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This review is taken from PN Review 62, Volume 14 Number 6, July - August 1988.

COUNTERFEITS Peter Ackroyd, Chatterton (Hamish Hamilton) £10.95

At the start of Peter Ackroyd's novel - almost as a frontispiece - there is a brief and disciplined account of Thomas Chatterton's life. The facts are bleak and the tone is bland. We learn that Chatterton was born in 1752 in Bristol; that his education was 'less important than the promptings of his own genius'; that he was sixteen when he came upon the 'authentic mediaeval style' in which he composed his counterfeit verses. We follow him for a few paragraphs from Bristol to London. We are told that in 1770 he moved to lodgings in Holborn. And there, we learn, on 24 August 1770 he swallowed arsenic.

I have to admit that I have always regarded Chatterton as belonging - to paraphrase the cruel remark about the Sitwells - more to the history of publicity than of poetry. Almost everyone who reads poetry will know him better as the 'marvellous boy' of 'Resolution and Independence' rather than the lost soul who went from Bristol to London and Shoreditch to Holborn. There is a strange and indefinable literary kitsch about his legend. That feeling is hugely amplified by the melodramatic portrait of him, painted by Henry Wallis; a portrait of a dead boy in pantaloons and a crumpled linen shirt, the London skyline showing through the mullioned window just over his head. The picture was painted in 1856, at the height of Victorian sentiment. It suggests ruination and mortality. It simplifies poetry into gesture. And more ...


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