven years after Chatterton's death. It was greeted with both enthusiasm and skepticism. The poet Thomas Warton, in particular, questioned the authenticity of the Rowley poems and pronounced them forgeries in his History of English Poetry (1778). Chatterton had his supporters, however, and it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that the controversy over Chatterton ended and there was general acceptance that he was the true author of the Rowley poems and the fifteenth-century Bristol monk was merely his invention.
Throughout the controversy, Chatterton's harshest critics and strongest doubters nearly all held the opinion that he was a poet of great talent. He became an icon to the Romantic poets. Keats dedicated "Endymion" to Chatterton's memory and Wordsworth dubbed him "the marvelous boy." Fascination with Chatterton continues today and he has even been the subject of a novel, by Peter Ackroyd. Like James Macpherson's Ossian poems, Chatterton's Rowley poetry continues to be read and studied as Chatterton's own imaginative creation.
This collection is the first published edition of the Rowley poems.
Thomas Chatterton, 1752-1770.
Poems, Supposed to Have Been Written at Bristol, by Thomas Rowley, and others, in the fifteenth century. The third edition, to which is added an appendix .... London: Printed for T. Payne and Son ..., 1778.
In this third edition of the Rowley poems, the editor, Thomas Tyrwhitt, added an Appendix in which he analyzed the language of the poems to prove that the Rowley poems "were not written in the XV Century [and] they were written entirely by Thomas Chatterton."
Jacob Bryant, 1715-1804.
Observations upon the Poems of Thomas Rowley: in which the Authenticity of Those Poems Is Ascertained. London: Printed for T. Payne and Son ..., 1781.
A supporter of the authenticity of the Rowley poems weighs in with his arguments in these Observations.
Thomas Chatterton, 1752-1770.
Poems, Supposed to Have Been Written at Bristol, in the Fifteenth Century, by Thomas Rowley, priest, &c.; with a commentary, in which the antiquity of them is considered and defended, by Jeremiah Milles. London: Printed for T. Payne and Son ..., 1782.
Jeremiah Milles also believed the Rowley poems were authentic and issued this edition with his own argument regarding the legitimacy of the Rowley poems.
Sir Herbert Croft, 1751-1816.
Love and Madness: in a Series of Letters, One of which Contains the Original Account of Chatterton. A new edition, corrected. London: Printed for G. Kearsley ..., 1786.
Croft's account of Chatterton's tragic life, originally published in 1780, did much to garner sympathy for Chatterton and bring his poetry to the attention of a wider audience.
Peter Ackroyd, 1949-
Chatterton. London: Hamish Hamilton, .
This novel by one of England's best-known literary historians is a fictionalized treatment of Chatterton's life.