This painting shows the dead body of Thomas Chatterton, an 18th century poet who killed himself by taking arsenic rather than live in poverty.
I suspect that if you weren’t familiar with this picture you wouldn’t guess that it shows an impoverished young man who has died of self administered arsenic poisoning. Although relatively unknown during his life, Chatterton’s death became a well known event because of the romanticised reaction it provoked. As well as this painting, there were poetic responses from the likes of Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats.
When Want and cold Neglect had chill’d thy soul,
Athirst for Death I see thee drench the bowl!
Thy corpse of many a livid hue
On the bare ground I view,
Whilst various passions all my mind engage;
Now is my breast distended with a sigh,
And now a flash of Rage
Darts through the tear, that glistens in my eye
(Monody on the death of Chatterton by Samuel Taylor Coleridge See link)
Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) was an unsuccessful poet whose suicide became a symbol of blighted artistic genius. Wallis used his friend George Meredith (1828-1909), also a struggling writer, as the model. Recent research has questioned whether Chatterton was living in poverty and if his death was suicide or accident (Nick Groom, 2004).
When the large painting of this subject was first exhibited as ‘Chatterton’ at the Royal Academy, Wallis added a quote from Christopher Marlowe: ‘ Cut is the branch that might have grown straight, And burned is Appollo’s laurel bough’. A label on the verso of this painted version reads: The Death of Chatteton/ the original painting/ Study by H Wallis/-‘The Marvellous Boy/ The sleepless soul, that perished in his pride’/ Wordsworth.
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.
William Wordsworth (1770–1850), British poet. Resolution and Independence (l. 43–49). . .
The Poems; Vol. 1 [William Wordsworth]. John O. Hayden, ed. (1977, repr. 1990) Penguin Books.
Sonnet to Chatterton ( John Keats)
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: naught 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.
Posthumous and fugitive Poems
[Read the biographical context]