In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Thomas Chatterton

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Editions
  • Biographies

British and Irish Literature Thomas Chatterton
Daniel Cook
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0105


Dead at the age of seventeen, the poet and artist Thomas Chatterton (b. 1752–d. 1770) found plenty of admirers within barely a decade of his demise. In the periodical press the leading scholars of the age eagerly debated the merits of his works, principally his audacious body of pseudo-medieval papers: the so-called Rowley poems. Written in a thick Rowleyese idiom garnered from a stringent though impressionistic study of 18th-century glossaries of medieval literature and etymological dictionaries, such works as Ælla, Bristowe Tragedie and “An Excelente Balade of Charitie” intrigued critics and scholars alike. Since at least 1777, when the preeminent Chaucer scholar of the age, Thomas Tyrwhitt, collected a representative selection of the Rowley poems, readers have had ready access to a reasonable portion of Chatterton’s oeuvre. Indeed, in 1778, a substantial sample of his modern works—radical satires, sentimental spoofs, love poems, mock-antiquarian treatises, and the like—hit the bookstores. As commentators duly observed, the youngster had an impressive, even unprecedented, range as an author. Nevertheless, critics, biographers, and fellow artists have always expressed a tandem interest in his extraordinary life story, perhaps overwhelmingly so. Doubtless his reputation as one of the leading early Romantic poets has been undermined, paradoxically, by the lavish praise heaped on him across the reading nation over many decades. In the early years of the 19th century, Wordsworth famously dubbed him the “marvellous Boy/the sleepless Soul that perished in his pride.” For Keats and Shelley he epitomized the misunderstood genius unappreciated in his own lifetime. Coleridge found in him, and was haunted by, a “kindred doom.” Robert Southey, the poet laureate, painstakingly prepared with Joseph Cottle, publisher of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s seminal Lyrical Ballads (1798), a handsome three-volume edition of the boy-poet’s works. Later Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Robert Browning, and Oscar Wilde singled him out as the founding father of English Romanticism. Even now plays, poems, and portraits ring out praise for the neglected genius. Strictly speaking, though, Chatterton has never truly been neglected. Even in his own lifetime he enjoyed moderate success as a political writer in London. He even claimed to be working on what must have been a well-paid commission: a complete history of England. As this bibliography in part demonstrates, there is a large body of scholarship devoted to Chatterton in a range of areas, from antiquarianism to textual scholarship, sentimentalism to psychoanalytical criticism. Moreover, scores of biographies have appeared since 1780, barely a decade after his death. Multiple editions of his works, too, have been readily available since the publication of Tyrwhitt’s 1777 collection and the 1778 selection of modern pieces, the Miscellanies in Prose and Verse (Chatterton 1972, cited under Editions).

General Overviews

Since 1970, the 200th anniversary of Chatterton’s death, a steady stream of critical and biographical studies of the Marvellous Boy has appeared. A good place to begin is Kelly 1971, as it provides an economical yet lively introduction to the life, works, and reception of Chatterton. For a more focused and scholarly approach, the essay collection Groom 1999 comprehensively maps out various ways in which Chatterton ought to be reassessed both as a formative influence on the major Romantic poets and a distinctive 18th-century writer in his own right. The collection is divided into two parts. In the first part contributors reappraise the subject’s life and works, beginning with a reconsideration of 18th-century attitudes toward the young writer, through to postcolonial and book-historical approaches to his works. The second part explores the poet’s reception in the 1770s and beyond, with a particular emphasis on the so-called Rowley controversy (see the Rowley Controversy) and the Romantic period. Similarly, Fairer 2003 usefully places Chatterton within the literary milieu of his time. Cook 2013 offers new insights into the formation and development of literary scholarship in the period, from the periodical press to the public lecture, from the review to the anthology, from textual to biographical criticism. Chatterton 1993 brings together some of the most important early documents in the author’s reception history.

  • Chatterton, Thomas. Chatterton: Early Sources and Responses. London: Routledge/Thoemmes, 1993.

    Facsimile reprints of important early documents in the Rowley controversy (see the Rowley Controversy), including the 1777 edition of the Rowley Poems, pamphlets by Thomas Tyrwhitt, Edmond Malone, Thomas Warton, Thomas James Mathias, and Horace Walpole, along with George Gregory’s 1789 The Life of Thomas Chatterton (the first full-length biography). Also includes John Dix’s largely fraudulent and now discredited biographical study published in 1837.

  • Cook, Daniel. Thomas Chatterton and Neglected Genius, 1760–1830. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137332493

    Cook demonstrates that, while major scholars in the 18th century found Chatterton to be a pertinent subject for multiple literary debates, by the end of the Romantic period he had become, and still remains, an unsettling model of hubristic genius.

  • Fairer, David. English Poetry of the Eighteenth Century, 1700–1789. Harlow, UK: Longman, 2003.

    Chapters 8 (“Recovering the Past,” pp. 144–166) and 9 (“Genuine Voices,” pp. 167–191) explore how 18th-century notions about the function of poetry in early British literary history inspired writers as diverse as Chatterton, Thomas Gray, William Collins, and Christopher Smart.

  • Groom, Nick, ed. Thomas Chatterton and Romantic Culture. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230390225

    Indispensable essay collection with contributions from the leading scholars of 18th-century and Romantic-period literature, including Claude Rawson, Pat Rogers, David Fairer, Paul Baines, and Nick Groom. Reprinted in 2003.

  • Kelly, Linda. The Marvellous Boy: The Life and Myth of Thomas Chatterton. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971.

    An accessible overview of Chatterton’s life and works structured in three parts. “Life” outlines the subject’s early years in Bristol through to his death in London in 1770. “Controversy” examines the battle of the books that ensued after his death. “Legend” maps out the boy-poet’s influence on major and lesser-known writers and artists across Europe.

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