Thomas Chatterton is one of the most influential English poets nobody has ever heard of. Born on November 20, 1752, Chatterton was the posthumous son of a choirmaster at St. Mary Redcliffe in Bristol. As a child, he was thought to be something of an idiot, but he had a very high opinion of himself. It is said that, when asked to select a design to be painted for him on a small ceramic cup, the child Chatterton said, "Paint me an angel, with wings and a trumpet, to trumpet my name around the world!"
At the age of eight Chatterton was sent to Colston's school, a charity institution, where he received only a very rudimentary education. It was here, however, the Chatterton began writing poetry, and when he left school in 1767 he was apprenticed to a scrivner, Mr. Lambert.
One of Mr. Lambert's business associates, George Symes Catcott, began to take an interest in an unusual "discovery" of young Chatterton. Chatterton had supposedly stumbled across a series of poems by the 15th century monk Thomas Rowley among some of his father's papers. Horace Walpole, a known antiquarian, was very interested in these poems, and solicited copies from Chatterton. When Walpole discovered Chatterton was only sixteen years old, and little better than a pauper, it occured to him that the Rowley poems might not be genuine, and he discontinued the association.
There has been much debate both before and after Chatterton's death as to the true source of those poems, and it seems certain that they were in fact Chatterton's own. While they were written in a 15th century style, the language is a mix of 15th and 18th century usage. Further scientific analysis has proven the Rowley poems to be forgeries.
Accused of being a forger, Chatterton begged his way out of his obligation to Mr. Lambert and set off for London in 1770, to make his fame and fortune as a poet. He entered a period of slow starvation, with only sporadic (and mostly unpaid) publication of his works, ending in his suicide on August 30, 1770. He was buried in a mass grave in Shoe Lane.
The city of Bristol erected a monument to the young poet at St. Mary Redcliffe a few years after his death, when his genius was starting to be recognized. The monument was taken down later when it was deemed blasphemous for a church to honor a suicide.
Despite his short life, Chatterton managed to influence an entire generation of poets, most notably Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Keats, both of whom wrote poems about him. By the eartly 19th century, Chatterton was a household name among poetic circles, and then seems to have been almost entirely forgotten, and his poetry is rarely anthologized or taught in schools.