Thomas Chatterton was born in Bristol on November 20, 1752 and is generally regarded as the first Romantic poet in English.
I thought I knew something about English literature, and I think I’ve heard the name before. However, I ‘ve never heard this story about a poverty-stricken and depressed poet who forged much of his poetry in mock-medieval style and on old paper and attributed it to a made-up medieval priest. Then, he went to London, tried to make a living as a professional writer, and, unsuccessful, he committed suicide at the age of seventeen by drinking arsenic. Samuel Johnson, a contemporary, said of Chatterton: “This is the most extraordinary young man that encountered my knowledge. It is wonderful how the whelp has written such things.” Later, the Romantic poets–Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Rossetti–all seem to have mentioned Chatterton and tried to make him into some sort of icon for their own ideal of the Romantic Poet.
Here’s a sample of his (unforged) poetry:
Then why, my soul, dost thou complain?
Why drooping seek the dark recess?
Shake off the melancholy chain.
For God created all to bless.
But ah! my breast is human still;
The rising sigh, the falling tear,
My languid vitals’ feeble rill,
The sickness of my soul declare.
But yet, with fortitude resigned,
I’ll thank th’ inflicter of the blow;
Forbid the sigh, compose my mind,
Nor let the gush of mis’ry flow.
The gloomy mantle of the night,
Which on my sinking spirit steals,
Will vanish at the morning light,
Which God, my East, my sun reveals.
The psychologists would mutter nowadays about “clinical depression” and prescribe some sort of anti-depressant, I’m sure. I just hope he is now healthy and filled with joy in the presence of the Lord.