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The Rowley poems by Thomas Chatterton

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THE ROWLEY POEMS

by

Thomas Chatterton

 

BIBLIOGRAPHIC NOTE

 

The text of this edition of The Rowley Poems is taken 

from a facsimile of the 3rd Tyrwhitt edition ( 1778), 

edited and with an introduction by Maurice Hare, 

published by the Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1911.

 

EDITOR'S INTRODUCTION.

 

I. CHATTERTON'S LIFE AND DEATH AND THE GENESIS OF THE 

ROWLEY POEMS.

 

THOMAS CHATTERTON was born in Bristol on the 20th of 

November 1752. His father -- also Thomas -- dead three 

months before his son's birth, had been a subchaunter 

in Bristol Cathedral and had held the mastership in a 

local free school. We are told that he was fond of 

reading and music; that he made a collection of Roman 

coins, and believed in magic (or so he said), studying 

the black art in the pages of Cornelius Agrippa. With 

all the self-acquired culture and learning that raised 

him above his class (his father and grandfathers before 

him for more than a hundred years had been sextons to 

the church of St. Mary Redcliffe) he is described as a 

dissipated, 'rather brutal fellow'. Lastly, he appears 

to have been 'very proud', self-confident, and self- 

reliant.

Of Chatterton's mother little need be said. Gentle and 

rather foolish, she was devoted to her two children 

Mary and, his sister's junior by two years, Thomas the 

Poet. Of these Mary seems to have inherited the 

colourless character of her mother; but Thomas must 

always have been remarkable. We have the fullest 

accounts of his childhood, and the details that might 

with another set down as chronicles of the nursery will 

be seen to have their importance in the case of this 

boy who set himself consciously to be famous when he 

was eight, wrote fine imaginative verse before he was 

thirteen, and killed himself aged seventeen and nine 

months.

Thomas, then, was a moody baby, a dull small boy who 

knew few of his letters at four; and was superannuated 

-- such was his impenetrability to learning -- at the 

age of five from the school of which his father had 

been master. He was moreover till the age of six and a 

half so frequently subject to long fits of abstraction 

and of apparently causeless crying that his mother and 

grand mother feared for his reason and thought him 'an 

absolute fool'. We are told also by his sister -- and 

there is no incongruity in the two accounts -- that he 

early displayed a taste for 'preheminence and would 

preside over his playmates as their master and they his 

hired servants'. At seven and a half he dissipated his 

mother's fear that she had borne a fool by rapidly 

learning to read in a great black-letter Bible; for 

characteristically 'he objected to read in a small 

book'. In a very short time from this he appears to 

have devoured eagerly the contents of every volume he 

could lay his hands on. He had a thirst for knowledge 

at large -- for any kind of information; and as the 

merest child read with a careless voracity books of 

heraldry, history, astronomy, theology, and such other 

subjects as would repel most children, and perhaps one 

may say, most men. At the age of eight we hear of him 

reading 'all day or as long as they would let him', 

confident that he was going to be famous, and promising 

his mother and sister 'a great deal of finery' for 

their care of him when the day of his fame arrived. 

Before he was nine he was nominated for Colston's 

Hospital, a local school where the Bluecoat dress was 

worn and at which the 'three Rs' were taught but very 

little else, so that the boy, disappointed of the hope 

of knowledge, complained he could work better at home. 

To this period we should probably assign the delightful 

story of Chatterton and a friendly potter who promised 

to give him an earthenware bowl with what inscription 

he pleased upon it -- such writing presumably intended 

to be 'Tommy his bowl' or 'Tommy Chatterton'. 'Paint 

me', said the small boy to the friendly potter, 'an 

Angel with Wings and a Trumpet to trumpet my Name over 

the World.'

At ten he was making progress in arithmetic, and it 

should be mentioned that he 'occupied himself with 

mechanical pursuits so that if anything was out of 

order in the house he was set to mend it'. At school he 

read during play hours and made few friends, but those 

were 'solid fellows', his sister tells us; while at 

home he had appropriated to himself a small attic where 

he would read, write and draw pictures -- a number of 

which are preserved in the British Museum -- of knights

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