Thomas Chatterton: The Myth of the Doomed Poet


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Thomas Chatterton: The Myth of the Doomed Poet

Michael Symmons Roberts explores the mythic afterlife of the 18th-century poet Thomas Chatterton, whose early death was immortalised by poets, painters and photographers.


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In London in the late summer of 1770, a young poet named

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Thomas Chatterton returned to his roomy house in Holborn

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and climbed the narrow stairs to his third-floor garret.

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Without knowing it, he was about to create a myth that has dogged

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poets like me ever since.

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A myth that has compelled

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many of our finest poets to follow in his footsteps.

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When the door was prised open a few days later,

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Chatterton's corpse was found stretched out on his pallet bed,

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an empty phial of arsenic lying near his lifeless hand.

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He was 17 years and 9 months old.

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But Thomas Chatterton was to die not once, but several times.

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His death would be replayed in the works of romantic poets,

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Pre-Raphaelite painters and pioneering Victorian photographers.

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And through these repeated deaths he would become

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a paradigm of literary Bohemianism.

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In 1856, the painter Henry Wallis

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made Chatterton the subject of a new oil painting.

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It is now one of the 19th century's most enduring images,

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but when it first appeared, this delicate, desolate scene caught

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the public imagination to an extent that no-one could have anticipated.

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Poets have a strange image in our culture.

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There's a persistent myth that in order to write great poems

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the poet has to risk everything.

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And there is a roll call of 20th century poets, Sylvia Plath,

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Dylan Thomas, John Berryman, who seem to endorse that view.

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Wallis' painting is perhaps the ultimate icon of the doomed poet.

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But how did this painting become

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so much more famous than the poet who inspired it?

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It's a very powerful image, a tortured poet, broken by poverty

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and obscurity, driven to madness and self-destruction.

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As a poet I hate it, or at least I hate the myth it made.

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Despite its beauty and technical mastery, there is something

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repellent in the painting's declaration that the true

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poet must be prepared to sacrifice his or her life to serve the muse.

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It is a painting that haunts me.

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To understand the myth of Thomas Chatterton,

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we have to know a little of the life.

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18th-century Bristol was an unpropitious background for a poet.

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A clamorous, intensely commercial city built largely

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on the profits on the trade in wine and sugar...

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and, notoriously, slaves.

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It was into this hive of commerce in 1752

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that Thomas Chatterton was born...

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..here in this modest house

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attached to the school where his father taught.

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Young Chatterton was a moody,

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introverted boy at odds with brash, mercantile Bristol.

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From an early age he would spend hours escaping into his own

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fantasy world.

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With the aid of folios, manuscripts

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and the family's black-letter Bible, he taught himself to read.

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But it was the looming edifice of St Mary Redcliffe,

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just across the way, that really took hold of him.

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As one acquaintance recalled, Chatterton would often fix his eyes

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upon the church and seem as if he were in a kind of trance or ecstasy.

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Once inside, beneath its magnificent vaulted ceiling,

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Chatterton began to lose himself in his very own gothic reverie.

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The church became Chatterton's medieval playground.

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He would spend hours among the tombs and effigies,

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and in particular he liked to sit here,

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immersed in an old book beside the monument to William Canynges,

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former mayor of Bristol and one of the church's great benefactors.

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But there was another more secluded part of the church which

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became Chatterton's private sanctuary...

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..and the place where his imagination really began to form.

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Chatterton liked to hide himself away

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up here in the muniments room, high above the north porch.

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He was fascinated by these great oak coffers

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and in particular by what they contained -

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vellum and parchments, some as old as the Wars of the Roses.

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It was here that the 16-year-old Chatterton claimed to

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have discovered a treasure,

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a sequence of ancient poems

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dating from the reign of Edward IV by a monk named Thomas Rowley.

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The poems featured as their principle character

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the very same William Canynges beside whose effigy

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in the church below Chatterton had spent so many of his waking hours.

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But the Rowley poems were, in fact, a marvellous fabrication,

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a hoax written by none other than the young Thomas Chatterton himself.

