To mark the 250th anniversary of Thomas Chatterton‘s death, the K-SAA and the Thomas Chatterton Society are holding a contest to invite new odes and elegies to Chatterton. Chatterton died before he reached the age of eighteen, and for years it was believed that he had taken his own life. However, it now seems as though his death was the result of an accidental overdose. His tragic and untimely death meant that his astonishing literary potential was far from being fulfilled, but as one of Shelley’s “inheritors of unfulfilled renown” and Keats’s “dear child of sorrow,” as Wordsworth’s “marvellous boy” and Coleridge’s “youth of tumultuous soul,” Chatterton has lived on in the poetry of the Romantics, a legacy we hope our followers and members will help us continue.
This call for poems looks forward to a commemorative event for Chatterton250 that will be held at Keats House, Hampstead, on July 16th, 2020 [event postponed – see below]. In addition to talks by leading Chatterton scholars Nick Groom and Daniel Cook, the event will feature a reading of some of Chatterton’s poems alongside poems in memory of Chatterton—including the winning submission from this contest.
The judges for the contest will be Prof. Nick Groom (editor of Chatterton’s poems and of Thomas Chatterton and Romantic Culture, and author of The Forger’s Shadow in which Chatterton is a central figure), Dr. Daniel Cook (author of Thomas Chatterton and Neglected Genius, 1760-1830) and the 2019-20 K-SAA communications fellows, Eleanor Bryan and Carly Yingst. Along with having their poem read at the event at Keats House and published here on the K-SAA Blog, the author of the winning entry will also receive a one-year K-SAA membership (including a one-year subscription to the Keats-Shelley Journal).
All are welcome to submit. Entries should be original works of no more than 20 lines, though multiple submissions are welcome. The deadline for entry is June 1st, 2020. To enter, please send us your odes and elegies on Twitter (@KSAAComm, with the hashtag #Chatterton250), Facebook (Keats-Shelley Association of America), or by email to info@K-SAA.org.
To help inspire our ode- and elegy-writers, we’ve also compiled a few elegies and excerpts both by and for Chatterton below. And for more on Chatterton and his legacy, please visit the Chatterton Society website, or take a look at writings on Chatterton and Keats from the Keats-Shelley Journal archive.
UPDATE as of April 2020: based on current Government advice about Coronavirus/Covid-19, Keats House will be closed to the public until summer 2020 when the situation will be reviewed and, when possible, a date for its reopening will be published. Therefore the Chatterton250 event is postponed, but the competition is still running. Details of how the winner will be announced online will be shared in due course. [enquiries to the K-SAA Director of Communications : firstname.lastname@example.org]
Thomas Chatterton, “Elegy” (1769)
Joyless I seek the solitary scene,
Where dusky Contemplation veils the scene,
The dark retreat (of leafless branches made)
Where sick’ning sorrow wets the yellow’d green.
The darksome ruins of some sacred cell,
Where erst the sons of Superstition trod,
Tott’ring upon the mossy meadow, tell
We better know, but less adore, our God.
Now, as I mournful tread the gloomy cave,
Thro’ the wide window (once with myst’ries dight)
The distant forest, and the dark’ned wave
Of the swol’n Avon ravishes my sight.
But see, the thick’ning veil of evening drawn,
The azure changes to a sabled blue,
The rap’tring prospects fly the less’ning lawn,
And nature seems to mourn the dying view.
Self-frighted Fear creeps silent thro’ the gloom,
Starts at the rustling leaf, and rolls his eyes;
Aghast with horror, when he views the tomb,
With ev’ry torment of a Hell, he hies—
The bubbling brooks in plaintive murmurs roll,
The bird of Omen with incessant scream,
To melancholy thoughts awakes the soul,
And lulls the mind to Contemplation’s dream.
A dreary stillness brood o’er all the vale,
The clouded Moon emits a feeble glare;
Joyless I seek the darkling hill and dale,
Where’er I wander Sorrow still is there.
John Keats, “Sonnet to Chatterton” (1815)
O Chatterton! how very sad thy fate!