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Delving into dictionaries of old English,

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studying the poetic techniques of Chaucer, Dryden

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and Shakespeare, he managed to create an authentic medieval style.

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Come, with acorn-cup and thorn,

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Drain my heartes blood away,

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Life and all its good I scorn,

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Dance by night or feast by day,

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My love is dead,

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Gone to his death-bed

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All under the willow-tree.

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Once you get beyond the fake medieval spelling

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and construction of these poems,

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you can hear a real lyric ear at work.

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He clearly, although he was only 16 when he wrote that,

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had a prodigious natural talent.

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With a cannon of work around 700 pages long, the sheer quantity

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of his poetry is remarkable, yet so is its inventiveness and range,

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incorporating different verse forms, rhyme schemes and metrical patterns.

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The so-called discovery of the Rowley poems caused quite a stir.

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They were released in tantalising fits and starts and all backed

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up with learned footnotes provided by their editor and discoverer,

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T Chatterton.

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In the spring of 1769, Chatterton caught

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the attention of the celebrated antiquarian Horace Walpole.

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Walpole was intrigued by the Rowley poems

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and even considered printing them, but grew suspicious when

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Chatterton rather rashly disclosed his age and lowly social status.

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Then, when Walpole's friend the poet Thomas Grey declared

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that the Rowley poems were not real antiquities,

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Walpole cut Chatterton dead.

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Young Thomas was devastated.

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It brought home just how much his youth and humble roots

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counted against him with the higher echelons.

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Following Walpole's snub,

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Chatterton abandoned not only the Rowley poems

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but also Bristol itself.

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He headed for London where he took up political journalism,

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penning article after article raging against government policies.

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He did the rounds of London editors, bombarding them with ideas

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and articles, many of which were eagerly snapped up.

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His work ranged from political diatribes

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and eclogues to songs and burlesques in verse and prose.

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Within a year of his falling from grace with Walpole,

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Chatterton had sold 31 articles, many under pseudonyms

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like Vamp, Decimus and Harry Wildfire.

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His career was on the up again

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and a confident Thomas was granted an audience with

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the Lord Mayor of London, William Beckford,

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to try and win his support.

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The mayor liked him and his work and promised to back him.

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But two days before his endorsement was due to appear in print,

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Beckford dropped dead of a fever.

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As over his misfortune with Walpole, Chatterton was scuppered again.

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And at a time when the government was taking steps to curtail

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the freedom of the press,

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Chatterton felt that yet another door had slammed in his face.

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Two months later, in August 1770, the beautiful boy was found

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dead in his garret and the myth of the doomed, tortured poet was born.

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To start peeling back the layers of this myth, I have come to

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Bristol Library to talk to the chairman of the Chatterton Society

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and see some of the revealing artefacts that prove how the legend

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was propagated almost immediately after Chatterton's death.

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So what we have here, Michael, are the very makings of a myth.

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One of the early illustrations you can see here shows Despair

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handing Chatterton a bowl of poison.

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So already, the illustrator here is focusing on the suicide,

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the poison and not the poetry.

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Also what is immediately striking about these images

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which were decades and decades before Wallis' famous painting,

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The Death Of Chatterton,

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he must have seen these,

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because, although in both these images the bed is the other

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way around, all the accoutrements of the suicide scene are there.

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The chest open at exactly the same angle as in the Wallis painting,

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the medicine bottle on the floor, the heap of papers.

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There's no question he must have known about these.

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You're absolutely right.

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What Wallis was doing was essentially

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embellishing these images.

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He simply painted it again, if you like, but in beautiful colour

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and in a Pre-Raphaelite style.

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And this is illustrated,

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but it's on cloth, not like the other images. What's that?

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Yes, so this artefact is a handkerchief.

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Chatterton handkerchief?

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And if anything indicates an industry growing

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around the phenomenon of this sad boy's fate, it would be this.

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Not only with people selling his poems onto publishers and so on,

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but products being made in this way.

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So, this is the dead Chatterton merchandise,

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but this is actually something he had his hands on, isn't it?

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Oh, it is indeed, yes, and perhaps the greatest myth of all.

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This is Chatterton's pocket book of 1769

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that he took with him from Bristol to London.

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And he kept his accounts in it, but it's not the accounts

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that are of particular interest, it's this on the back.

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You can see here this brown stain.

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It was studied forensically

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and found to contain opium deposits.

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So it's reasonable to suppose that Chatterton was taking laudanum

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because he had the foul disease.

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What was the foul disease?

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Well, it was a term used at the time to denote a venereal disease.

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So I believe that he took the laudanum or opium

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to deaden the pain from the vitriol and calomel medication

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he was taking for the foul disease.

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And so, therefore, a more likely cause of his death, would have been

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an overdose of his self-medication, an accidental overdose.

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So he got the balance of his medicines wrong

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and didn't commit suicide at all?

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Well, that is currently the most plausible explanation.

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So it now seems that the long-held belief in Chatterton's suicide

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is, in fact, part of the very myth itself.

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His death was more than likely a terrible accident.

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And yet, a tragic young suicide suited the purposes of sculptors,

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illustrators and playwrights who, into the 19th century, began to

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embroider the myth with their own sensibilities.

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And the next generation of poets, the Romantics,

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were to resurrect Chatterton as one of their own.

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Keats dedicated Endymion to him...

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..Shelley commemorated him in Adonais

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and Wordsworth hailed him as the marvellous boy.

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But these eulogies would be as nothing compared with the

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impact of his death on canvas.

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In 1856, the Pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Wallis

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unveiled his painting and it caused a sensation.

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I've come to examine it at Tate Britain with curator

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Dr Carol Jacobi.

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Carol, the first thing that strikes me

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seeing the painting in flesh is the strength of the colour.

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From having seen reproductions of it over many years,

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I always remember the red of his hair and the blue of the breeches.

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He's all hair and trousers in my memory, but how is that achieved?

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Well, the optical effect that you get with this painting is

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different in real life than it is with a reproduction.

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And the reason is that instead of using

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a dull background to paint on,

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which was the traditional way of doing it, he's used

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a pure white background underneath the paint, so here, you can

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see that he's laid on this beautiful prismatic colour over a white ground

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and the white ground is shining through and lighting it up

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and the effect is particularly beautiful

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in the area of his red hair.

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Yes, it's as if it's back-lit somehow.

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-It's an extraordinary effect.

-Yes, that's exactly right.

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And like a lot of these Pre-Raphaelite paintings,

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it's full of narrative detail, as well, isn't it?

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One of the ways they departed from traditional art of the time

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is that the detail goes right to the edges of the painting.

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So here, for example, he's taken enormous trouble over

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the torn up pieces of paper.

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Yes, they look like they've been torn up in a fury.

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Exactly, exactly. So we sort of get insight into the storm

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before the calm, if you like.

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The painting had an extraordinary after-life, didn't it?

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With the help of Ruskin giving it a push,

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it became phenomenal in its popularity.

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When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy,

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Ruskin praised it as faultless and wonderful in every way,

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and it was hugely admired.

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And, in fact, in these days

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they began to tour paintings, a bit like a film.

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So they'd be exhibited on their own in a darkened space

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and people would buy tickets to see it and, of course,

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because there's such intricate narrative told by all the details,

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it was a little bit like seeing a film in an age before film.

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This is famously a picture of a very young man,

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but it's also a picture by a very young man.

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Henry Wallis, who painted it, was in his mid-20s, I gather,

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when he painted this.

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I wonder what drew him to Chatterton?

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Pre-Raphaelites and Wallis were a young man's movement.

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And they were particularly interested, I think,

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in the idea of Chatterton, who was only 17,

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representing the misunderstood artist,

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the artist who is struggling in an unsympathetic society.

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And in a way, the unsympathetic society is represented

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by the poverty of the room, but also by the city beyond,

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because, of course, Wallis himself

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was struggling in a newly industrial age

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in which it was difficult to know what an artist should be.

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What art was going to be for in this new modern world.