Dear child of sorrow — son of misery!
How soon the film of death obscur’d that eye,
Whence Genius mildly flash’d, and high debate.
How soon that voice, majestic and elate,
Melted in dying numbers! Oh! how nigh
Was night to thy fair morning. Thou didst die
A half-blown flow’ret which cold blasts amate.
But this is past: thou art among the stars
Of highest heaven: to the rolling spheres
Thou sweetly singest: nought thy hymning mars,
Above the ingrate world and human fears.
On earth the good man base detraction bars
From thy fair name, and waters it with tears.
Percy Shelley, from Adonais (1821)
The inheritors of unfulfill’d renown
Rose from their thrones, built beyond mortal thought,
Far in the Unapparent. Chatterton
Rose pale, his solemn agony had not
Yet faded from him; Sidney, as he fought
And as he fell and as he liv’d and lov’d
Sublimely mild, a Spirit without spot,
Arose; and Lucan, by his death approv’d:
Oblivion as they rose shrank like a thing reprov’d.
Hannah Cowley, from “A Monody on Chatterton” (1778)
O Chatterton! for thee the pensive song I raise,
Thou object of my wonder, pity, envy, praise!
Bright star of genius! — torn from life and fame,
My tears, my verse, shall consecrate thy name!
Ye muses! who around his natal bed
Triumphant sung, and all your influence shed;
Apollo! thou who wrapt his infant breast,
And, in his daedal numbers, shone confest,
Ah! why, in vain, such mighty gifts bestow—
Why give fresh tortures to the child of woe?
Why thus, with barb’rous care, illume his mind—
Adding new sense to all the ills behind?
Thou haggard! Poverty! whose cheerless eye
Transforms young rapture, to the pondrous sigh;
In whose drear cave no Muse e’er struck the lyre,
Nor Bard e’er madned with poetic fire;
Why all thy spells for Chatterton combine—
His thought, creative, why must thou confine?
Henry Headley, “Ode to the Memory of Chatterton” (1785)
When Spring, with scanty vest and maiden smile,
Leads on the youthful months and coming year,
Her tears of morning dew
Shall wet thy death-bed cold.
When jocund Summer with her honied breath
Sweet’ning the golden grain and blithsome gale,
Displays her sun-burnt face
Beneath the hat of straw;
When sober Autumn with lack-lustre eye
Shakes with a chiding blast the yellow leaf,
And hears the woodman’s song,
And early sportsman’s foot;
The Lily’s hanging head, the Pansy pale,
(Poor Fancy’s lowly followers) in meek
Attire, shall deck thy turf,
And withering lie with thee.
And naked Winter like a pilgrim grey
Of veriest rude aspect and joyless brow,
Calls for the carol wild
And trims the social fire;
Remembrance oft in pity’s willing ear,
Shall toll at silent eve thy pensive knell,
And tell to after-days
Thy tale, thy luckless tale.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, from “Monody on the Death of Chatterton” (1790 version)
Whether th’ eternal Throne around,
Amidst the blaze of Cherubim,
Thou pourest forth the grateful hymn,
Or, soaring through the blest Domain,
Enraptur’st Angels with thy strain,—
Grant me, like thee, the lyre to sound,
Like thee, with fire divine to glow—
But ah! when rage the Waves of Woe,
Grant me with firmer breast t’oppose their hate,
And soar beyond the storms with upright eye elate!
Wordsworth, from “Resolution and Independence” (1802)
I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous Boy,
The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride;
Of Him who walked in glory and in joy
Following his plough, along the mountain-side:
By our own spirits are we deified:
We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;
But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.
Margaret Holford, from “Experience to the Poet” (1803)
Oh Chatterton! how gay thy morn arose!
Bright on thy youth celestial Genius smil’d,
But Poverty thy heart’s warm current froze,
And Misery clasp’d thee, her devoted child;
Urg’d, while thy lips the poison’d chalice drain’d,
And on thy wasting form each lurid eye-ball strain’d