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The myth of the suicidal poet is so strong

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that it's hard to face the facts,

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and the facts seem to be stacking up that this was not a suicide at all.

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He was earning a good living from his pen in London,

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and what seems to be an act of self-poisoning

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could, in fact, have been getting his medicines out of balance

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when he was trying to treat himself for a venereal disease.

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That's the extraordinary thing about the figure of Chatterton,

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the way he's propagated myth after myth after myth,

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so by the time Wallis was thinking about Chatterton

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it was a sort of hall of mirrors of myths stretching back

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and, of course, it carries on.

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This painting contributes another mirror, if you like, to it

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and by using these echoes of Chatterton,

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the figure becomes much more than just one poet.

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It becomes a much more sort of resonant icon of the artist.

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I think he's come to haunt poets.

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This idea of the true devotion to the muse ending up in disaster

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and that that's the price of great poetry.

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I find it beautiful, but I also find it quite disturbing,

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and every time I look at it, I kind of think, it's his fault.

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The myth of the doomed poet is his fault.

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Whether by him I mean Chatterton or the painting...

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I think I probably mean the painting.

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Shows like the colossal Art Treasures Exhibition

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in Manchester in the summer of 1857,

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which ran for 141 days and attracted over a million visitors,

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provided the perfect showcase for The Death Of Thomas Chatterton,

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as the painting had come to be known.

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Being toured round the country, the painting was disseminated to

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a far wider spectrum of society, including the new urban poor,

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than if it had remained in private ownership in London.

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And tapping into a growing Victorian fascination with death,

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Wallis' painting proved a palpable hit.

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At a time of great and rapid urbanisation,

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the doomed and beautiful Chatterton

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represented a glimpse of something other.

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This was the poet as dandy, yes, but more than that...

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this was the poet as counter-cultural,

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self-sacrificial, utterly intoxicating...

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and dead.

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But even Wallis' painting, like Chatterton himself,

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was to have a curious afterlife.

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One of the many eager visitors who had queued to see Wallis'

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painting on its tour was a dental surgeon turned photographer

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named James Robinson.

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And so moved was he that he decided to recreate

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the scene in the popular new form of 3-D stereoscopy.

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And now we can see it in an exhibition at Tate Britain.

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Displayed alongside Wallis' painting for the very first time

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is Robinson's remarkable take on the Chatterton myth.

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At first glance, it looks identical to Wallis' painting

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with composition and colours painstakingly copied.

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But look closer and you begin to notice differences.

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Chatterton's face is not the same

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and the colours don't look as vivid as they do in the oils.

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But in order to fully appreciate the stereoscopic image

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you need to view it as the Victorians did.

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It takes a moment for your eyes to adjust,

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but it's extraordinary when they do.

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It's like a hyper-real version of Wallis' painting.

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You're in the garret with Chatterton. It's quite remarkable.

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The driving force behind this exhibition

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comes as something of a surprise,

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as it turns out to be none other than Queen guitarist Brian May,

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who owns one of the world's greatest collections of stereoscopic cards.

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For me, it goes back a very long way to my childhood

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when we used to get little stereo cards in Weetabix packets.

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I remember the first time

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it fell out of the packet, thinking, "What is this?"

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Two little images which looked very flat and quite boring,

0:21:470:21:50

but then you send off your one and six pence for your viewer

0:21:500:21:53

and you put the card in the viewer

0:21:530:21:55

and suddenly this magic happens

0:21:550:21:57

and you can feel like you can walk in there

0:21:570:22:00

and it becomes a sort of real-life experience, an immersive experience.

0:22:000:22:05

It's an odd effect. When I first looked through the viewer

0:22:050:22:07

at The Death Of Chatterton painting,

0:22:070:22:09

which is a painting I know very well, it's been so often reproduced,

0:22:090:22:13

there is a strange hyperreality to it,

0:22:130:22:15

which is a slightly odd thing with a death scene.

0:22:150:22:18

How do you feel it sits in relation to the painting

0:22:180:22:20

when you step into the stereoscopic world of Chatterton's garret?

0:22:200:22:24

Yes, the painting is already immersive in its way, isn't it?

0:22:240:22:28

It's designed to draw you in

0:22:280:22:29

and feel like you're in that room with him.

0:22:290:22:31

Of course, it lends itself perfectly to the stereoscopic medium

0:22:310:22:35

and Robinson, in 1859, obviously paid his six shillings to go

0:22:350:22:40

and see the painting and thought, "Ah! I can do this at home

0:22:400:22:43

"and I can make a stereoscopic version of this."

0:22:430:22:45

It seems like it took him less than a week to do it

0:22:450:22:47

and he had it advertised within a week.

0:22:470:22:50

If you put the original James Robinson stereo, though,

0:22:500:22:54

into a stereo viewer of the period,

0:22:540:22:57

a Brewster viewer, this is how it's done.

0:22:570:23:00

-You then open up the top to get some light in...

-I see.

0:23:000:23:04

And the view you get is quite stunning.

0:23:040:23:06

Now, this is a very old, faded and damaged card,

0:23:060:23:10

but the effect is still there.

0:23:100:23:12

-You still get this immersive experience.

-Thank you.

0:23:120:23:14

It is. It still works.

0:23:170:23:19

It's like stepping into the room, isn't it? Yeah.

0:23:190:23:21

You get the Victorian experience. Beautiful.

0:23:210:23:24

But I have a very interesting thing here

0:23:250:23:28

which, really, nobody knows about.

0:23:280:23:30

We discovered another version of the James Robinson view.

0:23:300:23:34

He's alive!

0:23:340:23:35

He's alive!

0:23:350:23:37

But this is never, ever seen.

0:23:380:23:40

We now realise that there were two views, at least, of Chatterton,

0:23:400:23:44

one with him alive and one with him sadly passed away.

0:23:440:23:47

He's alive, but it looks like

0:23:470:23:49

it's about 30 seconds before the painting.

0:23:490:23:51

His shoe's off and he's got all his torn up poems beneath him

0:23:510:23:55

so he's not that cheery, is he?

0:23:550:23:56

No, he's got his poison ready, I think.

0:23:560:23:58

He's got his poison ready.

0:23:580:24:00

But isn't it strange and ironic, this icon of the poetic death

0:24:000:24:04

and it's the one of the death that survived.

0:24:040:24:06

-Yeah. The legend lives on.

-The legend lives on.

0:24:060:24:10

Do you find the painting and its stereoscopic image that striking?

0:24:100:24:14

What draws you?

0:24:140:24:15

I'm fascinated, yes. I think to all of us who have been

0:24:150:24:18

involved in this, it becomes something that lives with you.

0:24:180:24:20

It's a kind of haunting experience.

0:24:200:24:23

Chatterton was a kind of Victorian icon, I suppose,

0:24:230:24:26

representing the purity of the artist and the pain of the artist.

0:24:260:24:30

And, yeah, I think we feel very drawn to it.

0:24:300:24:33

In fact, we've been trying to recreate it ourselves...

0:24:330:24:36

as you have magnificently done it here, this is amazing!

0:24:360:24:40

Comparatively recently, Pete Doherty on a Babyshambles album cover

0:24:400:24:44

uses the image of The Death Of Chatterton,

0:24:440:24:47

and I guess he has a similar image

0:24:470:24:49

as a sort of popular Bohemian figure.

0:24:490:24:52

Do you think it's stretching it too far to think of rock stars

0:24:520:24:55

in a similar kind of vein to Chatterton?

0:24:550:24:58

There is a parallel, isn't there?

0:24:580:24:59

He's the kind of the tortured artist figure, I suppose,

0:24:590:25:02

and you could think of Kurt Cobain.

0:25:020:25:05

I think there's a lot of truth in it, actually.

0:25:050:25:07

I think, you know, the artist frequently is this way

0:25:070:25:12

because he is tortured.

0:25:120:25:14

And sometimes it leads to great creativity and success.

0:25:140:25:17

Sometimes it leads the other direction down to despair and death.

0:25:170:25:20

And I feel it still, definitely, you know.

0:25:200:25:22

I achieved success and fulfilled a lot of my dreams,

0:25:220:25:29

but I still very often get that feeling,

0:25:290:25:31

is it really worth anything?

0:25:310:25:32

You know, what am I really doing here?

0:25:320:25:34

You know, what's my motivation?

0:25:340:25:35

It runs through your life as an artist,

0:25:350:25:38

this kind of self-questioning.

0:25:380:25:40

So in its extreme form, maybe this is it.

0:25:400:25:42

Maybe...

0:25:420:25:43

Here's the torn up poetry of the man who killed himself.

0:25:430:25:47

It is a real story.

0:25:470:25:49

It's a fictional painting and it's a fictional stereoscopic card,

0:25:490:25:54

but it's a real story.

0:25:540:25:56

So maybe it's the ultimate Bohemian rhapsody.

0:25:570:26:00

THEY CHUCKLE

0:26:000:26:01

That's completely ruined it for you, hasn't it?

0:26:010:26:04

That's great.

0:26:040:26:05

The hyper reality of a stereoscopic image of The Death Of Chatterton

0:26:120:26:17

is an attempt to bring us into the emotional heart of the scene,

0:26:170:26:22

rather like religious painters focusing on the wounds

0:26:220:26:25

of Christ to shock the viewer into seeing the scene afresh.

0:26:250:26:30

It's meant to evoke pity at the beautiful young poet

0:26:300:26:34

broken by devotion to the muse.

0:26:340:26:37

But if the mythic Chatterton is a sacrificial victim,

0:26:380:26:42

what was his sacrifice for?

0:26:420:26:44

For the purity of his art. For poetry itself.

0:26:450:26:49

Of course, the irony is that Chatterton's work

0:26:510:26:54

is largely forgotten.

0:26:540:26:55

More of us are likely to remember the colour

0:26:550:26:58

of his breeches in a painting than a line from any of his poems.

0:26:580:27:03

But the myth of his death has been a powerful, shaping influence

0:27:030:27:07

on poetic lives and reputations

0:27:070:27:09

and it still has some purchase today.

0:27:090:27:11

"Give me a Chatterton attic," pleaded Dylan Thomas in a letter

0:27:130:27:17

written when he was 19.

0:27:170:27:19

Thomas had been seized by the notion of the pale Romantic poet

0:27:190:27:23

dying in his garret

0:27:230:27:25

and his own much-mythologised death aged just 39 in New York would

0:27:250:27:30

cause him to be seen as a latter-day Chatterton.

0:27:300:27:34

His death had a profound effect on that ill-fated generation

0:27:340:27:38

of American poets including Sylvia Plath, John Berryman

0:27:380:27:45

and Anne Sexton, who were all to follow Dylan into an early grave.

0:27:450:27:52

But why do we need these poets to burn themselves out for their art?

0:27:530:27:58

Perhaps because they are living a life of extremes on our behalf,

0:27:580:28:03

bringing back bulletins from the edge of experience.

0:28:030:28:06

It would be fanciful to blame the myth of the doomed

0:28:080:28:12

poet on one painting.

0:28:120:28:14

Still more to blame it on the young Chatterton himself

0:28:140:28:17

whose death was misread as a suicide.

0:28:170:28:21

But in the hands of the 19th-century poets and artists,

0:28:210:28:24

he became the ultimate literary Bohemian

0:28:240:28:29

and the founder of an image of the poet which, even now,

0:28:290:28:32

we can't quite shake off.

0:28:320:28:34

Poet Michael Symmons Roberts explores the mythic afterlife of the 18th-century poet Thomas Chatterton. With access to rare documents and artefacts, and featuring a surprising interview with Queen guitarist Brian May, Michael explains how Chatterton's tragic early death in his London garret aged just 17 was immortalised by a succession of poets and painters and photographers - most notably by the pre-Raphaelite Henry Wallis in his masterpiece known as The Death of Chatterton - and how these successive images of the young Chatterton have saddled poets ever since with the notion of the doomed young artist suffering and ultimately dying in service to the muse.